The Frontal Cortex

The Faith of Scientists

Paul Davies dares to utter the f-word in the context of science:

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

[snip]

And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe…Until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

If you look at this argument outside the context of the culture wars, where the mere suggestion of faith in science seems synonymous with creationism, it’s actually not such a controversial idea. In fact, the great philosopher V.W.O. Quine pretty much said the same thing more than fifty years ago, when he was busy deconstructing logical positivism. In his seminal paper, “The Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1952), Quine showed that reality only confirms or disconfirms collections of sentences, and not individual words, statements or axioms, as the logical positivists assumed. (For scientists, this means that when you test a specific scientific hypothesis, what you are really testing is a whole theory.) For example, the empirical sentence “The kinase enzyme opens an ion channel” actually conceals a raft of other assumptions. Before we can test this statement, we have to know what electricity is, and what a neuron is, and how the neuronal membrane lets ions shuttle back and forth. (This involves potassium pumps, G-proteins and a long list of complicated accomplices.) We have to learn all of molecular neuroscience before we can begin to test this very elementary fact. When Quine famously wrote that “the unit of empirical significance is the whole of science” he was pointing out that without the web of related knowledge, all scientific statements are pretty meaningless. The truth cannot be isolated into its logical or empirical parts because its very existence depends on the existence of other statements which we also hold to be true. If our knowledge doesn’t hang together, then it all falls apart.

There is one last interesting consequence of Quine’s critique of logical positivism. When Quine came up with his holistic version of knowledge, he also demonstrated that our most necessary scientific principles are actually the least provable. For example, most scientists, when asked what constitutes the starting principles of reality, will probably say something about one of nature’s fundamental laws, like gravity or the theory of natural selection. But these are precisely the same things that we will never see directly. (As Gertrude Stein once wrote, “The laws of science are paper laws, they make believe that they do something.” ) It has been four centuries since Newton discovered the force of gravity, and yet we still don’t know what gravity is made of. Natural selection is not in anything. It can’t be weighed, poked or prodded. The point is not that gravity doesn’t exist, or that natural selection is a myth, but rather that we believe in their existence because they help us explain other things, things that we actually know exist. Gravity explains the orbits of planets, and natural selection elucidates the evolution of life. But if we didn’t have the planets, if we didn’t need to explain the suave motions of stars or the origin of species, then we would have no need to believe in the force of gravity or the theory of natural selection. As Quine says, “The edge of the system [of science] must be kept squared with experience; the rest, with all its elaborate myths or fictions, has as its objective the simplicity of laws.” We accept our starting premises on faith (the invisible yet inviolable laws of science) simply because they help us make sense of totally separate layers of experience.

Whew. You deserve a prize if you’ve made it this far in the post. Basically, that was a long-winded way of saying that a little faith in science isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, one might even say that faith is an essential part of the scientific process.

Comments

  1. #1 Cuttlefish
    November 24, 2007

    The difference is, our faith is that
    Tomorrow’s laws are like today’s:
    If not, we abandon them, rather than saying
    “The Laws sometimes work in mysterious ways”

  2. #2 6EQUJ5
    November 24, 2007

    I have faith in arithmetic, algebra, and calculus. I have faith in chemistry and physics. My faith is justified because this stuff provably works.

    Religionists try to appropriate the word ‘faith’ for their own, while using it irrationally. What they claim to have faith in, they do not trust: they lie about their beliefs.

    I propose the skyscraper test. On the top floor, the person is asked whether they want to take the stairs down, or step into an open elevator shaft, in which case they get to pray to their deity that angels will catch them before they hit bottom.

    I’ll bet cash money they all take the stairs, regardless of their professed ‘faith’. They’re crazy, but their not stupid.

    (Well, there was that preacher doing a full-immersion dunking while holding a live mike.)

  3. #3 Joshua Zelinsky
    November 24, 2007

    You give Davies too much credit. As Davies even acknowledges in his piece the working assumption that the universe has regularity (which he emphasizes) is an assumption that works very well. If it starts failing we’ll reject it. To classify this the same way as religious “faith” is misleading. In any event, what Quine is talking about is substantially different than what Davies is discussing.

  4. #4 Scott Belyea
    November 24, 2007

    I have faith in arithmetic, algebra, and calculus. I have faith in chemistry and physics. My faith is justified because this stuff provably works.

    This makes no sense to me. If it is provable, what part can faith possibly play? Or to put it another way, what reasonable meaning can “faith” possibly have in this context.

    Religionists try to appropriate the word ‘faith’ for their own, while using it irrationally. What they claim to have faith in, they do not trust: they lie about their beliefs.

    And the previous “logic” leads to this sort of thing. The “skyscraper test” is just silly and without significance.

  5. #5 Pierce R. Butler
    November 24, 2007

    But if we didn’t have the planets, if we didn’t need to explain the suave motions of stars or the origin of species, then we would have no need to believe in the force of gravity or the theory of natural selection.

    But we do have those things (and as long as we have even one planet with enough gravity to move objects, we’d “need” (find it very advantageous) to believe in that force).

    If Quine’s epistemology holds true, and the entire fabric of understanding is invalidated with one exception – then the existence of planets confirms natural selection, or disproves miracles, or does just about anything you want it do that doesn’t require anti-gravity.

  6. #6 Spurtman
    November 25, 2007

    I don’t buy it. I’m a committed naturalist, and there are some things that I believe without evidence, but (when I know what things they are) it’s with a certain discomfort, and provisionally, and the hope that some evidence will turn up eventually. It is without the confidence and dogmatism typically definitive of faith in the religious setting.

  7. #7 Anonymoustache
    November 25, 2007

    “The point is not that gravity doesn’t exist, or that natural selection is a myth, but rather that we believe in their existence because they help us explain other things, things that we actually know exist.”

    No, not exactly. I think we believe in their existence because, based on the laws of gravity or the principles of natural selection, we can predict the outcome of events that are affected by these phenomena, i.e. we can reproducibly demonstrate cause and effect. We can predict exactly how gravity will affect an object. We can predict the rates of emergence of ampicillin resistance in bacteria in culture, we can lay out the conditions under which we can select for ampicillin resistant bacteria and we can demonstrate that our predictions are true. So the scientific ‘faith’ goes beyond explanation of things—it relies on reproducibility, on the fact that we can use these laws to control things, to demonstrate cause and effect. Religionists cannot do the same. They only rationalize events based on their systems of delusion or their ‘faith’. They cannot demonstrate clear “cause and effect” outcomes based on their “laws”.

  8. #8 Sérgio Barbosa
    November 25, 2007

    And how do you prove cause and effect? Why is it better then another prove. A religionists for instance.

    Cause-effect it’s also based on faith. In fact, all science is based on Cause-effect, so all science is based on faith (because all is based on cause-effect).

    Before you stop reading all explain:
    David Hume, demonstrated a few years ago that experiments only result because they relay on cause-effect events, but, those same events(cause-effect) only relay on one thing : Experience. Its like this: you only know that one thing that you call cause will produce one effect if you experienced that lots of times.

    So, cause-effect depends on experience em experience on cause-effect. Where is faith where, may you ask. Well, as you can see, all of science (experience an cause effect) depend on one belief: The past will always be repeated in the future. Because if this dosent happen one day, cause will not procure (the same) effect, experiences will not work.

    And now i ask you: how do we know that the past is always be repeat in the future? Don’t say that it as always been like that, because that….

  9. #9 Reginald Selkirk
    November 25, 2007

    “Faith” is an over-worked word, with many definitions. I am accustomed in philosophical discussions (e.g . Dennett, Dawkins) to seeing faith defined as “belief in the absence of, or even in spite of, evidence.” This definition applies to most religious faith.
    Science is based on evidence. We do experiments, we find out how things really are, we accumulate the evidence. That the universe follows orderly laws in not a faith-based assumption, it is a working conclusion based on centuries of evidence. To say that we have “faith” in the evidence is nonsensical under the above definition. If a different definition of “faith” will be used, why not just use the defining phrase instead, such as “trust” or “confidence”? Based on centuries of hypothesis and experimentation, I have confidence that the universe follows certain laws, and that these laws can be discovered through the practice of science. The entire history of science has been a journey away from the notion that law requires a lawgiver.

  10. #10 alice
    November 25, 2007

    In my opinion there are a lot of leaps in logic in the article. For example

    “In this “multiverse,” life will arise only in those patches with bio-friendly bylaws, so it is no surprise that we find ourselves in a Goldilocks universe — one that is just right for life. We have selected it by our very existence.”

    I am not sure I understand why it is that just because we live in a “just right” universe that means we have selected it. It seems that we are selected because of it and because it is “just right”.

    “Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity?”

    Why is it that something that is “reasonless” is also absurd?

  11. #11 Chris
    November 26, 2007

    I am accustomed in philosophical discussions (e.g . Dennett, Dawkins) to seeing faith defined as “belief in the absence of, or even in spite of, evidence.” This definition applies to most religious faith.

    Yeah, it’s that position that leads Dennett, Dawkins, et al. astray so often, because that’s not really what religious faith is, or a very good definition of faith for the serious discussion of much of anything.

    Why is it that something that is “reasonless” is also absurd?

    Because that’s pretty much the definition of absurd. “Reasonless” is superfulous in that case, because it wouldn’t make any sense to say “in reasonable absurdity.”

  12. #12 Leslie Marsh
    November 26, 2007

    The religious vs the scientific outlook marks an interesting and deep philosophical question: that is, whether science is explanatorily closed, whether the ultimate explanations provided by science are in need of supplementation. This problem can be extrapolated to include the problem of cosnciousness.

    While we may not understand scientific propositions, they are in principle understandable and testable. The same can’t be said of religious beliefs, there is no methodology available even to the so-called religious experts. There are three possible options concerning the nature of religious belief:

    (1) they cannot correspond to anything in the real world, so are either false or meaningless;
    (2) they do correspond to things in a supernatural realm, of which they can be true or false; or
    (3) religious beliefs are not beliefs properly so-called.

    They are to be removed from the realm of the factual, whether natural or supernatural, and reduced to the realm of practical commitments and attitudes.

    The third approach was espoused by R.B. Braithwaite; it has clear similarities to R.M. Hare’s view of moral beliefs/principles as attitudinal commitments. My own view straddles (1) and (2). I think that religious beliefs are genuinely beliefs, so that in this respect religion falls within the sphere of the theoretical, but that religious beliefs in fact correspond to nothing in the natural or supernatural worlds. So they are all false or at least they lack rational warrant. This is similar to Mackie’s error theory of ethics. Mackie’s error theory takes the view that moral judgments can indeed be true or false. But they are all false, because (though they are propositional or truth-claiming in logical form) there is no independently existing moral reality by virtue of which they can be true. Therefore they are one and all false.

    One needn’t deny the existence of a supernatural world: I, for one, am a Kantian agnostic about any possible knowledge of it.

  13. #13 alice
    November 26, 2007

    “Because that’s pretty much the definition of absurd.”

    OOOOPS, I knew that! In fact as soon as I pushed “post” I realized the flaw.

    But what I am questioning in his statement is the meaning of “reason”. In Webster’s definition 1, it says “a basis or cause as for some belief, action or fact”.

    So in this sense what I am talking about is the question of whether there is a “reason” why we are here as opposed to the “reason” which is used in logic or our faculty.

    Now that I think of it there are actually many and overlapping definitions of “reason”.

    So what I am saying is that whether or not there is a “purpose, end or aim” (all synonyms) does not determine whether or not the universe is without reason (to form judgements or inferences from facts or premises).In other words we are able to form judgements about the universe regardless of whether or not it has a pupose beyond it’s own existence.

    Chris, Did you used to blog at Chris Wilson’s “Enlightened Caveman”?

  14. #14 Reginald Selkirk
    November 26, 2007

    Yeah, it’s that position that leads Dennett, Dawkins, et al. astray so often, because that’s not really what religious faith is, or a very good definition of faith for the serious discussion of much of anything.

    How utterly pointless to say such a thing, and then not offer a “better” definition for “faith.” Is there another word or short phrase which means “belief in the absence of, or even in spite of, the evidence”? Feel free to suggest one. Dawkins, et. al have been good enough to provide the definitions with which they work.
    BTW, don’t bother offering a definition of “faith” such as “something good, which is not subject to criticism,” because it will be rejected.

  15. #15 amybuilds
    November 26, 2007

    It’s funny/sad to read your posts.

    To see my faith described as something where my deity or angels will catch me after I jump into an elevator shaft. i.e. God as Superman.

    That my faith cannot correspond to anything in the real
    world so therefore it is false/meaningless.
    i.e. scientist as Superman (everything in the “real” world is explainable by science)

    I love this blog because there are often smart things written here that are thought-provoking. I am disappointed when it regresses into the sort of mire I see in the discussion here.

    I would be happy to have a longer thoughtful respectful dialogue about faith of the religious sort over a cup of hot chocolate with anyone, but one paragraphs riffs are rather cheap are they not?

  16. #16 Luna_the_cat
    November 29, 2007

    There IS a profound difference between “faith” and “justifiable assumption”, you know.

    I do not “have faith” in the existance of evolution; all I have to do is accept it, in much the same way as I accept the fact that there is a desk in front of me — the evidence is there, and in fact, real difficulties occur in my ability to deal with daily tasks if I ignore it. That is not “faith”. That is making the justifiable assumption that what I have tangible evidence for actually exists. You kind of brush against this point and then miss it, and close only counts with horseshoes and hand grenades. You says, “We accept our starting premises on faith (the invisible yet inviolable laws of science) simply because they help us make sense of totally separate layers of experience.“, but that is not the case; we accept our starting premises because of the tangible evidence that they exist that can’t be ignored. Even if I didn’t know about orbiting planets, even if I were insane or a mindless organism, things still fall if I drop them; the theory of why is separate from the fact that I observe this occurance on a far too regular basis. Something is there, and we need a word for it; “gravity” will do. But that is qualitatively different from a belief in something in the absence of evidence.

  17. #17 Luna_the_cat
    November 29, 2007

    Apologies, that needed a few paragraph separators.

  18. #18 Sérgio Barbosa
    December 4, 2007

    First, the discussion was about faith. Not religion.
    If we all understand faith as:”belief in the absence of, or even in spite of, the evidence”. It is true that all science is supported by faith. The belief that all thing that happened in the past will continue happening in the future, (like Hume said). And, can you justify this with any evidence?

    “I do not “have faith” in the existance of evolution; all I have to do is accept it, in much the same way as I accept the fact that there is a desk in front of me”

    Well, when you accept the fact that your desk is in front of you, you are believing that that is true. You are having faith, �cause Descartes could ask you: And if you are dreaming? Is the desk really in front of you? Yet o see it, even feel it.
    And i could ask you: when you look at a road, and you see it shaking (because of the heat), is she reallying shaking or is it ans optical illusion? You just have to accept what you see!! But that could bring you problems.

    We could go extreme here:
    Is the a real world? Is the a real thing outside you brain? Does your brain exist? Do you even exist? You only know one thing. You exist when thinking your thoughts (i think therefore i exist). But all you thoughts and memories could be just a spark….

    To believe in the real world you already have to have faith.

    Sorry my terrible English…

  19. #19 Sergio Barbosa
    December 4, 2007

    *Is there a real world? Is there a real thing…

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