Monday, February 23, 2009

Is science faith based?!!


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 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

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

January 9, 1997 New York Review of Books,

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!


  1. Every human endeavor is backed by faith of some sort, science included. The major distinctions from religion (as far as I see them) are

    1) science seeks to minimize its assumptions. The history of science can be written as a history of unifying phenomena. The theory of sound was once distinct from the theory of air pressure until it was shown the former is a consequence of the latter. While we may debate the merits of the assumptions that underlie such theories, we express a basic uneasiness with unjustified assumptions in science by reducing them through unification. As a method of deriving knowledge about the physical universe, science weakens its explanatory power with every assumption that must be made. So while we must acknowledge that faith is there, we seek to minimize its influence. I don't think the same can be said for religious faith.

    2) Science not only reduces its assumptions, but it seeks simple assumptions. We (essentially) axiomize our theories so that as much as possible is merely a logical consequence of simple axioms or postulates. See the postulates of relativity, quantum mechanics, Euclid's postulates, Newton's laws of motion, Maxwell's equations. And the postulates of scientific theories are made as simple as possible. This is in contrast to "heavier" assumptions of religious faith, such as God gave these stone tablets to Moses that said these 10 things, a man named Jesus did the following, etc.

    3) Science includes a framework by which assumptions are revised. Even if it's not always explicitly stated, a scientific statement is never of the form "X is eternally true", but rather "If A, B, C hold, then X is true". (Science is not always taught like this, but that's an issue of teaching methodology). If A turns out not to be true, we can quickly see which results are affected and update our knowledge accordingly (this is especially true in mathematics). The point is never to only have some dogma to go by. Scientific laws are held to a standard (of describing some phenomena) and are discarded when they fail to do so or when they are surpassed by better laws. It should be noted that science has not always progressed as smoothly as it should, with valid theories having been held up for decades in the past because of entrenched and outdated ideas, but this should be seen as a weakness in the implementation of scientific standards of review and not a criticism of scientific methodology.

    I must say this quote is mildly disturbing: "How can we know that what scientists say is always the truth, since we have not actually seen their data for ourselves?" Data is not and should not be secret. While there may have been incidents of scientific malpractice in the past, an honest scientist divulges their data for peer review to invite replication and hopefully verification of their results. This statement seems to betray a fundamental mistrust of what scientists do. But even this is beside the larger point: do(es) the writer(s) of this blog object to the methods of science to derive knowledge about the world around us, whether or not they have reason to distrust its practioners?

    Lastly, the focus on the question "Is science based on faith?" suggests you're trying to draw an equivalence between religion and science, perhaps by emphasizing the shortfalls of science. While this is a reasonable question in itself, I'd like to counter this impression I'm getting. As explained above, science relies on faith, sure, just as Mt. Everest is too short to reach the stratosphere, amoebas are made of billions of atoms, the maximum speed of a cheetah is decidedly non-relativistic, and the internet contains at least a few pieces of information.

    While all of these are true, this framing of the facts gives the appearance of an agenda on the part of the person(s) making the point. Of everything science is and isn't, why are you focusing on this? To me it IS very much as if a person was describing ways that Mt. Everest is not tall, and I most easily imagine you're trying to say religion and science are more or less the same in explanatory power. Is this what you're advocating?

  2. In my understanding this blog is not advocating anything but has
    posed questions for discussion...and obviously the questions are
    framed in order to direct the discussion in some desired direction to
    the extent that is possible, whatever that desired direction may be.
    Which brings me to a question I'd like to ask, both in response to
    the initial post, and to Anonymous' comment about this question: "How
    can we know that what scientists say is always the truth, since we
    have not actually seen their data for ourselves?"

    If a person actually holds this skeptical view of some scientific
    theory or truth, what is the underlying issue? Does the person not
    trust the theory (or law) because they have not taken the time
    required to fully understand it? What theory might a person
    reasonably be allowed to disbelieve, without drawing the scorn of the
    educated and enlightened?(as if that would alter reality) Do we
    believe a theory because some persuasive person has pressured us into
    it, or because we have seen and trust the supporting evidence? We
    have seen some scientific laws proven in our lab classes, and we are
    comfortable that energy follows a formula with reasonable accuracy,
    and we accept it as a law.

    I must confess that there is a lot of science that I take on faith. I
    trust that someone somewhere has been honest and accurate with their
    research, and I may believe it. And like Anonymous said, sometimes a
    theory or law may be surpassed by a better theory or law, and then I
    will believe the better law. I will believe that it is a reasonable
    approximation of the truth, given the information available. But I
    generally take the view that nearly anything may be possible, and so I
    won't be too surprised when a better explanation comes along. As
    humans we are unable to create something from nothing as far as I can
    tell. So while we are busy trying to understand our universe, it is
    fairly apparent that there are somethings we may never be able to
    truly grasp. However, given our seemingly unique position as creatures
    of reason, created from infinitely small particles, in an infinitely
    large universe, I will make bold to say that I am (we are) the center
    of the universe, its focal point, and its reason for existence. I
    have more faith in my own existence than I have in so many laws and
    theories. Absolute truth seems like a good thing to have faith in,
    and whether God or science is absolute truth might be a good future
    topic. I guess I should go read the blog on truth and see if anything
    is happening there...

  3. Science is the study of faith.

    Faith is what the world works on. Every time you take a step forward you are taking it on faith-- that exists a priori in your mind-- that the ground will not crumble underneath you or that taking the next step will not automatically make it your last.

    Faith is what keeps people that are in poverty and suppressive environments from overthrowing governments (at least most of the time).

    Faith is seeing the stars, planets, galaxies, and believing that the rules science has formulated are followed everywhere.

    Faith is. And, scientists from Ionia to the present have been perplexed and have sacrificed their lives to try to understand it.

  4. Thus far, none of the discussion has made it clear which definition of "faith" it uses, and that lack of definition renders such discussion into so much hand-waving. In terms of definition 2 or definition 3 science is, by it's own definition, not faith-based. The scientific method depends upon proof - or, more accurately, upon evidence, and science is agnostic with respect to God; as yet, although science has led to some claims which contradict some interpretations of "God's teachings", is has not demonstrated that God exists or does not exist.

    Thus, the only remaining definition is definition 1, which involves confidence. It is true that in order to justify the endeavors of science as useful and meaningful, it is necessary to make a few basic assumptions about the way human beings can access the world. This is true with or without a belief in any god, and science finds that it is acceptable to make such assumptions because pragmatism is at the heart of the scientific method, and without those simple assumptions there would be little point in anything at all.

    However, although that one definition does apply, it would be childish to take that conclusion and say "Aha! Science IS faith-based!" Although definition 1 is indeed included in the denotation of "faith", it is not, in general, in the connotation of the word, and so to use it in that way would be misleading.

    For the record, as evidenced by the case of Paul Davies, above, it's quite clear that it goes beyond difficult to discuss what science is or is not, when one does not even understand the products of science. Davies incorrectly relates the "laws" of science to those of "God", and from that incorrect comparison draws the conclusion that science relies on a certain externality. The truth is that the "laws" of science are descriptive, not prescriptive. They do not define how the universe works, rather, they represent our understanding of how the universe does work. Because his argument is founded on a contradiction of this fact, it is, as he would say, "manifestly bogus".

  5. Its seemingly difficult to define what aspect of faith we are talking about because science is seen as this mystical entity that is free of transcendental knowledge and religion.

    Does simply using the word "faith" automatically make the discussion focused on God or transcendental knowledge?

    Faith, in my opinion, is a word that encompasses a lot of meaning. I for one dislike language games, but, in this case, word usage is important.

    Faith is. As said before, it exists, it is something that everyone works on. I think this is what the question is targeting.

    Define faith as something that you use to keep going even though you do not really know the answer to a problem. Or when you do not understand how something works but use it anyway. (I mean who really knows every single detail about how their TV works? Aside from the engineers who design them.)

    Think practical and transcendental at the same time.

    The fact that scientists work on a set of empirical rules that work does not necessarily mean that they know why they work.

    How many scientist actually trace back knowledge to the time of the Greeks and try to work out the entire knowledge base that has been accumulated up till now?

    For the most part, engineers, scientists, everyone at that, takes what they know on faith.

    Faith being the ability to maintain your perception of what is and what is not based on previous experiences and general consensus with physical reality.


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