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Scientific Faith?

I have just noticed that it has been a while since I wrote a blog entry about religion. In the past that has been one of my most controversial topics so it’s time to restore the balance and toss in a religious post amongst all the recent politics.

This post is going to be about how many people don’t really understand science or rationality in general. I recently listened to a podcast where an obviously religious person challenged a group of scientists in a way which made it obvious that he didn’t really understand the issues involved. And I have heard similar arguments from many others so this is my attempt at explaining the difference in the scientific and religious view on poorly understood phenomena.

The common argument I hear goes something like this: “religious people believe in a god even though they can’t see him, but scientists want us to believe in dark matter (or atoms, or black holes, or something similar) which we also can’t see. What is the difference? Scientists rely on faith just as much as believers.”

Superficially they seem to have a point, but it doesn’t take too much thought to realise the argument is fallacious. There are many ways other than seeing something to conclude it exists. Sometimes this will involve another sense and others it might require a far less direct detection. But whatever the method is it must be able to be precisely described and used by someone else to confirm that the phenomenon is true (or possibly not true if the replicated experiment fails).

Scientists haven’t seen dark matter but they have seen its indirect influence and have deduced its existence through other observations. The same applies to atoms and to every other scientific phenomenon which has wide acceptance. I agree that there are some phenomena (the strings of string theory for example) which have no empirical evidence at all (their predicted existence is purely the result of a mathematical theory) but that uncertainty is well accepted and no scientists claims that strings definitely exist.

Some believers will say that they have direct or indirect evidence of god too, but there is a difference. They can’t describe the experiment that anyone can perform to replicate that evidence. They haven’t published a methodology which another person can follow to support their belief. In science that is always possible (assuming the limitations of equipment and expertise can be overcome).

So it’s the objectivity which is important here. Believing in dark matter is not the same as believing in a god, at least it isn’t as far as I am aware. If anyone knows of a repeatable experiment I can try to test for the existence of a god then I’m happy to take a look at it.

There are two ways that believers try to overcome this objection. First they say that the existence of god isn’t amenable to conventional experiments. Well OK, the existence of the Higgs boson wasn’t amenable to existing experiments either, so scientists created a new way to look for them (and the evidence is extremely indirect too). It’s time for believers create a new experimental methodology to support their beliefs. But remember it needs to be repeatable and work for people who maybe don’t already believe in one particular preferred outcome!

The second method believers use is to say that the experiments have been done and the results are positive. Well as I said above, if you can show me the experimental protocol that anyone can follow to support your conclusion then let’s try it. But if I follow the instructions I should get a similar result whether I want to believe in the hypothesis or not. As far as I am aware, after thousands of years of religious belief, no one has yet established a protocol of the sort I have suggested.

So anyone who says that evolution, or the Big Bang, or quantum theory, or any other scientific theory is as much a result of faith as belief in god is clearly doesn’t really understand the scientific method (or the religious “method” for that matter). That statement is simply wrong and it is easy to show why.

  1. July 27, 2012 at 5:46 am

    To me, God is the representation of everything that science cannot ever comprehend. As a result, whether or not I believe in God ties directly to the question of “are there things that we as scientists will never understand?”

    It’s still a tough one to answer, but I’m usually leaning towards no.

  2. ojb42
    July 27, 2012 at 6:52 am

    When you say “never understand” you are making an extreme claim. The way things are now I would say there is a good chance there are things we will never understand, but how could we possibly know what things will be like in 100, 1000, or a million years? Maybe difficult questions will seem trivial by then.

    Also, why would you label things that science can’t understand as “god”? Why not just say they are things with no answer or an answer the human mind can’t comprehend. Labelling them as “god” is totally misleading in my opinion.

    • August 4, 2012 at 8:11 am

      I use the term God just to make it easier to discuss with religious-minded folks, even though I ‘m just using it to refer to super-natural forces beyond scientific understanding.

      No doubt that science continues to make progress but whether or not we can ultimately under everything is an interesting question to think about. If I’m not mistaken, our current understanding of astrophysics makes it impossible to obtain complete information about what will actually happen inside the event horizon of a black hole…but the question remains, is that likely to change in the next X years?

  3. ojb42
    August 4, 2012 at 9:10 am

    Yes, there are some things which can never be studied according to current theories. Anything inside the event horizon of a black hole or beyond the boundaries of the visible universe might be examples.

    But even then things could change in the future once theoretical physics advances to explain quantum gravity, etc. At one time a leading scientist thought we would never know what stars were made of, a couple of years later spectroscopic analysis told us. That’s not necessarily a completely valid comparison but it does illustrate the point.

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