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Speculation and Science

A talk.origins contributor wrote in comment on cosmology and abiogenesis:

Well, I have read that some think Dr. Sagan was not doing “real” science most of the time. He and others have at least speculated on both problems. They, at least, can point to a naturalistic of origins that make sense. ToE has yet to do that with abiogenesis.

I replied:

There is a problem here that I suspect you haven’t come to terms with. Bear with me. There is a difference between speculation and solid science; the boundary is not fixed – it moves over time – and it is not sharp.

Solid science deals with areas where we have definite knowledge, good evidence. Speculation deals with areas where we have too little knowledge and information to make definite statements which are confirmable.

Science is divided into areas of study. Quite often one area of study theoretically rests on another area of study but, and this is important, we do not need to have the originary area well worked out to be able to study the derived area. For example, the properties of chemical reactions depends on the chemical bond which is based on Quantum mechanics. Do we need to understand quantum mechanics in order to study chemistry? No. People were studying chemistry long before quantum mechanics was worked out.

Similarly before World War II, the larger questions of cosmology, the origins of the universe were speculation and were not considered to be solid science. We didn’t know enough to make well informed statements. It took a combination of better theory, working out implications of existing theory, and better data to make “the big bang” respectable – something that people could actually work with. But even though the question of the origins of the universe was in the area of speculation people could still work on stellar dynamics and on the origins of stars. They didn’t need large scale cosmology.

Likewise the study of evolution does not require that we have a well worked out theory of the origin of life. Given that life existed at some point, we can look at how it changed over time and the mechanisms driving that change. This study does not require a theory of the origins of life.

Still we have open the question of the origin of life. Is this a matter of speculation or is it a matter of solid science? It is neither; it is in the fringe area inbetween. Our studies of the history of life tell us things about that origin; the studies imply constraints. People are studying chemical reactions and pathways of carbon chemistry in an abiotic environment. They are studying the dynamics of complex chemical mixtures in environments which are far from thermo-dynamic equilibrium. They have moved far beyond the domain of hand waving, of raw speculation; on the other hand they have not yet reached the point of being able to say “it could have happened this way and it is very likely the actual event was very much like this.”

This page was last updated January 3, 1997.