Friday, April 20, 2012

Is acceptance of scientific knowledge a faith position?

Equivocation never sleeps. "Faith" covers a whole spectrum belief and acceptance.

When the roulette gambler places a chip on 24 Black, they know the odds are against the ball landing on their number, but they are putting their faith on 24. In this sense their thinking may be, "It's probably not going to be 24 but I'm going to trust 24 anyway." This trust in the face of obvious uncertainty may be called faith without straining the commonly accepted definition(s) of faith.

Or the gambler may genuinely believe they have some insight or revelation that 24 will be the winning number. In this case we have unfounded certainty, a trust/belief that ignores reason and evidence (perhaps selectively). Far along the opposite end of the spectrum, this too falls well within the commonly accepted definition(s) of faith.

For those who are more familiar with the way scientific inquiry works, "faith in science" challenges the definition(s) of faith. If our gambler believes that "if they play long enough they will lose their stake," is that faith? So too "faith in science" is the understanding that if we maintain discipline and objectivity eventually we will be less wrong in our understanding of reality. We will make blunders along the way. But when we play by the rules the house always wins in the end. We can call that "faith" but it is misguided or disingenuous to do so.

Scientific knowledge (as opposed to inquiry) is merely our best, most current understanding of reality. What we accepted as reality fifty or one hundred years ago was riddled with inaccuracies. What we accept as reality today will likely be found wanting in the next fifty or one hundred years. Knowing this, is it not faith to accept the current body of scientific knowledge as true? Given the breadth of scope of the definition(s) of faith we could certainly make such an argument. But there are some distinctions here to be made. (1) We know and accept that scientific knowledge is provisional. (2) The conditions that support the corrigible body of scientific knowledge are generally very concrete, consistent and offer testable predictions. (3) The breadth of scope of the definition(s) of faith is so unbound that any non-tautological, non-axiomatic belief or understanding may be described as faith. This infinite definition basically renders the word "faith" meaningless in regards to belief or trust. (4) "Faith" is also used to describe "devotion." While proponents of science are devoted to scientific inquiry, any devotion they have for the body of scientific knowledge (or parts thereof) is contingent on the quality of the inquiry supporting that knowledge.

The biggest detractors of Science (as they understand it) tend to have an alternate agenda. (1) Such detractors suggest their anti-scientific agenda is superior because it is immutable or timeless. (2) They rely on subjective interpretation (inescapably influenced by wishful thinking and/or fear) , ancient stories or modern prophets. They have texts of dubious divinity and questionable sources. And despite alleged supernatural authorship these texts are no better informed on the mechanics of nature than any other bronze age source. (3) They portray faith in science as bad but faith in religious doctrine as virtuous, noble and reliable. Actually, and suspiciously, faith in religious doctrine is less virtuous, noble and reliable if it's not their particular flavor of religious doctrine. (4) They want you to be devoted as well as trusting in regards to (their particular flavor of) religious doctrine. 

Any thing that may be doubted may be considered a faith position.  And we may doubt the nose on our face.   If we may call belief in science a faith position it is only because "faith" is so indefinite and vague as to be meaningless. 


  1. "if we maintain discipline and objectivity eventually we will be less wrong in our understanding of reality"


    "We know and accept that scientific knowledge is provisional"

    I think this is a big problem for some people. They don't like uncertainty and they don't like changing their minds. They think that the changeability of "scientific knowledge" is a sign that it can't be trusted. Their Bible doesn't rewrite itself. Their psychological comfort is the big stumbling block. They need reassurance that it's okay if facts change based on new evidence.

  2. Most people will recognize that they know things now that they didn't know five years ago. Most people will recognize that technology advances pretty regularly. When the last dozen or so biblical re-translations were published it was without protest.

    But politicians aren't allowed to change their minds. And the greater scientific endeavor is criticized when a redaction is made. It seems like a double standard. But I think it comes from a need/desire for control of one's destiny, which requires a relatively static and predictable environment.

    While Science gets the blame for faulty discoveries like cold fusion and arsenic-based lifeforms, Science doesn't get the credit for pulling these faulty products off the shelf.

    It seems worth pointing out that the bible has undergone several revisions. But most people would rather deny or ignore that possibly in order to avoid considering the significance.

    I'm not sure facts can change but our understanding can.