Science is Not Based on Faith

I was intrigued by Joe’s recent post and the hubbub of comments that ensued, so I decided to weigh in on a tangent to the issues Joe and a number of commenters raised. The issue is this: In pointing out the unsecure footing of the scientific worldview, critics sometimes claim that scientists have faith in science just as religious persons have faith in God.

The point here is that the scientific worldview is based on a host of assumptions that are not themselves verified (or verifiable) by science. The scientist must take (or has already taken) an epistemological leap. Because the scientific worldview, being steeped in the rationalism and empiricism of our age, is so prevalent, it is often taken as given fact rather than one mode of interpreting the world. Critics are pointing out (rightly so in my mind) that those who operate within a scientific worldview are making as much of a leap as religious persons are making in their own worldviews.

Where I take issue is when we apply the label of “faith” to the leap made by the scientist. Perhaps this issue is far too semantic. I realize that our common usage of the word “faith” would suggest that is quite appropriately applied in this instance. However, I like to think that there is perhaps something more to faith than simply acknowledging a measure of uncertainty and the necessity of assumptions in one’s epistemic stance in the world.

I consider myself a relationist and so I must first say that I like to think that faith in a being (a Being) is something other/greater than “faith” in an idea or a concept. There are a host of ontological, epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical implications when I declare my faith in a Being with whom I believe I have had first-hand experience (however invisible that may be), than when I profess a willingness to make an assumption such as “the natural world is all there is” or “the natural world is nothing but inert matter.” I am not beholden to these principles in the same way I experience myself as beholden to a Being (however real or imagined) in whom I put my faith.

I haven’t thought this out as far as I’d like to. For example, it seems to me that when we talk about “faith to move mountains,” the faith that “precedes the miracle,” or “faith unto salvation” that we are talking about something more than the fact that we are operating on a degree of uncertainty. I’m curious to hear what you all think.

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27 Responses

  1. While it is true that biological and historical science does indeed rest on many as yet unverified assumptions, placing it in the same category as religion demonstrates, I think, a very superficial understanding of the scientific method.

    In the world of research and academia, unlike that of religion (and blogs), those who make arguments are obliged to provide significant evidence before they are taken seriously. These arguments rarely even reach public dialog before being reviewed and criticized by peers. Once arguments and evidence do reach the public sphere, they are subject to the criticism of experienced observers with tools and knowledge requisite for the task. Arguments and evidence are held to high standards of substance and method. These standards have been and continue to be refined. Due to this process, scientific claims that stand the test of time are fairly solid. Of course, they can be overturned by future findings – but only when a flaw in method or evidence can be demonstrated.

    Contrast this with the process of religion. There is no way to examine religious claims for validity. This does not negate their value on a personal level, but it does raise questions about how religious claims should be treated in the public sphere. The argument that religious traditions should be taught in schools opens up a huge public policy can of worms. We live in a pluralistic society. Whose creation tradition should be taught? Christians (and, specifically, Mormons), once the victims of the religious oppression of the majority, now often make arguments that their traditions should be imposed upon others who do not share their personal beliefs. This is hypocritical and lacks the pragmatism necessary for discussion of public policy.

    Science classes in schools are designed to teach science. The principles taught in these classes, therefore, should be subject to the process of the scientific method. Since religion is not and can not be subject to that process, it is not science. Further, attempting to give significant treatment of religious myths in science classes requires that either we (1) impose the beliefs of the majority on everyone else, or (2) attempt a fair treatment of the details of every religious group involved in the American public sphere. Both ideas are inappropriate. The first belongs in church, the second in humanities classes.

    Pretending that scientific arguments, not perfect yet tempered by years of scrutiny, are somehow a cult in which scientists agree to have faith in a fairy tale is naive and ignorant. Though I am a person of faith, I recognize that in the public sphere, the widely accepted scientific method is more appropriate for scientific instruction than is the religious faith of the majority. Science teachers have a responsibility to discuss scientific theory in a fair way, including its weaknesses and disagreements. However, they do not have a responsibility (or a right!) to impose their religion, untested by evidence, on students. That kind of instruction belongs in the home and in the church.

    Those who place science in the same category as religious faith either (1) don’t understand the scientific process or (2) lack understanding and tools for evaluating scientific claims and, therefore, fear them. If your faith is as strong as you think it is, it will stand the test of science. In a pluralistic society, we are obliged to discuss pragmatic solutions to public problems, not one-sided, narcissistic impositions of our faith on others.

  2. Ryan,

    Are you responding to my post? I’m not sure that I’m placing the scientific method in the same category as religion–in fact I hope I’m saying that there are important differences. Are you agreeing with me?

    Who, in the context of this post, is arguing that religious traditions should be taught in schools or that anything other than science should be taught in science classes?

    I hope I have some understanding of the scientific process, since I consider myself a scientist. I use scientific methods in my research and teach them to undergraduates.

    That said, it is widely recognized in the philosophy of science that some assumptions must be made in order to conduct science. Although many assumptions may be claims that can be tested but are as yet unverified, many core assumptions are themselves unverifiable. These assumptions fall in the realm of ontology and epistemology. In research and academia and often even in religion (though not as frequently in blogs), it is well established that these sorts of assumptions are helpful and necessary in order to conduct science and that they will always remain assumptions. All the peer review, experimental replication, and methodological scrutiny will not change this. In fact, they are the product of such assumptions (e.g., all true things are/should be publicly verifiable; all true results must be repeatable; objective truth is the result of methodological rigor). These assumptions cannot be tested by scientific method because they must be assumed to be true in order to apply the method. It does not mean that they are bad assumptions per se, but it does mean that science is not based on indubitable fact and that the scientific worldview requires human subjectivity, bias, values, and interpretation.

    This subjectivity is often unacknowledged by practitioners of science (usually the ones that don’t have to study the philosophy of science) and many such practitioners criticize religious worldviews for being based on subjectivity, believing their own worldview to be based on objectivity. This, I believe is the point of criticism and the point on which scientific, religious, and all other worldviews are on common ground—not one of them escapes subjectivity. Pretending that religious arguments, not perfect yet tempered by years of scrutiny, are somehow a cult in which religious persons agree to have faith in a fairy tale is naive and ignorant—but it is precisely what many prominent voices in the scientific community do.

    Also, I must disagree with you that there is no way to examine religious claims for validity. There are a multitude of ways to do this, including by way of the scientific method. How we go about this and what constitutes evidence all depends on ones epistemological stance. Since you claim to be a pluralist, I recommend that you consider a more expansive plurality of epistemologies (and scientific methodologies for that matter), because religious claims are being tested constantly by scientist and lay person alike.

    You say that “since religion is not and can not be subject to [scientific] process, it is not science.” The problem of demarcating science and non-science is much more complex than you make it out to be and I fear that including anything that could be subject to scientific process in science classes would invite a host of subjects that simply do not belong in science classes. The field of paranormal science is a great example. Many paranormal scientists use scientific methodology as scrupulously and rigorously as the best researchers in other fields, but most scientists still want to label ESP, telekinesis, etc. as unscientific. I don’t think my kids need to learn about that stuff in science class.
    Your claim that “those who place science in the same category as religious faith either (1) don’t understand the scientific process or (2) lack understanding and tools for evaluating scientific claims and, therefore, fear them,” may describe some people. However, I think that you’ll find that there are many (including atheists; e.g. Paul Feyerabend) who find many categories fitting for both science and religion without being guilty of either #1 or #2.

    Again, I remind you that my purpose in this post is to suggest that there is a greater distinction between science and religious faith than some have acknowledged. I am arguing that when scientists make dubitable assumptions (however unacknowledged they often are) in adopting a scientific worldview and practicing scientific methodologies, this epistemological leap is different from the leaps of faith of a religious person. I agree that there are many identical (at least in form) epistemological leaps required for a religious worldview, but I think that we really mean more by the term “faith” than this.

    Your comments on public policy might be better suited as a reply to Joe’s post, since he and others have brought up these issues there.

  3. I can’t compete in a discussion with highly educated philosophers but nonetheless I don’t think that devalues my own thinking and opinions on this matter. I am a Christian believer and an engineer (first cousin to scientist maybe?). My thinking has ranged far and wide since my youth, and I’ve decided that your starting point, your assumptions, largedly guide your findings as you experience life and use reason to understand it. When I decided (in mature adulthood) to start from the point of believing in an Almighty Creator God, and began studying the Bible, reading ancient and modern interpretations, listening to sermons, etc., I came to see that there was just as much order and beauty in Christian theology and faith as I found in advanced mathematics and science. And both share in deep mystery, as well. I continually test the interpretations of others and myself against my life observations and experiences using reason…and intuition (whatever that is). I don’t let intuition override reason but supplement it. Can I be wrong? Absolutely. Is my life more meaningful since I started from the point of believing? Absolutely. Would I let that “feeling” blind me to scientific discoveries or theories? No, I wouldn’t. Jesus said, “I am the truth.” So, to deny truth of any kind would be, for me, to deny my faith, as well.

    I hope that holds up to you philosophers’ scrutiny. If not, I’ll sincerely try to learn from your replies.
    Kelly Carter
    http://blackberry8130.wordpress.com

  4. Brady – sorry, my response should have been posted in the original article about evolution. Sorry about that; not really meant to disagree with you.

  5. please, sceince is filled with leaps of faith and if you don’t think so then i think you are in denial or not paying attention…

  6. Because…,

    I think I’m paying pretty close attention. I think that science is making enormous leaps. I also think that the term “faith” might have special meaning in religious applications that is lost or ignored when it is applied to science. Did you even read this post?

  7. Evolution is based on faith, in fact as practiced today in the USA it may be considered a religion.

    Science is not based on faith

    There is a direct conflict between the faith based evolutionist and pure science.

    Physicist are the only Science today functioning as a science.

  8. batguano101,

    Care to elaborate on why you think the term faith applys to evolution?

  9. @bat guano
    “Evolution is based on faith, in fact as practiced today in the USA it may be considered a religion.”

    I second Brady’s call for an explanation because evolution actually pushes faith out of the picture. It constructs a reason-based cause-and-effect timeline from the present (in all its apparent complexity) back to the simplest of interactions.

    You could say “there are gaps in evolutionary theory”… sure there are… but guess what, the field of evolution is one of the youngest in science. Given the enormous amount of research it takes even to analyze a single gene using reverse genetics (take a peek into any peer-reviewed journal and you’ll get a sense of this) our progress in the field thusfar is -highly- impressive.

    Because of the nature of science, claims have to be well-established before they are accepted… therefore progress is slower than it could be. But this also leads to strength… a rigorous strength much more potent than airy, unfalsifiable claims of religion.

    If you don’t see the difference, look at what each will do under criticism:
    – When a contradition or counterproof is directed at a religion, the religion will play word games to defend itself. It inherently resists change and certainly doesn’t seek to falsify its beliefs.
    – When a scientific theory is contradicted (which scientists are always trying to do) the theory is judged based on new information, then modified or thrown out.

    In the case of evolution, we know that evolution occurs so we don’t throw the theory out. What we don’t know is specifically every mechanism of evolution… therefore, we tweak it.

    In no way is evolution by natural selection -any- way related to a religion (except that perhaps religion is an evolutionary meme).

    – Dave

  10. Oh and I forgot to mention this: when I said “we know that evolution occurs so we don’t throw the theory out” (because I can tell you’re going to say this) NO, it is not an assumption or faith-based. We know because we -see- it in the lab, in nature.

    Faith (my friend) is not by sight.

  11. Excellent post, Brady. By the way, your post has been featured on the WordPress newsroom under the “Science” category. Also, your first comment discusses many important issues that people would be wise to consider before making claims about science’s security and religion’s slipperiness.

    I see your post as relevant (among other things) to a comment I made in Joe’s post on evolution. I said,

    At the very least, what would be the harm if a teacher said this: “Hey, there are people who have faith in science and people who don’t. Likewise, there are people who have faith in evolution and people who don’t. Similarly, there are people who have faith in God and people who don’t. And there are people who have faith in God and in science, and people who have faith in neither. It is not my job as an educator to tell you what to believe in, and there are respectable people of all of these different positions.”

    I agree that faith is not the best term to use, and if I were to write this comment again I would simply say “believe.” I do think it is somewhat a semantic issue, but not entirely. In fact, a couple commenters still haven’t quite gotten your point — probably because they are so used to seeing “faith” as “belief.” Maybe that would be a good way of framing the differences. Certainly both religion and science require belief. This is indisputable. But only religion requires faith, in the sense of faith-in-something. This actually can serve as a strength to religion, not a liability. The person who places their faith in, say, Jesus Christ has a sure foundation upon which he/she can rely. Now, this of course is from the assumption that Jesus is for real. However, when it comes to the beliefs of science, one could argue, there is no sure foundation. What one believes in is something that is always provisional and never settled. Moreover, even the purposes of science (progress, innovation, prediction, etc.) cannot be grounded in something that is certain. That we should even do science is not something that is certain. Thus, it is no surprise that more and more scientists today are becoming relativists — sometimes you have to get them into a corner for them to admit this, though.

  12. Kelly,

    I appreciate your comment. I would affirm that you need to make your commitments to faith and science work out for you, regardless of what any philosopher might say. (By the way, there are no real “philosophers” here, though several of us have academic training in philosophy of science as well as science vs. religion concerns.)

    I definitely agree with you (as does just about any philosopher nowadays) that a scientist’s (or engineer’s) assumptions largely guide their findings.

    I like your point about Jesus being the truth. For me, this means that everything must be understood in light of Christ. This clearly means that whatever we might say of science, there are things that are missing. I am unaware, for example, of any scientific explanation for the Resurrection.

    There’s only one thing I would prod you a little bit on, Kelly. You say that you don’t allow “intuition” to override reason, but supplement it. By intuition (which you admitted hesitancy defining), could you be talking about inspiration or revelation from God? If so, it is possible that one can receive inspiration from God that does not jive well with the reason of this world? This does not mean it would have to defy reason, of course — one could say, “OK God, I have no idea how or why this will work out, but it is something you are telling me to do and I know that whatever you say is right, and therefore I am reasonable to follow the inspiration that you send me, rather than my own notions about what to do.”

  13. Dave J,

    If you don’t see the difference, look at what each will do under criticism:
    – When a contradition or counterproof is directed at a religion, the religion will play word games to defend itself. It inherently resists change and certainly doesn’t seek to falsify its beliefs.
    – When a scientific theory is contradicted (which scientists are always trying to do) the theory is judged based on new information, then modified or thrown out.

    You’ve given a common “new atheism” argument here (straight from Richard Dawkins’ playbook). I’ll give you the same response I would give to Dawkins:

    You’re assuming that “religion” and “science” are monolithic entities — that all religion is the same and that all science is the same. This is simply not true. In other words, there are many, many religious people who continually revise their beliefs, in regard to the world around them, whether this is scientific discovery, continued revelation from God, or new insights concerning other people in the world. So, this argument has “straw man” written all over it. Yes, there are some religious people who do this, but you are tackling the wrong issue — the issue is dogma, not religion per se.

    In regards to science, the same complexity occurs. The history of science (even recently) is filled with individuals who have done exactly what you say that religious people do. Moreover, Kuhn has thrown a wrench in the Popperian (inspired by Karl Popper) falsification logic that you discuss. Kuhn says that science actually progresses by major changes in paradigms that cannot be directly linked to a study that falsifies something. There are studies that falsify in science all the time that are explained away (or ignored). “Oh well, it was only one study … there are other possible explanations … maybe something went wrong.” Thus, the scientist has plenty of room to equivocate. Moreover, most scientists are completely unaware of major arguments against the scientific method (such as Kuhn’s and others) — when faced with these arguments, they are often explained away or ignored by the very “word games” and change resisting dogma that you condemn. So again, straw man.

    When I said “we know that evolution occurs so we don’t throw the theory out” (because I can tell you’re going to say this) NO, it is not an assumption or faith-based. We know because we -see- it in the lab, in nature.

    I have both a moderate and radical answer to this. The moderate answer first. It depends on what you mean by evolution. Certain micro-evolutionary principles can be verified in the lab and in nature, but I can guarantee that you (or anyone else) has never seen humans evolve from apes.

    The more radical answer: Causation is never observed, it is only inferred (as David Hume argued). Thus, I can see certain changes in the lab or in nature, but I can only infer that a certain causal principle, such as evolution, is at work. Evolution, in this sense, is an unobservable meaning.

  14. Yes, evolutionist today have a faith based religion.

    Science in its pure form seeks to find out what exists and explain it, rather than force what they find into a theory.

    The religion of evolution faith is that there is no God, no supreme creator or design to the physical universe. Pretending to be science, it has left science for faith in “there is no God”.

    Anyone who has taken comparative embryology and poured over the slides of “ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny” without seeing there is a design is making that leap of faith the evolutionist demand.

    The very mantra of evolution religion contradicts it’s validity.

    The last real science seeking the truth of the universe is physics today.

    My observation is based on education as both a biologist and physician.

  15. […] and perhaps to shed a little light from an intelligent commentator, I’d append this link to a currently running discussion on the same […]

  16. batguano101,

    I agree with you that it is a real leap to say that there is no God, no supreme creator or design to the physical universe. But is that the same thing as faith? I like to think that there might be something unique to declaring a belief in (and commitment to) a God that is left out of the negative declaration of no belief. Does saying I believe in not-God have the same power in my life as saying I believe in God? I am wanting to reserve the term “faith” for this powerful positive declaration. Again, this might be no more than semantics, but I do maintain that the outcome of these two different leaps of “faith” is drastically different.

  17. Dave J,

    If you don’t see the difference, look at what each will do under criticism:
    – When a contradition or counterproof is directed at a religion, the religion will play word games to defend itself. It inherently resists change and certainly doesn’t seek to falsify its beliefs.
    – When a scientific theory is contradicted (which scientists are always trying to do) the theory is judged based on new information, then modified or thrown out.

    You’ve given a common “new atheism” argument here (straight from Richard Dawkins’ playbook). I’ll give you the same response I would give to Dawkins:

    You’re assuming that “religion” and “science” are monolithic entities — that all religion is the same and that all science is the same. This is simply not true. In other words, there are many, many religious people who continually revise their beliefs, in regard to the world around them, whether this is scientific discovery, continued revelation from God, or new insights concerning other people in the world. So, this argument has “straw man” written all over it. Yes, there are some religious people who do this, but you are tackling the wrong issue — the issue is dogma, not religion per se.

    In a way I’m generalizing (for the sake of this generalized argument… of course I can’t talk about every particular manifestation of religion in a person) but in a way I’m not. (And follow with me on this one:) Instead of seeing what I have in a religious person and extrapolating it to every religious person, I am looking at what is required by the definition of religion… it’s essential qualities—if such things exist. That is, a religion claims to have access to truth… so what then if that claimed access to truth is demonstrated false? They defend their understanding of the truth using fuzzy language (word games) or “reinterpretation”.

    Science, though of course it is practiced differently by different individuals, has a method “proper” to it… that of falsifiability. So this essential quality (over different paradigms) remains constant. So people outside of a falsifiable paradigm cannot be considered to be part of Science Proper. So it is possible to generalize in the sense that we can pick out facets of science that do not vary and talk about them. My argument wasn’t directed against or using a straw man.

    “Oh well, it was only one study … there are other possible explanations … maybe something went wrong.” Thus, the scientist has plenty of room to equivocate.

    Of course this kind of dismissal is possible—given the large scope of what science seeks go accomplish coupled with the extreme rigor studies have to pass. This means that if one poorly done experiment contradicts a large body of cohesive experiments, we can question the poor experiment as a possible artifact. That said, it takes a lot to question such results… a huge body of knowledge backing you up. So there is not “plenty of room”.

    When I said “we know that evolution occurs so we don’t throw the theory out” (because I can tell you’re going to say this) NO, it is not an assumption or faith-based. We know because we -see- it in the lab, in nature.

    I have both a moderate and radical answer to this. The moderate answer first. It depends on what you mean by evolution. Certain micro-evolutionary principles can be verified in the lab and in nature, but I can guarantee that you (or anyone else) has never seen humans evolve from apes.

    No, you’re wrong. We have seen evolution, and there is no such thing as simply “microevolution” this is trying to draw a line where none exists. It is based on human concepts of species which don’t hold up to scrutiny and certainly don’t apply to bacteria, or really anything. (How do you know when something has changed species?) Also have you never heard of ring species? Organisms evolve—they have to—and this is obvious. No faith involved.

    The more radical answer: Causation is never observed, it is only inferred (as David Hume argued). Thus, I can see certain changes in the lab or in nature, but I can only infer that a certain causal principle, such as evolution, is at work. Evolution, in this sense, is an unobservable meaning.

    Of course we could get radical. We don’t know reality is real or observable either. Should we all then say that we have a “faith” in reality that equivalent to “faith” in god?? They are obviously two different levels of faith, one rational, the other, meaningless.

  18. Dave J,

    I am not sure what you mean by two different levels of faith. What’s the difference between rational and meaningless faith?

    I would also like to know what you think would demostrate the falsity of a religion’s claim to be able to access truth.

  19. Dave J,

    I still see you as making a false comparison between science and religion.

    You say:

    a religion claims to have access to truth… so what then if that claimed access to truth is demonstrated false? They defend their understanding of the truth using fuzzy language (word games) or “reinterpretation”.

    I’m wondering how, even hypothetically, you imagine that the truth that religion claims might be demonstrated false. Most scientists are quick to assert that concepts like “God” and the afterlife are not falsifiable. So, really, I don’t see — in practical, concrete terms, what you’re talking about here. Certainly there are religious people who continue to believe things that have been clearly falsified, but I don’t see how this is a property of religion per se.

    In terms of the scientist, couldn’t I say the same thing:

    Science claims to have access to truth… so what then if that claimed access to truth is demonstrated false? They defend their understanding of the truth using fuzzy language (word games) or “reinterpretation”.

    Now we might equivocate on what we mean by “access to truth,” but certainly the scientist (in Science Proper) believes that the scientific method (including falsification) is the best way to get at the truth of something. No? Otherwise, your claim that truths of religion could be demonstrated false falls on its head. So, both the religious person and the scientist claims “to have access to truth.” Otherwise, science is simply a bully club.

    So what if that scientific method is demonstrated false? Well, first of all, it can’t be, in the same way that God and many other religious concepts could never be demonstrated false. The scientific method is an assumption made — there is no scientific proof for it without begging the question. We can make this same point about the doctrine of falsification. It itself could never be falsified. How could it? And if it did, how would we even make sense of it — if the authority negates itself, how does it remain an authority. Analogously, the only way that God could be falsified is through God, which of course is ridiculous.

    So, in essence, both religion and science are based in unfalsifiable assumptions. These concepts can certainly be argued against, and indeed good arguments have been made on both counts, but to think that they could be falsified is logically impossible. Certainly, based on such arguments, a religious person might decide there is no God (and then they would no longer be religionist, at least not part of “Religion Proper”), just as a scientist might decide that falsificationism is false (and they would no longer be a scientist, at least not part of “Science Proper”).

    What really is the essential difference here? You might say, well, yes, the scientist assumes falsificationism, but they still are able, given that assumption, to be proven wrong in some of their claims. But certainly we could say the same thing about a religious person. The religious person assumes that there is a God, but they are still able, given that assumption, to be proven wrong in some of their claims. In addition, both scientists and religionists can make mistakes and not act consistent with their assumptions. And both can not allow their assumptions to be challenged.

    Again, where can a fundamental difference be established, Dave, without simply using one assumption (scientific falsification) as the bottom line for the other? I suppose you could say that falsification science is more precise, and I think you would be correct, but this says very little of whether it is getting to (capital T) truth, because you can never escape the assumptions that you are built on. This is all fairly standard post-Popper philosophy of science.

    We have seen evolution, and there is no such thing as simply “microevolution” this is trying to draw a line where none exists. It is based on human concepts of species which don’t hold up to scrutiny and certainly don’t apply to bacteria, or really anything. (How do you know when something has changed species?) Also have you never heard of ring species? Organisms evolve—they have to—and this is obvious. No faith involved.

    Well, it sounds like you know more about these things than I do. I’m certainly willing to concede a distinction of “microevolution” and “macroevolution.” I’m also willing to concede that specifying between species is tricky business. However, we can be clear where there are qualitative differences between certain species. Apes and humans cannot produce viable offspring, yet (as far as I know) there is no two sub-species of living humans where this is not the case (certainly this might occur for individuals, but not as a rule between any two individuals from two groups). So, apes and humans are qualitatively distinct, at least today. If you know of any animal (today) for which it is not clear whether they are human, please let me know.

    Now, given this distinction, no one has observed an evolution from one of these groups (apes) to the other (humans). Other things have been observed, it is true, and from these observations a person can INFER other evolutionary possibilities, but to say that the human evolution from apes to humans has or can be SEEN is simply not accurate. You would have to be around for a long, long time. So I suppose from this clearly inferred evolutionary claim (humans evolved from apes) I was making a somewhat arbitrary macroevolution vs. microevolution distinction. This says nothing about the potential truthfulness of the claim, it is simply asserting that such a claim is necessarily inferential, not an empirically verified fact.

    Of course we could get radical. We don’t know reality is real or observable either. Should we all then say that we have a “faith” in reality that equivalent to “faith” in god?? They are obviously two different levels of faith, one rational, the other, meaningless.

    If you were one of my students, I would write “UA” next to these sentences. That means “unsupported assertion.” You’ve got some splainin’ to do.

  20. I can see that I need to be more explicit in my explanation, which will take some time… unfortunately, MCAT is next week, so time is one of those things I don’t have much of.

    Meanwhile, the following might clear my position up (if only a bit):

    I am not an objectivist nor do I think science is purely objective, in case that clears anything up. I do see countless reasons, though, to say the ‘assumptions’ made by science (misnamed ‘faith’ by religious folks) are justified by philosophy whereas religious claims are not.

    Hopefully in a day or two I’ll be able to respond more fully during free time… and hopefully rework my understanding of wordpress’s blockquote handling.

    Peace,
    David

  21. . . . I can guarantee that you (or anyone else) has never seen humans evolve from apes.

    I did not see you and your siblings come out of the same birth canal, but I can determine that you are siblings with DNA. DNA is the most accurate evidence humans have yet been able to use; it is so accurate we use it to take men off death row after they have been convicted in a fair trial.

    DNA shows that we are cousins with the chimpanzees, and that we share a rather close common ancestor with all the other great apes; DNA shows that all of life is related in nested hierarchies. We haven’t lived long enough to see all of evolutionary history (nor could we, ever), but all the science points to it.

    No one has ever seen an atom, either, but it would be silly to deny their existence.

  22. Moreover, Kuhn has thrown a wrench in the Popperian (inspired by Karl Popper) falsification logic that you discuss. Kuhn says that science actually progresses by major changes in paradigms that cannot be directly linked to a study that falsifies something.

    It’s often good to remember that Kuhn uses evolution as the model example of a paradigm shift, with evolution being the new, accurate theory replacing the old ideas. If we’re going to hold Kuhn up as an authority, we’d better be ready to accept his judgment on evolution, or have a good explanation for why we’re picking and choosing from among his claims.

    There are studies that falsify in science all the time that are explained away (or ignored). “Oh well, it was only one study … there are other possible explanations … maybe something went wrong.”

    I don’t think that’s accurate. There are a handful of famous examples: Darwin and evolution, the loss of Mendel’s work, Wegener and plate tectonics, Semmelweiss and handwashing, the pump handle in London and cholera — that’s about it.

    There are famous cases in the latter half of the 20th century where PR flacks backed by money have tried to cast doubt on science, impishly , evilly, and sometimes criminally: tobacco, Rachel Carson and DDT, formaldehyde foam insulation, global warming.

    But most of the time, anyone with the facts gets published. Anyone with data contradicting the greatest authority has as good a chance to get it into the journals as anyone else. Science is amazingly self-policing.

    In those few cases where the guy with the right idea was dismissed initially, it was science that kept hammering away at the error until everyone else came around. No creationist has ever uncovered a hoax on evolution or evolution denial; it wasn’t non-geologists who figured out Wegener was right; scientists stuck to their guns on tobacco until the evidence was just too great to ignore.

    There is little room for scientists to equivocate, especially over time.

    Thus, the scientist has plenty of room to equivocate. Moreover, most scientists are completely unaware of major arguments against the scientific method (such as Kuhn’s and others) — when faced with these arguments, they are often explained away or ignored by the very “word games” and change resisting dogma that you condemn. So again, straw man.

    The ignorance of the scientist to a popular argument does not negate the facts the scientist has. Pat Robertson has a much larger audience than Jonas Salk ever did; Jonas Salk’s vaccines still prevent polio. Nature does not work by popular vote.

    And again, anti-evolution claims are part of the “change resisting dogma,” according to Kuhn. I don’t think you realize you’re arguing from the wrong side of the tracks.

  23. Hey guys, if you want to equivocate about evolution, why don’t you take the conversation over to Joe’s post. Feel free to bring it up here in relation to the specific issue of whether the term “faith” applies to the epistemological leaps required by the scientific (and any other) worldview.

    I realize that in this post I have taken it for granted that science makes this leap and that a number of you who have responded do not seem to acknowledge this.

    Although I recommend some deep reading of philosophers such as Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, Feyerabend, Bernstein, and others, I realize that this is a rather daunting assignment (especially in response to a blog post). As a poor substitute, you might consider viewing the wikipedia articles on the following terms:

    underdetermination
    confirmation holism
    falsifiability (with emphasis on criticisms)

    You might also check the articles on those philosophers I listed.

    My point is not that you need to agree with the arguments posed by these philosophers and reflected in the wikipedia pages, but that it is important to understand where many of us are coming from or we will end up speaking past one another.

    It’s pretty easy to talk about “science” and “religion” as coherent monolithic entities and paint them with a broad brush. This may be useful at times, but I’m sure that we will find a great deal more complexity and sophistication in the practices of particular scientists and religionists.

    It seems divisive and overly simplistic to criticize pro- or anti-evolution arguments (as if you can only be one or the other!). Likewise, I’m sure that many of us do not want to be represented by those in our camp who yell the loudest and make the flashiest claims. As a believer I want nothing to do with Pat Robertson and as a scientist I am offended at the arrogance and naivete of Dawkins when he talks about religion.

    If we always fall back on the arguments of “science is based on evidence,” “science is self-monitoring,” and “science is falsifiable” we become blind as scientists to the philosophies that make our science possible. We are unable to critically evaluate them and interpret our findings in light of the assumptions that are required of us. The Enlightenment was all about casting off dogma and embracing a new philosophy. We are now in a world where Enlightenment philosophy threatens to be the new dogma. This might not yet be reflected at the polls, but it is certainly reflected in the academy.

    My point here is that we should be concerned about dogma in all of its forms and not be so naive to assume that only religion or only science is susceptible.

    I still maintain that we live in a world that is made rich by our assumptions, values, subjectivity, and interpretation and that these are a necessary part of every way we engage the world. This includes scientific engagement as well as religious.

    I also maintain, based on my experience, that faith faith means so much more than taking a stand despite uncertainty–we all do that, always. I worry that this term has come to be diluted. I hope that my colleagues in science can and will acknowledge that we are theory-laden, that we rely on philosophy, that we make all kinds of leaps any time we practice science. But I don’t want to hear them say that they have faith in science.

    I like to think that faith is less applicable to truth claims, and more applicable to beings. I suppose that I can have faith that scripture is inspired of God, but that is undergirded by my more real faith in God. A being like a God or a Jesus Christ can make demands of me, can love me, can die for me. “Science” just can’t do that.

  24. Sorry, Brady, I’m just going to finish up these arguments and then I’m going to officially ignore any more talk about evolution on this post.

    DNA shows that we are cousins with the chimpanzees, and that we share a rather close common ancestor with all the other great apes; DNA shows that all of life is related in nested hierarchies. We haven’t lived long enough to see all of evolutionary history (nor could we, ever), but all the science points to it.

    Your concession that we could never live long enough to see all of evolutionary history is exactly the point I was making. You or I have not lived to see the evolution of the human species in any clearly discernible way. For this reason, many of the broad claims of evolution are unfalsifiable, at least in a strict sense. It requires belief (coming back to Brady’s post), however obvious or reasonable you might see it to be. But the mere fact of similar DNA does not necessary say anything about humans evolving from apes. Now, I’m not arguing here what the truth is, just pointing out that the conclusion of human evolution (on a large scale — that we descended from apes) doesn’t necessarily follow from the evidence you present.

    It’s often good to remember that Kuhn uses evolution as the model example of a paradigm shift, with evolution being the new, accurate theory replacing the old ideas. If we’re going to hold Kuhn up as an authority, we’d better be ready to accept his judgment on evolution, or have a good explanation for why we’re picking and choosing from among his claims.

    You’re exactly right. I fully accept Kuhn’s judgment on evolution as being that which is seen by the scientific community as replacing older explanations. And consistent with Kuhn, there could certainly be another way in the future that discards evolution, no? My point about falsification still stands here, at any rate. If there’s a new paradigm shift (away from evolution) it would never be because of a couple studies that falsify evolutionary premises. Moreover, scientists would likely resist such studies and explain them away — at least at first. Then as more and more evidence mounts, then a paradigm shift could occur. But sometimes this takes a generation, so that older scientists who are set in their ways can retire or die. Then, a rising generation of scientists, with a different take on reality and who have not been invested in a previous paradigm can move things in a new direction. So, there’ s a very human element here, perhaps the greatest of which is investment in a research program. Now, if you don’t read much by way of anthropology, sociology, or psychology of science, then you might underestimate just how human and illogical scientific progress can be — at least according to these arguments.

    Often times, scientists do not dispute the accuracy of “the facts,” but they insist that the facts must be seen by the dominant paradigm when they could in fact be seen by an alternative paradigm, and arguably better match such. However, the alternative paradigm is not as popular and could even put a bunch of scientists out of their jobs if it were true, so obviously scientists are (at the least) hesitant to jump on board.

    Which brings me to respond to this point:

    The ignorance of the scientist to a popular argument does not negate the facts the scientist has. Pat Robertson has a much larger audience than Jonas Salk ever did; Jonas Salk’s vaccines still prevent polio. Nature does not work by popular vote.

    I think it’s interesting that you call it a “popular argument,” when it actually is not popular at all — rather it is a scholarly argument that has been published over and over again (in journals of philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, physics, biology, chemistry, history, etc.) according to the same peer-review process that scientists follow.

    We’re not talking about Pat Robinson here. In fact, I bet Pat Robinson is also totally naive to the science criticisms I am talking about. Nor are we talking about “religious” arguments; in fact, more often they are from atheists and agnostics. These criticisms cannot even properly be called anti-science; rather they are typically pro-science, they just disagree with the way science is being done. (See Brady’s above comment for more on this.) So perhaps, Ed, this is where our impasse is. You’re having trouble seeing what we’re talking about as nothing more than right-wing religious propaganda — and this couldn’t be further from the truth.

    And while ignorance of these criticisms might not “negate” the facts, it certainly can make a difference in how the facts are interpreted. Facts never speak for themselves. They are meaningless outside of an interpretive framework. It might be true that Salk’s vaccines prevent polio regardless of what anyone thinks, but certainly Salk would never have been able to develop the vaccine without himself making certain assumptions and inferences about the data he was dealing with.

    When a scientist (naive to criticisms of science) doesn’t realize that facts don’t speak for themselves, she or he might unknowingly make assumptions about the data that are not seen as assumptions at all!

    And regarding your claim that nature doesn’t work by popular vote, I think I agree. But science does, to an extent (though “human consensus” is probably a better term than “popular vote”). Big difference between “nature” and “science.” Your trying to equate the two plays in to the very problem that we’ve been discussing: that science is not a transparent window to nature.

  25. And regarding your claim that nature doesn’t work by popular vote, I think I agree. But science does, to an extent (though “human consensus” is probably a better term than “popular vote”). Big difference between “nature” and “science.” Your trying to equate the two plays in to the very problem that we’ve been discussing: that science is not a transparent window to nature.

    Nature doesn’t work by consensus, either, and science works by consensus only so far as trying to reach agreement about what it is that nature really does. The consensus tends to be along these lines: “Regardless the philosophical differences we may have, are we seeing the same thing in reality, so that we can agree to say among us, this res is real?”

    Paradigm shifts do not occur often enough in science to justify saying “Often times.” Occasionally a shift has to do with a different way of looking at the same facts. But can you seriously come up with more than a dozen cases in the last century or two?

    Science isn’t transparent, but neither is it as opaque as some would paint it. Given the sensing apparati that we humans have and share, given the shoulders of giants we have to stand on, the view is very good.

    My experience in the lab is that the chief assumption I must make is that history occurred. While you may claim that I take on faith the reporting of past experiments, the reality is that in my training I’ve already made a hundred attempts to verify past work, and finding them all to be verified pretty much exactly as the reporting has them, I gain confidence in other work by the same people, or other work using the same methods. It’s not faith so much as experience; and that experience is critical when my bench produces results different from that we expected to get, for any reason.

    It may be productive to consider how that faith differs from the faith we have in the history books that report the lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, or whether there is any difference at all. “How do we know what we know?” is a critical question, I think, to all students of any historical enterprise, such as science, history, or poetry. But once we’re satisfied that the methods of knowing approximate what really is, once we’ve gained enough experience to know and understand how history should be read, then it ill becomes us to forget history and blunder on without heeding Santayana’s warning.

    Matter, by the way, isn’t inert at all. It’s quite reactive, and constantly in motion. Sometimes the motions are only Brownian in consequence, but still it moves. The philosopher who accuses the scientist, even the atheist scientist, of “believing” only in inert matter, doesn’t understand matter, or the scientist.

  26. Sorry for the confusion. The term “inert” was intended here in its more general meaning of “lacking the power to move” and having reference to matter not being animated by spirit, intelligence, etc. It was not meant in the sense it is used in chemistry meaning lacking chemical action. I hope that clears up whatever confusion you are having with my above response.

  27. “Critics are pointing out (rightly so in my mind) that those who operate within a scientific worldview are making as much of a leap as religious persons are making in their own worldviews.”

    What do “scientific worldview” and “religious … worldview” mean? What kind of worldview does a religious scientist have? Are do the terms only apply to the material world, where a scientist uses one method (science) to determine the age of the earth and a religious person uses another (Bible, e.g.)?
    Matthew Orr at http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-9744.2005.00748.x states: ” nonscientific ideas, as distinct from unscientific ideas, are acceptable components of a scientific world- view, because they do not contradict science”.

    “scientific, religious, and all other worldviews are on common ground—not one of them escapes subjectivity”

    But it seems to me that science has less subjectivity than religion. According to Feynman, Lectures on Physics, 1-1, “The principle of science, the definition, almost, is the following: The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific “truth.”” Of course the interpretation of experiments involves subjectivity. But religions in general have no such external check. Jewish, atheistic, Catholic, Moslem scientists all can test whether an atom can be split in the lab; the nature of God cannot be so tested.

    “The problem of demarcating science and non-science is much more complex than you make it out to be and I fear that including anything that could be subject to scientific process in science classes would invite a host of subjects that simply do not belong in science classes. The field of paranormal science is a great example. Many paranormal scientists use scientific methodology as scrupulously and rigorously as the best researchers in other fields, but most scientists still want to label ESP, telekinesis, etc. as unscientific.”

    Distinguishing science and non-science can be difficult in borderline cases,but in general it is not. That is because humans like to put things in boxes, which does not work well with continuous phenomena. Biologists like to speak of species, but there is no clear line dividing line separating one species from another. That does not mean people can’t tell a dog from a cat. The problem mainstream scientists have with the paranormal is not that it is unscientific but that many such ideas have been tested and failed. Relativity didn’t suddenly make Newtonian mechanics “unscientific”.

    “my purpose in this post is to suggest that there is a greater distinction between science and religious faith than some have acknowledged.”

    But not as much as others would claim.

    “However, when it comes to the beliefs of science, one could argue, there is no sure foundation. What one believes in is something that is always provisional and never settled.”

    Again, according to Feynman, “In fact, everything we know is only some kind of approximation, because we know that we do not know all the laws as yet. Therefore, things must be learned only to be unlearned again or, more likely, to be corrected.”

    “You’re assuming that “religion” and “science” are monolithic entities — that all religion is the same and that all science is the same. This is simply not true. In other words, there are many, many religious people who continually revise their beliefs, in regard to the world around them, whether this is scientific discovery, continued revelation from God, or new insights concerning other people in the world.”

    Again, it sounds to me as though you are separating religious people from scientists. Why shouldn’t a religious person revise their belief in regard to the world around them based on scientific discovery (unless their religion makes claims about the world, such as it is only 6,000 years old)? But religions in general do not determine their beliefs by the scientific method.

    “There are studies that falsify in science all the time that are explained away (or ignored). “Oh well, it was only one study … there are other possible explanations … maybe something went wrong.” Thus, the scientist has plenty of room to equivocate.”

    Science is imprecise. What should scientists do about such results? The repetition of the Millikan oil drop experiment by others demonstrates such a bias. Millikan used the wrong value for a constant. Subsequent experiments gradually changed the value by small increments until the presently accepted value was reached. Obviously there was some (un)conscious manipulation of the data. But in general, scientific beliefs change as new evidence comes in. Proto-scientists started with the idea the earth was a few thousands of years old. Their observations contradicted this and gradually the idea of a much older earth was accepted. The concepts of elements, atoms, and subatomic particles changed greatly over time based on experiments. I know of no religion which changed in a similar manner.

    “Most scientists are quick to assert that concepts like “God” and the afterlife are not falsifiable. ”

    I agree. Such concepts are not amenable to scientific investigation. [But specific claims such as “God created the earth 6000 years ago” are.] That is why I am confused by the use of terms such as “scientific worldview” as opposed to a religious one.

    “certainly the scientist (in Science Proper) believes that the scientific method (including falsification) is the best way to get at the truth of something.”

    How can such a scientist (or scientific method) determine whether God exists or if Shakespeare was the greatest writer ever? I don’t think many scientists would make those two claims. The scientific method is limited in its applicability.

    “Other things have been observed, it is true, and from these observations a person can INFER other evolutionary possibilities, but to say that the human evolution from apes to humans has or can be SEEN is simply not accurate. … This says nothing about the potential truthfulness of the claim, it is simply asserting that such a claim is necessarily inferential, not an empirically verified fact.”

    This is the part that bothers me most, if I understand it. By this logic, there are essentially no empirically verified facts (I have no problem with this but it reads as though empirically verified facts are common in science). No one has ever seen, or will ever see, an atom, subatomic particles, vibrations and radiations of molecules, reactions of molecules, or essentially any of modern science. Scientists stick things in machines and look at electric currents or voltages or other traces and infer what is going on. Often there is disagreement about what should be inferred.

    “You or I have not lived to see the evolution of the human species in any clearly discernible way. For this reason, many of the broad claims of evolution are unfalsifiable, at least in a strict sense.”

    The same can said of nearly all scientific conclusions. Atomic theory (based on size not time) is thus unfalsifiable. Nuclear physics is thus unfalsifiable. Etc, etc. Surely I am misunderstanding something here.

    “And consistent with Kuhn, there could certainly be another way in the future that discards evolution, no?”

    Any such new concept would have to explain the observations which are currently interpreted to support evolution. Newtonian concepts were not discarded, they were incorporated in a broader explanation. Although scientists practically often resist such changes (as pointed out a few lines below above quote), Science does not. Religions on the other hand do not typically have a policy of constant change.

    j a higginbotham

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