Another canard dispelled: is science a faith?

September 6, 2013 • 9:37 am

By now we should all know how to respond to this bit of criticism, which is leveled by believers and accommodationists at science as a way to drag it down to the level of religion. Faith is simply belief without good evidence, with no evidence, or in the face of evidence. Believers will deny that characterization, or try to redefine “faith” in more sophisticated words, but I always refer them to the Bible itself (Hebrews 11:1):

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Yet even smart people try to insist that science, like religion, is based on faith. One of them is  Christine Ma-Kellams, a social psychologist at Harvard, who, with Jim Blascovich, a professor of social psychology at the University of California Santa Barbara , did a study purporting to show that exposure to science made people more moral.

I recently criticized that study as being rather weak, suggesting that we need longer-term analyses on the effects of studying science on morality.  However, given that Ma-Kellams and Blascovich were touting the positive effects of science, I was surprised that the first author, in a HuffPo piece, leveled the old “science is a faith” canard:

“In many ways, science seems like a 21st Century religion,” Ma-Kellams told HuffPost Science. “It’s a belief system that many wholeheartedly defend and evolve their lives around, sometimes as much as the devoutest of religious folk. And although many have studied the link between religion and morality, few had tried empirically at least to test whether science also had moral repercussions.”

. . . “Many like to think of science as a neutral, purely objective force,” she said. “But in reality, the things what we study and investigate and think about influence our very conceptions of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, without us necessarily realizing it.”

Well, she’s not even right about the claim that scientific investigations are always being informed by our conceptions of right and wrong. I’m hard pressed, for instance, to see how morality has in any way influenced my work on speciation in fruit flies.  And certainly science is not a “belief system” in the way that Ma-Kellams proclaims. Let’s call it a “confidence system” instead.

Fortunately, as reader Gregory pointed out, Jeff Schweitzer, in another HuffPo piece called “Science is not religion,” has done the heavy lifting for me. (Schweitzer is a marine biologist and bioethicist who worked in the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Clinton administration.)

Here’s an excerpt from Schweitzer’s piece, but there’s much more:

Science is not a “belief system” but a process and methodology for seeking an objective reality. Of course because scientific exploration is a human endeavor it comes with all the flaws of humanity: ego, short-sightedness, corruption and greed. But unlike a “belief system” such as religion untethered to an objective truth, science is over time self-policing; competing scientists have a strong incentive to corroborate and build on the findings of others; but equally, to prove other scientists wrong by means that can be duplicated by others. Nobody is doing experiments to demonstrate how Noah could live to 600 years old, because those who believe that story are not confined to reproducible evidence to support their belief. But experiments were done to show the earth orbits the sun, not the other way around.

Here is the fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the two: science searches for mechanisms and the answer to “how” the universe functions, with no appeal to higher purpose, without assuming the existence of such purpose. Religion seeks meaning and the answer to “why” the world is as we know it, based on the unquestioned assumption that such meaning and purpose exist. The two worldviews could not more incompatible.

Unlike scientific claims, beliefs cannot be arbitrated to determine which is valid because there is no objective basis on which to compare one set of beliefs to another. Those two world views are not closer than we think; they are as far apart as could possibly be imagined.

Religion and science are incompatible at every level. The two seek different answers to separate questions using fundamentally and inherently incompatible methods. Nothing can truly bring the two together without sacrificing intellectual honesty.

It’s refreshing to read that sentence: “Religion and science are incompatible at every level,” which is of course true but makes accommodationists put their fingers in their ears and say “nyah nyah nyah nyah!”  And one other difference between science and religion is that science gets the answers and religion does not. The difference rests on something Schweitzer also points out:  when you arrive at an “answer” to a religious question, there’s no way of knowing whether you’re right or wrong.  Science has such ways, and if it didn’t we wouldn’t ever learn anything.

Schweitzer’s article is forthright, strong, and excellent: bookmark it or print it out the next time you hear a mealy-mouthed faitheist, accommodationist, or believer utter the moronic words “Science is a faith, too!” It will save you a lot of arguing.

121 thoughts on “Another canard dispelled: is science a faith?

  1. Schweitzer’s article is good, but I have one quibble. When he says “science searches for mechanisms and the answer to “how” the universe functions, with no appeal to higher purpose”, he seems to echo the methodological naturalists who claim that science, by definition, assumes there is no higher purpose. As Jerry has rightly pointed out in other posts, science does not assume that there is no higher purpose, but rather concludes this from the evidence. It could have been otherwise. Science would have included “purpose” in its theories if this led to better predictions about the real world.

    1. I agree. The same with the old saw that science can’t be used to investigate the supernatural.

      Well, there are many things wrong with that old saw, but in this instance what I mean is that science simply investigates whatever it is you want to call this existence that we happen to be a part of. If there were gods, unicorns, faeries, wizards, or any other manner of fantastical stuff sharing this existence, science (broadly construed of course) would be the only “way of knowing” returning useful information about them.

      I also dislike it when scientists say something to the effect that “science assumes that the same physical laws obtain everywhere.” That ain’t so. At least not in a general sense. Sure perhaps now we do make that assumption, but that is because the results already obtained strongly indicate that that is indeed the case. Despite searching for exceptions there have been no verified observations or results that support any instances of exceptions. If results showed otherwise we wouldn’t make that assumption going forward and science would continue to yeild results about the nature of reality. And hell, we still investigate the possibility on occasion just to be sure.

      1. We have good evidence that the same laws applies to a volume larger than a factor 1000 than the visible universe (from cosmic variance on the standard cosmology) and has applied in such a way for ~ 14 billion years.

        Nothing assumed that isn’t subsequently tested went into that evidence chain.

    2. he seems to echo the methodological naturalists who claim that science, by definition, assumes there is no higher purpose

      I think you mean the philosophical naturalists. The methodological naturalists are the folks who don’t appeal to higher purpose merely because it doesn’t seem to work. They don’t rule it out by definition. PNs say ‘there is no such thing.’ MNs say ‘such hypotheses appear fruitless.’

      (All IMO; other may draw differnet distinctions between the MNs and PNs)

      1. Yes, I think you have it backwards. As I understand it, advocates for “methodological naturalism” assert that science is limited to using natural methods to study natural things, period. You can therefore still use science AND believe in the supernatural with no conflict. Science can only study nature — it can say nothing pro or con on the supernatural.

        The philosophical naturalist on the other hand can (though needn’t) reject that, saying that the methods of science aren’t limited up front, the supernatural could, in theory, be studied objectively, and thus naturalism is a well-supported working theory.

        1. I understood that methodological naturalism was the view that science only deals with natural (non-supernatural) phenomena. In other words, the methodology of science excludes study of some domain (the “supernatural”, however that is defined). And of course I disagree with that view.

          1. Yes, that’s a more succinct paraphrase of what I was trying to say. Accomodationists usually endorse methodological naturalism (or maybe endorsing methodological naturalism is one of the defining aspects of accomodationism.)

          2. Even so, that is not a claim that “science, by definition, assumes there is no higher purpose.” An MN may claim that no higher purpose is discernible by the method of science. But what distinguishes them from the PNs is they stop there, and do not conclude “thus, no such purpose exists.”

          3. I would say that science has within its domain anything that *affects* nature, regardless of whether the agent is natural. This is different, I think, from saying that science is confined (or not) to on natural subjects.

  2. I can see science is like a religion when people “defend and evolve their lives around” but that is where any similarity ends. You could make this comparison to fashion, music, art and sport.

    1. Yes and no.

      You’re right, there is a vernacular use of “religion” and for some people, science would qualify. Tennis is his religion, astronomy is hers.

      The problem is, the relativists aren’t using it in this vernacular sense. At least not strictly. The Ma-Kellams quote is a good example. The first sentence could be interpreted in the vernacular sense without much problem…but then you get to that second paragraph, and it’s pretty clear she means something beyond the vernacular. She means that science as a methodology shares some characteristics with religion that make it comparably subjective. And that’s incorrect.

      At best, this is an inadvertant mashup of two meanings. She’s trying ot say something and mixing together two different uses of the word. But at worst, it could be intentional: an attempt to try and sell people on relativism by first getting them to accept a vernacular sentence about science. An attempt to bundle “it’s subjective” in with “it’s personally important to that person,” knowing that few people will object to the latter becaues it’s so obviously true.

          1. I don’t think so. A deepity needs to be trivially true and I’m not seeing how “science is a religion” can be seen thus.

  3. One of the strongest evidences that science is not a faith: when you take a science course, you almost invariably do labs and see the evidence for yourself.

    I don’t notice religious institutions having new converts do analogous investigations by (say) praying to Dog to smite one’s enemies, and then analyzing the results.

    1. The religious do tests all the time. But the test is always for the believer; they never test God. If you pray and fail to see the evidence, then it’s your fault. Revise your method, revise your interpretation, revise your method of interpretation. Never, ever just throw out the hypothesis.

      That would be cheating.

      1. After more than 2000 years the god-hypothesis is looking a bit tired and outdated.

        If only it didn’t have the characteristics of a potential self fulfilling philosophy…

  4. Sam Harris points out in this talk, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mm2Jrr0tRXk
    that science is based on beliefs in evidence and logic. “If someone doesn’t believe in evidence, what evidence are you going to provide that proves they should believe in it?” (21:40) He makes a similar statement about logic.

    I think the point is not that science and religion are the same, but that they have to be compared on parameters other than belief/non-belief.

    1. Johnson’s “I refute it thus!” comes to mind. A kick in the shins ought to convince anyone that my boots are real.

    2. You need to have faith (confidence/ trust) in empiricism to value knowledge derived from the scientific method over knowledge derived from a religious authority.

      I’m beginning to think of empiricism as the unprovable axiom we keep overlooking in these discussions. Science relies on it absolutely, yet I can’t think of a way one could prove or falsify empiricism itself.

        1. Yes. I suppose so.

          But what I’m really doing is trying to do is to develop a fresh answer to the “science is a kind of faith” canard.

          Explaining that there’s no faith involved doesn’t really cut it, because I think it comes across as denial to the general public. It lets the anti-science activists make up faiths for us, like Darwin worship or “uniformitarianism”.

          I think that a more genuine answer would be:

          1. Yes, we believe (without proof) that humanity can learn the important things that it needs to know by observing the real world.

          2. That’s the only sacred cow. Everything else is subject to empirical evidence.

          1. 1. Yes, we believe (without proof) that humanity can learn the important things that it needs to know by observing the real world.

            I’d argue we’ve already proved that multiple times and continue to do so on a daily basis. We cure diseases and develops technology that improves our lives and improves our living standards.

            But I guess we first need to find a somewhat common and objective definition for what constitutes “important”.

            1. Right.

              Argue that with someone who spends every day studying the Talmud and, I’m guessing you’d be arguing for a while.

      1. You do not need to have “faith” in empiricism, you only need to look at the results.

        Does it work or does it not ?

        Does it generate new information about the nature of reality or does it not ?

        Is there any other system that generates new information about the nature of reality ?

        There may be some better system out there for doing that job but so far it has not been discovered.

        And we can state with certainty that religion is not such a system.

        1. I’m not a philosopher, but using empirical evidence to prove empiricism seems circular.

          Think of it as one of several competing theories:

          1. The important knowledge that humanity needs can be found in the Bible and have to do with humanity’s relationship with God and our preparation for the afterlife.

          2. The waking world is an illusion. The important knowledge that humanity needs can be found when we fall sleep and enter the real world of dreams.

          3. The important knowledge that humanity needs can be found by observing the natural world.

          Number 3 gives better results in the real world, but that doesn’t make 1 and 2 wrong, because they aren’t about real world results.

          1. “I’m not a philosopher, but using empirical evidence to prove empiricism seems circular.”

            This is a none issue. You can philosophize all you want if that is what you like to do. But no matter how much time you spend doing it, and no matter how convoluted the philosophy you construct, it has no bearing on the fact that the methods of science (broadly construed of course) yield useful results that are useful everywhere all the time, that anyone can confirm for themselves, and no other so called “way of knowing” does the same.

            It really is very simple. These methods work, others don’t. If people wish to think that that is not enough to have confidence in these methods then they are being irrational or they are ignorant.

            The term “empiricism” is just a word that means “testing against reality.” Now, if you want to argue that we can’t ever know what reality is, or even if there is a reality, I suppose that’s fine. But then how can you possibly justify any “way of knowing?” In any case science cuts through all that by simple (in basic concept) trial and error used as a filter to grade the usefulness, or accuracy, of various models of various observed aspects of our existence.

            Also, in the context of the real world your numbers 1 and 2 are wrong. And that is the real problem. If peoples’ religious beliefs did not inform their behavior, then no problem. But it almost always does. And it always impacts other people in the real world. It impacts all of human society in the real world, very often negatively.

            1. Some early Christians who were rich gave away all of their possessions to the poor.

              By your reasoning you could prove that they were wrong to do so because empirical evidence shows that they were no longer rich.

              1. Not to speak for Darrelle, here, but my own reply to Sagra is that IF some early Christians gave all their possessions away with no strings attached (and I am aware of no empirical evidence which establishes this claim as factual), it is objectively empirical to observe that at that point those persons no longer owned any possessions. Assigning some sort of value to such an action, e.g. right or wrong, however, is purely a subjective judgement.

            2. Note however that’s not what “empiricism” means in the philosophical tradition. Moreover, it is obviously incomplete regardless. As for how any epistemology is justified – like any other general hypothesis – by its fruits.

          2. _Of course_ it is circular! That is after all how empiricism works, from hypothesis testing based on earlier observations to the never-ending circle of observation-theory.

            It is only in empty logic where one would like to avoid circularity as a minimum sanity requirement. In logic/philosophy/theology/story telling there are no new observations or hypotheses feeding into the circle and breaking it all anew again. A fully tested theory is based on its observations and constraints, and tests them all by predicting them. Such a theory need new observations or better theory to be broken and build a larger area of knowledge.

            If it isn’t circular, it isn’t interacting with the environment. If it isn’t interacting with the environment, it isn’t about nature. That is how we know 1&2 are wrong, they don’t map to what exists.

            E..g philosophy and accommodationist theology.

              1. Agreed. But the loose philosophic logic definition of “circular” makes some part of an iterative process “circular”.

                It is not my definition, and I think it is useless since eg recursion is circular. It is akin to philosophers discussing “truth” values of facts, which isn’t precise enough. (Since “unknown is a perfectly valid state of an observation or a hypothesis.)

                But for the sake of argument I can accept the loose definition.

              2. I will defer to philosophers on the definitions they use. If they need a loose definition then so be it. But I’m just a dumb-ass engineer (and science geek, with lots of programming in my sordid past). So, iteration, recursion, and circularity are three *entirely* different things for me. Personally, I find it useful to keep them disjoint. A philosopher’s mileage may vary.

        2. You do not need to have “faith” in empiricism, you only need to look at the results.

          But we measure the results through the evidence of our senses and our capacity to reason. How do we know our senses and reasoning are giving us reliable information?

          I think there are good answers to these questions, but you do need to go a bit further than simply appealing to “empiricism” or saying “science works” as if that’s a complete answer to the basic philosophical questions.

          1. If my computer breaks down and a priest comes in and prays over it but it stubbornly refuses to work, and a newager dreamer comes in and dreams over it and it still stubbornly refuses to work, and then a technician using the results of empiricism makes my computer work, then I think I’m going to conclude empiricism proves that empiricism works.

            It may sound circular but, if it works it damn well works, and thats fine by me and my computer.

          2. We know because it is reliable according to reasonable definitions. And as Jerry notes, we also expect such out of evolutionary theory.

            As in all theories, you would have to replace “it works” with a better theory that explains all illusory results and makes some more (even if illusory).

            I wait with bated breath.

      2. I think you are right that empiricism is an axiom that can’t be proven. But I think that it is universally held. Even those who deny it still base 99% of what they do every day on the implicit assumption that empiricism is correct. I bet they look before they cross the street. I bet if you threw something at them, they would duck. I don’t think someone who denies empiricism is intellectually honest.

        1. Of course religious people use it all the time, or they would quickly die out.

          The difference is that science puts empiricism at the top and everything else is subject to it.

          To be religious is to give religious knowledge priority over empirical knowledge when the two conflict… to some extent.

          1. Empiricism can be seen to work by its results. I know the religious think it’s crap, but if it didn’t produce the most bang for our buck, we’d stop using it. It isn’t only science in the narrow sense that relies on empiricism but corporations who run successful businesses, politicians who make successful decisions and probably a lot more.

            Of course the leaning toward a more logical method is often based on personality and some people are just going to be less logical than others and make decisions on feelings (ugh, I had a boss like that once) and it’s not surprising that the religions do similar so when there is a conflict, they take the religious route, where many of us would go the route of logic (and empiricism).

            1. If you eschew empiricism altogether wander around with your head in a dream world, you’d better hope you live in a monastery or a convent where your more level-headed brethren can keep you fed and away from sharp objects.

        2. If empiricism is an axiom that can’t be proven, a hammer is “an axiom that can’t be proven”.

          First off, this isn’t a theory that can be tested, so it is empirically invalid. Rather, it looks veritably inane.

          Second, we already have a best theory here (see my previous comment).

      3. The best response to this “issue” that I’ve ever seen was provided by our esteemed host:

        “I am SO tired of this trope. It may indeed be the case that we can’t justify a priori via philosophical lucubrations that we arrive at the truth about nature only by using the methods of science. My answer to that is increasingly becoming, “So bloody what?” The use of science is justified because it works, not because we can justify it philosophically. If we are interested in finding out what causes malaria, no amount of appeal to a deity, philosophical rumination, listening to music, reading novels, or waiting for a revelation will answer that question. We have to use scientific methods, which, of course, is how causes of disease are found.”
        (http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/a-belated-reply-from-francis-spufford-who-defends-his-faith/)

  5. Since “faith” is such a common word it’s easy to equivocate between the casual secular usage (“I have faith in my doctor”) and the more pointed religious interpretation (“I have faith in God.”) To pry those two meanings apart ask people if they believe in their doctor’s infallibility like they believe in God. Hopefully not. If it’s pragmatic reliance open to change, it’s not religious faith. Religious faith will spin and spin and spin excuses, terrified of change and fleeing revision as if escaping from the chasm of despair.

    I have read some persuasive arguments for the claim that science and its consensus-seeking methods do indeed have moral assumptions lying behind them — specifically, that it is better to be honest than dishonest, better to seek truth than falsehood, and that diversity must be entertained because bias and prejudice are likely to lead to error.

    Religion and its faith methods take that last part and stomp up and down on it. Apparently bias and prejudice are — in the right hands — special “other ways of knowing,” absolving one from the tedium and pain of listening to or answering critics.

  6. In one hundred years, not one peer reviewed physics article that I am aware of has made tangible value-laden claims.

    No reputable scientist goes into the lab each day thinking that the study of any particle or field is guided by values, moral or otherwise. In the last fifty years we have seen remarkable progress in the form of engineering controls that make practicing science much safer for the scientist and the public at large. Nothing is done without implicit knowledge of worker controls, even for theorists. In this manner, science is guided by values toward the safety and security of humans (and earth in general). Science, however, ultimately uncovers predictive knowledge about the universe. Any values that come from scientific knowledge are manufactured outside of science.

    Further, no practicing scientist believes in anything regarding nature. No one (should) believe in evolution or gravity. They are either the case or they are not. I do not believe in evolution, it just happens to be the case, which I learned from many millions of observations made by hard working scientist working in fields far outside my own. I have measured gravity to a precision that would either frighten or astound most, but gravity is not something I believe in. I try to conquer it by understanding it, not by believing.

    1. I understand what you mean, and I understand why you make the distinction. But, for me, I think “believe” is a perfectly good word and I don’t think we need to give it up to the wooists and religious believers just yet.

      I do think that the distinction you make is important to make when engaged in topics like this with religious believers and other wooists though.

        1. My thinking on this after reading the two comments at post #15 below leads me to provisionally conclude that the word ‘belief’ is a term so laden with woo baggage I must be very careful when I employ it, so as not to inadvertently buttress existing claims/conclusions incongruent with reality.

          Question for Kevin re the final sentence in your para 2: am I correct if I interpret this to mean … values assigned to scientific knowledge originate nowhere in the science process itself, but instead from human conclusions external to it. … ?

          1. Quick answer. First let me put some definitions of science.

            1. Good definition of science by Schweitzer: science is “a process and methodology for seeking an objective reality”. This process can be persuaded by values but it can also justify values and morals.
            2. Science is the outcome of the process mentioned above. By this definition, I mean, science = predictive knowledge = our best representation of nature. This form of science is valueless. We are trying to model objective reality…there is no room for values (i.e., no particle or field cares for values).

            An outcome of science would be using prediction to control nature, e.g., I know what a chain of C-F-C-F atoms will do and I can exploit that knowledge to make things, make money, or do bad things. People, even myself, sometimes have a difficult time distinguishing the 1) method of science, 2) the knowledge provided by science, and 3) the use of science.

            So the knowledge we gain (outcome) of science is as pure as we get to nature without value assigned but the process of science can be heavily value laden, and the use of science (engineering, medicines, weapons, computers, etc.) is marred with fanatical values, good and bad.

      1. I believe darrelle is right too.

        Seriously, skepticism aside, I do believe in things which are scientific or at least empirical. I believe my bed gives a good night sleep, even when the cats jump on me occasionally. I have no reason to believe it is the best bed, but it is an adequate, old bed and I believe in it because I have about 10000:1 good to bad nights of sleep in it (omitting flue and colds).

  7. In the same vein there is a paper (“a perspective piece”) coming out dispelling another canard, the one about “other ways of knowledge” as it pertains to mathematics and its popular, among mathematicians, platonist philosophy of unobservable mathematical ‘objects’.

    The paper doesn’t seem to have appeared yet, but here is a press release.

    There are several interesting tidbits.

    – The author Abbott, Professor of Electrical and Electronics Engineering at The University of Adelaide in Australia, has as main point that there is a heavy selection bias on effectiveness. (Abbott defines effectiveness in mathematics as producing compact, idealized representations.)

    “There have likely been millions of failed mathematical models, but nobody pays attention to them.”

    – Abbott suggests a number of complementary reasons for “why mathematics is reasonably ineffective”, inspired by mathematician Hamming (of the Hamming code, Hamming window, Hamming distance).

    – Abbott has made a non-scientific survey that says that while ~ 80 % of mathematicians are platonist, few engineers are, and physicists “tend to be “closeted non-Platonists,””.

    – The title of the piece mirrors Wigner’s “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” with “The Reasonable Ineffectiveness of Mathematics.” (Incidentally, googling this it seems to be a popular start of titles of articles that discusses why mathematics have a less than stellar track record in applied areas such as economy and social sciences.)

    FWIW, Abbott inspired me to shorten my own analysis here:

    The empirical null hypothesis is that mathematics is a human construct, because historically it is.*

    So platonists et cetera philosophers needs to test their ideas of something more.

    You can’t predict and test for something more, so that fails.

    *The argument can be made that mathematicians are by and large exploring mathematical relationships despite some evident construction.

    But I will maintain, in line with Abbott, that this is largely pattern search on a basis of selection bias. Many patterns are deemed interesting because mathematicians fancy them.

    I hope that when this piece comes out, it is good enough to simply point to anytime people mention Wigner’s “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” or platonist philosophy as support for “other ways of knowledge”.

    1. – Abbott has made a non-scientific survey that says that while ~ 80 % of mathematicians are platonist, few engineers are, and physicists “tend to be “closeted non-Platonists,””.

      Hehe…hopefully they are gearing up to get out of that closet. We could use some more hardhitting physicists to tackle the recurring selfimposed issue of meta-physics.

  8. The sad side of accommodationism is that it so often works by adhering to those remaining elements of faith that have been !*not yet*! discredited!!

    Schweitzer does well in focusing on conflicting methods rather than conflicting beliefs. “Science is not a “belief system” but a process and methodology for seeking an objective reality.” (T.H. Huxley said the same thing about “agnosticism” in fact!!) Religion lacks science’s mandate that ideas be rigorously tested in publicly verifiable ways. Since religion tends to stubbornly cling to dogmas even when discredited, this mandates a vigilance over attempts to corrupt science with religious mandates.

    But I don’t think that either Eugenie Scott or Chris Mooney (both accommodationists of sorts) believe that science is a faith in the sense described above!!

    In various ways (many trivial and/or speculative) one can reconcile (a few) religious beliefs with scientific findings, but when you attempt immunize those beliefs from further criticism, then you are still jeopardizing scientific method (as in the example of the Catholic church accepting evolution but insisting on the descent of all humanity from a single couple as a notion somehow beyond criticism).

    I like very much Jerry’s (in a previous post he says he prefers first names here) idea that science is not a belief system but a “confidence system”. Unfortunately, fundamentalist religion is so often a “confidence game”. 🙂

  9. “Science is not a “belief system” but a process and methodology for seeking an objective reality.”

    Of course it is; for one thing, it holds that its processes and methodologies are useful in seeking an objective reality.

    And that also implies that an objective reality exists.

    1. The usefulness of scientific processes and methodologies is an empirical result, not an a priori article of faith. Science tries many methods, and discards the ones that aren’t fruitful at producing verifiable results.

      Similarly, the fact that different researchers can converge on similar results strongly suggests that there’s something objective out there to be measured. That too is something we’ve learned by experience, not assumed from the get-go.

      1. “s is an empirical result, not an a priori article of faith.”

        It is still a belief system, just not one based on faith.

        However, empiricism itself comes closer to a priori act of faith. One that I agree with of course, but it’s such a basic, common sense assumption that it can be tricky to defend to one that claims to not hold it.

        1. One that I agree with of course, but it’s such a basic, common sense assumption that it can be tricky to defend to one that claims to not hold it.

          Tell them to forcefully bang their heads against a concrete wall 1000 times and ask them to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being “insufferable/ I don’t wanna do this anymore”.

          Those that survive may know have proof of empiricism.

              1. I don’t know what “life with empiricism…appears to be true” is supposed to mean. It doesn’t seem to be a well-formed proposition.

                I would say that trusting our senses is justified by reason, and trusting reason is necessary to say anything meaningful at all.

              2. I guess there’s always solipsism if you want to question the validity of empiricism, but I get the feeling that’s not what you’re looking for.

                Didn’t you ever fall down and scrape your knees and such when you was a kid?

              3. Solipsism runs up against basic physics. We know how to make a universe but not a single brain without an external universe. (Unless you mean Boltzmann Brains, that supposedly fluctuates into existence. But those have other ramifications.)

                Simulations also runs up against basic physics, since quantum mechanics says “no hidden variables” and we should in principle always be able to tell. Arxiv have papers with some ideas.

              4. Thanks, Torbjörn.

                My simple point was that most of us learn through trial and error and adjust our behaviour according to the experiences.

              5. Trial and error, Gary.

                Incomprehensible as an answer to my question. I suspect you don’t really have any clear idea yourself of what you mean by “proof of empiricism,” hence all the evasion and doubletalk.

              6. I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about.

                Am I supposed to disprove solipsim and simulation theory for you?

              7. Solipsism runs up against basic physics. We know how to make a universe but not a single brain without an external universe.

                Solipsism doesn’t necessarily involve a brain. Just a mind. And physics can’t refute solipsism because physics may itself be part of the imaginary world.

                Simulations also runs up against basic physics, since quantum mechanics says “no hidden variables” and we should in principle always be able to tell.

                How does being able to tell mean that simulations run up against basic physics?

              8. I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about.

                You claimed that banging your head against a wall and surviving “proves” that “life with empiricism…appears to be true.” That claim is incoherent. “Life with empiricism” isn’t a proposition at all, so I have no idea what you think it even means to “prove” it, let alone how surviving a head-banging provides such proof.

              9. LOL. You’re not much of a joker are you? 🙂

                As I said, I’ll let you sort out for yourself what to make of solipsism and its digital cousin the simulation hypothesis.

                Have fun.

              10. And physics can’t refute solipsism because physics may itself be part of the imaginary world.

                But if the imaginary world contains imaginary atoms, planets, and people with enough structure and state to obey the same physics as real atoms, planet, and people, then in what meaningful sense are they imaginary? How is the real world any realer than that?

                If there’s no operational difference between solipsistic physics and real physics, then solipsism reduces to an empty word game that arbitrarily defines physical entities to be “in here” rather than “out there”.

              11. But if the imaginary world contains imaginary atoms, planets, and people with enough structure and state to obey the same physics as real atoms, planet, and people, then in what meaningful sense are they imaginary?

                But they’re not obeying the same physics as real things, because the physics is imagined too. There may be no “operational” difference, but that’s not the only kind of difference. A computer program can simulate the operation of a machine but that doesn’t mean the program is the same thing as the machine.

              12. I generally agree with what Gary W is writing here about solipsism. Solipsism is “compatible” with whatever we experience, it’s logically “possible.”

                However it can be dismissed because nothing suggests it.

                Vaal

              13. Gary, I don’t know what you mean by “the physics is imagined too”. If the physical theories that describe imaginary atoms are isomorphic to those that describe real atoms, then they’re the same physics. “Physics” is an intellectual construct in either case.

                And if there’s no experiment you can do, even in principle, to tell the difference between imaginary atoms and real atoms, then it’s meaningless to label them differently.

                In other words, if your solipsistic universe is detailed enough to be indistinguishable from a real universe, then it is a real universe, since it necessarily contains all the particles, forces, natural laws, and such you’d expect a real universe to contain. There’s nothing left for a real universe to have that your solipsistic universe doesn’t have, except the tautological label of “realness”.

                So unlike Vaal, I don’t think solipsism is logically possible; I think it’s logically vacuous. It’s merely a semantic trick that redefines “my mind” to mean the same thing as “the universe”.

              14. If the physical theories that describe imaginary atoms are isomorphic to those that describe real atoms, then they’re the same physics.

                No. If there’s no physical world, there’s no physics. An imaginary world is not the same thing as a real world. The world of Harry Potter, for example,”exists” only in people’s imagination. What you believe to be the real world might not exist either, except in your imagination.

              15. Gregory,

                I agree with you that the solipsism being discussed is ultimately vacuous in terms of suggesting anything different about how we would interact with the universe.

                I don’t think it’s “logically” vacuous though, since it is a logical possibility.
                A universe dependent on your mind is conceptually (even if not practically) different than a universe independent of your mind.

                Vaal

              16. Gary: “physics may itself be part of the imaginary world.”

                Gary again: “No. If there’s no physical world, there’s no physics.”

                Make up your mind.

                Vaal: My whole point is that the “imaginary” entities in the solipsistic universe must necessarily behave independently of your will if they’re to present a convincing illusion of reality. So they’re “dependent on your mind” only in the trivial sense that you’ve redefined “mind” to include all those independently behaving entities.

                But I’m repeating myself, and it’s a long way back to the Reply button, so it’s probably time to let it drop.

              17. Gregory,

                (Just really thinking about this off the cuff here…)

                Presumably if the universe is a product of my mind, then it ceases to exist when I die.
                That seems a non-trivial difference between the universe actually existing before and after my mind existed.

                Also, to the issue of one’s mind producing a convincing impression of objectivity: In my dreams all sorts of objects, characters and happenings appear to me as having “objective” existence, acting independent of my will (just last week I had a dream about being chased by someone through the city. The person in my dream and my surroundings, WHILE in my dream, struck me as being independent of my will just like “reality.”

                And after all, what we each think of as “reality” is a construct in our mind – a model that we have to put together from various inputs, which often seems a mix of the true and false. It’s no wonder things like dreams, delusions and hallucinations seem so independently real since they are born of the same machinery that constructs our sense of “reality.”

                So I, like most of us when considering dreams, delusions, hallucinations etc, can conceive of experiences conjured by our mind that appear objectively real, seemingly independent of our own will. This still leaves us with a significant conceptual difference between the idea of something *appearing to exist independent of our mind and something actually existing independent of our mind*

                Vaal.

              18. Make up your mind.

                I don’t understand what you think I need to make up my mind about. You apparently think the two statements you quoted are in conflict, but you don’t explain the nature of the alleged conflict.

              19. “Solipsism doesn’t necessarily involve a brain. Just a mind.”

                Even worse, since my claim was that we don’t know how to make a brain.

                “And physics can’t refute solipsism because physics may itself be part of the imaginary world.”

                I just described how we have distinguished between your imaginary alterantive – it doesn’t work- and physics – it works.

                “How does being able to tell mean that simulations run up against basic physics?”

                Because simulations have hidden variables, an underlying extraneous substrate.

              20. I was rushed:

                “we don’t know how to make a brain.” – we don’t know how to make a brain without an external environment. (We do know how to make new adults, even if it takes a fancy dinner and some sweet talk. =D)

                “Because simulations have hidden variables, an underlying extraneous substrate.” And again, this is ability to tell in principle. I didn’t mean we know this is broken by having tested it to Planck scales, but so far we expect that reality is good. It isn’t as if we haven’t constrained this at all.

        2. If evolution teaches us something it is that exactly nothing is “a priori”. All what we have are painstakingly achieved on the backs of many deaths and, more recently, experiments.

          Conversely, how would you test your “a priori” assumption as an “assumption”? Then and by whom was it “assumed”?

  10. The first prerequisite of criticising something is knowing what it is, and individuals who level this kind of criticism at science clearly know little or nothing about it or how it works; and work it most certainly does.

    Such talk is just silly and stems from ignorance.

  11. The word belief is so damaged by its association with immutable faith that it should never be used in a discussion of science. “Scientists believe . . . .” when seen by one of faithful just reenforces their idea that science is a religion. Therefore, I say “Scientists think . . .” whenever I can remember to do so.

    1. Why not “scientists conclude?” Method, method, method.

      At any rate, I think “belief” is believing in what you think.

      1. As I recall from earlier posts a good case was made for distinguishing ” I have faith in d*g” and “I trust science/scientists”. Trust is more conditional than faith but for a non-scientist like me trust can be justified because (a) the scientific method produces results that are properly verified, tested etc, and (b) science has very strong self-correction protections built into its methodologies. In some cases egos, reputation, bullying etc may slow this process but sooner or later needed corrections will kick in.

      2. I prefer to distance myself, as much as possible, from phrases or words that have significant supernatural meaning to christians. The less rope the christians are given the fewer people they will damage.

        1. The problem with that is, soon, you’ll have to give up on all sorts of perfectly useful words, such as, “love,” “evil,” “fool,” “heavenly,” and the like.

          Why let the Christians run roughshod over our language? Let them speak their own secret code phrase dog whistles all the like, but don’t let that stop you from using the language as it’s been used for an eternity.

          Also, it is impossible to believe something without also knowing it, but it’s quite possible to know all sorts of things and not really believe it. A trivial example: I always knew that the Grand Canyon is big, but I never really viscerally believed it until I actually saw it. Not that I doubted the bigness of the Canyon; that was never in question. But now not only do I know the Canyon is big, but I also believe it is big.

          Cheers,

          b&

          1. Hi Ben:

            Gotta say I’m with notagod on this one. I elicit some great gasps and/or nervous laughter when someone asks “Do you believe…?” and I answer “I don’t believe anything.” That give me a chance then to say something like “I don’t believe in evolution; I understand why evolution is true.”

            Since faithheads are always trying to drag science, logic, and rationality down to the level of “belief” (in the sense of “believing what you know ain’t so”), I consider the word too poisoned to be of any positive usefulness.

            As always, YMMV.

  12. Here is the fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the two: science searches for mechanisms and the answer to “how” the universe functions, with no appeal to higher purpose, without assuming the existence of such purpose. Religion seeks meaning and the answer to “why” the world is as we know it, based on the unquestioned assumption that such meaning and purpose exist. The two worldviews could not more incompatible.

    Ah yes, the old “How vs. Why dichotomy.” In my experience, the distinction between how and why questions is usually not so deep as may appear at first. When you throw some hard-won scientific facts at it, “Why does God punish people with disease?” becomes “How do germs and genes explain the bulk of human illness?” is one example.

    And the usual “God did it” response is really about Who, not why. If they could tell us How God did it, then probably we could discard the who altogether. This constitutes pretty much the entire history of science.

    1. I agree that people often inflate that difference.

      But even if we grant that “how” and “why” really are such, how shall one say, non-overlapping forms of interrogation, religion has won no points. It doesn’t matter what questions people claim religion asks, the important thing is that it has no reliable method for answering them, whether it’s who, what, why, when, or where.

  13. A comment about that word “believe”.

    Note that religious usage is often (but not always) “believe in“, and the object of that belief-in is invariably something unprovable or even disprovable. “I believe in God. I believe in Jesus. I believe in the power of prayer.”

    Rational people, including many scientists, don’t believe in much of anything, but they believe lots of things. (Snide aside: An exception can be made for economists who believe in the power of the free market.)

  14. I can almost hear the HuffPo comments from here” “What about all those religious scientists?”

    I’m more or less certain that, irrespective of any religious motivation to investigate the world, scientists do science scientifically. However, any believers or accommodationists should feel free to demonstrate how science can be done using explicitly religious methods.

  15. There’s a short definition of science that appeals to me that also clearly separates science from religion: “Science is the systematic investigation of Nature without reference to authority.”

  16. Almost four score comments and nobody’s yet mentioned Twain’s superlative definition of Faith?

    Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.

    This one is my own:

    A person with faith is one who makes conclusions about that which he has concluded is inconclusive, has knowledge about that which she knows is unknowable. Faith is not “willful ignorance,” but rather “willful insanity” or “willful idiocy.” Faith is a thing deserving not praise and respect, but pity and scorn.

    Cheers,

    b&

  17. Here is my story. In 1991 I visited a colleague at the Taxonomic Institute in Amsterdam. In conversation, he asked me a question. I started to answer, “I believe . . .”. He cut me off and said, “I don’t want to know what you believe, I want to know what you think.” That made a fairly profound impression on me, and is the root of my comments on the conflation of belief and faith.

    1. People who are more analytical and favour logic over emotions tend to say “I think”. People who are more emotion oriented say “I feel”. The “feelers” tend to eye the “thinkers” suspiciously as well.

  18. Science is not a faith – clearly.

    However, it’s not that clear to me that Ma-Kellams was suggesting that. I think it’s equally likely that she was talking about non-scientists who accept what scientists say without understanding – or even knowing – the evidence behind their claims. In that case, the question is whether the public has faith in scientists, which is an entirely different question.

    Of course, I think that the answer to even that question is a resounding “no” because everyone has very direct evidence that “science works” – it’s all around us.

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