Thursday, June 24, 2010

Faith and Science

I consider myself a scientist, a philosopher, and a person of faith. I am desperately, ardently seeking knowledge, meaning, and truth. At the foundation of my pursuit is my faith, and thereupon I build my philosophy, and thereupon science. There is a tendency among scientists to take the reverse treatment, designating science as the fount of truth, and taking the futile exercise of judging faith by the means, motives, and methods of science.

I say futile because faith by very definition cannot be reasoned out with scientific rationality. Anything that can be so reasoned is, by definition, not faith. So you see how this leads to all manner of tautology and circular reasoning. If you start with science and build from there, all you get is more science. The methods of science are not suited for questions of faith. This sounds some combination of foolish, wild, unsatisfying, or frightening to anyone who is used to equating science with truth, and its rationality with finding truth (i.e., to nearly all of us).

And why is it that we have no problem “believing in” the scientific method itself? Things like deduction, probability, causation, natural laws, representation, and abstraction, for instance-- how can we even “prove” that they are “legitimate”? It’s sort of like (rough analogy warning) picking the axioms in mathematics. The legitimacy of deductive reasoning is an axiom of science.This is setting up for a whole lot of questions that I can’t even begin to address right now (but think about often), but my point is that even going with just science requires a certain type of faith, just not what we typically think of as faith. When you decide how to decide what should qualify as truth, that is an act of faith.

So my approach, like I said, is to make faith the foundation. This approach does not exclude science but encompasses it.

If I may make another rough analogy, if faith is the foundation of my house, and philosophy the structure, then science is the window. I, the resident of the house, depend on the foundation that supports everything (faith), go about my life according to the structure (philosophy), and view the world through the window (science). I understand that there’s a whole lot of the world that I can’t view through my window. In particular, I can’t view the house’s foundation, no matter how intently I look, but that doesn’t distress me or make me doubt the foundation. But I nonetheless enjoy looking out the window, and feel compelled to look out it frequently and deduce what I can about the world.

Concerning the specifics of my faith itself, and how it is formed and what it implies, I will have to save for later. (To put it very, very briefly, I am Catholic). My philosophy as well, I can't touch on tonight but hope to delve into more later. For now I highly suggest Pope John Paul II's "Faith and Reason" (Fides et Ratio) if you're up for some more reading on this topic, from a very wise and articulate thinker. I haven’t yet settled on what the intent of this blog is, as you can probably tell considering how different today’s post is from yesterday’s ode to tabbed browsing. I only know that I intend to be thoughtful, and hope to get some feedback from other thoughtful people.


  1. Nice, thought out post. Don't have time to respond right now, but longer comment forthcoming.

  2. Thanks Joe, and to others who commented via Facebook. A reply that I posted on Facebook, I will also post here:

    What I was getting at, is that even accepting repeatability, experimentation, measurement, and quantification as somehow valid methods of finding truth, or even accepting that there exist natural laws and that we can find them with human senses and tools... See More, is an act of faith. Where do natural laws come from, what is reality, why can we form expectations about processes based on experimentation?

    Why are rationality, reason, logic, the scientific method, and personal experiences-- no matter how often repeated by ourselves and others-- things that we trust and rely on? For a few reasons, I think:
    a) Because historically, that is what humankind has done. Especially since some historical figures (Plato et al.) laid out some of the guidelines
    b) Because it gives us practical guidelines, and we have trouble thinking of any other way
    c) Because it feels so right that we do so
    --To me that sounds like faith.--

    Also, I agree that we do have a tendency to define in anthropological terms, and we do try to portray God in human terms, perhaps more than we should. But I also believe that humans were created in God's image, so there is a two-way process going on there, because human terms did originate with God. And I think that it was a huge gift of love from God that it should be this way, that He should give us any glimpse of Himself through each other and through our faculties for internal and external reflection. This also can be a motivator both of relationships and community, and of science.

  3. Part I
    Faith, while seemingly ubiquitous, is completely unnecessary. I agree with Jim's earlier post on Facebook, that you are describing two different kinds of faith here: faith in religion and faith in some axiom. There are important similarities and differences between the two. My viewpoint delves into a little epistemology:

    I define knowing something as fulfilling three requirements:
    1) I believe in something.
    2) That something is actually true. (I'll save the argument for an external reality for some other time, but here we can assume that it exists.)
    3) I have sufficient reason to believe in that something.
    I could write an entire book justifying these three claims (and people have, this actually came from Persons and their World, by Jeffrey Olen). I'll also leave out their lengthy justification, but few good thought experiments can back up these claims.

    We can learn information, and gain knowledge, in one of two ways. The first way is through our own observations. We could pick up a rock, throw it, observe how it behaves, and subsequently learn some basic laws of physics. We could experience some historical event, and say through observation what occurred. While some of our learning occurs this way, the majority of our information is gained by the other way - by authority, and through other people. We learn academic subjects through professors, learn history through other recollections of the past, and learn religion through priests and holy texts. Both methods of learning involve the learner fulfilling knowledge requirement #1 (assuming he or she sufficiently believes what's observed or what's been told to them). Requirement #2, that the information learned is actually true, is something that we can never know with absolute certainty, but we can approximate through requirement #3, reasoning. It is requirement #3 where these two approaches differ: The first way merits justification through individual observation, experience, and reasoning; while the second way delegates that responsibility for backing up knowledge to the person the knowledge was learned from.

    Sometimes these chains of delegation can be multiple degrees thick - you learned something from someone else, who learned it from someone else, who learned it from someone else, etc. It's important to note that all of these chains of delegating reason eventually end at individual observations. Physicists worked out the laws of physics, history was experienced long ago by individuals, and religious texts were written by their original authors. When we accept knowledge from people's observations, we are accepting that knowledge partly through faith in their observations and their judgement. The difference between religious knowledge (as in, the Bible), and scientific knowledge, is that this faith in knowledge delegation isn't the only way we can learn about science. Nothing is stopping us from tossing our own rocks and figuring out how they move; and nothing is stopping us from examining old documents, looking at cultural distribution, etc. and learning about historical events. With religion, however, all we have is this trail of delegation, which ends at the writers of the Bible and ultimately, Christ himself. We cannot go out for ourselves and in any way verify that Christ was resurrected, or that the Earth and humans were created, or that Heaven exists, or that even God exists. We accept that on faith from others, and hope that this delegation trail of reasoning ends at someone who actually had reason to believe in these things.

  4. Part II
    The implications of this are important. If the only way we accept religious knowledge is through other people or writings, if we were to be, say, born on a deserted without any of our memories, we would never know about the Christian faith, and probably come up with some other faith of our own. I back this up with history: there are widely diverse examples of religions that developed within relatively isolated societies (Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, etc.).

    In the past, however, religion WAS science. There really wasn't any difference between the two. Because the main purpose of science is to form explanations about the nature of reality. Science is not absolute truth - it is simply the best explanation we can come up with for reality at the time. Theories mutate and change to reflect our current understandings. In the past, coming up with some deity, such as Apollo, as an explanation for some phenomenon, such as the sun moving across the sky, was perfectly okay. Nobody had the technology to show that the sun was really a massive flaming ball of gas. Ancient societies had scant methods for determining the nature of reality, so they came up with mystical explanations that no available evidence could disprove. As technology advanced, people gradually disproved many of these mystical explanations. (We have pictures of the Sun! There is no Apollo!) After all of the progress we've made, it seems as if only the most elusive, undisprovable gods remain. The God of the Christian faith is part of another realm (yet permeates everything), speaks to those who seek him in mysterious, elusive ways, and is strangely difficult, if not completely impossible, to detect. However, it is an explanation of reality that cannot be proven wrong (at least, with our current evidence). Should we accept it?

    I say no, and here's why. I'll hereby call any claim that cannot be proven false undisprovable. There are an infinite number of undisprovable statements that I can make, just sitting here. One of my personal favorites is that there is an invisible, inaudible, and completely undetectable unicorn following me around everywhere I go. There is absolutely nothing you can do to prove me wrong. (Another popular variant of this is Russell's teapot -'s_teapot) How about the claim that all matter is really made of microscopic strings whose vibrations cause all of the physical constants in the universe to be what they are and are so tiny that nothing we can do can detect them? It's called string theory, and actually has a large following. How about the claim that universes are created inside of black holes, that each subsequent tier of universes has slightly modified physical constants, and that through some variant of Darwinian evolution the universes that are most likely to produce the most black holes will have the most 'child' universes? This is actually a hypothesis put forth by a Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist who I researched for a project back in the IB program, but as with the other two theories, this is completely undisprovable. Nothing we can do will prove him wrong. How about the claim that the universe was created by a God, that he directs all of our lives, that there is an absolute morality, that heaven and hell exist, and that he sent a son to Earth to die and save us from sin? Even the claim, as you made earlier, that God created man in his own image? You can see where I'm going with this.

  5. Part III
    After teetering back and forth on the see-saw called agnosticism, this line of thought, among others, has led me to become an atheist. While you may see it as losing my foundation, I have found it very liberating. Many people have argued that humans have a God-shaped hole in our hearts - I couldn't disagree more. Ever since I have thrown away Christianity, and made my own purpose in life, I find that I have less worries (particularly about sin and forgiveness), more fulfillment, and that life just makes more sense.

    So, I've definitely broken my sleep contract tonight. Sorry about the essay. I'd like to hear what you think. I might as well start my own blog with what I've written :)

    > Joe Rao IV

  6. Joe, thanks for taking the time to reply. Writing >> sleeping! What I have been trying to express, and still don't think I am making clear, is how is it that we prove or disprove anything at all?

    You talk about some things being undisprovable. What do you think is disprovable? Give me an example of anything you think has been scientifically disproven. How was it disproven? Did the disproof depend on the senses? Why is what we sense "true"? Did it depend on deductive reasoning? Why is deductive reasoning valid? (Someone born on a deserted island might not come up with that either, but that's beside the point.) We accept that what we sense is true and that deductive reasoning is valid. Just like I accept that there is a God who created man in His own image. Do you see what I'm getting at?

  7. Yes, I think I understand what you're arguing - that we base our scientific knowledge on faith in certain axioms and processes - specifically, in this comment, the validity of our senses and of deductive reasoning, and that our acceptance of that parallels your acceptance of God.

    You raise a good point about senses. Humans often see things that aren't there, hear 'voices', and even when their senses are functioning properly, may misinterpret their meaning. But what about when our senses ARE functioning properly, how do we know that that gives us a valid view of objective reality (which, again, I'm assuming exists)? The short answer is, we don't, and can never know, because our senses are what we do the 'observing' with. We don't have any other way. An evil genius may be sending our consciousness signals that simulate the world that we see, feel, and hear. This is essentially a question of whether or not the world we see is a virtual reality or not. But this another undisprovable claim, and I can make infinitely many about why we see the world that we see. I can only use my senses to learn as much as I can about the world that is presented to me., and I use that information to explain why the world I experience is as I see, hear, and feel it, without worrying about whether this is the real objective reality or whether it is a simulated one. Yes, I trust my senses to give some semblance of truth, but not completely on faith. They do have one thing going for them - they are consistent in their representation of the world. I see a plate fall, hear it crash, and feel the shards, all at the same time - three senses simultaneously reporting the same event is much more reinforcing of that event's actual occurrence than just one. I see my apartment the same way in the morning as I left it at night, and I hear the same voice from you every time you speak. The laws of physics never change. My body mechanics never change. I can use this consistency to learn, interact, and predict what is happening in the external world. It is not faith that I base my belief in their truth on, but their past consistency. In addition, my senses are consistent with what other people tell me that they sense, which further validates my own senses. Whether or not our senses reflect the true, objective reality is another concern - I use my senses to observe the world that is presented to me, which they are very good at doing, and for the moment, that's all I care about.

    If I happen to become delusional, on the other hand, my senses wouldn't be consistent. I may see things at one moment that I won't see at the next, or see/hear things that other people cannot see. This tells me that my senses cannot be relied on to give me reliable data, and I will have much less certainty in what they show me.

    I'll deal with deductive reasoning tomorrow, I have an argument for that as well. I need sleep for the run.

  8. Part I.

    I am following your argument and I find it interesting. I am in Joe's side on this one for my own personal reasons. I was catholic, but I ended up outside the belief way of living for my own psychological and a less-than-idyllic personal experience with catholicism. Then I became agnostic and have had time to think about faith-science relations as I obtained a training as a physicist the last years of my catholicism. Anyway I lost my faith despite physics and not because of it: the truths that physicists have discovered leave you in more awe about existence.

    But anyway I agree with Joe's about the difference between religious faith and scientific faith. We are using the same word for them because there is a similarity between them, but at the end there is one thing that makes them different: authority. In religious faith you can make a lot of counter-arguments about the truths that your religion proclaims but at the end you can deny the validity of your own doubts-life is very complex anyway and so this is valid- and submit yourself to the authority of your religious main authority figure.

    In scientific faith, you accept the authority of your educators but at the end you have the freedom to challenge whatever you are said. An at the end the last word is left to experimental reproducible evidence. In the scientific world there are authorities: Einstein, Fermi that was called the 'Pope' of physics in his time and other brilliant figures, in today's physics there are even almost no authorities. There have been even 'religious' wars about the validity of some theories and some physicists were even marginalized for dogmatic reasons. But the dogmatism was human error and at the end the experiments have settled all the doubts. Even today there are dogmatic wars about things that could not have been settled up by experimental evidence, but people are waiting for the evidence to settle the cases.

    For example, Einstein had a philosophy in which the idea of an expanding universe was not valid and so he introduced a cosmological constant to his general relativity to prevent the theory to predict an expanding universe even after his theory was confirmed by experiment in 1919 making him a world celebrity. Curiously, another brilliant priest physicist-Georges Lemaitre- didn't have a prejudice against an expanding universe and he advocated for it. Anyway, the Big Bang leaves the path open to creationism. I don't remember the details but in the 30's there was a meeting between Lemaitre, Einstein and other legendary physicist about the subject and Einstein surrendered to the experimental evidence and admitted his mistake. The point of the story is that neither Lemaitre, Einstein or anybody else had the supreme authority and reproducible experimental evidence was used to settle the dispute.

  9. Part II.

    In relation to things that have been 'disproved' in physics. I think Joe may be thinking about Karl Popper's view of science. In his view all physical theories are falsifiable: that means that in the story of science there is a theory that explains the universe better than the others until an experiment cannot be explained by it. Then another generation of physicists creates new theories of which one is better explaining the experimental results. If there are several theories that are the best, then there is some way to prove mathematically that both are equivalent. Today's 'best theory' is quantum electrodynamics, it has not been disproved yet. The subject is more complex than this summary as today there is not one theory that explains everything in the universe. The canonical examples are: 1. Newton's gravity that was the best explanation for planetary motion but was not totally accurate according to the best experiments, general relativity was invented and all the experimental inaccuracies dissapeared. The story is more complex as it involves also experiments that searched for the speed of light and somehow coudn't find evidence for an ether that filled all the void space in the universe. Nobody expected the speed of light to be independent of any observer. 2. Classical thermodynamics had a problem predicting the black body radiation, and quantum theory provided a framework to solve not only this problem but to unify electromagnetism with atomic physics and then someone developed a way to integrate it to subatomic physics (is today's quantum electrodynamics). And today there are more theories that try to integrate quantum with relativity, but as far as I know the experiments have not settled the matter yet.
    So it is not possible to argue that because you have faith in science you must be compelled to have a religious faith. They belong to different ways of thinking about reality. But the real world is so awkward, complex, awesome and stressful that I don't have any strong feelings against religion, is just not for me!


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  12. Geez, I feel a little bad for all of the disagreement you're getting. I'll go ahead and give my deductive reasoning / axioms argument just for the sake of completion. I don't want to sound overly argumentative, though, so I'll take this brief moment to compliment your cookies. I can't stop eating them.

    Marucio, I am taking a Popperian vision on the philosophy of science. I would say it's the most explanatory theory for how science works, but that would be a recursive justification :) But hey, inductive reasoning is inductively valid.

    Why is deductive reasoning "valid"? The process of deduction works by definition of the statements we make. If I say, for example, that all photons travel at the speed of light, and that particle A is a photon, than by definition, it must travel at the speed of light. The validity is implied in the axiom. If I had found a photon that traveled at a different speed, I would know that my axiom didn't apply. The step of making a conclusion from an axiom is completely valid by definition.

    But what about the axioms themselves? I think this was what you meant when you said that we take science and math on faith. There is no way to back up an axiom, it is an assumption we make. Since we can never know if our axioms are "true", we can never know if the entire coherent system we derive from those axioms is "true".

    But, our axioms don't come out of thin air. Many of our axioms come from observations we make, either directly or as a result of working backwards from arguments. Many of these axioms turn out to be untrue. People used to think that space resembled R3 - that was, until relativity showed us that space actually bends and curves. As Marucio mentioned, the existence of an ether was another axiom that ended up being thrown out. But how can we throw out such axioms, and say that one assumption is better than another?

    From my observations, we choose axioms in science that explain phenomena in our world. When another axiom makes a much better explanation for our observations, we replace it, not because it is externally "true", but because it is the best explanation we have at the time. Changing scientific axioms results in an upheaval of current thought, and often opens up a whole new world of questioning and exploration, something Thomas Kuhn called a "paradigm shift". Heliocentrism, Newtonian Physics, Evolution, Relativity, Quantum Mechanics - scientific history is absolutely full of paradigm shifts. I accept axioms on their explanatory power, not on faith as an expression of absolute truth.

  13. Mathematically (and you have much more experience than I do, so correct me if I'm wrong) there also doesn't seem to be an ultimate truth. We pick axioms, investigate what their implications are (or the reverse, observe some properties, and discern their axioms), and apply the math to situations where it can have explanatory power. Given a line and a point not on the line, would you say that there is only one line that can be drawn through that point such that the two lines are parallel? This seems self-evident, but people have investigated the cases where there are zero and infinitely many lines that can be drawn through the point, and determined that these geometries describe spheres and pseudospheres, respectively (But you've probably already heard this before). And (I'm sure you've heard this one before, too) Godel's incompleteness theorems show that we can't prove everything about a system from within that system, so we can't just keep abstracting and abstracting until we come to a set of axioms that encompass all of mathematics. Ergo, no set of axioms can ever be "true," and we can only examine the implications and explanatory power of a certain choice of axioms. I do not accept mathematical axioms on faith, rather, I look at them as if asking myself "I wonder what the implications would be if I chose these axioms instead of those axioms." Whether math is "true" or not is, I think, an irrelevant question.

    That should conclude my brief foray into philosophy and epistemology (unless you give me something else to argue about). I hope that I showed that my so-called "faith" in science does not parallel your faith in God. I highly recommend the book "The Fabric of Reality" by David Deutsch, it's very interesting, philosophical (and non-atheist!), and asks a lot of the questions you are asking.

    > Joe

  14. Part 1: For the record, I have nothing against the senses and deductive reasoning. Joe, your last couple of comments were well thought out and did, I think, reflect the point I was trying to make, that even with science, we can never know that we are getting a "valid view of objective reality." Your math part is spot-on.(I don't exactly agree, though that the process of deduction works by definition. It is how we have chosen to construct our logic system, and our logic system is another instance where we can't know if we get a valid view of reality).

    Not for the sake of argument, but just to let you know, I do find a consistent representation of the world in my faith. The world makes more, not less, sense to me because of my faith. And from your last June 25 comment, Christianity doesn't make me worry about sin and forgiveness. Rather it assures me that God loves the world so much that He sent his son to save us, and I long not to sin because I love God, and in my imperfect nature I continue to sin, but God always welcomes me back with mercy. And true, having a religion can make your life more difficult (especially when it comes to relinquishing control). But I am willing, even joyful, to accept the difficulties for my faith.

  15. Part 2: Mauricio and Joe, I really appreciate all the thought you've put into your comments. Since, as you said Mauricio, the real world is so awkward, complex, awesome and stressful, it is good to know that we are together in grappling with these issues.

    I don't intend to be able to convince you of my faith or religion in a blog. What I hope does come out of this discussion is that we don't settle in our ways, thoughts, and beliefs, but always keep searching. Faith, beliefs, and views are dynamic. All I can ask you is not to consider atheism, agnosticism, or any religion as something fixed. My faith is certainly not static, and neither are my philosophies. Continue to take time to discuss and reflect, with an open mind and open heart. Let us all always be seekers. That is a great part of science and of life!