The nature and role of faith in science

Before moving on to what comes next, I want to have a look at this section because it directly pertains to conversations about faith that started in another medium but were not resolved to my satisfaction. It is my contention that Lennox grossly misunderstands the word ‘faith’. He is not at all sensitive to the nuances of meaning it has, and he conflates the faith the religionist has in religion with the faith a scientist has in science.

Lennox says that Dawkins says that “science doesn’t involve faith at all” (61). Now I don’t know if Dawkins says that science doesn’t involve faith, but it certainly does. The problem for Lennox is that it is not the same kind of faith that the religionist has. Lennox believes that the scientist’s faith is (a) science does not explain the mathematical intelligibility of the physical world and (b) the principle of uniformity of nature.

If you’re wondering what the connection these two kinds of faith and faith in a creator being have, then you’re not alone. Neither of these two sound even remotely like the kind of faith that religionists describe, never mind that a religionist is never talking about a creator in the general sense, but a creator specific to their denomination. The one connection is the word ‘faith’ that Lennox has latched onto and then placed them all under the same umbrella. Find me a religionist who talks of their faith in either of these two ways and I’ll agree that we can begin to consider having the possibility of maybe talking about religionist faith and the faith Lennox believes science demands as the same kinds of faith. The nuance in the difference of meaning are yawning chasms.

And then there is the example of his ‘inductivist turkey’ on page 62. He really shouldn’t have chosen an example with the word turkey in it. I’d also advise he doesn’t use an ‘inductivist lemon’ if he wants to avoid the problem altogether. Yes, we may indeed be a little forward in counting on the sun to rise every morning just because it has done so for the entire span of recorded history, but to do otherwise would throw us into a world of meaningless chaos. So yes, this is an act of faith, but one born out by the daily observation of nature, an observation that is clear for any and all to see. The last part is important because I’m sure that there are religionists who would say that they see their god in the same way, but this is a view particular to that person, or at most those of similar faith. For those not of the same ilk there is nothing to see, unlike the plainly visible rising sun.

And the turkey story again shows Lennox’s misunderstanding of the difference between science and religion. Science doesn’t operate in a vacuum of a scientist of one. If the turkey had consulted with its peers, asked around the Internet farmyard forum, or even looked at the words written on the calender on the kitchen wall, the real reason for it’s fattening was there to be found. The story Lennox’s tale is really telling is of the ‘revelationist turkey’ that looks at the signs and believes something to be true without any recourse to further observation.

Finally I’d like to talk about the biggest difference between the faith that Lennox believes in and the faith that science demands. It’s neither of the points that Lennox brings up, but it is the most telling omission. It is having enough faith in science to know when it is wrong. This is something that faith in religion doesn’t have and can never have and is demonstrated by the following sentence:

I believe that everything science has taught me may one day be shown to be wrong.

That’s it. Right up to now we have the best explanations for the universe that the science we have now can give us. I believe those explanations are correct now at the time of printing. However everything that science has taught us is subject to change. New science may come along that blows away what we know today and leaves us with a whole new understanding of the universe. And you know, I’m OK with that. In fact, a belief in science demands that. So Lennox, and anyone else who believes that a religionist’s faith is the same as the faith science demands, all you’ve got to do is replace the word ‘science’ in the above with your chosen religion. Put the sentence in the comments below and I’ll listen to your take on Lennox and faith. Until then…

21 thoughts on “The nature and role of faith in science

  1. Marco

    I believe that everything science has taught me may one day be shown to be wrong.

    This is an incoherent statement, because science has taught it to you, but you will still believe it if science one day proves you wrong. You may argue the toss on this statement, because it is a weasel kind of statement that doesn’t really represent exactly what any scientist or lay person believes when say they believe in a scientific world view.

    Looking at it from my perspective – peoples faiths other than one’s own are subject to our own theory of mind. One’s own faith is convincingly logical and grounded, and conflicting faiths must therefore have an element of delusion.

    Looking at it from my own agnostic world view, and I have a pantheistic view of Universe/God/nature, what Lennox is saying is 100% correct. The kind of faiths are identical in nature and scope. There is no difference (in my view) in prophets interpreting spiritual texts such as the Bible and Koran, and scientists interpreting the results of experiments and formulating models. The *wrongness* does not come from the experiments or the texts. The wrongness comes in the fallability of those interpreting them.

    So really the faith we have in either is the faith we have in the people that we trust to know about these things. Of course we could observe ourselves and start religion from scratch by reinterpreting scripture or start new sciences by interpreting experiments differently if we do not trust the people that others trust.

    We can choose to be materialistic and trust only tangible results, in which case we still have to decide what to do about things that are immaterial or intangible.

    Reply
    1. winstoninabox Post author

      ‘may’ in the statement is used to express possibility. As such it reads:

      I believe that everything science had taught me has the possibility to one day be proved wrong. Nothing is off limits in science in having new evidence and new theories brought to the table. As I said, if there are religionists who’ll make the same claim about their religion, then I’m willing to consider Lennox’s use of the word ‘faith’.

      There is nothing tricky about this as a statement of belief. I’m saying that what I believe to be true, may actually be wrong. I explain that in what follows. There are certain scientific beliefs we have that would need a lot of evidence to be undermined, evolution for example, but science can, has and does do this. It is the nature of science. Religion does not.

      Science has revolutions whereas religion has evolutions.

      Before you start to tell me about the revolutions you think religions have had, read my sentence very carefully.

      Reply
    2. Marco

      It is still a weasel statement. A lot of different things are said about science by scientists. Is it science that is wrong or the scientist if a formula doesn’t give accurate answers? And what if a theory is not falsifiable to begin with in the same way that religion is not? Is Darwinism a religion or science?

      I rather think that there are aspects of science which for all intensive purposes we should have the faith that they will be true for all time. That way we won’t be confused when some of the less provable theories turn out to be wrong.

      Dawkins waxes lyrical about science being like you say, but he sticks to a lot of his theories in spite of evidence indicating a considerable paradigm shift.

      Similarly religions say that some things are right because God said so, but future generations of religionists drop the case. The religion itself is open to change- it is the people in power that stubbornly hold the line.

      Reply
    3. Marco

      Getting back to your original claim I absolutely, unequivocally see no difference in the faith a religionist and a scientist has. I perceive that you have built up a nuance that doesn’t exist into something you think is tangible, and even important, while I believe the opposite is the case. Science cannot tuck away knowledge and use it as a given to generate more knowledge if they think it is even remotely possible that a fundamental principle could be proved wrong in the future. *Proofs require axioms* . Axioms for the purposes of science require precisely the same kind of faith that axioms for the purpose of religion require.

      I’m not saying this because Lennox convinced me with his argument. Faith is non-optional for any self-consistent philosophy which includes science and religion. I’m sure you’re wondering why it’s important to have a self-consistent philosophy? Science cannot progress if it questions things it relied on to prove other things.

      Reply
      1. winstoninabox Post author

        Getting back to your original claim I absolutely, unequivocally see no difference in the faith a religionist and a scientist has.

        One needs very little faith to be a scientist. One just needs to believe in the uniformity of nature. So in that respect we’re all scientists, it’s just that some of us have more science to go with the ~ist. If you equate that level of faith to the theoretical theist that just needs to believe in a god, then that’s pretty much the end of the discussion. But if you ever find this theoretical theist whose belief begins and ends at such a primitive level of belief then please introduce me to him or her.

        Because once one gets beyond that (and I’ve said before theist is a useless label, especially in Lennox’s book) then the faithful do not talk of faith in their faith like a scientist (that’s all of us) talks of faith in science. It’s like trying to claim that the good in ‘God is good’ is the same good in ‘This apple pie is good’. Same word, world of difference in the meaning the speaker.

        Reply
      2. Marco

        then the faithful do not talk of faith in their faith like a scientist (that’s all of us) talks of faith in science.

        That’s the point- the difference is not in the faith people have – it is only in the way they talk about it.

        A scientist claiming to have found a perpetual motion machine should be be treated with the same amount of derision as a religionist claiming Christ never existed.

        However, a scientist claiming that group selection is a force in evolution should be given the time of day and is not. Also, the Christian that claims that Christ did not perform any magic should also, but is not. There is a fair equivalence in the faiths at work in these situations.

        Reply
        1. winstoninabox Post author

          That’s the point- the difference is not in the faith people have – it is only in the way they talk about it.

          The way they talk about it is the point. Talk to a religionist – better yet would be if the one that comes here were to say something. ‘I believe in gravity’ is a different belief to ‘I believe in god’. Especially so if we were to find a place where the rules of gravity did not apply. We’d be amazed and fascinated, but our worldview wouldn’t be harmed, only modified. Imagine the difference if we found a place where the rules of god didn’t apply.

          There is a fair equivalence in the faiths at work in these situations.
          Fair equivalence is the difference I see as important but you see as the same.

          Reply
      3. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        One just needs to believe in the uniformity of nature. So in that respect we’re all scientists, it’s just that some of us have more science to go with the ~ist.

        Who is this ‘we’, kemosabe? If it is us who comment here, then it is a *qualified* belief. If it is ‘we humans’, then it is a *severely qualified* belief.

        But if you ever find this theoretical theist whose belief begins and ends at such a primitive level of belief then please introduce me to him or her.

        Hello! 😀

        Reply
        1. winstoninabox Post author

          Who is this ‘we’, kemosabe? If it is us who comment here, then it is a *qualified* belief. If it is ‘we humans’, then it is a *severely qualified* belief.

          Everyone is a scientist. We all examine nature and expect rules, we make observations, theories, test them and modify them. Some people go deeper and learn the real science behind it. But there’s no one who doesn’t do so even on a surface level.

          But if you ever find this theoretical theist whose belief begins and ends at such a primitive level of belief then please introduce me to him or her.

          Hello! 😀

          Nice try, but even you subscribe more than mere existence to god. God as an entity must have qualities lest god be a pretty poor god. Maker of truth, beauty and good ring a bell? Interventionist or non-interventionist? Take your pick, but both imply an active force. If god for you is just something which did something to get the ball rolling before there was something, then why not just say I’m making up something that I’ve decided to call god, but I could just as well call Fred. Fred, I mean god, plays no further part in my life than that one action done sometime when.

          Reply
      4. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        Nice try, but even you subscribe more than mere existence to god.

        “God exists” presupposes certain qualities of the entity one states to exist, just like “cheese exists” presupposes certain qualities.

        You need to define your terms. I’ve defined the “God hypothesis” elsewhere as: “At some level of existence more fundamental than our own, there exists an entity which is omniscient and omnibenevolent with regard to our universe. That is, it knows everything there is to know about our universe and wills what is good, without exception, for everything in our universe. This entity is God.”

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      5. Marco

        I think you’re getting off track. Faith in this context is believing in something that cannot be proven. My personal experience is that friends that talk about their spiritual faith or their belief in a particular scientific statement being true, do so in different ways. However, when I dig deep, their underlying faith is of the same type.

        Reply
        1. winstoninabox Post author

          We’ve been here before. Faith in the uniformity of nature is a given. Look around, nature has rules. Even the faith heads believe it. It requires next to no faith at all when we all live it every single day without exception.
          Faith in a god requires one to believe even when there is no evidence or contradictory evidence. The way people talk about it differently is just the sign letting us know that the above is correct.

          Reply
      6. Marco

        Look around you at the wonder of the universe and nature. The complexity of the universe requires at the very least an awe of the universe in the Spinozan monotheist tradition.

        I think we have to have absolute unprovable faith in the laws of thermodynamics, and the mathematical facts that we can prove. In fact we have to have absolute faith that an interventionist God is *not* required to explain every phenomenon we see. Unshakeable belief in the uniformity of the universe is not enough to have a reasonable consensus model of the important provable aspects of the universe.

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  2. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

    I thought you had read Dawkins’ famous book? So you should know if Dawkins say ‘science doesn’t involve faith at all’. That’s the point Lennox is contending with, and it’s not fair to get stuck into him for not mounting a good argument against a different point.

    Your exposition of what Lennox says the faith of a scientist consists of is unfortunately too incomprehensible even to be a good strawman… I will have to go back and re-read him now (dammit!) to engage effectively with the rest of this post.

    Reply
      1. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        My apologies, mine host, it is Lennox himself who is incomprehensibly vague about what the faith of a scientist consists of. I have been oscillating back and forth thinking about whether the ‘faith’ involved in religion and science is the same or not, sometimes agreeing with you and sometimes with Marco without coming to any conclusion. Part of the problem is that the entry requirements for being a ‘scientist’ or a ‘theist’ are so low. To be considered a theist, all you need to do is agree to an unverifiable statement on the basis of authority without necessarily having to change your behaviour in any way; to be considered a scientist, all you need to do is to behave as if the universe behaved rationally and reproducibly in *one tiny corner* of your life (I have been involved in the award of PhD’s in science to complementary medicine practitioners, solipsists, and Young Earth creationists, for example). These minimum entry requirements are very different.

        But we and Lennox are not talking about these sort of minimalist theists and scientists, presumably. The ‘devoted scientist’ and the ‘devoted theist’, on the other hand, would both seek to shape their behaviour to conform with their beliefs, would both base their beliefs on an element of actual experience (of reproducible rationality in the universe, or of God’s presence), but would both accept a great deal of additional material on authority. They would both need to have faith in the validity of their worldview when events contradicted their core experience (experimental results that are irreproducible and make no sense, or a sense of God’s absence). So these ‘faiths’ look similar.

        But not so similar. First of all, it is not an article of faith of science that everything can be explained by science (that is scientism); while a God who is not omniscient is a poor sort of God, so theism does claim to explain everything. Second of all, the attitude of the devoted scientist and the devoted theist to the mass of additional material they accept on authority is (perhaps I should say, tends to be) very different. A good scientist will always have a strong sense of how provisional what they accept on authority is, whereas a theist with the same sense will be lonely and conflicted and not considered a good theist by their peers. Accepting as true in toto a framework and context provided by authority for your religious experiences is seen as a positive good in a very different way from accepting as true a framework and context provided by authority for your scientific experiences (and yet we speak of the ‘central dogma’ of molecular biology, and Dawkins can speak of group selection as heresy) . The good scientist is not in the position of a common or garden believing theist, but of a heresiarch like Jean Calvin who sets up their own religion.

        Reply
      2. Marco

        I think a scientist saying “I believe that everything science has taught me may one day be shown to be wrong.”, is both telling a little white lie, and not being the best scientist they can be. Saying that Pythagoras theorem may one day be proved wrong, would be the stupidest of statements. Maths is, after all a science, and one saying that something that is proven can be un-proven is talking nonsense. The best scientists know what theorems will be true now and forever, and what theorems one should look at contradicting evidence for. It is a bad scientist that entertains the idea of a perpetual motion machine based on your statement, for instance.

        A religionist saying “I believe that everything Christianity has taught me may one day be shown to be wrong.” Would not be said for peer pressure reasons, much as a scientist saying “I believe the second law of thermodynamics may be wrong”

        Reply
    1. winstoninabox Post author

      Not knowing how WordPress really works I’ve been categorizing my posts as ‘Books’ not realizing that people use that to see what it is about. So these poor people have come here thinking I’m writing about books. They ‘like’ it in the hope I’ll like them back and we can all catch more readers that way. Sadly I haven’t been obliging. But I have looked at all the other blogs and they seem very nice indeed. Just not connected to what I’m writing about here. In future I’ll use ‘atheism’. That might attract more debate.

      Reply
  3. Marco

    Scientists’ faith becomes very much like a reliogionist’s when they staunchly defend theories that are not based on repeatable experiment as if they were based on repeatable experiment. Abiogenesis and speciation are two cases in point that Lennox describe in detail. One cannot transfer faith in repeatable things that allow better products to be made to non repeatable theories that Dawkins dreams up as replacement stories for Genesis.

    Reply

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