Scientific Faith vs. Religious Faith

Figure 1. Sidney Harris’s famous cartoon implying the difference between science and religion (Copyright credit: ScienceCartoonsPlus.com).

Most of today’s scientists consider the opposition between science and religion to be one of facts vs. faith. They are wrong. These folks simply have not thought deeply enough into what it is they are doing. Every line of thought always has beginning points. That is what logic is all about. It is just that the beginning points for science and religion are complete opposites. We cannot prove any of these beginning points beyond all doubt, that is, each beginning point constitutes a “faith,” not a fact. That is why there are, and always will be, interminable debates about which “faith” is correct.

Thus, when scientists say “there are material causes for all effects,” they are expressing a “faith,” not a “fact.” In an infinite universe, there is no way anyone could discover all of the causes for even one effect. Still, as scientists, we know that every effect must have a material cause; otherwise, we would not look for causes and would cease to be scientists. We do not believe in miracles (Figure 1), which are claimed to be without material causes. The “faith” expressed in the deterministic sentence leading this paragraph has never failed us—we have trillions of observations and experiments supporting our faith. Based on that faith, our observations and experiments done on the external world have led to facts and predictions having a high degree of precision and accuracy. Science has progressively enriched our lives, with average life spans, for instance, increasing from 40 years to 80 years. With all that support, why do I still insist that science is based on faith? I will get to that in a minute or two.

Although it is true that science has extremely strong support for its faith, the problem is, religion does too. Despite all the material advances by science, religion is still the biggest fish in the pond. Most religious folks live in a world containing a great deal of “evidence” that they are on the right track. Relatives, friends, politicians, and reporters all speak of imagined things as if they were real. Official-looking “sacred” books and well-meaning speeches pepper us with reminders that there may not be material causes for all effects. Schizophrenic folks report talking to god himself. There are severe penalties for those who, despite all this, begin to think that there is not enough material evidence to support their faith. Then too, religion supposedly has the advantage over science in that it gives meaning to it all. It turns out that the “meaning” usually involves “salvation,” which promises that living after dying amounts to more of the same, albeit with a bit more perfection and perhaps a few more virgins than were afforded the first time. Given the logical beginning points on which all this is based, religion is not illogical. It would only be illogical if one did not agree to use those beginning points.

To discover the differences between the scientific faith and the religious faith, we must uncover the foundations of those two divergent logical paths. And who does that? As a scientist, I was never much interested in this subject until I became aware of the Big Bang Theory, which hypothesizes the explosion of the universe out of nothing. Now, my training in science depended on a quite different proposition, conservation, that matter and the motion of matter can be neither created nor destroyed. Obviously, cosmologists were not following the logic that I was. There were inklings that the Big Bang Theory was just another creation myth, but that was hard to believe, what with all the support it got among cosmologists and physicists. The demathematized versions appearing in the mainstream press nevertheless tended to deobfuscate the theory, demonstrating its obvious contradictions. Curiosity got the better of me as I searched for the answer to a question bigger than I was.

As a mainstream scientist, I was reluctant to go against such a well-established theory and yet, I could not understand why otherwise logical folks could believe in the explosion of the entire universe out of nothing. Calling the initial state a mathematical “singularity” did not impress me. Kuhn[1] hinted at what was wrong by proposing his paradigmatic model, but failed to tell us how folks could think so differently. I discovered a better clue to clear thinking long ago when I studied geometry. In addition to emphasizing clear definitions, the authors of my text required us to begin with assumptions, statements that we “accept as true without proof.”[2]

That was it—different strokes for different folks! I set about finding out what those strokes were. I was evolving from a fact/faith guy to a faith/faith guy. Although I previously had passed it up many times in the U.C. Berkeley library, among the most important books I finally read on the basic problem was R.G. Collingwood’s “An Essay on Metaphysics.”[3]

He had five main points:
1.     All thinking begins with subconscious presuppositions;
2.     Presuppositions become assumptions as soon as they are brought into the light of day through vocalization or script;
3.     Fundamental assumptions are never completely provable;
4.     All fundamental assumptions have opposites that are untrue if the first is true;
5.     If you hold more than one assumption, they both must be consupponible. That is, they must not contradict one another.

Following Collingwood, I discovered ten fundamental assumptions that fulfilled his criteria.[4]

Surprise! Surprise! Among the most important is what I called the Fifth Assumption of Science, conservation (Matter and the motion of matter can be neither created nor destroyed). Its opposite, of course, is creation, which assumes that something could be created out of nothing. Another was the Eighth Assumption of Science, infinity (The universe is infinite, both in the microcosmic and macrocosmic directions). The opposite is finity, which assumes that the universe is finite. This one clearly fulfills the 3rd criterion—no one is going to travel to the end of the universe to obtain the ultimate proof or disproof of this particular “faith.” It turns out that the assumption of infinity solves the problem I had with the Big Bang Theory and its rejection of my belief in conservation. It also answers a question that bedeviled my youth: If there was a god that created the universe, then who or what created that god? And who or what created the god who created that god and why did she take so long? Infinity would not go away.  The answer, of course, is that the universe has always existed despite the contrary faith promulgated by cosmologists and men of the cloth.

Education and Faith

I found that most scientists, particularly cosmologists and physicists, seldom admit that they hold hidden presuppositions or a “faith” upon which their interpretations are based. They generally claim to have no preconceived notions about how things work. This naïve belief that they work without foundational assumptions underlies the hubris behind their “fact” vs. “faith” statements. Of course, no one can avoid preconceived notions. We all have a history. Like the religions, the scientific “faith” is derived from the environment that nurtured us. Protestants tend to beget protestants; Catholics tend to beget Catholics; and scientists tend to beget scientists. That is why half of all Nobelists have worked under Nobelists. To be a great scientist, associate with great scientists.

There is, however, one big difference between the scientific faith and religious faith: the depth and breadth of involvement with the natural world. That is why engineers and natural scientists are more skeptical of the Big Bang Theory than mathematicians and theoretical physicists. That is why education is the true enemy of religion.

Evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne, gives an example of the process in his Blog of 20131013:

“Most Orthodox Jews reject evolution. At TAM this year, I met two ex-Orthodox Jews who had been brought up to reject evolution and, in both cases, studied the subject to be able to attack it more effectively. And in both cases they became convinced of evolution’s truth, which undermined their faith, and then left the religion.”

That is right; exposure to the outside world (education) invariably produces folks who lean toward the scientific faith rather than the religious faith. That, of course, is why religions tend to avoid outside influence at all costs. It is the reason for cloisters, fellowships, religious grade schools, high schools, and colleges. The scientific faith thrives on exposure to the external world, while the religious faith does not.

Of course, there is religious “education” too, which mostly consists of continual repetition of the stories and anecdotes handed down by the elders in each sect. Experiments and observations that might add new information are not encouraged. Nonetheless, any exposure to the outside world does just that, stirring those still awake to propose reforms that handle some of the resulting contradictions. The evolutionary purpose of religion is to instill and enforce loyalty. Unfortunately, the defensive posture of the cloister is not always sufficient. The inevitable tendency for a particular social microcosm to expand puts it in jeopardy as it encroaches upon the territory of other sects. The current religious wars are good examples.

Any aggressive move by a particular sect may result in the annexation of new territory and resources, but it also risks exposure to the outside world. The most feudalistic, backward tribe must learn about the deterministic properties of modern weapons in order to prevail. Proselytizing of any sort faces the same contradiction: any exposure to the outside world becomes a teaching moment. Jehovah’s Witnesses, who come to your door, should not be ignored. They at least deserve a lesson in atheism.

Lessons from the external world, however, cannot change Collingwood’s main point: that fundamental assumptions are never completely provable. No matter how many material causes we discover, we can never discover all of them. Science’s claim that there are material causes for all effects must forever remain an unprovable assumption. That is why there is an interminable debate between science and religion; between determinism and indeterminism. Those who hold opposing assumptions must “agree to disagree,” because there is no possible final experiment or observation that could be used to decide which is correct. But, as mentioned, our assumptive choices will depend on our history. Scientists, who need to understand and predict phenomena, must choose deterministic assumptions, while the clergy, who need to fulfill the dreams of their parishioners, must choose indeterministic assumptions.

Nothing is lost if we wake up, finally agreeing that thinking begins with assumptions. Nonetheless, there are important reasons for the snooze to continue. The main one is the interminable philosophical struggle between determinism and indeterminism (aka, science and religion). The aftermath of the most recent phase of that conflict has left scientists with many presuppositions that are not scientific. Bringing those presuppositions and their contradictions into the light of day has taught me that replacement of the Big Bang Theory by the Infinite Universe Theory will be a big deal, removing the last vestiges of creation from our view of the world and of ourselves.

After all that, Rick Dutkiewicz, a determinist of the first order, still had this to say:

"Faith" implies an end to questioning and testing. "Assumption" implies room for tweaking the definition of our assumptions. Maybe I shouldn't think of it that way.

I agree, you shouldn't. We have all been brainwashed with the fact/faith dichotomy. We need to get over it. The reality is that the stuff we argue over will never be decided by one more observation or experiment. Those debates, like the freewill vs. determinism debate, are nearly useless, as can be shown a zillion times. We just need to choose one or the other and see how it works for us. I choose determinism--I rather like observations, experiments, and predictions that really work. I think that works better for understanding the universe than all the phantasmagorical dreams of the indeterminist.

I guess I need to reemphasize my motivation for using the words “faith” and “assumption” instead of the word “fact” in describing the difference between science and religion. One reason is that is the correct way of doing it. The certainty assumed and connoted by the word “fact” simply does not exist.[5] Another reason is that the faith usage is pedagogically important at this historical moment. Major paradigm shifts require reexamination of fundamental assumptions. I am fully aware of all the bad connotations of the word “faith,” but that is the only way I can understand and explain the persistence of the Big Bang Theory. How else could trained scientists choose creation over conservation? They ignore that glaring contradiction or say that the “fact” that the universe is expanding requires that we chose creation. Some even have the temerity to say that the laws of physics were themselves products of that creation. As I have shown, the interpretation that the universe is expanding also is based on indeterministic assumptions. Once the paradigm shift is complete and the deterministic assumptions, conservation and infinity, have prevailed, folks will begin to think of the universe as infinite. Those assumptions will then take on the connotations of the word “fact.” There will be less reason for talk of the “scientific faith” once the dust settles. In the meantime, the cosmogonist’s denial that the Big Bang Theory is founded on “faith” or indeterministic assumptions will continue to be part of the philosophical struggle.

[1] Kuhn, T.S., 1970, The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd edition) (2 ed.): Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 210 p.

[2] Keniston, R.P., and Tully, Jean, 1953, Plane geometry: New York, Ginn and Company, 392 p.

[3] Collingwood, R.G., 1940, An essay on metaphysics: Oxford, Clarendon Press, 354 p.

[4] Borchardt, Glenn, 2004, The ten assumptions of science: Toward a new scientific worldview: Lincoln, NE, iUniverse, 125 p. . [Also Chapter 3 in: Borchardt, Glenn, 2007, The scientific worldview: Beyond Newton and Einstein ( http://www.scientificphilosophy.com/The%20Scientific%20Worldview.html ): Lincoln, NE, iUniverse, 411 p.]

[5] Ibid, p. 30.

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