Faith, doubt, and science

Once upon a time, I had a personal blog where I tried out this medium pseudonymously.  It was mostly experimental, and looking back 8 years it’s kind of embarrassing to read some of the entries.  But the exercise helped me figure out how long to mull over an idea before putting it out there, how much editing of my own text to do, which posts people find interesting, and which topics and impulses just don’t age well.

John Johnson, whose memory is long, asked for a re-post of a topic I explored there, and I’ve re-worked those old entries into a new one for this blog.  I’ve explored this topic before here on AstroWright — this is the background for that stance.

MotherTeresa_094One of Andrew Sullivan’s old pet topics is the doubt inherent in Faith. He likes to point out that folks like Mother Teresa — and even, you know, Jesus — had their moments of weakness and doubt. The corollary, I guess, is that certainty in one’s religious beliefs — blind faith — is not a reasonable or noble position, and not one shared by many of the holiest people of the Bible.

Another common phrase, “Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation” doesn’t contradict this, I suppose, as long as “without reservation” means “unconditionally” and not “without any doubts as to the matter”. But faith is belief without proof, even if it isn’t just that. Doubt necessarily implies a lack of proof (else why doubt?), and faith certainly implies belief.

But this isn’t actually all that different from science. Every scientist implicitly assumes that the universe is governed by a set of universal, immutable, and potentially discoverable laws.  I call this the “no miracles” axiom; we might define science as the systematic exploitation of this axiom. When we see something we don’t understand (a gamma ray burst, a new disease, a market crash) we look for the underlying causes in terms of what we know, and if we can’t find them we seek to modify our list of known underlying causes to accommodate this new information, instead of seeking out supernatural forces to explain it. Our underlying assumption — that there exist a set of underlying laws that are knowable — is not falsifiable.

Because the “no miracles” assumption is axiomatic it cannot be challenged except through logical contradiction with an additional axiom.  But even in those cases, science always throws out the other axiom!  When quantum mechanics showed that the “no miracles” axiom collided with the axiom that the Universe is deterministic, scientists didn’t say “God must pick the value the wavefunction collapses to upon interaction with a complex system” — they threw out determinism.

There is literally nothing that can contradict the “no miracles” axiom, because it isn’t falsifiable, it’s fundamental.  Even if an (atheist) scientist were to have a genuine religious experience — let’s say an apparition of the Blessed Virgin interrupts a dinner party and commands the participants to accept Jesus and receive eternal life — there exist plenty of scientific explanations that would allow them to avoid abandoning this fundamental assumption: it’s all an elaborate prank involving sophisticated holographic equipment, there were psychedelic drugs in the wine, it was mass hysteria, mass hypnosis, or all just a dream.

There are almost no limits to this. Even if a modern day Moses were walking around striking stones with sticks to get water, parting the Red Sea in front of thousands of witnesses and on global TV, and calling down plagues, people would spend years debunking him as an extraordinarily gifted illusionist. Even if gods regularly made themselves known with thunderbolts, booming voices, and miracles, they would be (as Arthur C. Clarke pointed out) indistinguishable from a highly advanced race of aliens, themselves following a set of natural laws.

So scientists, at least when practicing science, have trust without reservation, belief without proof — faith. It is in the “no miracles” axiom.

I’m not applying a leveling argument here — as Carl Sagan liked to point out, science and religion may be independent ways of looking at the world, but only one has a reasonable chance at being able to rid your body of cancer. Religion can’t do that — but that doesn’t mean it has nothing to say about the topic.  Religion can help a cancer victim and their loved ones feel better about the diagnosis, can help them come to terms with death and dying, can help give meaning to what might be seen as a random event.  Religion fails completely on science’s terms — the cancer’s still there!  there’s no evidence for your claims! — but then science fails on many of religion’s terms as well.  The peace and meaning many people find in science (“we are all starstuff”) flow from our quasi-religious interpretation of scientific facts, not any unavoidable conclusion from the scientific method.

My personal take is that there are probably questions about nature — physical laws even — that are NOT discoverable. For instance, it seems to me perfectly reasonable to postulate that the origins of natural law, the “root cause”, the nature of Creation, is fundamentally undiscoverable for us (this may not be true, but assuming it is false would strike me as an additional, unwarranted axiom).  As much as we scientists like to speculate on these topics (and we should!), I think it’s still firmly in religion’s purview.  Not coincidentally, creation myths are one of the most fundamental and enduring parts of most religions.  When asking questions that science cannot answer (e.g. Why are we here and how does our creator want us to behave?), looking for answers using other axioms is not a ridiculous thing to do.

Now, up until now I’ve been sloppy with two terms: First, “religion” is a broader term than I’ve given it credit for. Much of the western understanding of religion explicitly rejects the no miracles axiom, but many other religions do not, and this needs to be better appreciated by strident atheists.

Second: “Scientist”.   Many scientists carry the “no miracles” axiom over to their daily lives and personal worldview, and this is why many or most scientists are in the agnostic/atheist/not-religious/non-theist category (the “nones”).  Many other scientists, of course, are religious in the western sense of the term.  I presume that those that reject the “no miracles” axiom in at least some aspects of their lives have some justification for this, perhaps by a slight modification of the scientific axiom (“no detectable miracles” or “no miracles in my experiments” or “no miracles since the time of Acts”, etc.).  Presumably many religious scientists accept the axiom and interpret the miracles of scripture metaphorically.

But getting back to doubt and faith: when scientists put our faith the “no miracles” axiom — whether in our daily lives or in our research — we should recognize it for what it is: an unproven — indeed scientifically unfalsifiable! — hypothesis.  

And this faith is totally appropriate! For one thing, we’re curing cancer.  For another: being introspective creatures, we have to come to some peace with not knowing the reason for our existence just to get up in the morning. I find science’s creation story and hypotheses fascinating, and all the more valid for not being based on wishful thinking or the happenstance of my religious upbringing.  But I can easily see how reasonable people could make a different choice.

In short, I think my appreciation that science takes some (well earned and justified) faith makes me more pluralist, and more accepting of religion than some of my peers.  As long as one’s religion is not used to do evil — as long as one is not following their ideas to their logical conclusions — and as long is it is not used to undermine the real progress of science, well, I do not begrudge anyone their succor against existential darkness.

One thought on “Faith, doubt, and science


    Einstein once said “Religion and science go together. As I’ve said before, science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind. They are interdependent and have a common goal–the search for truth.”

    You can study the intricasies of the universe and try to solve its mysteries through science, while simultaneously believing that a higher power created it for us. The more that is discovered through science, the more faith I have in its Creator. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Some people just make it that way.

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