Science is a very big deal at Tech. Science permeates the culture, the life, the studies and just about everything that is related to the school itself. Here, we wish to discuss the foundation of science, and whether or not we have to take science on faith. According to dictionary.com the first three definitions of faith include:
1) confidence or trust in a person or thing
2) belief that is not based on proof
3) belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion
Please remember this as you read the following articles, and as you write your comments.
Paul Davies wrote for the NY Times,
“…both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.
This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.
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.
It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.
In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.
A blogger, Phil Plait, replies:
“Is science faith based? No.
… All the knowledge we have accumulated over the millennia comes together in a harmonious symphony of science. We’re not guessing here: this stuff was designed using previous knowledge developed in a scientific manner over centuries. And it works. All of this goes to support our underlying assumption that the Universe obeys rules that we can deduce.
Are there holes in this knowledge? Of course. Science doesn’t have all the answers. But science has a tool, a power that its detractors never seem to understand.
Science is not simply a database of knowledge. It’s a method, a way of finding this knowledge. Observe, hypothesize, predict, observe, revise. Science is provisional; it’s always open to improvement. Science is even subject to itself. If the method itself didn’t work, we’d see it. Our computers wouldn’t work (OK, bad example), our space probes wouldn’t get off the ground, our electronics wouldn’t work, our medicine wouldn’t work. Yet, all these things do in fact function, spectacularly well. Science is a check on itself, which is why it is such an astonishingly powerful way of understanding reality.
And that right there is where science and religion part ways. Science is not based on faith. Science is based on evidence. We have evidence it works, vast amounts of it, billions of individual pieces that fit together into a tapestry of reality. That is the critical difference. Faith, as it is interpreted by most religions, is not evidence-based, and is generally held tightly even despite evidence against it. In many cases, faith is even reinforced when evidence is found contrary to it.
To say that we have to take science on faith is such a gross misunderstanding of how science works that it can only be uttered by someone who is wholly ignorant of how reality works.
- Phil Plait
Another response to the NYT article:
It is not that science requires the assumption that the universe is rational and governed by laws. What it requires is the belief that we will be able to construct useful theories if we make these sorts of assumptions. It is very much worth noting that this belief is not based on faith.
- Sharon Crasnow
“I take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”
- Harvard Genetics Professor Richard Lewontin
What do you think?
Is science based on faith, as described by its definition? Is it not based on faith but reasonable assumptions? What are the assumptions? What are those assumptions based on? Where do the laws of the universe come from? What are they based on? How can we know that what scientists say is always the truth, since we have not actually seen their data for ourselves?
Please answer any or all of these questions as you see fit. We cannot wait to hear from you!