Why Evolution is a Matter of Science and Not a Matter of Faith
The oft-debated theory of evolution is a matter of science, not an article of faith. In fact evolution stems from the natural sciences, the study of the natural world. It owes its origins and ongoing development to scientific research and principles. In this case, science itself is defined as "knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method." (Websters New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 1034) Evolution is built upon the systematic excavation and study of artifacts (in this case fossils, which are the remains of creatures that have been in the ground long enough and under proper condtions to have their organic elements replaced by minerals and are thereby preserved across staggeringly large periods of time).
These fossils are first studied in place in the ground (in situ) by paleontologists and in relationship to all that is around them. In this way, they tell a larger story about the world the fossilzed creature inhabited and those other creatures that inhabited the world with them at a given point in time. The strata of earth (a layer of soil or rock) the fossil inhabits is noted and examined carefully as well as this helps to place the fossil in time. If you look at a picture of the Grand Canyon, each and every stripe you see in the rock represents a layer of strata and a discrete period of time. For the trained professional scientist, each layer of rock has a story to tell. As a former professional archaeologist, I can attest that the same applies to layers of dirt.
Many people are tripped up by the phrase "theory of evolution." They take "theory" to mean something equivalent to "guess." Nothing could be further from the truth. A scientific theory is a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena. (WNCD 1209) In plain English, a theory is a far more than a guess. It is the result of a long period of intense investigation, creating a variety of questions (or educated guesses if you like) called hypotheses that are based on the evidence gathered up to that point and are then tested against new discoveries as they arise. Any hypothesis that does not stand up to new evidence is eventually discarded (even though this can be ego crushing to the scientist who proposed that hypothesis). Those hypotheses that are confirmed and strengthened with new evidence discovered are added to the ever growing body of knowledge in the area of study, in this case evolution, and become theories. The theory of evolution has been around since the nineteenth century and has been repeatedly tested. While details are changed by new evidence discovered and gaps in the story are filled in, the general principle that life evolves from earlier, simpler forms into more complex forms has never been disproven and is considered to be proven fact in science.
Confusion often arises among laypersons about the status of the theory of evolution as new discoveries are made and adjustments to the theory's details occur. However, throughout this long period, as I said, the basic theory of how life has evolved since the beginning of life on earth has never been refuted by scientists. Some have tried very hard to do so and have always failed. This process of studying the natural world, creating and testing hypotheses, and generating facts based on proven hypotheses that become theories and perhaps eventually laws (gravity for example) is an ongoing process grounded in the careful examination of the natural world. All the evidence created by science is grounded in the observation and testing of the natural world. It is never an article of faith.
Faith is a different matter. When people ask if evolution is a matter of faith rather than science they are asking if it is an article of faith like faith in God. Faith in God is strong belief in the Creator, one who is outside of the physical universe (or is supernatural...and not in the spooky "Ghost Hunters" sense but supernatural in the sense of outside of the natural world) and therefore may not be studied by science. While the faithful, such as myself, see evidence of God moving and active in the world when viewed through the lens of faith and are called to follow God, it is not evidence that may be directly studied by science as God is not directly accessible to scientific study. There is good news here. Despite the overheated, overblown rhetoric you hear from different quarters, based on what science can and can't study, God will never be able to be proven or disproven by science. And that is how it ought to be. However, recent studies in science have generated exciting evidence concerning how our brains are hardwired for belief. God has created us and allowed us to evolve over time into beings who are physically designed to perceive and desire community with God.
In the end, in my way of thinking, evolution gives us insight into how God brought us to where we are today. The fossil record provides a compelling glimpse into God's handiwork, which is an extraordinary opportunity and a personal source of awe.
I hope this hasn't been too dull and that it helps.
You've Blinded Me with Science!
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