the (little) faith of the scientists

from the Paul Davies at the NYT:

SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that physics “got religion” but only that science can never explain everything and must always assume (on faith) somethings. I am not sure Davies here is using a very strong notion of faith. in end effect all he wants is for scientists to dig deeper within science. This is no existential faith (ie one that might change how you live) but only a scientific one (ie one that influences how you do science).

This objection does not then even reach the level of Kuhnian or other relativizing of scientific knowledge.

I don’t think that the concept of faith has any productive role to play in the field of natural sciences. If anything, faith should be sought in the practical realm (politics, economics) where it might actually play a significant role in upholding our societies (we need to have faith in democracy and in the Euro for them to work – gravity does quite well with or without our faithing it, thank you very much).

thanks ed.


4 Comments to “the (little) faith of the scientists”

  1. Thanks for the interesting post.

    I would agree with Davies that natural science begins (and even ends) with faith, in its most basic sense. You have to believe that what you do is worth doing in order to do it well. You also have to believe that what you have observed is true in order to draw a sound conclusion. I would also agree that scientists must have some measure of faith in an ordered universe for experimentation to make sense. The origin/source/identity of this order is where natural science ends and religion/philosophy begins.

  2. i’m not sure Davies would agree with your last sentence: as i read the end of his article, he was implying that even the origin of this order is to be sought within the confines of science. Davies’ idea makes sense, though i’d agree that there is “knowledge” of some sort to be found out there that does not fall under the banner of science, i just am not sure exactly what it is (and im pretty sure its not the god of Abraham, etc.) – though im more sure that well get at it through ethics than through any other “knowledge enterprise”.

  3. You may well be right. There are some Christian scientists who would like to find empirical proof for the existence of God. I just don’t think God will cooperate. From what I believe, apart from being revealed in Jesus Christ, God remains a mystery. God’s name is – “I will be, who I will be.

    Thanks for responding.

  4. As James Joyce said nearly 100 years ago:

    “It is an age of exhausted whoredom groping for its god.”

    Even more-so today… but better to grope than to accept blindly false ones… unfortunately, usually ’tisn’t the whores doin’ the gropin’ — they’re justa whorein’…

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