Lakatos and the Creation-Evolution “Discussion,” Part 1

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It’s ALWAYS about the data. Until it’s not.

As a scientist, I was taught the same thing most scientists are taught: that it’s always about the data. Data is THE arbiter for choosing between two competing hypotheses, and data is required to substantiate any claim. Data is so important that when you get experienced at reading scientific articles, you hungrily skip straight to the figures and tables to consume the data before consulting the text to judge the authors’ arguments.

The importance of data to the scientific community is what makes learning how to read and understand scientific articles one of the most difficult aspects of the transition from undergraduate science major to practicing scientist. When you’re accustomed to learning by studying a textbook cartoon figure with block colored shapes, descriptive text, and interactive animations, it can be quite jarring to read a scientific article only to find that the authors have replaced familiar cartoons with boring tables and black and white gels with bands all over the place and unreadable figure legends! I remember fondly one day in the lab[1] as a biochemistry graduate student when I showed my best friend (who is now a pastor and my brother-in-law!) one of my most recent experiments, which I believe was determining whether a protein interacted with my favorite protein in the world, Alsin.[2] Charlie said something along the lines of, “Wait a minute, that band on the gel is ‘data?’ And it actually tells you something?” I stumbled a bit and then quipped something like, “Well yes it does Charlie, it tells me that my hypothesis was junk.”

Figure 1. Relationship between data, hypothesis and theory.

Whether or not Charlie knew so (and I think he did), his question was a prescient one—one that to appropriately answer requires more than just an outline of the hypothesis I was testing, the experimental parameters used in the assay, and the methodological details like the sensitivity of the film used to expose the gel.

To fully address Charlie’s question and understand the progression of science from a band on a gel to scientific knowledge, one must supplement science with philosophy. Many philosophers of science have developed models to describe the relationship between theory, hypothesis, and data (see Figure 1). Inevitably, what philosophers come back to is a necessarily circular flow whereby data and theory both determine and are influenced by hypothesis. While the data generated in experiments may serve to support the hypothesis, the prevailing theory dictates what hypotheses are acceptable to test in the first place. Meanwhile, a hypothesis in turn influences both theory and data as it proscribes the means of testing, refining, and reinforcing theory, and it determines the experiments that are necessary to perform to generate data. The relationship between data, hypothesis, and theory is clearly a muddy one, yet this is the way science progresses and accumulates knowledge. So no it’s not alwaysabout the data. Or to put it differently, it’s not just about the data.

The philosophy of science entered the broader intellectual mainstream during the middle of the 20th century via the work of modern philosophers such as Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and Paul Feyerabend. These philosophers asked questions such as: If the scientific “enterprise” is so successful, what makes it so? And what makes a hypothesis, idea, or area of study “scientific?” As the field of science and religion similarly matured in the late 20th century, philosophers of science and philosophers of religion became conversation partners, especially in the area of methodology. Particular philosophies of science were in some cases adopted by philosophers of religion and theologians who were interested in the discussion on science and religion.[3] One of the most widely discussed approaches to methodology in the field of science and religion has been that of the Hungarian philosopher of mathematics and science, Imre Lakatos (1922-1974), with Nancey Murphy’s Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning providing the most systematic explication of Lakatosian philosophy to a scientific theology.[4] Whether or not one believes that philosophy of science should be applied to theological discourse, many (myself included) believe that Lakatos’ philosophy is the best explanation for how science progresses.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Interplay between data, auxiliary hypotheses, and the core hypothesis (scientific theory) that make up a research program. Auxiliary hypotheses “connect” data to the core hypothesis that is committed to by the research program. Auxiliary hypotheses may be modified to accommodate data into the core, but continual modification of these hypotheses without the prediction of data will result in a degenerating research program.

Lakatos proposed that science progresses as ideas are tested and knowledge is obtained through the use of and competition between “research programmes.”[5-7] Research programs (see Figure 2) are founded on a core hypothesis (re: theory) that is unchangeable and that the researcher commits to at all costs. The programs are the lenses through which knowledge is amassed and synthesized. Auxiliary hypotheses are constructed that are tentative and provide the functional connection between theory and data. The core hypothesis is “protected” from the peculiarities of data that may arise because auxiliary hypotheses can always be changed to take into consideration new data and yet further support the core. In practice, this means that the core hypothesis is not thrown out every time there is conflicting data; instead, auxiliary hypotheses are reconstructed to accommodate the data. This does not mean that in practice core hypotheses are not rejected, but they are given ample opportunity to succeed against other competing cores. Research programs that are progressive do a better job of accommodating data and will include auxiliary hypotheses that predict future data. Alternatively, research programs that are degenerative will require the repeated formation of ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses to make sense of new data in light of the core hypothesis. Lakatosian philosophy of science is not without its detractors;[8] however, the issues at stake do not involve the structure of the research programs and are of a technical nature that will not be explored here.

The structure of research programs highlights the importance of the dynamic engagement between theory, hypothesis, and data while at the same time underscoring the importance of the scientific community in scientific progression. Proponents of a particular research program are committed to a particular core hypothesis that forms the basis for their research endeavors. At the same time, proponents of different research programs are similarly committed to their particular core hypotheses. Conversation between different research programs can occur, but because of the commitment to different core hypotheses, it does so in a strained manner. Data can be discussed, but interpretations of it may differ because of the differences in auxiliary hypotheses that are driven by incommensurable core hypotheses.[9] So, while all can agree that yes, there IS a band on the gel, the importance of the band to the scientific question may be debated, let alone the importance to a scientific theory.[10] In a sense, this makes movement from one research program to a competing one akin to a “phase change” in matter. One has to “escape” the research program he/she is in to enter a different research program as he/she cannot be in two programs at the same time.

Like I said, Charlie’s question was quite a prescient one!

If one believes Lakatosian philosophy of science has great explanatory power for how scientific knowledge is obtained and synthesized (as I do), then it’s natural to postulate that this philosophical methodology may illuminate progression of knowledge in areas outside of science. In doing so, I am not demanding that all intellectual inquiry be grounded in scientific method. Nor am I making the statement that knowledge is only “true” knowledge if it is based in science. Instead, what I am saying is that other disciplines could develop or be similarly illuminated by viewing them through the lenses of Lakatosian research programs. This is certainly the case in Nancey Murphy’s and others’ appropriations of Lakatos’ philosophy to theology. While this in itself is interesting, perhaps even more can be gained by taking the discussion further.

This post will continue tomorrow with a discussion of how Lakatosian philosophy might apply to the conversation on science and faith.

  1. The main reason I remember this day fondly is because I was there to spin out a 2L flask culture of E. coli that was expressing a recombinant protein that I was going to purify for a biochemical experiment. I had Charlie take a great big whiff of that flask with his eyes closed. Our relationship has never been the same, but I still say it was worth it… [back to body text]
  2. For more on Alsin, see the scientific articles listed here:[back to body text]
  3. Motives for this appropriation varied but included a desire by some scientists and theologians to develop an integrated worldview. For others, the apparent reign of science and scientifically-informed ideas in the intellectual marketplace required an “apologetic” of sorts for why theology was still viable. If theology could be shown to be in some sense “scientific” then it could be critiqued and discussed in a manner similar to the sciences.[back to body text]
  4. Murphy, N. Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning. New York: Cornell University Press, 1993. [back to body text]
  5. Lakatos, I., Worrall, J., and Currie, G. The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Philosophical Papers Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1980. [back to body text]
  6. Like everyone else, Lakatos built upon the ideas of his peers. While space does not allow for a thorough explanation, Lakatosian philosophy incorporated Popper’s principle of falsification (demarcating theories that are andare not scientific) and Kuhn’s focus on the role of shared paradigms and paradigm shifts in scientific progression (showing the importance of the scientific community to the accumulation of scientific knowledge). [back to body text]
  7. For simplification, “research programmes” will hereafter be referred to as research programs. [back to body text]
  8. Reeves, J. (2011). “After Lakatos.” Theology and Science. 9: 395-409. [back to body text]
  9. If the auxiliary hypotheses don’t differ between competing research programs, at least when considered collectively, it is likely that the scientists lie within the same research program. [back to body text]
  10. I don’t write this to scare the non-scientist or provide the reader with doubt about the validity of the scientific enterprise. The scientific process works extraordinarily well. But, this process occurs within a scientific community and requires theoretical commitments by the scientist. As we will see, the basis of research programs is not limited to science and is what we do naturally when presented with new knowledge. [back to body text




Topp, Justin. "Lakatos and the Creation-Evolution “Discussion,” Part 1" N.p., 14 Feb. 2014. Web. 18 December 2018.


Topp, J. (2014, February 14). Lakatos and the Creation-Evolution “Discussion,” Part 1
Retrieved December 18, 2018, from /blogs/archive/lakatos-and-the-creation-evolution-discussion-part-1

About the Author

Justin Topp

Justin Topp is an Associate Professor of Biology at Gordon College. Previously, he was an Assistant Professor of Biology at North Park University in Chicago, IL. His research interests are in cell and molecular biology and include cell signaling, alternative splicing, and currently, the molecular characterization of Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease.

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