The Faith of Science

I might quibble with certain points made here by Paul Davies, but his overall point is certainly correct–namely that science is ultimately based upon faith.

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23 Responses to The Faith of Science

  1. Burk Braun says:

    “You couldn't be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed.”

    Yes, you could. The difference is between saying that there is order, deities, etc. without knowing anything about them or bothering to verify that they exist at all… versus having a glimmer of hope or simply an hypothesis that there might possibly a little order, finding evidence for that order, and going on to other hypotheses and testing.

    Davies is talking through his hat.

    “The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational.”

    This is not an argument, it is a psychological plea for religion. Laws exist- that is a fact, though it might be better to call them regularities of nature, since their form as “law” is given to them by us, and may change with more insight on our part (as he says- bylaws, etc.). They operate with no feeling, remorse, regret, etc. We may well come to greater appreciation some day of why they are the way they are. Or we may not- hard to tell.

    But the hypothesis that they derive from some clever bloke in the sky is pure fantasy- one that has been made for every odd phenomenon through history and been vindicated for none. Not a single one.


  2. Darrell says:


    You are missing his point. He is not making an argument for “god.” He is noting that, at bottom, science proceeds by taking fundamental things by faith.


  3. Burk Braun says:

    It is not faith to say that something exists, such as gravitation, for which there is good evidence. It is not faith to characterize the rules of the game under which one exists as far as reason allows.

    It is faith, on the other hand, to characterize that which one knows nothing about, leading to the fabulous fantasies known as the religions of mankind.

    No one on the scientific side takes the multiverse hypothesis as true on “faith”, for instance. It is regarded as an interesting hypothesis, but no one is forming religions on its basis or making Pascalian wagers about it. If the evidence for it mounts, perhaps belief may someday be warranted, on a tentative basis.

    Assuming things are true on insufficient evidence is the mark of faith. And it is exactly that unfounded faith that bonds the adherent to his or her cult of belief. It is an age-old psychological transaction.


  4. Darrell says:

    Again, I don’t think you see his point. It is a faith belief when one doesn't know where gravitation comes from or why it operates exactly and precisely the way it does—science can only describe at that point—the rest is taken by faith. It is also by faith that one believes it will always operate the way it does. That these “rules” can be reduced to abstraction and mathematics means they are principles “outside” themselves so to speak—they transcend the force of gravity itself. It is much like the way theology describes the human condition and the natural world. Once one peels back the layers, one gets to a faith belief regarding the sheer existence of things and why they are the way they are.


  5. Burk Braun says:

    That isn't faith, that is observation.

    If theology concerned observation, it would be called sociology, and be the same across cultures. But it isn't, instead making up all sorts of stories to account for observations- stories without much merit.


  6. Darrell says:

    So you have observed where gravitation comes from—the origin? Wow, do tell. You have observed the underlying principles of mathematics even as representations/abstractions? Amazing. You have observed the ‘why’ of existence? Incredible. No, what you have observed is phenomenon-just like everyone else, theist and atheist alike. You have not observed the “reason” or the “why” of the phenomenon. Those areas are reserved for your faith—just like for everyone else. Clearly you are still missing his point.


  7. Burk Braun says:


    Just so- we all observe the phenomenon. But it is the faith-ist who tells us why it happens.. due to a deity, without the least intellectual justification for holding such a view. He tries to pass off speculation as insight, not to say revelation.

    On the other hand, the scientist follows the formulas and whatnot and stops there (with description). Unless they find the reason for space curvature by mass in some other nook of physics, they are stymied and do not mind saying so.

    The essential difference is in the intellectual connection between claims and evidence. Faith makes claims with poor or no evidence, and for all the rather obvious psychological reasons we have been through.

    Obviously, the scientific method of humility works-precisely because it puts the horse of evidence before the cart of speculation. As your friend puts it “And so far this faith has been justified.” Justified because it isn't faith at all, but just an ongoing dialectic (hermeneutic, if you wish) of observation, hypothesis and testing.

    Leave the testing part out, and you have faith. Which has not been justified, for obvious reasons. Like that second coming.. when is that due in?


  8. Darrell says:

    Well, it is the theist or the atheist telling us why it happens or why-it-doesn’t-happen respectively. The difference is that the Christian, anyway, knows he is asserting by faith, whereas the atheist tells us “why-not” as if he “knows” by observation or “proof.” But both are telling us something. Of course, the atheist does not “know” and since all “proof” and “evidence” are interpreted by those very faith-based presuppositions, he is asserting by faith alone in the area of the “why” even if that is a negative as to why there isn’t a God or no “proof” of such.

    What you miss, and what the writer is alluding to, is that without faith it is impossible to make sense of, or even evaluate, evidence or proof—the very phenomenon in question. One must still believe certain things, at bottom, to even get to science or theology. You have jumped over his point to simply start asserting this, that, or the other.


  9. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    You might be interested in this post, about Feyerabend, who thought about these things pretty well, seemingly.

    Both emphasize that faith is exactly not the core or origin, and anything that can be done to destabilize faith in favor of testing and critique is to be welcomed.


  10. Darrell says:

    The blogger you suggest, although I think misses Feyerabend for even thinking he’s against rationality in science, does get the basic idea that Davies is alluding to. It is noted here:

    “Rather, he rejects one common interpretation of that notion [scientific rationality]: the view that scientific rationality can be reduced to a set of universal canons of investigation and justification, and that there is a neutral and universal set of standards of inference that decisively guide choice of scientific theories and hypotheses. So I think it is better to understand Feyerabend as presenting an argument against a certain view in the philosophy of science rather than against science itself.”

    This is the basic idea behind what I have said many times over and what Davies was pointing out as well. It has absolutely nothing to do with being against science, reason, or having a relativistic/subjective view of reality. It simply notes the priority of interpretation as noted here: (Continued)


  11. Darrell says:

    (Continued) “However, the reasoning that scientists do is always contextual and skilled, rather than universal and mechanical. And it doesn't result in proofs and demonstrations, but rather a preponderance of reasons favoring one interpretation rather than another.”

    What this blogger is referencing, possibly without even being aware of it, is the fact that this “interpreting” is even at work in fashioning the preponderance of reasons. Interpretation is where the faith resides and it goes all the way down.

    Here is the problem. You read or hear the word “faith” and think “against or without evidence.” That is simply wrong. Faith is not belief without reasons. As long as you have such a simplistic and utterly wrong view of the concept of faith, you are always going to misread people like Davies and Feyerabend. How one could read this blogger’s post and write, “and that anything that can be done to destabilize faith in favor of testing and critique is to be welcomed,” is beyond me because no such idea is stated therein.


  12. Burk Braun says:

    Hi- That is very interesting. I was just reading C.S. Lewis on faith, and he likewise redefines it as fidelity, and not contrary to reason. The Webster definition I see is:

    1 a : allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty b (1) : fidelity to one's promises (2) : sincerity of intentions

    2 a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust

    3 : something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs
    — on faith : without question

    While leaves quite a bit to picking and choosing, when it comes to religion, this implies not fidelity and the rest of #1, but the meanings of #s 2 and 3. But I would be interested in your definition, since it does seem to run counter to mine.

    The problem is basically that even if one claims to refer to #1, one has to continually weigh evidence on how worthy the person or institution is of one's fidelity. And the leading characteristic of religion tends to be to demand and receive fidelity without such evidence, whether in terms of the contractually agreed upon second coming, or on countless other points of prophecy, resolution of evil, prayer, etc. (not to mention more mundane matters of clerical behavior). That leads the typical person to apply definitions 2 and 3 to the matter of religion, as observed in practice.


    The faith that I see working in science is only the most basic, operational faith that the world is real, and that our observations of it are in some small degree consistent over time. Everything else can be and has been contested, subject to verification, calibration, and critique from all directions.

    Nothing more complex is required, and I am continually mystified by what you mean by your argument that some more faith is required that in any way equates with the enormous leaps of faith that death is life, that crucifixion is triumph, that man is god, and similar Orwellianisms at the core of Christianity. I would appreciate deeper explanation on that count.


  13. Darrell says:

    It might help here if you addressed your misreading of the very post you suggested, but as to your further points I think you are confusing “faith” with fideism. You are also forgetting this is a philosophical conversation where a more sophisticated understanding of the term faith is required. I would suggest checking out this link and reading especially #1, 3, and 4.


  14. Burk Braun says:

    OK, well, on the first point, I would dispute the view you raise. “..the view that scientific rationality can be reduced to a set of universal canons of investigation and justification..”. How can they argue both that science approaches something to be valued as true, and not believe that its justification is essentially universal?

    I agree with their basic points of the multiplicity of ways one might get to such truths, but knowing one is there is not, in the end, a matter of revelation or intuition or viewpoint, but of universal justification. Which is to say, by compelling logical means, such as by measurement and quantitation, empiricism, reason, etc. I knew the entry would interest you, but did not mean to imply I agreed with everything it said.

    On the second point, it is not clear whether you subscribe to fideism or not. What is your definition?

    If you do, then we are talking about the same thing, and the discussion reduces to claims that there are “truths” that can not be arrived at or defended by reason.

    If not, then what are you talking about?

    “The reformers held that the human intellect had been corrupted by humanity's fall from grace, and that consequently the truth of Christianity could be apprehended only by faith.”

    There's a funny one!

    “Thus, Hume proceeds to add that since “[m]ere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity…whoever is moved by faith to assent to [Christianity] is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person which subverts all the principles of his understanding and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience”.”

    Another funny one, but not contrary to what you have expressed yourself from time to time.

    ” Whereas the latter pit faith directly against reason, the former contend that faith can appropriately take over where reason leaves matters of ultimate concern unresolved.”

    Here we are. But where does anyone get the idea that there are such “matters of ultimate concern”? The whole idea is an enormous crock, based on the very non-rational foundation one is seeking to justify by applying it to them. What is life for? Perhaps it isn't “for” anything. The conviction that it has to be “for” something “greater” leads to all the irrational excesses of fideism in the first place, whose origin is far better placed in psychology than in some chimerical super-reason.

    ” … our overall experience of the world is equally plausibly interpreted on either a theistic or an atheistic reading, thereby leaving open the question of God's existence “

    This is simply not the case. As outlined in my previous replies and elsewhere, the contra-logical demands of religion are far, far more rigorous, if you will, than those of atheism. There is no comparison, except when religions are so watered down- into deism, for instance- that there remains no detectable difference between them. But Eric Reitan takes this position as well, which I see as clear philosophical malpractice.

    “The brand of fideism for which Bishop argues is thus ‘supra-evidential’ in the sense that it defends the permissibility of reasoning on the basis of commitments that outrun what is warranted on purely evidential grounds.”

    Even this is incoherent, since, as above, the only thing the evidence allows you to retain is a deistic, inert deity. Any further commitment/belief, such as in prayers answered, fiddling wth DNA, need to propitiate it/pray to it, etc. all violate evidence of the world as is quite well known. Such a god of the gaps is a wan ghost.


  15. Darrell says:

    I would think it clear that I do not subscribe to fideism and part of my point was to note that when you are speaking about “faith” you are actually talking about something more akin to fideism.

    I think the rest of your response only confirms my original point, which is that you are missing the point of Davies’ article, your own suggested blogger’s, and mine as well. Ironically, when you write what you do about ultimate concerns, you confirm those very points.


  16. Burk Braun says:

    If you don't subscribe to fideism, then what do you subscribe to and how do you define faith? We have gone through every normal definition at this point.


  17. Darrell says:

    As to how I defne faith you answer part of that question when you write: “The faith that I see working in science is only the most basic, operational faith that the world is real, and that our observations of it…” So you admit faith is necessary at a basic level and yet where you go wrong is in use or application of the term. It takes no faith to believe the world is “real.” That is quite evident. Where faith comes into play is when we interpret our observations and at some point articulate what our observations mean (or don't mean) and their implications.


  18. Burk Braun says:

    How does that work? If I observe an insect, I see it doing various things connected with carrying on its life. I conclude that it has or is a mechanism for self-perpetuation. The implications need no faith to elaborate, but do take careful observation of how this insect fits into the larger scheme of its environment, for instance. It is not at all clear where or when faith comes into the picture.


  19. Darrell says:

    I am, of course, talking about the larger questions of life that the totality of our observations, life experiences, contexts, and so on amount to or point towards (or don't point towards). After all, even if someone says “there is no meaning,” he is interpreting the totality. I am talking about the web of all these confluences and how we interpret the totality. From time immemorial the questions that have concerned most peoples’ minds are the ultimate questions of meaning, life, death, purpose, love, ethics, relationships, power, community, family, and so on. By the way, you ask “How does this work?” Well, you are doing it right now in this conversation. Your faith is quite evident.


  20. Burk Braun says:

    Sounds more like “shooting the breeze” or “talking through one's hat” to use the technical terms.

    The “totality” seems to be your shelter from reason. Very well.


  21. Darrell says:

    Burk, if you think the greatest works of literature, the works of Shakespeare, the music, the art, theology, science, and philosophy produced world-wide, which are the very interpretations of that totality of existence, can be reduced to “shooting the breeze” or “talking through one’s hat” then I feel sorry for you. If that is what you think it means to be reasonable, then very well.


  22. Burk Braun says:

    I see. So you have your own definition of faith:

    4. Belief based on non-explicit reasons such as artistic impression, intuition, revelation, and how things feel. A holistic, totalistic impression of the universe, claimed to be reasonable and even analytical, yet at the same time admitted to be irrational. Syn: world-view.

    It is ironic in the extreme that you would have such a weak understanding of faith. But it clarifies a great deal of our discussion. World view means one thing, faith another, in my book.


  23. Burk Braun says:

    Since what you mean by faith is actually world view, it would be helpful to discuss that a bit. The wiki site is pretty good. It makes clear that world views can involve issues that are subject to testing and reason- that can, in other words, be wrong. I think that is the distinction that is missing in your conceptions here.

    You claim to freely admit having unreasoned views at the core of your world view. And so do I, in part. The question is whether there are views contained in there that could be or have been resolved on some rational basis, so they can be laid aside and made consistent with what is commonly termed … reality.

    That there are some subjective remainders is not in dispute- whether spring breezes are good or bad can be a matter of opinion. And whether the universe was “made for us” is somewhat a matter of artistic construction, depending on how narcissistic one is. There certainly is no evidence on the matter, so skeptics would assume the negative till some actually arrives. But it could be termed a matter of taste, though perhaps -of psychology would be a better way of putting it. Perhaps that is what you would call faith- to insist on some culturally conditioned special constructions of ambiguous matters (and, I would have to add, many that are not so ambiguous at all) so as to facilitate a traditional mythical world view.


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