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Logic & Scientific Philosophy

The Faith of Science

Faith is belief without evidence; faith is belief even in the face of contrary evidence; faith is believing what you know is not true. Is that faith?

I’ve heard it defined in this manner. It would appear that the various scientific methodologies don’t embody faith in the manner described above. Science, after all, is supposed to be evidence driven, constantly changing, empirically verifiable, falsifiable etc – faith has no place in this prestigious human enterprise.

Does religious belief fall under the condemnation of the above definitions?  I can’t speak for all religious believers, but I certainly don’t know any thoughtful people of faith that would ascribe to the above descriptions of faith. Rather, faith is trust based on reasons.

So here is my thesis for this short article: science is supported by several unprovable assumptions that require the faith of the scientist. I will give you two arguments:

Argument # 1

Firstly, scientists have faith that are cognitive faculties are reliable and can produce true beliefs about the external world, including the history of our world. Yet, we can’t prove our reasoning is reliable without assuming the very thing we are trying to prove i.e. the reliability of our thought processes. Therefore, we require faith to believe that our beliefs about the world can be true. This faith commitment is even more striking if we affirm that our thought processes are the result of irrational forces that didn’t intend us, or see us coming. Charles Darwin, an admirable man, expressed doubts about this very matter:

“With me the horrid doubt arises whether the convictions of the man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

Thomas Nagel, a well-known modern philosopher agrees with Darwin:

“There is a real problem about how such a thing as reason is possible. How is it possible that creatures like ourselves, supplied with the cognitive capacities of a biological species whose very existence appears to be radically accidental, should have access to universally valid methods of objective thought”?

Another well-known thinker wrote this:

“The whole picture [scientific picture] professes to depend on inferences from observed facts. Unless we can be sure that reality in the remotest nebula or the remotest part obeys the thought laws of the human scientist here and now in his laboratory – in other words, unless Reason is an absolute – all is in ruins. Yet those who ask me to believe this world picture also ask me to believe that Reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. Here is a flat contradiction. They ask me at the same moment to accept a conclusion and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based. The difficulty is to me a fatal one…”

It is worth reading those quotes again. Can our cognitive capabilities be trusted to produce true beliefs about our world? If not, what becomes of science? It is, after all, our rational convictions that inform the popular scientific picture, yet it is the popular scientific picture that has opened the door for this radical skepticism. Does this imply a deep conflict between naturalism and, say, evolutionary theory? Prominent Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, and others, seem to think so.

On the other hand, if our cognitive capabilities can be relied upon to produce true beliefs about our world and we can, therefore, trust what science tells us about our origins, what reasons do we have to support this faith?

Either way, faith of some kind is required. To even respond to this argument requires it.

Argument # 2

Scientists assume the regularity of nature to make valid inductive inferences. This regularity cannot be proven, as the famous skeptic David Hume, pointed out centuries ago. This is sometimes called the problem of induction.

Here are two reasons for Hume’s skepticism: The regularity of nature is not logically necessary so we can’t, therefore, prove its truth in the strict sense of the word. We could easily conceive of a different kind of world where the sun cannot be trusted to appear daily, despite its past predictability. In other words, the uniformity of nature is not logically necessary in the manner of 2 plus 2 equaling 4 is logically necessary.

But surely, we protest, even though we cannot prove the uniformity of nature and the validity of inductive inferences drawn from it, we seem to have good empirical evidence for its truth. Every time we have heated water to one hundred degrees it has boiled in the past. Shouldn’t our past experience give us confidence about future attempts at making Macaroni and Cheese?

Hume would point out that this type of reasoning begs the question. It is, in itself, an inductive argument that depends on the uniformity of nature being true. Philosopher of Science Samir Okasha writes, “To put the point another way, it is certainly an established fact that nature has behaved largely uniformly up to now. But we cannot appeal to this fact to argue that nature will continue to be uniform, because this assumes that what has happened in the past is a reliable guide to what will happen in the future – which is the uniformity of nature assumption.”

Again, we may counter, ‘induction works really well. Those who have reasoned inductively have split the Atom, built rocket ships, and created computers. Those who have ignored induction have died horrible deaths. Survival relies on making good inductive inferences.’

But, again, this would not convince the skeptic because to argue that induction is true because it has worked well is to reason inductively, therefore, begging the question again. As Okasha writes, “Such an argument would carry no weight with somehow who doesn’t already trust induction. That is Hume’s fundamental point.”

Moreover, our sample size may be to small to be overly confident about nature’s uniformity. Philosopher of scientist Del Ratzsch reiterates:

“It is also a presupposition of science that nature is uniform, that processes and patterns that we see only a limited scale (since we have not examined all of creation, nor have we seen it during its entire existence) hold universally. Were that regularity not assumed, we would have no reason to think that laboratory events observed here and now could tell us about processes in the interior of distant stars far in the past. Nor would there be any grounds for believing that casual connections discovered yesterday would still hold true tomorrow, or for believing that nature is predictable or that scientific results should be reproducible. This faith (italics mine) in the universality and stability of the basic rules of nature goes back at least to the ancient Greeks.”

In conclusion, we can’t prove the reliability of reason, or the regularity of nature, without arguing in a circle, or begging the question. We need to take it on faith; faith based on reasons perhaps, but faith none-the-less. I personally think this faith is justified and reasonable and, I would think, so must every scientist (who ascribes to scientific realism, which I think most do when discussing observable entities).

The next question, if we dare to ask it, is what world picture provides better justification for the leap of faith embodied in the scientific enterprise?

But that is a matter for another article…

– Chris Price

See. Samir Okasha Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction

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About Chris Price

Pastor at Calvarybaptist.ca

Discussion

2 thoughts on “The Faith of Science

  1. How great it is to have this thorough elucidation of scientific faith following so closely on the heels of our discussions about objectivity in the past few weeks (and the conversation of Epistemology approaching…), Chris. Your ability to plainly show the various considerations surrounding the question are illuminating, engaging and thought-provoking without directly confronting your audience in a way that derails the conversation. This is a gift and a valuable model of public discourse that I am always grateful to have involved in our class.

    In our discussion about scientific objectivity, I think most of the class would agree with the leap of faith you posit is required to hold almost anything as a Justified True Belief (something our friend Jonathan wrote eloquently last year, I think https://talonsphilosophy.wordpress.com/2012/11/12/individual-development-of-knowledge/). The positivists were pretty quickly dismissed in the face of Popper’s idea that Lazar explained succinctly here:

    “…science can only get as true as long as one cannot deem it false. This is his theory of falsification, regarding that in science, one can never reach 100% objectivity; that a scientific theory will infinitely approach this asymptotic mark we call truth.” (https://talonsphilosophy.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/karl-popper-scientific-objectivity-lazar-deven/)

    I guess the question becomes then “What does this mean?” Does this change the way we think about science, or faith, or both (or neither)? Do we broaden the scope of influences that might come to bear on public institutions or civic dialogue, or narrow it?

    A timely example might be the IPCC’s recent assertion that scientists are “95% certain” that humans are causing climate change. What are the implications of this degree of “certainty,” I wonder? From an article on the recent IPCC publication:

    “There’s a group of people who seem to think that when scientists say they are uncertain, we shouldn’t do anything,” said Gray, who was chief scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the George W. Bush administration. “That’s crazy. We’re uncertain and we buy insurance.”

    Even if it’s not 100% certain (which would require a leap of faith, to be sure), is relative certainty not enough to motivate public action?

    Thanks again for the thorough and articulate post. I’ve left a lot on the table there in the way of discussion, some of which might make good reading / discussion once we get to Epistemology…

    Cheers,

    Bryan

    Posted by bryanjack | October 11, 2013, 7:23 pm
    • Hi Brian,

      I really like this comment. There is lots of good content to discuss. I will just give a few brief thoughts. I’m not sure if it changes how we view science or faith. I think that in some popular cultural discourses there is a erroneous definition of religious faith being promulgated in addition to an overly simplistic positivism/scientific realism floating around (in fact, they often go together as a rhetorical strategy). This blog and the discussion in the class would both be a corrective to this cultural discourse. Both science and religious belief, at its best, involve faith seeking understanding of what ‘is’ though they embody different layers or levels of explanation.

      Absolute certainty and objectivity is obviously beyond us and, ironically, only insecure people claim to have either. Therefore, we must weigh the data or evidence we do have and make the best decision we can. I think that, in regard to climate change, there are good reasons to take care of the earth even if we aren’t drastically impacting it – which I think we are.

      I am fairly ignorant when it comes to all the data that supports say ‘global warming’ but it seems like common sense to me that we are impacting the planet adversely in different ways. So to act on that data would be a ‘leap’ of faith based on good reasons. A decision made, not in the dark but in accordance with the light we do have and with the humility to admit we might be wrong.

      Yet, at the same time, once one studies the history of science or takes even a little seriously Thomas Kuhn we must be very cautious about putting to much stock in what the scientific majority tells us must be true.

      Chris

      Posted by Chris Price | October 15, 2013, 3:06 pm

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