“I’m not going to denigrate you because of your faith [in science], and you shouldn’t denigrate me for mine [in religion](1)A great article on it can be found in the New Yorker%MINIFYHTMLd0b722c46e051369c9325c85f8a64ad068%.” ~Ben Carson, Republican Candidate for president.
Science is not faith. Period.
To even make such an argument is to admit a profound misunderstanding of both science, and the scientific method, and how and why it’s been the greatest human success story.
In order to save themselves from the spiraling depths of oblivion and obsolescence in which the faithful increasingly find themselves, they often argue that science is its own kind of faith. This argument is usually made based on a variation of one of two ways – first, that since nothing is possibly knowable (which is true) all “knowledge” is actually just a kind of faith (which is demonstrably false). The second is that, since you cannot possibly investigate every scientific claim (also true), to believe in scientific principles you must have dogmatic “faith” in the people who teach them to you (which is, of course, utterly false).
How do you know something is true? Well, epistemologists have been arguing for millennia over that one, and have largely come up empty. The best answer we’ve ever seemed to manage is that you can’t; there is no way to eliminate all doubt (indeed, our courts recognize this, requiring proof–not “beyond all doubt”, but rather “beyond a reasonable doubt”).
But what you can do is to establish things to a varying degree of certainty. It might be the case, for example, that the earth is flat, and we are all deceived by a giant conspiracy. However, the chance of that is staggeringly small. While science has never found a way to completely eliminate the possibility of error, what makes it so special is just how good it is at reducing the chance of error to the point where things can be said to be “known”, and that knowledge employed with astonishing success.
Nobody uses the scientific method because they like it or because they have faith in it, but because it works. Prayer has not been shown to help a sick man recover – but antibiotics have. We understand how they work, why they work, and can accurately predict that they will become less efficacious and why. We can accurately predict how fire and electricity works – well enough to harness them to our own ends. We know how the human body works, and have acquired enough theoretical knowledge to actually grow new organs to replace damaged ones. We’ve learned about sterilization and immunization, and gotten a clear enough understanding of the universe that we can take a man standing in Texas, launch him from a spinning planet orbiting a sun in a spiraling galaxy, get him through space to land on an orbiting moon, get him off that moon and back onto Texas soil, alive and in one piece.
Science has been so successful in the last 300 years (acquiring more knowledge than the human race did in it’s entire existence before that) that it boggles the imagination that anybody could question its efficacy.
But that is why we use science. We can objectively tell that it works. It is fallible, there are numerous false starts, corrections of old misinformation, and unexplained phenomena. But where faith has utterly failed to accurately explain the natural world, science has succeeded, and continues to succeed, brilliantly. We don’t have faith that science works, we have an insurmountable amount of evidence that it does. That is why we believe it.
As to the second issue, again, it is a misunderstanding of science. The scientific method is not a collection of facts; it is a way of acquiring knowledge. In order for something to be scientific, it must meet a number of rigorous requirements. I strongly suggest that nobody proceed without reading a 5 min. essay on what the scientific method actually is. But among its tenants is that claims made from observations must be repeatable. Indeed, no claim can be said to be scientific unless the community as a whole can replicate the results (and all claims are up for challenge at any time, unlike faith).
Let us return to the notion that the world is round. This is a scientific claim. When I learned that the world was round, I did not have to trust my instructor, because I also learned how this was deduced. Further, I learned how to replicate the deduction if I chose to. The easiest way to calculate the curvature of the earth is to buy a laser at RadioShack, grab a ruler, and head out to a frozen lake (which will adopt the curvature of the earth much better than land will). I know because the constellations change when I travel south (if the earth was flat, they’d stay the same). I could, if I wanted, calculate it the old-fashioned way (as it was done 2,000 years ago), with nothing more than a stick, a sunny day, and some math – but that method requires riding a camel about 800 miles, so I’m not interested. I can do a few experiments from home, split hydrogen from water and such, but I cede the point that past a certain point it gets harder for the layman to verify and reproduce experiments without a lab (or a particle accelerator). But there are always people who can. The peer review process ensures that a French lab can reproduce and verify (or dispute) the findings of a British one. High school students reproduce simple experiments, college students do bigger ones, and grad students even bigger–but there’s a never ending stream of testing, reproduction, and re-testing, and new scientists coming up through the ranks challenging the work of established ones, with transparency and peer review for everyone. To suggest that any knowledge acquired by science is dogmatic, faith based, or an appeal to authority, is either to be ignorant or psychotic.
So while it’s true that nobody re-verifies all scientific claims on their own, anyone can challenge ones they don’t find credible (though you need a working vocabulary of science. To claim that evolution is “just a theory” indicates a staggering ignorance of what a theory is. As a theist would understand a basic fluency in theology to refute theism, you must have a basic knowledge of science to understand just what it’s claiming, let alone refute it).
The reason we trust in the scientific method is because it works. That’s all. It’s been proven to work.
Now science does make two assumptions. The first is that the universe has laws which are consistent. The second is that these laws can be determined by experimentation and observation. These are assumptions, and sometimes seized upon by the theist as proof that science relies on faith. But this is merely the first objection from a different angle. Every human being must make these assumptions. When you put your key in your car, you are making an assumption that the laws of internal combustion will operate today as they did yesterday. Without that assumption, there would be no point in trying to turn the engine over. You assume that the roads didn’t get shuffled about in the middle of the night, that the sun has and will continue to rise… All of these the same basic assumption – that there is order to the universe and that it will continue that way. There is no proof of this, just as it can be said that there is no such thing as a fact which can be truly know. Nonetheless, you cannot operate in any human endeavor without these assumptions, and again – the proof is in the pudding. Science works. In fact, it is an equivocation to say that the “faith” I have that my car will start in the morning is in any way the same as the “faith” one might have that Jesus rose from the dead. There is evidence for the first claim – the fact that I have started my car thousands of times quite successfully. The second claim, however, has far less empirical data to back it up.
It is an equivocation, using the word “faith” in two different ways to suggest that the faith I have in my car is in any way identical to the faith one has in Jesus, used to discredit evidence as being identical to religious faith. Science is the acquisition of knowledge through evidence acquired by rational study, testing and observation. Faith is belief in the absence of evidence. They are in no way whatsoever the same thing.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||A great article on it can be found in the New Yorker|