2008-05-03

why science is not a faith

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by Neil Godfrey

Reading the same old “tu-quoque/you too!” fallacy from fundamentalist supernaturalists that science or any position questioning the Bible is itself “a faith” or “belief” puts a responsibility however tedious, I suppose, on naturalists with a scientific disposition to continually make accessible the answer to that fatuous canard:

Tamas Pataki, from Against Religion (pp.117-118 )

The charge of scientific dogmatism is so contrary to fact and so foolish that it calls for diagnosis. Richard Dawkins is a favourite bogeyman, and McGrath and Eagleton are two of those who stalk him. How can Dawkins ‘be so sure that his current beliefs are true, when history shows a persistent pattern of the abandonment of scientific theories as better approaches emerge?’ asks McGrath. But Dawkins, of course, is not ‘so sure’: ‘My belief in evolution is not faith, because I know what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming.’ He’s not sure (in McGrath’s sense) because although his beliefs may be indubitable in light of currently available evidence, he knows that they are not infallible. That is what science is about: conjecture (or hypothesis) and refutation.

But the religious apologists are imputing a religious conception of knowledge, characterised by inerrancy – just as the Bible is supposed to be inerrant – which allows them to stretch science on the horns of a false dilemma: either science presumes to provide incorrigible knowledge, in which case it is shamelessly dogmatic, or it is just a matter of faith, just like their turf. They have no conception of the difference between warranted but fallible belief, and faith. Finding to their satisfaction that science falls short of incorrigibility, they conclude that, after all, science and religion are in the same boat-just matters of faith.

(Pataki here footnotes by way of illustration Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism (2004), pp.93-97, 179-83. Unfortunately I have not run across a copy of McGrath’s book, so can only leave this reference here for others to follow up. But I have certainly read many of the sorts of ignorant claims Pataki refers to.)

And Anthony Grayling, from Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and and an Essay on Kindness (p.34)

People who do not believe in supernatural entities do not have a ‘faith’ in ‘the non-existence of X’ (where X is ‘fairies’ or ‘goblins’ or ‘gods’); what they have is a reliance on reason and observation, and a concomitant preparedness to accept the judgement of both on the principles and theories which premise their actions. The views they take about things are proportional to the evidence supporting them, and are always subject to change in the light of new or better evidence. ‘Faith’ – specifically and precisely: the commitment to a belief in the absence of evidence supporting that belief, or even (to the greater merit of the believer) in the very teeth of evidence contrary to that belief – is a far different thing.

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5 thoughts on “why science is not a faith”

  1. Nice summary. It seems obvious when you read comments from creationists complaining about Darwin’s writings that they really do think that science is modelled on theological knowledge claims. It’s only if you think knowledge comes from an authoritative text that you think that you can critique evolutionary theory by criticising a 150 year old book.

  2. I suppose if you looked at it seriously, you’d have to come down to what is proof within the relevant domain of discourse. Each side of this particular debate attempts to impose its own definition on the other with at least misleading and at most ludicrous results.

    The scientific method (insofar as one adheres to it) is based on interpreting experimentally derived evidence (leaves out most of the “observational” folks but that’s the problem with hard defintions). Interpretations change as new evidence comes to light, new explanations are developed, etc.

    Most scientific explanations omit the concept of deity under the rule of parsimony — if you can explain a phenomenon in two ways — one based on observation, experiment and knowledge and the other based on deity (or other supernatural factors), then parsimony obliges one to choose the former. It’s a good rule that works very well in practice.

    However, it must be said that there is a great leap of “faith” between “seeing no evidence of deity/supernatural factors” and “there is no deity/are no supernatural factors”. The first is falsifiable under observation and might therefore be called “scientific” while the second is a philosophical/theological position and in therefore in another realm of discourse with its own rules and notions of proof.

    Perhaps if both sides of this particular debate would “tend to their knitting” and abandon the idea that a PhD/Dsci/ThD/etc grants them authoritative rights in areas outside their domain of expertise, we could get back to scientists doing science and theologians doing theology.

    Now there’s a radical idea! 🙂

  3. Live and let live sounds like a nice idea, but I can’t see the possibility of that between, say, the finds of archaeology and biology and those who insist on the literal truth of the Bible.

    Ought we have a responsibility to seek to inform and educate against any way of thinking or belief system rooted in ignorance and authoritarianism? Hasn’t that been the way to progress since ancient times?

  4. Well said. Your post inspired me to contrast Dawkins comments with William Lane Craig’s assertions that he would disregard evidence that undercuts his position as tricks of the devil in a post titled “Reason and Faith: Craig v. Dawkins.”

  5. Interesting thing is, when we turn to the good scriptures to learn how the devil really works, we discover that he holds out temptations to make grand claims for one’s position by ignoring the evidence of the real world.

    He attempted to persuade Jesus to ignore the reality of gravity and the composition of stone in order to prove he was God’s chosen one.

    If that tells me anything, it is that William Lane Craig has, unlike Jesus, succumbed to the temptations of the devil to ignore reality in the interests of his exalted claims of how close he is to God.

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