Saturday, 23 November 2013

Faith in science


A couple of days ago I saw Prof. Steven Pinker tweet about an article (“No Faith in Science”) by Prof. Jerry Coyne, who argues that science does not involve faith. I was curious to see whether Coyne would come up with a convincing argument or whether the piece was going to be a rather ill-informed rant against religion (as has been the case previously).

My summary of Coyne’s argument - and do read it in full if you are that way inclined - is the following:
  1. Religious faith is “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person” (Walter Kaufmann), “involves pretending to know things you don’t” and is “wish-thinking.” The term “faith” used in the context of science is “confidence derived from scientific tests and repeated, documented experience.” In other words faith when applied to religion is delusional pretense while when applied to science it is rational confidence. “The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. In fact, you’ll never hear a scientist saying, “I have faith in evolution” or “I have faith in electrons.””
  2. Confidence in a scientist’s statements “is based on the doubt and criticism inherent in science (but not religion): the understanding that their expertise has been continuously vetted by other [scientists]. In contrast, a priest’s claims about God are no more demonstrable than anyone else’s. We know no more now about the divine than we did 1,000 years ago.” Science is advancing while religion is arbitrary and static.
  3. Science is built on evidence while religion can’t be: “There is strong evidence for the Higgs boson, whose existence was confirmed last year by two independent teams using a giant accelerator and rigorous statistical analysis. But there isn’t, and never will be, any evidence for [religious claims].”
  4. “The orderliness of nature—the set of so-called natural laws—is not an assumption but an observation.”
  5. In summary - and in Richard Dawkinswords - Coyne argues that “There’s all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.”
Since I completely disagree with the above, let me try to be explicit about my reasons, which will be made from my perspective as a Catholic (and scientist), but many features of which also apply to believers of other religions (and practitioners of other rational pursuits):
  1. Let’s first look at the Kaufmann definition: religious faith as “usually confident” and insufficient to “command assent from every reasonable person.” Here I’d first like to point to the pervasive presence of doubt in Christianity - starting right with the apostles themselves (Thomas being the obvious choice, but the rest of them were an equally incredulous lot too, much to Jesus’ frustration :) and explicit in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which in its opening paragraphs says: “Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. [...] We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God — “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable” — with our human representations” (§40-42). Far from being over-confident, this opening caveat sounds eminently transparent and humble to me. Turning to the second feature of the Kaufmann definition, I struggle to think of many things that “command assent from every reasonable person” - least of all new scientific theories or even observations of phenomena that appear contradictory of the accepted science of the day. One could argue that such an attitude - of cautious assent - is good and is a feature of being critical. That is all well, but then it becomes problematic to use it as a test of reasonableness of faith. Finally, let’s look at the claim that scientists don’t make statements like “I have faith in evolution.” That may well be, but slight variants like “I believe evolution to be true,” or “I consider evolution to be a likely mechanism accounting for the variety of changing life-forms on Earth” are much easier to come by. Is Coyne arguing that the specific grammar and vocabulary of “I have faith in ...” has some special features that its alternative formulations don’t?
  2. Next, there is the juxtaposition of “unevidenced belief” with “justified confidence.” Here I’d like to argue that beliefs, assumptions, working hypotheses, views, etc. of both scientific and religious nature can easily fall into these two categories. As a scientist, my adherence to theories whose consistency with observation I have not tested can be as much based on authority and tradition (I read them in text books and other scientists also hold them to be true), as those of a religious person with regard to the teachings of their faith. Conversely, many of my beliefs are very much backed up by evidence: that the merciful will be shown mercy (Matthew 5:7), that walking an extra mile (Matthew 5:41) or welcoming strangers (Matthew 25:35) are sources of joy, or that the pinnacle of love is self-sacrifice (John 15:13). I believe these not because someone has tricked me or made me believe them, but because I have experienced their truth. This is not to say that religious faith and the beliefs that form part of science are the same - they are not - but just to argue that the line is not between the two but among different beliefs in both.
  3. The claim that “we know no more now about the divine than we did 1,000 years ago” may well be true for a “we” that includes Coyne, but certainly not for a “we” that includes me or a vast number of Christians. Christianity is in constant flux and if a Catholic from 500 years ago time-travelled to the present day, they would be stunned by many of the features of present-day Christianity. The Church’s teachings change constantly based on the experiences of her members trying to put Jesus’ words into practice. For a simple, but very specific, example, see a previous post, and for a greater variety, just take a look at a number of statements made by Pope Francis over the last months - causing a stir with regard to atheists, homosexuals, the poor, etc. - even the cross he uses is a source of controversy, which couldn’t exist if Catholics were just a bunch of nodding sheep. To look at all that and say that there is no change in religion is plain irrational.
  4. Arguing from “giant accelerator[s] and rigorous statistical analysis” is just scarily naïve. Statistics is all about compliance with assumptions (about populations, sampling, distributions, ...) and the scale of a device has no bearing on its capacity to access the truth. The scary thing to me here is the underlying naïveté by virtue of which observation is considered to be about the “given” (data) instead of realizing that it is all about the “taken.” There is no observation without theory (language itself being theory laden) - what you are looking for, how you measure, are a consequence of what your expectations are and the result can either be consistency or inconsistency (where in the latter case the theory can be revised or the content of observation questioned). This is not meant as a criticism - the process leads to progress and great understanding, but just as an emphasizing of observation and measurement not starting from scratch or being an independent entity with respect to theory.
  5. Finally, let’s look at the claim that the “orderliness of nature is not an assumption but an observation.” Beyond the implicit challenges of observation, I’d ask about what observation or observations result in the belief in orderliness, repeatability, the uniformity of the laws of nature? For this universally-quantified claim to be attributable to a finite set of observation, requires an assumption or even a belief in finite observations lending credence to the nature of other observations of greater cardinality and holding under conditions for which no observations were made (e.g., in the past) or for which no observations can be made (e.g. the future). Again, this is not a criticism of science - making the assumption of orderliness and repeatability is a useful and rational thing to do (it is inherent to rationality itself), but it is not a consequence of observation. Instead, it is a precursor. Without such a belief or assumption, observation would be pointless.
Ultimately it is up to you to decide for yourself whether my arguments above - the arguments of a Catholic - are “intense, usually confident, belief[s] that [are] not based on evidence,” “supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation,” or whether they make recourse to “evidence and logic” and can therefore co-exist happily with scientific convictions.