No Faith in Science

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A common tactic of those who claim that science and religion are compatible is to argue that science, like religion, rests on faith: faith in the accuracy of what we observe, in the laws of nature, or in the value of reason. Daniel Sarewitz, director of a science policy center at Arizona State University and an occasional Slate contributor, wrote this about the Higgs boson in the pages of Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious science journals: “For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.”

Such statements imply that science and religion are not that different because both seek the truth and use faith to find it. Indeed, science is often described as a kind of religion.

But that’s wrong, for the “faith” we have in science is completely different from the faith believers have in God and the dogmas of their creed. To see this, consider the following four statements:

“I have faith that, because I accept Jesus as my personal savior, I will join my friends and family in Heaven.”

“My faith tells me that the Messiah has not yet come, but will someday.”

“I have strep throat, but I have faith that this penicillin will clear it up.”

“I have faith that when I martyr myself for Allah, I will receive 72 virgins in Paradise.”

 
All of these use the word faith, but one uses it differently. The three religious claims (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, respectively) represent faith as defined by philosopher Walter Kaufmann: “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.” Indeed, there is no evidence beyond revelation, authority, and scripture to support the religious claims above, and most of the world’s believers would reject at least one of them. To state it bluntly, such faith involves pretending to know things you don’t. Behind it is wish-thinking, as clearly expressed in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Written By: Jerry Coyne
continue to source article at slate.com

46 COMMENTS

  1. I have faith in science because there is no faith in science. I have faith in the scientific method precisely because the scientific method does not rely on faith. I have faith in scientists, especially those who have none.

    • In reply to #2 by crookedshoes:

      I have faith in myself.

      I generally have faith in you too, but now you sound like Oprah! Leave it to us laymen to have faith in you guys. I prefer my scientists nervous and insecure, except of course when dealing with pedlars of woo.

      • In reply to #24 by Stafford Gordon:

        In reply to #2 by crookedshoes:

        I have faith in myself.

        Oh yes, so do I, but remember what Feynman said: “The easiest person to fool is yourself.”

        S G

        He must’ve been pulling his own leg.

  2. I suppose those who don’t understand the science they have “faith” in are expressing a form of faith. However science is accessible to anyone who has the patience and/or determination to understand it, not hidden away in subjective interpretations and metaphorical meanings that only those with divine revelation can decipher correctly.

    Once you are familiar with the scientific method and understand at least one scientific theory down to it’s original observations, it’s not much of a leap of faith to put your trust in other theories. At it’s biggest stretch, you could say you’re putting faith in scienTISTS, but peer review and repeated results easily puts that question to bed.

    Really, it’s only those who do not even understand the basic scientific method that can claim there is anything resembling religious faith involved in science.

  3. I usually use the term “confidence” to describe science. That permits the concept of probability based on experiment or historical record, whereas religious “faith” is unquestioning!

    • In reply to #5 by Alan4discussion:

      I usually use the term “confidence” to describe science. That permits the concept of probability based on experiment or historical record, whereas religious “faith” is unquestioning!

      Good for you! But I’ll ask questions only when I’m genuinely interested in the answers and can’t seem to find them on my own. I am not qualified to question the scientific consensus on anything.

  4. To whoever flagged my post, if you are incapable of grasping that English words can have more than one meaning then you have no business speaking it. My post was, I thought, a rather good illustration of this fact. A shorter version of the essay above.

    • I was just getting done my break and running out of a common room to go to a classroom when I typed that. There was more to my thought (as so often is the case)…. but, when I looked at the sentence, It stood on it’s own, so i published it! Hope it made some people smile! That’s all it was meant to do.

      In reply to #6 by Peter Grant:

      To whoever flagged my post, if you are incapable of grasping that English words can have more than one meaning then you have no business speaking it. My post was, I thought, a rather good illustration of this fact. A shorter version of the essay above.

  5. “For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.”

    That’s a rather daft comment.

    I know – even if I can’t “follow” the maths – that a whole bunch of people who can have been studying the Physics and come to a consensus. I can even read the arguments put forward by any alternative views and come to my own conclusion.

    That’s about as far from “faith” as you can get.

  6. I was quite surprised how many people asserted that all the world’s scientists had formed a conspiracy to falsify all the climate data.
    The motive for this was to increase government funding. They could offer no evidence for this. They considered it self-evident (perhaps based on their own motivators).

    To me, the very notion was preposterous. It would be impossible to co-ordinate such a conspiracy. Concocting terabytes of consistent false data would be extremely difficult. It would impossible to gain sufficient consensus. Surely someone would spill the beans with evidence. Finally motivation. Scientists are motivated less by money and more by desire for fame than most. They are also motivated by the thrill of discovery.

    It could well be the people who started this rumour did not believe it themselves. They just started it for the benefit of big oil to delay curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Various right wingers mindlessly passed in on because people like Rush Limbaugh promoted it.

  7. I don’t know if this a difference in common usage between the UK and USA but I would never say that I have “faith” in science, my doctor or penicillin. I would say that I “trust” these things.

    Trust is earned. Faith is a leap in the dark.

    • In reply to #12 by SteveHorn:

      I don’t know if this a difference in common usage between the UK and USA but I would never say that I have “faith” in science, my doctor or penicillin. I would say that I “trust” these things.

      My definition of faith is a lot like Sharpe’s

  8. If you ask a Christian a question about one of their assertions, they will give you a one sentence bit of BS. If you ask what that means, they will tell you that you are not spiritually developed enough to understand.

    If you ask a scientist a question about one of his assertions, he will ask you “how much time do you have?”. If you don’t understand the answer, they will give you a set of textbooks to bring you step by logical step to the point where you can understand.

  9. Science and religion are as compatible as Fact and fiction…we can clearly distinguish between News and fairy tales – they both have a message ….one is modern and informative, factual reporting on the known world and the other is ancient fire-side tales about the unknown world to frighten and control the illiterate peasants.

    We know now what was unknown when religion was the master – but science is now the only master of truth….we don’t need religion so the question should be whether we tolerate it, its not really a question of is it compatible ….that’s assuming there’s even a space for religion at all …….its compatibility is irrelevant…….religion is only compatible with other dishonest career paths…..

  10. I don’t have the slightest idea what Fermat’s last Theorem is, but if Andrew Wiles says that he does then I have faith in his integrity as a mathematician.

    If a religious leader, usually an adult, tells me that Jesus walked on water, well, it’s not quite same is it.

    No, religion has to fight off science all the time, and one of its tactics is semantics, to question and compare words which both employ, so “faith” should be dropped from the scientific lexicon forthewith; that’ll shoot their fox in that particular department.

    Next to go should to be “theory”. That needs to be replaced by theorem.

    You don’t hear many people saying “Oh it’s only a theorem!”

    When ever I get fed up with the constant arguments I remind myself of what the outcome of not keeping up the battle could be; a new Dark Age!

    Vigilance mes amies, vigilance.

    • In reply to #18 by Stafford Gordon:

      I don’t have the slightest idea what Thermat’s last Theorem is, but if Andrew Wiles says that he does then I have faith in his integrity as a mathematician.

      Sorry to be pedantic, but it’s Fermat’s Last Theorem.

    • In reply to #18 by Stafford Gordon:

      Next to go should to be “theory”. That needs to be replaced by theorem.

      Theorem has a well defined meaning in mathematics and logic and it’s not the same as a theory. A theorem is a statement proven to be true in a logical system. It’s different than an axiom which is a statement defined to be true as part of the starting point. So a theorem is something that can be deduced from the axioms or the axioms and other theorems deduced from them.

      People are just being ignorant when they say “it’s just a theory”. This is one question where I disagree with Dawkins who sometimes just says “the fact of evolution”. I understand why he does that but I prefer the approach that doesn’t dumb it down and explains the difference between a theory and a fact. I always think the best response to “it’s only a theory” is to explain that the earth revolving around the sun is also a theory.

      • In reply to #20 by Red Dog:

        People are just being ignorant when they say “it’s just a theory”. This is one question where I disagree with Dawkins who sometimes just says “the fact of evolution”. I understand why he does that but I prefer the approach that doesn’t dumb it down and explains the difference between a theory and a fact.

        Theorems are not facts, they are logical abstractions. By this definition gravity is just a theory.

        • FLT isn’t that hard to understand, though the proof is. You know Pythagoras’ triangle thing? hh = aa + bb (written algebraically) and the sum of the two squares on the shorter sides of a right angled triangle being equal in area to the square on the longer side (geometrically) The former comes from properties of the latter. The equation by itself doesn’t mean much: you need to say what a, b and h are. However, it’s also the case that this holds for certain integers: 33 + 44 = 55. I don’t think Pythagorus’ theorem dictates that this is the case as such. (I don’t know how to generate such equations with integral solutions, I guess that would give some insight. I think that it holds for both numbers and space in the same way is significant.) FTL is about the (whole) numbers side, and looks at similar equations:

          (note that aa can be written as a^2 , aa*a can be written as a^3 and so on)

          a^3 + b^3 = c^3,

          a^4 + b^4 = c^4

          and

          a^n + b^n = c^n (for all positive integers, n — that is for all whole numbers greater than zero)

          what it says is that there are no integers that will fit these any of these equations. Wiles showed this is so, but he used very advanced late 20th century mathematics.

          In reply to #21 by Peter Grant:

          In reply to #20 by Red Dog:

          I believe that strictly it should be (and has been) called Fermat’s conjecture. Fermat’s last theorem (or Last Theorem, said grandly with a fanfare afterwards) has a better ring to it, though.

  11. In reply to Peter Grant # 19: Thanks for spotting my typo; I assure you it was a typo!

    In response to Red Dog # 20: You are absolutely correct of course; but the word is so open to abuse.

    S G

    • In reply to #22 by Stafford Gordon:

      In response to Red Dog # 20: You are absolutely correct of course

      Absolutism just isn’t good enough. We need to move beyond trivial logical truth, to empirical truth.

  12. I believe in science because science doesn’t rely on faith. It relies on observation, hypothesis, carefully designed experimentation and then countless follow-up studies and endless scrutiny. Science, especially evolution, has withstood decades of close inspection to find one fault in a process, and has lived up to the challenge. Can the same be said for religious doctrine?

  13. We need to stop using the word faith (and belief) when we really mean CONFIDENCE (I, for one, have). We have CONFIDENCE in science because we have observable/testable experience with it. This will eliminate the confusion (i.e. prevent the obtuse from obfuscating) when we speak of those things where we have observable experience/evidence vs. none.

  14. When talking to someone I don’t know well, I usually tell him or her that I am, “not a person of faith” specifically because this is the language of religious people who will understand it just the way I mean it. I don’t have to say that, in a scientific context, because it is assumed that everything is going to have to be supported by objective evidence. When accused of “faith” by the religious, I tell them, “I have reasonable expectations based on prior evidence.” This is an especially important distinction when religious people try to turn Hume’s own argument against induction, against science by saying things like “Well, you don’t really know that the Sun is going to rise tomorrow, you just have faith that the law of physics will hold.” It’s true, I don’t “know” about anything in the future, but I do have expectations about what is going to happen that are arrived at by reasoning through the evidence of past events. I can be wrong, but am not taking things on “faith.”

  15. Q’s formulation is nigh on perfect-

    “I have reasonable expectations based on prior evidence.”

    I have stolen this and used it often to great effect. This swapping of language from the heated poetry of love and submission to the cool calculus of probability theorists is like throwing a bucket of very cold water over them. (I love it that the bucket was filled by the Reverend Bayes.)

    I like them to note that expectations substantially increase when the evidence is corroborated. Thanks, Rev….and Q!

    Other useful products are available. (edit link for maximum efficacy.)

  16. The fundamental difference is that faith in a religion can’t be questioned, it’s a fundamental part of the thing. “Faith” in science, however, can and should be questioned. In fact, science relies on exactly that. You think you know better than a certain scientist? You think you have a better idea about how to do something? Prove it. In religion, if your faith in the dogma is questioned, they basically tell you to shut up and sit down, since you cannot possibly wish to question god. That is the difference. And it’s a big difference.

    PS: I didn’t read all the comments before writing mine, so some people had already made my point. In particular, I too agree that in the context of science, the word “confidence” applies better than the word “faith”.

    • In reply to #37 by Dreamweaver:

      In particular, I too agree that in the context of science, the word “confidence” applies better than the word “faith”.

      So do I, but I find it irritating… Why must I restrict my vocabulary just because idiotic theists use words incorrectly? What about faithful friends or lovers? Faith in the poetic sense is far more meaningful than the religious kind. It would be sad to loose “faith” in the real, human sense of the word.

  17. Q’s formulation for “having faith” is nigh on perfect-

    “”I have reasonable expectations based on prior evidence.”

    I have stolen this and used it often to great effect. The effect, on faithists, of the switch in language from the passionate poetry of love and submission to the cool calculations of probability theorists is like emptying an ice cold bucket of water on their over-heated noggins.. (Best of all the bucket was filled by the Reverenc Bayes.)

    I like to add that expectations are raised considerably when evidence is corroborated.

    Thanks, Q….Rev…

    • In reply to #40 by andy.mansfield.35:

      Every article he does, seems to be a little more embarrassing than the last one.

      Since I’m pretty sure Jerry is a member here, I think you ought to substantiate that.

    • In reply to #40 by andy.mansfield.35:

      Does Jerry Coyne try to intentionally embarrass himself or can he not help it?

      Every article he does, seems to be a little more embarrassing than the last one.

      Erm… Have you read more than the title?

    • In reply to #40 by andy.mansfield.35:

      Every article he does, seems to be a little more embarrassing than the last one.

      You’re not a “faith thinker” or apologist by any chance? Did you mean embarrassing to you?

  18. andy.mansfield.35:

    Does Jerry Coyne try to intentionally embarrass himself or can he not help it?

    Every article he does, seems to be a little more embarrassing than the last one.

    Let me gaze into the future. Ah, yes, my crystal ball tells me that andy is too busy elsewhere to bother to justify his ridiculous statement.

    Hit and run andy? Attention span of a nematode worm ?

  19. I have faith in miracles. Every time tones of steel take off and fly. Every time I switch a light on and it works. Every time a GPS tells me the shortest path to travel. Every time I am cured by medicine. Every time I communicate with atheists of the world on the Internet. Every time I remember that neither my brother nor I did die before the age of five. Every time an organ is transplanted. Every time a mother doesn’t die giving birth as God used to intend way too often.

    Those are true miracles.

    Regrow limbs in Lourdes and I will convert instantly to Catholicism.

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