If I could start this blog over again, this article would have been one of the first posted, because it is an important first step in writing and discussing the topic of religion. My experience in talking with others has shown that there is a lot of confusion with these terms. This is likely because schools and religious institutions do not emphasize and clarify the meanings of these terms, perhaps with the exception of science classes for some of the terms. Many of these words have multiple definitions and in some cases, colloquial definitions are quite different from original or more literal definitions. In this article, I will clarify the definitions of these terms and discuss how they are relevant to religious discussion for the purpose of clear communication, as clear communication can only take place when there is a mutual understanding of terms.
What I will provide are basic and clear definitions of certain terms. Mountains of pages have been written about all these terms, so in no way will I try to go into all they entail. I will only offer as much as I feel is important to point out why they are relevant and in fact necessary to the discussion of religion.
Science: "A continuing effort to discover and increase knowledge and understanding through disciplined research." -Wikipedia I have mixed feelings about wikipedia, but was very impressed by their definition and explanation of science. Science is the human construct used to understand, explain, and make predictions about reality. Another definition of science I like was made by James Randi, who said, "Science is best defined as a careful, disciplined, logical search for knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon discovery of better evidence."
There are many things I love about science. One may say that the goal of science is to find and communicate truth, to the best extent that we are presently able to with our current tools, methods and knowledge. In order to reach the best truth possible, science uses competition and everyone is not only welcome, but encouraged to participate. No scientific conclusions are sacred. Nothing is ever 100% guaranteed. Anything and everything is up for questioning and critique. In this respect, science is the very antithesis of religion, where questions, critical thinking and skepticism are taught to be not only socially rude, but immoral. Yet it is through this process of encouraging questions, critical thinking, and skepticism that science grows and improves over time and the benefits of which are astounding.
Our scientific understanding has grown so large, that we need to break this knowledge down into different fields, as no person could possibly specialize is every field. However, the most important thing that all sciences have in common is the use of the scientific method, which I will define next.
The Scientific Method: The scientific method is a specific and unique process people use to find answers to questions and determine to what extent the answers are true. Here are the broad steps of the scientific method: 1. Form a question you would like answered. 2. Research information already known or published which is relevant to the question. 3. Construct a hypothesis. 4. Use scientific experimentation to test the hypothesis. 5. Analyze the resulting data and draw a conclusion. 6. Communicate and/or publish the results so other people can learn from you and test the validity and reliability of your conclusions themselves.
The scientific method is currently the best and most effective way of discerning what is true from what is not true. To me, this statement cannot be overstated. If you do not believe this is true and have another method which is better at this discernment, please let me know and be prepared to be acknowledged for what is likely to be one of the greatest discoveries in the history of the world.
Of course, there is a great deal more to each of these steps than is written here. It is not necessary for me to go into detail here about each of these steps, as so many science books have already been written about the scientific method. I certainly would encourage anyone unfamiliar with the details of these steps to look up and study them. However, it is important to point out that these steps entail many rules and methods to ensure that the conclusions reached are free from biases, such as feelings, emotions, faulty reasoning, motivations, and desired outcomes. This last point cannot be overstated, so I will restate it in a different way. The scientific method controls for bias. This is a large part about what makes the scientific method so powerful and important.
One of the greatest mistakes I see people make in attempting to prove the existence of god or anything else which is supernatural, is that they start with the conclusion they want to reach and try to shape evidence to support the conclusion they began with. This is not valid science and people who do this have the process backwards. Valid science starts with observations and evidence, from which conclusions are then drawn.
Assertion: "A positive statement or declaration, often without support or reason." -dictionary.reference.com
It is important to point out that all assertions made without support, evidence or reason are equally invalid. The following assertions are equally valid/invalid: "Unicorns exist." "Leprechauns exist." "Ghosts exist." "The Easter Bunny exists." "A human energy field called chi exists." "God exists." There has been no valid proof that any of these things exist. I could be wrong about these statements. If anyone reading this has proof of the existence of these things, please let me know so I can correct the error.
Evidence: "Information which tends to determine or demonstrate the truth of an assertion." -Wikipedia. Evidence stems from the word "evident", which means "plain, clear, or obvious". Therefore, evidence obviously must be empirical, or capable of being perceived through the five senses, because other people must be able to observe the information. If someone claims to have information, but cannot demonstrate the information, then the person is making an assertion. Evidence by definition must be demonstrable.
Falsifiable: "Capable of being proven false." The requirement that all hypotheses must be falsifiable is a core principle of the scientific method and another way in which scientific and almost all religious assertions and beliefs are different. In science, there are no sacred cows. Anything is and must be subject to the possibility of refutation. However I find most theists are completely unwilling for the existence of god or other supernatural claims or beliefs to be framed in a way that is falsifiable. An example of this would be the article I wrote on the concept of prayer, where prayer is used to prove the existence of god. Theists will hold on to their beliefs despite any evidence to the contrary. This is one of the primary difference between theists and Atheists. Atheists are willing and in fact eager to learn and have their beliefs questioned. They are willing to change their minds based on new and better evidence. Most theists simply are not.
Reason: "The mental faculty that is able to generate conclusions from assumptions or premises." -Wikipedia. The first part of this definition is the most important point, which is that reason, or reasoning, is a mental process. The second part of the definition has to do with logic.
Logic: "The humanly constructed rules, principles, and methods which allow us to draw correct conclusions from premises or propositions." -Chris Peters. I pieced this definition together from a group of different sources.
Rational/Rationality: Guided by reason and logic, or optimal.
Prove: "To establish the truth or validity of, by presentation of argument or evidence." Based on previous definitions, proof can only happen through empirical means.
Fact: Something demonstrated to exist, which can be checked and confirmed by others. This is a definition I formed by blending definitions from multiple sources. Therefore the statement, "God exists" is not a fact, as it can neither be demonstrated, nor checked and confirmed by others. The statement is an assertion, or an opinion.
Theory: Before I define the word theory, it is important to point out that it is likely the most misunderstood word in science by lay people, especially by proponents of what is called "creationism" or "Intelligent Design". The problem with the word "theory" is that it has two definitions in particular which mean entirely different things. I will clarify the difference in this part. I do have some compassion and understanding for people who are innocently incorrect in the use of this words, however I have little patience for proponents of creationism or Intelligent Design who misuse this words as they are either willfully ignorant, lazy, or intellectually dishonest.
The first definition of the word theory is "speculation". I have heard and read from many creationists, that "evolutionary theory" is just a "theory", meaning an unsupported hypothesis or guess. However, this is not at all what "theory" means in science.
The second definition of the word theory is the scientific definition. In this sense, "theory" means, "A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena." I'll give two examples of scientific theories. It is a scientific theory that the earth is round. It is a scientific theory that the earth and other planets in our solar system revolve around the sun. In fact, there is just as much evidence for the theory of evolution as there are for these other two theories. For more information which demonstrates that evolution is a fact, I suggest the book, "The Greatest Show on Earth", by Richard Dawkins.
Reliability and Validity: These words are often confused, so I will define them here. Reliability means the conclusions we reach can be consistently replicated by others in an objective way. Repeatability is a core principal of science. In order for a conclusion to be a reliable conclusion, other people must be able to consistently demonstrate the same conclusion themselves using the same methods. It is because of reliability that internal "spiritual or religious experiences" are not "proof" of god's existence, because the same experiences cannot consistently be replicated by others in an objective way. Validity: the degree of closeness between our results or conclusions and the accurate or correct results or conclusions. In scientific experimentation, "A test is valid if it measures what you think it measures, as determined by some independent way of measuring the same thing." -Dr. Dewey.
Essence: In philosophy, essence is the attribute or set of attributes that make an object or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity.
Faith: Belief in something for which there is no evidence. Faith therefore is the very antithesis of scientific thinking and understanding. In Christianity, faith is not only a good thing and a requirement of salvation, but the Bible makes it clear that god kills people who do not have faith, such as in Jude 1:5. Christian teaching does a terrible disservice to humanity by frequently repeating the virtues and goodness of faith while remaining silent, through either willfulness or ignorance, about the very real dangers of faith. I am in the midst of writing a series on the concept of faith, where I will discuss these dangers such thinking has already caused humanity.
I have always felt an inherent desire and interest in finding truth. As Matt Dillahunty says, "I want to believe as many true things as possible and as few false things as possible. Both science and religion purport to be interested in finding truth, yet it is the beauty, simplicity, complexity, and strength of science which clearly offers the best way of finding it.