Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ex Uno Fonte, Part III: Faith in Science

XKCD says, "Science doesn't ask for your faith, it just asks for your eyes". Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy exults in scientists' fact- and experiment-based approach to life. The popular image of science is of something that's based firmly in fact, that doesn't require faith to see the objective state of the world.

I say otherwise. Here's three quick areas where, to believe in science's conclusions, the ordinary person has to have faith:

Faith In That Which Is Beyond Me 
I have no choice, if I want to believe in science, than to believe in a body of knowledge that I will probably never see and couldn’t understand even if I did. I take it on faith that Stephen Hawking wrote a paper somewhere sometime that says black holes exist. If you actually asked me to read it and understand his arguments, I wouldn’t be able to. Faith is required. This holds for scientists, too, in different disciplines; a marine biologist probably can't explain astrophysics, and vice versa. Be you a scientist or a lay person, you rely to some extent on the conclusions of others in understanding the universe, which means that you have to have faith in their honesty, transparency and reasoning abilities.

Faith In That Which We Have Already Discovered
There has to be faith that our universal laws will hold anywhere. Bill Anderegg, who I interviewed for a global warming note awhile back, explained it to me this way: We could argue forever over whether the data indisputably, beyond the slightest particle of doubt, show the planet to be warming up. But at some point when there’s a reasonable level of consensus, we have to be able to look at our results and say “Okay, we think this is good. Now we can extrapolate from these results and build on what we’ve found.” We have to have a certain amount of faith in what we’ve already discovered, be it universal laws or the pattern of spots on the bellies of East African toads, so we can build on that data and move onto the next thing. That’s faith, faith in our own discoveries, faith that they hold everywhere and all the time. If we didn’t believe that the luminosity of a star is proportional to the (temperature to the fourth power) times the (radius squared), every single place in the universe, we wouldn’t be able to draw any kind of conclusion from the stars. As it said in my physics textbook, we have to take it as a given that the laws of physics hold everyplace, and that, too, requires faith.

Faith In You, Me and All Of Us Together
You may have seen where I’m going with this third one based on the second one, as the second one is really a consequence of the third one, but whatever, it sounds better if I put this one last. The last thing we have to do is to believe in ourselves. That’s the biggest difference between religion and science. Religion asks us to believe in some external entity. I’m speaking from a predominantly Jewish background, and my culture is speaking from the Abrahamic tradition through me, but it doesn’t take a rabbi or a Thai monk to realize that all religions around the world believe in some higher power than humanity (with the possible exception of Animism). Whether it’s God, Jehovah, ancestral spirits, the spirit world or what, religion looks to the heavens for guidance and trusts that, by that guidance, the world will make sense.

But here’s why if I had to choose I’d go with science over religion: science asks us to believe in us. We’re supposed to believe that we—little dumb hairless apes that we are--have the capability and capacity to understand the world and the laws that make it up. We have the temerity to say that we can understand this huge, implacable, incredible, beautiful universe. And you know what science says to that? “Fuck yeah, we can.” Science tells us to believe in ourselves and in the whole human race, and in our ability to make the world make sense. And I believe the shit out of that philosophy.


Mammalman said...

Hey...been reading a while, first comment obviously. Love the packers posts especially :) Found this blog through my dad whose name you may recognize, Stephen Basson, retired 1st chair bassoonist in the MSO.

I'm gonna disagree a little with this post. In your first example, I think it's kind of unfair to compare 'it's "faith" because I don't have the time/inclination to dig through astrophysics papers' to the kind of faith where there's nothing you even COULD turn to to substantiate the wild claims being made. Hawking's work may be hard, but you could skim it, get SOME idea...go the local college and get more help with it. Complexity and difficulty are not the same as groundlessness.

As to your second example, I think it's a clear conflation of different senses of the word 'faith'. In the religious context it means 'belief without reason/evidence/support.' In the sentence you write that we have to have faith in what we've discovered, you could replace with the word faith with 'tentative confidence based on tons of evidence.' All that evidence makes it NOT faith, even if we're still never 100.0000% sure of our conculsions. We believe the laws of the universe hold everywhere because there is tons of evidence that they do, they seem to have everywhere we've looked so far. But responsible scientists will acknowledge that we're still only 99.99999% confident that gravity won't start pushing things UP instead of down tomorrow. It's not faith, it's a tentative conclusion based on tons of evidence.

The same applies to the third example...we have 'faith' in humanity's power to learn and understand because we have lots of evidence that it can do so, that it has done so. The history of our species inspires us to have CONFIDENCE in our abilities, not faith (in the 'without evidence' sense). (Though it also inspires me at least to be disappointed and fearful of the future, but hey...). There is not a comparable giant body of evidence supporting claims like 'there exists an omnipotent, benevolent being who created the universe and cares a lot about humanity.' Indeed, the old and unsolved problem of evil highlights how hard it is to square the idea of an omnipotent and benevolent being with the facts on the ground. Lotsa badness out there...

That said............I have faith the lockout will end soon.

Andy said...

Good evening Mammalman!

First of all, thanks for reading! I'm sorry I didn't find this and reply to it sooner, but I haven't figured how to set this thing up to notify me of comments yet.

No, I don't think that religion and science require the same sort of faith or the same kinds of beliefs. Comparing the two kinds isn't what I'm going for. I just want to show a few of the areas where faith (in a broad sense) has, sort of insidiously, worked its way into the popular consciousness of science.

The example I used for the first one, that of global warming, kind of illustrates my point: global climatology is such a vast science that you have to specialize in one certain area to understand it. A geologist and a meteorologist analyze different bodies of knowledge that it takes them years to be able to understand, and neither of them could do astrophysics without training and time. Sure, there's (theoretically speaking) always the possibility of going into any given discipline yourself and becoming an expert on any given topic, but in practice, it's impossible to do that with every such topic that might happen to catch your eye. So you have to rely on other peoples' conclusions. If Brian Greene tells me that small perturbations in the orbit of Mercury are explained more accurately by special relativity than by Newtonian mechanics, circumstance forces me to take his word for it. I have to believe in his (and the greater scientific community's) best qualities: truthfulness and the search for understanding.

For the second one, I was mostly thinking of astronomy, since so much of that relies on theory and guesswork (though it's rarely presented that way in articles and such). Since we can only see stars at one stage of their unfathomably long lives, we have to do a helluva lot of guessing and speculating to figure out how all these things we see fit together into one model. And to do that, we have to assume that the laws of physics hold everywhere, even though we can't travel to other stars and do tests to confirm that. All we can do is observe. To paraphrase my astronomy teacher once told me: no, we're not sure that this is the right theory (we can't actually see the objects, just the light they emit, so there's no tangible evidence that the stars aren't giant light-emitting eggs put there by some cosmic Easter Bunny) and we can't really go out and test it. But it works, and because it fits the results, we kind of have to assume that it's right even without testing it.

At the level of the third example, I don't know how to distinguish the faith I'm talking about with the confidence you're talking about. It's 'believing in what we can do' without worrying about why we believe, versus 'believing in what we can do' because we've been doing it forever. But hey, with the history of our species being what it is, you could just as easily be confident that we'll all blow each other up... but I have faith that we won't. :-)

Bloody 'ell, hope you're right about the lockout...

Thanks again for the comment! I definitely appreciate hearing from a reader, especially one connected to the MSO.

Andy said...

(Just ran across this quote in A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking, published 1988. Pages 167-8 in my edition.)

"In Newton's time it was possible for an educated person to have a grasp of the whole of human knowledge, at least in outline. But since then, the pace of the development of science has made this impossible. Because theories are always being changed to account for new observations, they are never properly digested or simplified so that ordinary people can understand them. You have to be a specialist, and even then, you can only hope to have a proper grasp of a small proportion of the scientific theories... Only a few people can keep up with the rapidly advancing frontier of knowledge, and they have to devote their whole time to it and specialize it in a small area." The rest of us have no choice but to believe those folks.

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