Lakatos and the Creation-Evolution “Discussion,” Part 2

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I propose that research programs as described by Lakatos are much more broadly applicable and form the basis for how we take in new knowledge, regardless of whether the information is scientific. But, and equally as important, most of us aren’t aware that we view the world through the lenses of research programs. As a result, ideas are not properly investigated or considered independently of other knowledge that we have; instead, ideas that seemingly don’t agree with our core hypothesis are ruled out immediately and instinctively.

Perhaps the role of research programs and the general unawareness of them can be illustrated by asking the reader a few questions.

First, are you a Democrat, Republican, or Independent? What is the first thought that comes to mind when you hear of a Republican congressman caught in a scandal?

Second, are the claims of Christianity true? What would be your response if an archaeologist said she had uncovered the bones of Jesus Christ?

Third, what are the potential interpretations of Genesis that are allowed? How would your interpretation of Genesis be affected if you were told that literary evidence was highly suggestive of a literal Adam and Eve?

Fourth, are people inherently good or evil? Did last year’s Boston Marathon bombings have any impact on your thoughts?

Fifth, Red Sox or Yankees? How did you feel when Johnny Damon changed his laundry from navy and red to pinstripes?

I’ve observed heated discussions between folks that represent each side of the above questions (especially the laundry one). Some of the time real idea exchange occurs and the conversation is worthwhile. In other instances, both parties end up raising their hands and shrugging their shoulders in disgust, proud at their own willingness to engage in others’ ideas and upset at the obvious close-mindedness of the opposition.

Viewing these types of discussions through Lakatos’ methodological philosophy shows that interpretative differences arise from both sides protecting different (and sometimes mutually exclusive) core hypotheses with the freedom to modify auxiliary hypotheses extensively.[1] In some instances, both sides will come to agreement on the data, but their interpretation of the data is different. What really needs examining and recognition for change to occur is the core hypothesis/theory that each side holds. Only then will the “discussion” move to a real conversation.

One example that illustrates the role that Lakatosian research programs may play in an area of interest to BioLogos readers is the position in Creationism to accept the age of fossils but to say that God “made the Earth with the appearance of age.” This is a necessary auxiliary hypothesis to mediate between geologic and fossil data, even though it makes God out to be a deceiver; the unquestioned core hypothesis is that the Bible must be read literally and thus Genesis says the earth is young. Note that in this circumstance there is no problem with the data! The data is accepted but accommodation of it into the existing core requires formulation of an ad hoc hypothesis that is highly strained at best. Similarly, if one is committed to a core hypothesis that biological evolution makes the existence of a “literal” Adam and Eve impossible, traditional Protestant systematic theologies will require reinterpretation as auxiliary hypotheses are formed that discount conservative interpretations of the Bible. Sure Paul “wrote that” but he didn’t really “mean it.”

As you can see, competing research programs due to different core hypotheses (that are often mutually exclusive) can lead to entrenchment of both sides in the argument, despite all of the time and effort made to explain new data and discoveries. In “sticking to their guns” (i.e. keeping their core hypotheses intact), opposing groups can continually form ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses to accommodate the data into their existing protected core. This back and forth process is antithetical to fruitful discussion, is usually ignored by those engaged in the “discussion,” and highlights a major challenge for Christianity.

As part of an Evolution and Christian Faith grant awarded to Craig Story and me,[2] I will be writing a book to explore the structural organization of Lakatosian research programs and their import in science and areas outside of science. The proposed book will explain Lakatosian philosophy and show why it provides a very apt description of how science works using case studies, including the development and progression of evolutionary theory. Next, it will turn to how an understanding of Lakatos’s ideas provides an explanation for the relative lack of conversational progress and idea exchange between creationists of various stripes and supporters of evolution, especially within Evangelical Christianity. With this understanding, the book will propose a practical solution to generate discourse, which will rely on both sides agreeing to a common core hypothesis that acknowledges God as Creator, but does not invoke a particular mechanism of Creation. Without agreement to this core, I fear that there is likely to be little progress in the discussion of creation and evolution, a continued lack of understanding and respect for the scientific enterprise, and discord within Christianity. The core hypothesis that God is Creator is one on which Christians from a variety of perspectives can agree, and will enable real conversation as discussion participants work together to understand the biological and theological “data” in light of God as Creator.

  1. These questions may seem too specific to you to form the core hypothesis of a research program. Even if your stances on these questions fit more in the way of auxiliary hypotheses, they function to serve an underlying core hypothesis that is driving a research program “lens” that you use as you acquire, filter, and incorporate new knowledge. [return to body text]
  2. The book project is a one part of the larger program funded by BioLogos. This program also includes an all-expenses paid week-long retreat at Gordon College for pastors the next two summers. For more information, please see the program website. [return to body text]




Topp, Justin. "Lakatos and the Creation-Evolution “Discussion,” Part 2" N.p., 25 Feb. 2014. Web. 24 March 2018.


Topp, J. (2014, February 25). Lakatos and the Creation-Evolution “Discussion,” Part 2
Retrieved March 24, 2018, from /blogs/archive/lakatos-and-the-creation-evolution-discussion-part-2

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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