Do scientists have “faith” in science?

Faye Flam’s column/blog at The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Planet of the Apes“, occasionally deals with the intersection of science and religion. Her piece from yesterday, “Science, faith, and life’s origin,” addresses a misconception held by some of her readers: science is a faith like religion.  It’s a common way of dragging science down to the level of religion by implying that both are equally good—or equally deficient—at finding truth.

The reasons that people give for science being a faith are multifarious; they include, among others:

  • Our stance of philosophical materialism (i.e., the idea that the universe is composed only of matter and energy, with no supernatural forces at play) is an assumption based on faith.
  • Our assumption that there is an external reality that we can perceive through our senses is based on faith.
  • The idea that the Universe is comprehensible through empirical observation, and can often be described through mathematics, is based on faith.
  • The idea of “abiogenesis”— that life arose spontaneously from nonliving matter—is based on faith, since we weren’t there to see it and may never know how it happened.

I’ve already gone after the first three on this website and so won’t reiterate my responses (they involve our reliance not on “faith,” but on scientific experience of what actually works at helping us understand the universe, as well as the idea that natural selection favors our ability to perceive reality); but Faye’s column deals with the last misconception: abiogenesis rests on faith.  She interviews several scientists, including me, who knock down the idea.

If I can be a bit self-aggrandizing here, I do like this bit:

But how exactly this took place is still an open question. Does that mean scientists are exercising a religious type of faith to seek out a natural explanation?

Not if you define faith as the Bible does, said University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne, author of the book Why Evolution Is True.

The definition is laid out in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Science is the opposite of faith – it relies on observation and evidence, Coyne said. “It’s the conviction of things seen.”

Let me rewrite, then, the whole Biblical quote to emphasize the distinction between science and faith:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  (Hebrews 11:1).

“Now science is the assurance of things that exist, hoped for or not—the conviction of things that are seen.”     (J. Coyne, Hebrew)

Or rewrite your own Biblical passage (another one to tinker with is “Doubting Thomas” from John 20:29: “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou has seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”)

But have a look at what Faye’s readers—and the scientists—have to say.  And be sure you know how to counter the “science-is-a-faith” argument.

103 Comments

  1. nonsense
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    This is my favorite religious argument, because it’s the very last one — the one they can only resort to when they have nothing else.

    • Dr. I. Needtob Athe
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink

      No, Pascal’s Wager is their last argument.

      The first time I heard it was when I was much younger and unprepared. A Jehovah’s Witness said “If I’m wrong, what have I lost? But if YOU’RE wrong, what have YOU lost? Think about it!” and quickly made his getaway before I could think about it.

      Maybe he knew it sounded impressive but was full of holes.

      • Kevin
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:06 am | Permalink

        Answer: What have you lost? Your entire life serving a fiction. Wasting all those precious never-to-be-retrieved moments on a fairy story. And not a very compelling one at that.

        • Sajanas
          Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:51 am | Permalink

          1/10th of your income (or more) and every Sunday morning is a non insubstantial amount. Not to mention all the fear, the praying, the time spent with boring people at church rather than real friends, and just the time wasted thinking about this stuff.

          I still have an inordinate amount of the Lutheran Book of Worship rattling around in my head somewhere that I wish I could trade for some Shakespeare or Homer.

          • Posted September 6, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

            I still have an inordinate amount of the Lutheran Book of Worship rattling around in my head

            For me, it’s tons of Bible verses and mostly crappy church songs. I’ve made up more entertaining lyrics for the persistent tunes, but the tunes themselves are embedded in my brain BIOS.

            My eventual upgrade to the Anglican BCP and better church music helped a bit, but that stuff is still rattling around in my head, too.

  2. Adam M.
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    I think to some degree they are correct. To say that life came into existence by any specific mechanism, such as abiogenesis in the Earth’s oceans, is an assumption. We don’t know that. It’s an assumption that I also make, but I don’t see any strong evidence for it yet. Maybe one day we’ll recreate of life in a lab in early Earth conditions, but even if we did, it would only be evidence for its viability.

    Even to say that life came into existence by some natural process somewhere is an assumption, and not something known. Where the universe came from is also a mystery, and to say that it wasn’t created by a god is an assumption. I tend to just say that the best models are those that make the fewest assumptions for what they explain, and assuming a god somewhere is very unlikely to be necessary, and would raise more questions than it answered.

    • Tulse
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:26 am | Permalink

      And to say that Napoleon actually existed, and wasn’t the result of a conspiracy of history book writers and brandy makers, is also an assumption. I prefer to remain agnosto-napoleonic.

      • Adam M.
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        There’s a difference between an event whose direct effects are still observable and/or were documented while observable, such as the Napoleonic conquest, and an event whose direct effects — those original replicating molecules and their close descendants — are no longer evident, and about which we have no documentation or theory that allows us to infer backward with anything approaching certainty.

        • Tulse
          Posted September 6, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

          Theory is quite abundant in this area (Wikipedia is your friend), and empirical work is getting closer and closer to producing self-replicating entities from non-living sources. Work here is no more speculative than in many other fields of science. You are engaging in mere special pleading.

          • Adam M.
            Posted September 6, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

            The proliferation of theories says to me that we just don’t have enough data to discriminate yet.

            I think I see your original point, by the way. Despite never saying that I know that none of the gods of man’s religions exist, I live my life without the slightest doubt, and similarly, we needn’t have the slightest doubt that life arose via a natural process. I myself don’t doubt it. But I still don’t think we know in the same way we know that life evolved, and saying we know is what opens us up to this argument that we have “faith” in the first place.

            I prefer to say that we don’t know, but we’re working on it. :-) I am looking forward to when we do finally have a complete theory of abiogenesis, rather than a whole bunch of theories that we can’t decide between. It might even happen in my lifetime…

      • Tommy
        Posted September 21, 2011 at 1:08 am | Permalink

        Cool!
        I look forward to the hundreds if not thousands of first hand accounts of people who were there at the start of the Universe you are about to recommend to even begin to make that comparison NOT look like a load of Flat Earther horse waste.

        • Tulse
          Posted September 21, 2011 at 5:56 am | Permalink

          Tommy, do you have an actual “first-hand” account of the birth of your great-great-grandfather? How do you know he actually lived?

          • Tommy
            Posted September 21, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

            I have absolutely NONE whatsoever, which is exactly the point! I have FAITH that the genealogy my brother and I uncovered is accurate. It could be a big fat pile of horseleavings, but it all makes sense and seems to back up my Granparents memories of him, as do the photos. So I’m taking it on trust!
            I’m not saying he DID exist, as HIGHLY unlikely as it might be I could be the result of some IVF related tech, or could even be a clone… Its VERY HIGHLY unlikely, and I’m prepared to accept the chances are outrgaeously high that I have a normal biological lineage.
            I BELIEVE that to be true, though at the micro level I cant prove it.
            Which, and like many I reckon, having never checked my “Hebrews 11:1″ for the Proper definition… is kind of what most people mean when they use the word “FAITH”.

            Its like how some people believe the Bible to be true, but cant prove it.
            And like some other people believe abiogenesis created life on Earth from dirt but cant prove it.

            • Tulse
              Posted September 21, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

              I have absolutely NONE whatsoever, which is exactly the point! I have FAITH that the genealogy my brother and I uncovered is accurate.

              There are not just two alternatives of either observing something directly or “having faith”. The fact that you think so is indicative of your problem with science.

    • ritebrother
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      Except that several hypotheses regarding potential autopoietic systems in early Earth conditions HAVE been tested in the lab, and found to be viable (lookup the work of Aleksandr Oparin, Sidney Fox, Joan Oro, Harold Urey, Stanley Miller, Thomas Cech, and Gerald Joyce). That said, the limitations of knowing what is a viable possibility for the abiogenesis mechanism still stands.

      • ritebrother
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

        Oops – Sorry Mattapult. I should have kept reading.

      • Adam M.
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

        I’ve followed reports of their work with some interest. The most interesting to me involve ribozymes that can replicate and that evolve via natural selection. I also vaguely remember reading about a similar enzyme that, when exposed to certain organic material, assembles it into an evolving, self-replicating molecule. And of course the Urey-Miller experiments are classic.

        But the organics produced in the Urey-Miller and followup experiments don’t do anything on their own, and the enzymes that act upon them are complex and highly unlikely molecules. Between them, there’s a gap that remains, so far as I know, unfilled.

        I suppose most educated people believe some unknown natural process occurred on Earth between the two. (And I also assume that.) I’ve also heard the idea that a crucial piece came on a comet. Theologians would surely say God was involved. But I don’t think we know how it happened yet.

        The best argument I could make to say that belief in abiogenesis isn’t “faith” is to say that unlike believers in religion, we don’t claim to know yet, but there’s no reason, given the many things we do know, to assume it happened any other way.

        • Tulse
          Posted September 6, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

          there’s a gap that remains, so far as I know, unfilled

          But that gap has been getting smaller and smaller, and there is absolutely no reason, except theological commitments, to think that work in this domain will be somehow different from every other domain of science.

          • Adam M.
            Posted September 6, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

            I fully agree.

  3. Mattapult
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    Some of the comments in the link are pretty predictable… you don’t have 100% of the pieces of abiogenesis, so it’s all faith.

    Every little piece a scientist discovers erodes “the other way of knowing”.

    The Miller-Urey experiment is a great example.
    “Organic compounds cannot self-assemble from inorganic matter.” Miller-Urey found one way they could. “But that doesn’t represent conditions on primitive Earth.” Subsequent experiments by other scientists have found 30-50 other ways, using different compounds and heat sources. We may never know exactly which one was the original spark, but the evidence is overwhelming that there is a natural explanation.

    Unless you are Michael Behe, who dismisses the whole category of experiments as being done under controlled conditions.

  4. Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    “Our assumption that there is an external reality that we can perceive through our senses is based on faith.”

    Gag. No one has ever been able to sufficiently explain what it would mean for an external world not to exist, or how it would change anything, or why anyone at all would give the slightest shit about it. Whatever the status of this mystical “external world,” it has no bearing on the world of trees and atoms and idiots who argue that the external world doesn’t exist that we live in and strive to understand.

    The other examples are stupid as well, but my god this one is offensive.

    • Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      If acknowledging that my toe will hurt if I kick a wall is faith, then I have to wonder why the religious make such a big friggin’ deal of it. It’s the broadest and most mundane concept around.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

        +1.

      • Posted September 6, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

        Haha, great point.

    • Adam M.
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      It is annoying. When my step-father calls me and attempts to convert me to Christianity, he’ll often rebut what I say with “Our perceptions aren’t reality! We can’t know anything for sure, not even that we exist!” But he “absolutely knows” that the god of his particular minority sect of Christianity is real.

      • Tulse
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

        “We can’t know anything for sure, not even that we exist!”

        I believe a certain French person would disagree with this claim.

        Next time he says this, ask him how something that doesn’t exist can have beliefs about its own existence.

        • Posted September 6, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          Nah, Descartes’ Cogito is a pretty terrible argument. I think it was Russell who made the point that all Descartes’ was really entitled to was “there is a thought” (though you can find the roots of this counter in Hume’s inability to find any self behind the “bundle of perceptions”). I’d in fact go further and say that Descartes is entitled not even to “there is a thought,” since the method of doubt would call into question what precisely it is. So all we have is a “something we know nothing about.” When you are determined to doubt everything (except the worthiness of doubting everything!!), you really do need to doubt everything.

          So if you’re going to use Descartes’ method of doubt, then you have to carry it through all the way to doubting your own existence. I’d advise against using the method of doubt at all, though—it’s quite horrid and, if accepted, obliterates science, which accepts fallibilism.

          • Posted September 6, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

            “…all Descartes’ was really entitled to was “there is a thought”…”

            Wouldn’t that then require the position that consciousness exists independent of any physical substrate?

            Even if the Cogito doesn’t demonstrate the existence of any one, particular, special form of “I” or “self,” it at least demonstrates that something is receiving data, making perceptions, thinking. Doesn’t it?

            • Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

              In practice, using the usual rules of inference, sure. (Do note that Descartes, with his mind-body dualism, already thought consciousness could exist without any physical substrate. The Cogito only purports to establish a non-physical self, which we find later interacts with the physical body through the pineal gland, and all that jazz.)

              But Descartes was committed to a method of radical doubt, and that doubt’s function was precisely to undermine the usual rules of inference. He wanted to strip back belief as far as he could, to end up with what simply couldn’t be doubted. But why can’t the idea that consciousness doesn’t require a self be doubted? Certainly Hume provided reasons for doubting it not too long after Descartes was writing.

              • Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

                Would it be fair, then, to say that, while much of Descartes’ philosophy might be terrible (I agree that it is – but I am not particularly well versed), the Cogito itself – on its own – is not terrible?

              • Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

                I don’t know for sure. I find it hard to separate the Cogito from his specific philosophical method. After all, knowing that consciousness is tied to material beings necessarily requires a good deal of complicated theoretical background. In a real-life situation, looking around and seeing your two hands and your chest and your legs, etc. will be a much easier way of verifying your own existence, should there ever be a situation where you need to do so.

                I added that last caveat because I’m studying Wittgenstein right now, and has some very intriguing remarks in his book On Certainty about various claims that aren’t really ever challenged, for which there’s no context in which it really makes sense to challenge them. I find this view quite tempting, and I think “I exist” is the sort of claim where it’s very weird to think about having to verify it.

                These are issues I’m struggling with a lot right now (especially the stuff in the second paragraph), so I’m not entirely sure how to think about these things. I feel like I’m at a half-understanding of Wittgenstein, on the verge of a breakthrough that will clear up a lot of issues, but I’m not there yet. When I think about the Cogito I feel weird and uncomfortable, in part because of the issues I raised in my second paragraph, but also in part because when I really focus on it I find that I just don’t know how to think about it right now.

  5. Sigmund
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    I find it interesting that abiogenesis was not a problem for theists in the time before Louis Pasteur’s experiment.

    • zengardener
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      +1

  6. Tulse
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    Not to get too Kantian, but the assumption that there is a comprehensible external world is pretty much a necessity for any kind of reasoning. It’s not unique to science, and I’ve never understood the argument that these assumptions are somehow the Achille’s heel of science.

    • Llwddythlw
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink

      That’s probably because very few people have read and understood Kant.

  7. Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    A Hebrew vs. “Hebrews”. I love it!

    • daveau
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      (J. Coyne, Hebrew)

      Yeah, I laughed too. Snide and funny.

  8. Invigilator
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    You can only just try to figure out what’s going on as best you can. Science doesn’t provide the certainty that believers seems to long for, but it works. There seems to be some kind of external reality out there, and empirical means of testing it appear to be effective. Testable religious statements, on the other hand, seems to fail such tests pretty much all the time. Maybe that’s all you can say, in the end, but I don’t see how faith comes into the scientific process. I just don’t understand that at all.

    • Invigilator
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:39 am | Permalink

      seem, not seems. Is? Nay, I know no is. I really do feel, as I get older, that I “know” less and less.

      • NoAstronomer
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:04 am | Permalink

        Which of course means we never really ‘knew’ much to start with. We just thought we did.

        • Invigilator
          Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

          Plato failed to understand Socrates.

    • Chris
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      Didn’t Winston Churchill say something to the effect of, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others?” I’ve read too many bad, published articles to have “faith” in science, but I can’t think of anything else that is at all as effective in explaining “Generally Accepted Reality.”

  9. Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    “Science is just as much an assumption-ridden, faith-based crapshoot as religion,” said my friend to me, via cell phone, a few weeks after a life-saving kidney transplant, and while he was waiting to board a huge jetliner for a transatlantic flight.

    • Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink

      If science were as faith-based as religion, aerodynamics would have never progressed past thousands of sects arguing over the precise taste and color of air.

      • Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:13 am | Permalink

        Sophisticated aerodynamicists, of course, would claim that most people don’t literally believe in air. It’s a metaphor for the human condition.

  10. Kieran
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    Science isn’t faith but there is a huge trust issue in science. I trust that an astro physicst is telling me the facts when trying to teach this particularly dense botanist the big bang theory(my issue has always been a visualization problem). I trust that when I get my car serviced they will do a good job.
    How do we gain and maintain trust without abusing it or failing to live up to the expectations of people outside the field of science?

    • Sastra
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      True, but I think it’s important to clarify the distinction between faith and trust. There’s a critical difference between having a reasonable trust in an expert and having the sort of faith that religion talks about.

      When apologists try to minimize the irrationality of faith by pointing out that I myself have “faith” in my doctor or “faith” in an astrophysicist I ask them what it would mean if I specifically said that “I have a religious faith in my doctor.”

      • Tulse
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

        The difference is that your doctor could do things that cause you to lose your trust (malpractice, for example). For faith, the point seems to be to to hold onto it in spite of poor treatment (e.g., Job).

  11. Dr. I. Needtob Athe
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Abiogenesis (Why the quotes around it?) sounds incredibly unlikely, but so does winning one of those Powerball lotteries that span several states; yet there are winners on a regular basis due to the enormous number of tickets sold, which offsets the low win probability of any individual ticket.

    Can we say the same thing about the beginning of life? Is it legitimate to argue that the extremely low probability of a scientist demonstrating abiogenesis in a laboratory experiment is offset by the enormous size and depth of Earth’s oceans, and the very long time span (How long? A billion years?) during which abiogenesis only had to happen once? Is that a sensible argument?

    • Sigmund
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      There an interesting twist to the lottery ticket argument as applied to abiogenesis. The length of time it would take you to win the lottery, if you chose random numbers, can give you a clue as to how difficult or complex the process is – for instance a lottery that requires you to guess three numbers will be won far quicker that one that requires ten numbers. What we know about life on earth is that it began very soon after the planet cooled. What this suggests is that, given the conditions on earth (liquid water etc) abiogenesis is not that difficult and so the idea that it was of extremely low probability to happen is probably mistaken.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      Don’t forget all of the raw materials.

      Every living thing is made up of raw materials that during the early Earth’s history were not living. That’s a lot of matter. Plus all of the sequestered carbon everywhere around the world (oil, coal, methane). All grist for the mill.

      It only took about a half-billion years or so to sort out — so the chemistry has to be fairly accessible.

      Add a highly energetic planet (lots of volcanoes, more tidal forces because the moon was closer and the Earth was rotating faster), and it doesn’t take a genius to see that all-natural forces are all that’s required.

      But the argument falls apart in even sillier ways.

      Under this type of thinking, heavier-than-air flight is perfectly impossible, because for the vast majority of our history, we couldn’t figure out how to do it.

      Simply because we don’t have the correct recipe today does not mean that the equivalent of the Wright brothers won’t come along with the answer tomorrow. And POOF! — there goes another god-gap.

      • Tulse
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

        I’m convinced that we’ll see self-replicating entities produced from non-living precursors sometime in the next three decades. Heck, I’d be willing to put a reasonable amount of money on this happening in the next ten years.

      • Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

        Additionally, unlike a lottery, abiogenesis doesn’t require the process to start from scratch after every drawing.

      • Dr. I. Needtob Athe
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

        Kevin wrote: “Plus all of the sequestered carbon everywhere around the world (oil, coal, methane). All grist for the mill.”

        It sounds like you’re saying fossil fuels existed before life began. Are you?

    • Tommy
      Posted September 21, 2011 at 12:11 am | Permalink

      Perfectly reasonable argument.
      Which is probably exactly the same as could be said of the silly Genesis story for the best part of the last 2000 years.

      I have no faith in the sun coming up every day, I have seen it, and KNOW as far as my simple (no philosophical) outlook allows, that it will continue to do so for quite some time yet.
      Abiogenesis?
      Sorry, dont see any reason to doubt it, its LIKELY, but I’m still not convinced that someone in 10 or 20 or 100 years isnt going to come with something better.
      And THAT is far more likely than the numbers you quoted on lotteries and chances and so on…
      So who’s right.
      I’ve got faith that someone will come up with a better scientific theory, that might even be more demonstrable than simply “viable”.
      You convinced thats impossible?

  12. Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    Breaking out the fairy caulking gun will not provide adequate insulation for a house that was built on hard won materials.

  13. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Science is evidence based. It succeeds by avoiding faith at every turn. On the contrary faith does away with evidence. If evidence were present credence would be given to the evidence and faith would be superfluous. Science is thus the anthesis of faith. A mind untrammelled by faith is painfully threatening to the faithful. He finds comfort in yet another dogma: the charade that science is just another belief system.

  14. Sajanas
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    In one of the best classes I had in college, our professor gave us a paper she called ‘the worst paper I’ve ever read that still had some good data’. She then asked us to look at it and try to figure out what was good and bad about the paper based on our own critical thinking. It was quite a valuable lesson, that you need to look at every paper as if the author could be stretching the data to places it didn’t need to go, ignoring a control, or just not understanding what they got. And it also implied that there are plenty of papers where you can’t even trust the data, and that you’d need to try replicating in the lab.

    Really, there isn’t faith in science. Laymen may have faith in what scientists say, but good scientists can’t afford to be too trusting of other labs and scientists, or they’ll get taken for a ride.

  15. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Our stance of philosophical materialism (i.e., the idea that the universe is composed only of matter and energy, with no supernatural forces at play) is an assumption based on faith.

    I don’t think so. Science is a methodology based on the axiom of philosophical materialism, but the methodology would change if the axiom was found to be unreliable.

    • Tulse
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

      Indeed — one could certainly study the actions of disembodied, non-material entities. I’d argue that aspects of such study wouldn’t be that radically different from psychology.

      • Bacopa
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

        And such study has actually been undertaken. Much of it was quite low quality, but some was quite rigorous. Guess what? They found out nothing was going on.

        • Tulse
          Posted September 6, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

          Sure, but my point is that one could, in principle, study the supernatural in a methodologically rigorous fashion. We already look at the non-physical aspects of entities when we do psychology and cognitive science — the entities in such cases have their mental features realized in a physical substrate, but it is not necessary to make that assumption in order to study the mental.

          • Posted September 6, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

            Only speaking historically – these days, the metaphysics is too well established to *not* be recognized for the presupposition it is – and that’s a good thing, because all sorts of tremendously difficult problems arise without it.

            Some were even known to Descartes, like conservation law problems.

          • Bacopa
            Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

            Ah, I see what you’re getting at. Sure, almost all of psychology treats the mind with what Dennett calls the “functional stance” and the “intentional stance”. This is all well and good to most thinkers (including Dennett) as long as rigor is maintained. The Churchlands, Paul and Patricia, disagree. They assert that we should strive to create a materialist “Golden Age” psychology that makes no reference to desires, or beliefs and other propositional attitudes.

            I thought you were talking about parapsychology. It was once so respectable that Clarke and LeGuin supposed it could make a scientific basis for a story. They both moved away from it when things didn’t pan out.

  16. Fox
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Good article, painful comments.

    “You have to ask yourself just one question: would I rather be evolved from an amoeba or created in the image of Almighty GOD?”

    Yes, because reality is based around which scenario I PREFER…..

    • Fox
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      Oh Ceiling Cat, this one is even worse:

      “In the end, there is obviously a supernatural force that began life. Even if that life commenced at the “Big Bang” – a supernatural force was responsible. It is literally impossible otherwise.”

      Literally impossible? Not theoretically impossible, or metaphorically impossible? Well jeez, that’s pretty impossible. I just don’t even.

    • Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure why being a fragile, disobedient meat golem is so awesome, to be honest.

  17. Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Our assumption that there is an external reality that we can perceive through our senses is based on faith.

    I actually think this one is true. There’s really no way to justify this proposition without relying on, uh, external reality as perceived through our senses.

    Of course, all functioning epistemologies take this as a matter of faith in one form or another (even postmodernism acknowledges implicitly there is something external to our senses) so anyone who argues against this is consigning themselves to solipsism and/or nihilism, which are grossly unproductive philosophies (although, I only know they are unproductive by observing external reality as perceived through my senses…. D’oh!)

    In any case, I do think one could call that assumption “faith”, but I’m not worried about it because anyone who denies that assumption has already lost the argument.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      I don’t know how to justify “justification”, but still I do not agree.

      Deutsch characterized reality in his “The Fabric of Reality”, recognizing it as an early and consistent part of empiricism. The theory can be tested as “constrained reaction on constrained action”, or as Naked Bunny with a Whip notes above, “my toe will hurt if I kick a wall”.

      That takes the problem from the table of assumption and faith and put it on the table of theories and testing.

      Btw, if you are concerned about solipsism, Deutsch has an excellent analysis of that too in the same book. Roughly, if you are a solipsist you have to agree that the major part of your mind that is concerned with coming up with “the universe” illusion is thoroughly lawful. So “you” are defeating your own “open creative mind”, solipsism is hoist with its own petard.

  18. Flo M
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    I loved this quote form Jerry: “If you see a big cat coming at you, you’d better run,” he said.

    Makes you wonder how the love for kitteh evolved…

    • steve oberski
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Little cats can’t eat you.

      • Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

        But they want to and even try to ambush us and take us down like wildebeest – which we find adorable.

  19. Sastra
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    People who make the “science is a faith” argument (or the “all beliefs are faith” argument) usually leave out a major characteristic which distinguishes religious faith from working assumptions: the component of emotional commitment. When used in a religious sense, “faith” involves personal and/or tribal loyalties. You make a commitment to believe in your hypothesis the way you would make a promise to a friend. Doubt is a sort of betrayal, a weakness that must be fought against as you defend and stand by your belief. If you change your mind, then you have lost the battle by losing your faith.

    Faith is something you need to keep. It’s like keeping your word. What you believe has become the kind of person you are. Challenges to the truth of what you believe become challenges to your very identity.

    There is nothing in science (or in most disciplines) which blurs categories like this — and brags about it.

  20. jose
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    To a hypothetical believer coming up with these arguments:

    Our stance of philosophical materialism (i.e., the idea that the universe is composed only of matter and energy, with no supernatural forces at play) is an assumption based on faith.

    Hey, it works, innit?

    Our assumption that there is an external reality that we can perceive through our senses is based on faith.

    I don’t care if what we perceive is the real reality or an imaginary reality. I care about what works. Results, buddy.

    The idea that the Universe is comprehensible through empirical observation, and can often be described through mathematics, is based on faith.

    Well, Newton’s mathematical description of the empirically observed orbits of the celestial bodies allowed us to send people to the moon and get them back. So I’d say those descriptions are pretty good. Results.

    The idea of “abiogenesis”— that life arose spontaneously from nonliving matter—is based on faith, since we weren’t there to see it and may never know how it happened.

    Whoa, we’re working on it, okay? Jeez. It’s true that we may never know how it happened. But science works, as shown above, and the thing about science is it doesn’t allow miracles. So, if you can come up with something better than science to explain stuff, you’re welcome to bring it on. Meanwhile, we have work to do.

  21. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I am a testing hound, since it explains how we arrive at knowledge. And what I know abiogenesis have been slightly testable at least since Wächterhäuser proposed his iron-sulfur world 1988 (if not before him). He went out of his way to make his models precisely testable.

    As a confirmation of that, as late as 2008 IIRC, someone checked his requirements on his primordial catalysts to be much the same as for modern enzymes, invalidating that line of models.

    Similar bottom up efforts have been made by Mulkidjanian et al on the zinc world.

    One can generalize that effort I think. I currently play around with a toy model, which I believe has ancient roots in literature, combining bottom up biochemistry with top down phylogenetics.

    DNA-protein cell machinery, RNA biosynthesis before the first membranes, the first enzymes are examples of (not fully exclusive) common evolutionary chicken-and-egg problems. Luckily such problems conveniently bottleneck possible pathways to a smaller set.

    Bottom up, chemical network enzymes are a natural outcome in newer scenarios. High-temperature reactions seems to be much faster than orthodox theory predicted from scant data. This temperature dependence gives a self-selection for enthalpic pre-proteinous enzymes. ["Impact of temperature on the time required for the establishment of primordial biochemistry, and for the evolution of enzymes", Stockbridge et al, PNAS, 2010.]

    Now looking top down, we see that pathways meet. The first modern metabolic networks originated with purine metabolism, and specifically with the gene family of the P-loop-containing ATP hydrolase fold. ["The origin of modern metabolic networks inferred from phylogenomic analysis of protein architecture", Caetano-Anollés et al. PNAS, 2007; "Rapid evolutionary innovation during an Archaean genetic expansion", David et al, Nature, 2010.]

    That is, ATP sits at the intersection between a cooling and/or hydrothermal vent active Earth prometabolism and nucleotide protometabolism. (Which compound seems to later have been exaptated by modern proteinous metabolic genes as coenzyme/energy currency.) Minimum change of traits picks ATP use before RNA evolution.

    Note that this is an (informal) test of a phylogenetic pathway. Abiogenesis is actually slightly testable today as far as I can see, either you think of it as chemistry or as evolution – or both.

    Even if you don’t agree that testing is primary, it detracts from the “open question” to tell us a little of what not is and in effect closing a bit of the open area.

  22. Posted September 6, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    These arguments that science is another faith just like religion always assume some sort of blank slate given to both science and religion. Of course, this assumption is completely unfounded; it is actually the complete opposite of what happens.

    We have a whole bunch of prior information in regards to both science AND religion. For the vast majority of human history, assuming the supernatural has led to nothing but confusion and has actively prevented us from acquiring new knowledge about the world we live in.

    On the other hand, as soon as we started assuming natural causes – and more importantly, solutions – to problems, we started gaining more knowledge and understanding of our world at an exponential rate.

    At this point it would be inductively foolish to pick a religious explanation over a scientific explanation; the priors are nowhere near equal.

    By way of a Russian Roulette analogy, the religious person – to defend the validity of their religious persuasion to the denigration of science – assumes that two revolvers on a table are both empty. So for them, it doesn’t matter which revolver they pick if they want to survive this game of Russian Roulette. But in reality, one revolver has 5 out of 6 bullets and the other has 1 out of 6 bullets. If you want to survive, you don’t assume that both revolvers are equal when you have this prior information.

    No one in their right mind would say that 83% is equal to 17%. But this is exactly the type of sophistry religious believers engage in when they claim that all faith is equal and that science is just another faith.

    Once this prior “blank slate” assumption is examined, the entire argument falls flat on its face.

    • Nicolas Perrault
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      Well done!

  23. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Speaking (a little bit more) of testing, I think Flam fubs it a bit here:

    “But this is very different from having a religious faith, because the scientific method leads to testable predictions, and religious faith does not. (Recall last spring’s prediction of the Rapture, for example.)”

    That example of religious prediction *was* testable; it was erroneous. The general “too open” ideas of gods, creators, last Thursday’s and what have you, are not certainly testable. (Which is a problem for them.)

    But specific cases often are. Flam may have hastened to assist in euthanasia on one misery outgrowth of religion, while pretending it was the other.

  24. Gayle Stone
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Quoting the Bible Old or New doesn’t prove anything to me because it is not the word of the mythical God, god, allah, Maroni or beezlebubs!

  25. abb3w
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I’d actually disagree with you slightly, Jerry. The determination of “what actually works at helping us understand the universe” effectively assumes the conclusion — via the problem of induction, and presuming that there is any pattern at all in the universe to be understood. While silly, it is philosophically valid to instead take the Refutation rather than Assertion of this axiomatic principle (or rather, it’s mathematical form). In such a peculiar view (at best) the appearance of a pattern of order within experience is merely a local illusion, of the sort that Ramsey’s Theorem dictates must arise in a sufficiently large sea of Chaos; and computers are not evidence of such understanding of the universe, because the experiences (such as “I SEE IT SITTING ON MY DESK DAMN YOU!”) that we attribute as caused by the computer’s existence are not in fact associated with any such entity. (“Phenomena without noumena” would seem the philosophy jargon.)

    The first three examples you point to are all related to this.
    1) The idea that the Universe is comprehensible through empirical observation, and can often be described through mathematics, is based on faith. The phrases “described through mathematics” and “there is any pattern at all” are both approximate expressions of the more formal assumption that “experience is produced with a pattern of complexity recognizable by an ordinal degree of Turing hypercomputer”. In so far as this premise is taken without reliance on philosophical priors (or, alternately, as inference from ultimate priors more specific), the premise may be said to be “taken on faith” — albeit, a rather trivial form of faith not usually considered religious. And as I noted, a philosopher/theologian can take the Refutation of this just as validly as Assertion. However, the philosopher/theologian is then constrained by the Refutation; if their philosophy can be expressed in a way that can be described by mathematics, it is automatically self-contradictory, and (Heyting logics aside) False. Since even degree-zero Turing hypercomputers recognize all languages from type-0 unrestricted grammars, this leaves the philosopher/theologian at the bottom of a very deep hole that they can only get out of by talking infinitely fast. Contrariwise, one of the implications of taking the Assertion is an algorithm for comprehensibility with a remarkable resemblance to Science; thus, empirical comprehension is an inference, not itself a premise of Faith.

    2) Our assumption that there is an external reality that we can perceive through our senses is based on faith. In a sense, this is taken as part of the assumption, and in part defining the sense of “reality” as referring to the noumena underlying phenomena. One should be prepared to distinguish this from the relational “reality” of mathematics, where entities may exist merely as abstract relationships among ultimately undefined entities. The existence of such relations is taken in steps prior to the “pattern” assumption; the gold standard is via the Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms, but there are functional equivalent alternatives. If you want to talk about something unrelated to these, you’re using a different sense of “real” than science.

    3) Our stance of philosophical materialism (i.e., the idea that the universe is composed only of matter and energy, with no supernatural forces at play) is an assumption based on faith. As an aside, this is remarkably imprecise; while the current models suggest (as Hawking has recently noted) that space-time may merely be another form of mass-energy, it may not be. Similarly, our experiences might eventually indicate that the universe is actually produced by not only mass-energy and space-time (and charge and “color” force attributes), but also by “Snew”. (What’s Snew? I dunno, what’s snew with you?) If mathematically describable in the usual manner of physics properties, Snew would not usually fall in what is considered supernatural. Thus, the larger question is what are “supernatural” entities, such that they are categorically ruled out. Where most “supernatural” entities get ruled out is in positing them as potentially acting without pattern. Such Refutation is problematical for Christian theology to begin with, as it requires God is not constrained to act in accord with his Love. The Assertion also rules out (via various halting problems incrementing the ordinal degree of hypercomputation) a Loki-like trickster deity, who systematically interferes with our experience with the goal of precluding correct conclusions. However, merely “paranormal” entities such as ghosts are not ruled out by premise, but rather by inference: the best description of the current evidence doesn’t posit them, and should new evidence show up, science-as-body-of-understanding will change accordingly.

    (The fourth example, abiogenesis, is a provisional consequence from evidence under the other premises, subject to revision given further evidence, and thus not “faith” but an inference.)

    Yes, science does ultimately rely on “faith”, in the sense of “taking premises without justification from priors”. This is inevitable, because you can only take a premise via inference once you have at least premise to start from. However, most of the “faith” required for science involves things so basic as to be taken for granted even by the religious; ZF’s “Axiom of Pairing”, for example, doesn’t usually trigger a lot of theological complaint. (Exotic alternatives to a simple set of starting points are possible, such as circular reasoning or an infinite regression. These, however, are topologically homomorphic to a starting point.)

    • Posted September 6, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      I wish I could agree with you, abb3w, but you left me way behind somewhere through your first argument… :-/

      /@

      • MadScientist
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        The second sentence informed me that abb3w either (a) is clueless or (b) is doing a Poe. One of the latest trends in the “science is a religion” claim is based on a poor understanding of human perception. Even the ancient Greeks understood that the senses were not perfect. Rene Descartes (and others of his era and earlier) went to the extreme of denying everything. There is a new extreme denialism of reality based on the presumption that our experiences and perceptions are ultimately an artefact of the mind. For example: you and I may look at a computer and have completely different visual experiences of it – or so the claim goes. Then the case of color blindness (or blindness in general) is used (incorrectly) to support the thesis that everyone must perceive the computer differently. In reality, the variation in how the computer is perceived is likely to be far less – after all, there is a huge degree of repeatability in animals. At any rate, the denialists then deny one of the greatest developments in the past 400 years: the fact that we can measure things reliably and independently. There is indeed an objective reality and the presumed differences in individual perceptions has no bearing whatsoever on that reality. Nor is the problem of perception and reality new and wonderful discovery – it has been known for thousands of years and a few hundred years ago people had comfortably dispelled the (ridiculous) notion that everything is but an illusion.

        • abb3w
          Posted September 7, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

          No, quite serious. You consider the resolution of the problem of induction to be so obvious as to not constitute “faith”, any more than you recognize the amount of “faith” required to conclude that 2+3=5. However, both result as inferences from more basic premises.

          The “faith” involved in each case is merely so trivial as to be laughable. It is possible to reject any of the tenets of “faith” involved, but the consequence is at best the abnegation of the notion of external reality, and the inability to tell a hawk from a handsaw.

          • MadScientist
            Posted September 7, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

            Abb3w, you’re making as much sense as Ray Kurzweil. Phrases like “… ordinal degree of Turing hypercomputer” betray the fact that you know *nothing* of the theory of computation. Your Kurzweilian language contributes nothing to the argument. In mathematics, 1+1=2 not because of faith but because of definition. Mathematics does not work because of any faith; it works through demonstration. There are a few fuzzy but fundamental definitions like “point, line, plane, angle” but these have absolutely nothing to do with faith.

            Also on maths, your claim “It is possible to reject any of the tenets of “faith” involved” is absolute nonsense because such rejections would introduce an inconsistency which is not acceptable in mathematics. Of course you can play trivial games and use different symbols for numbers, but that’s about the limit. Each mathematical system has its limitations and the field expands as people find cases where the system is not applicable and extend it, or in some cases create a new system to add to maths. Your claims would baffle and annoy students of mathematics because they have nothing to do with the reality of the basis of maths.

            • abb3w
              Posted September 7, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

              …you do realize that Turing’s original paper on hypercomputation explicitly links it to the construction of ordinals? For every ordinal, there is a corresponding hypercomputer. A degree-zero hypercomputer is a vanilla Turing machine; degree one may invoke a halting oracle for a degree zero; a degree k+1 uses a halting oracle for degree k. A degree ω hypercomputer can invoke arbitrary finite k halting oracles, a degree ω+1 can invoke an oracle for a degree ω hypercomputer, and so on down the rabbit hole of ordinals. Most theory of computation courses focus on more practically useful stuff, but hypercomputation and the resulting arithmetical heirarchy are just as much legitimate parts of theory of computation as P, NP, PSPACE, EXP, BPP, RE, and other more usual topics.

              While 1+1=2 is in part based on the definitions of 1, 2, +, and =, it’s also based on the axioms that define how the underlying entities interact. (These days, that ultimate foundation is usually the Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms.) Mathematical axioms are taken without reliance on justification from any philosophical priors or any evidence. They’re just postulated to be true. While not religious, in so far as taking an axiom involves “firm belief in something for which there is no proof”, it would seem to be a sense of faith.

              Taking the refutation of an axiom is perfectly possible, and does not necessarily produce an inconsistency, provided the other axioms used are independent of it. The classic example is taking the refutation of the parallel postulate instead of the assertion. Doing so does change the sense of “line” (etc) and the system of geometry you’re talking about, but whether elliptical or hyperbolic, non-Euclidean geometries are just as self-consistent as Euclidean. Similarly, it is possible to self-consistently (presupposing ZF is self-consistent in the first place) take either the assertion or instead the refutation of the axioms of Choice, Infinity, Regularity, Replacement, Power Set, and so on. Inconsistency only results if not all of the axioms in the schema are independent; mostly, the ZF axioms have been proven independent of one another. Taking a refutation instead of assertion yields a different system of set theory. A few systems are sufficiently useless that there is no analog of the theorem that 2+3=5.

              However, given a system (such as ZF or equivalents) powerful enough to talk about probability and other apparently inoffensive mathematics, the key theorem I’m alluding to (or an analog) can also be derived.

      • abb3w
        Posted September 7, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

        The math I’m alluding to is a bit heavy-duty. It’s mostly related to theory of computation; if you’re the sort who likes to study math for fun, there’s a decent on-line textbook here.

        Oversimplifying a bit, the first one boils down to “Rejecting that means you can’t use language to talk about anything, so shut up and sit in the corner.”

        • Posted September 7, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

          Now that I can understand!

          Ironically, I work in IT, but the focus is all on meeting business needs, rather than the underlying fundamentals.

          Thanks for the link; I’ll add it to the list of books I need to read before I die. It’s at least one-a-week long…

          /@

  26. Hempenstein
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    One of the latest in the abiogenesis arena, from Szostak’s group:

    http://www.pnas.org/content/108/33/13492.full.pdf+html?maxtoshow=&hits=1&RESULTFORMAT=&author1=szostak&andorexacttitle=and&andorexacttitleabs=and&andorexactfulltext=and&searchid=1&usestrictdates=yes&resourcetype=HWCIT&ct

    Not sure if this is freely accessible for everyone, but I was at least once able to access it from home, without university affiliation.

  27. daveau
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I object to the word “faith” as applied to science. The word has different meanings, as does “theory” and means something different to both sides of the argument.

    • steve oberski
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      I think “faith” has exactly one meaning, belief without evidence, and should not applied to science.

      Words like “trust”, “reputation” and “verification” should be used when discussing the epistemology of science. You can trust a claim made by science based on the reputation of the claimant subject to verification.

      Dan Dennett discusses this in “Breaking the Spell”:

      Language gives us many gifts, including the capacity to memorize, transmit, cherish, and in general protect formulas that we don’t understand. Here is a sentence I firmly believe to be true:

      (1) Her insan doğar, yaşar, ve ölür.

      I haven’t the foggiest idea what (1) means, but I know it’s true, because I asked a trusted Turkish colleague to provide me with a true sentence for just this purpose. I would bet a large sum of money on the truth of this sentence — that’s how sure I am that it’s true. But as I say, I don’t know whether (1) is about trees, or people, or history, or chemistry,… or God. There is nothing metaphysically peculiar, or difficult, or unseemly, or embarrassing about my state of mind. I just don’t know what proposition this sentence expresses, because I’m not “expert” in Turkish.

      • Diane G.
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

        I think “faith” has exactly one meaning, belief without evidence, and should not applied to science.

        Really? Or do you mean that it should have only one meaning, and that common usage should change to reflect your opinion? Because while your contention might make life a lot simpler, I think you’re likely to get about as far as those who insisted betamax was superior to VHS.

        • steve oberski
          Posted September 7, 2011 at 5:25 am | Permalink

          When the word faith is used in the context of science versus religion it has only that one meaning, belief without evidence.

          To ascribe other meanings to it in this context is playing semantic word games or being dishonest.

          • Diane G.
            Posted September 8, 2011 at 1:57 am | Permalink

            Well, good luck with that. I’d agree that there are some people using it in that sense, but there are also mature linguaphiles who will employ whatever long-accepted meaning of a word suits them.

            I appreciate your position, I just don’t think you can unilaterally redefine words without a popular groundswell to support you. And after “faith,” you’d still have to deal with “theory,” “believe/belief,” “spirtitual,” “soulful,” etc.

            I see much more success to be had in claiming our right to use words in long-accepted contexts, and calling out devious definition-switchers as they arise. A little ridicule might be in order, along the lines that any sufficiently educated person understands polysemy (word gleaned from a previous poster!); and what a shame it is that the present “debater” (whomever it may be) never reached that level of intelligence…

            IMO you’re labeling the wrong party as dishonest. But as otherwise we’re on the same side, here, perhaps I’m just being too SIWOTI-ish.

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

      That, to me, is the obvious and simple answer that disposes with these disingenuous questions in an instant, w/o having to go through any of the machinations above.

      “Sophisticated” thinkers understand that words frequently have more than one meaning. People who press the question anyway are either playing semantic word games (simpler: being dishonest) or have not yet mastered abstract/critical thinking.

  28. MadScientist
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I always find the materialism argument amusing. Over 2000 years ago materialism and spiritualism coexisted. Through the ages science had never found evidence for spiritual phenomena and that is why scientists tend to be materialists – not because they assume there is nothing but the material but because there is absolutely no evidence that there is anything more than the material.

    As for #3: “The idea that the Universe is comprehensible through empirical observation, and can often be described through mathematics, is based on faith.”

    That’s got things ass-backward. We try to create predictive models of phenomena and mathematics happens to be crucial. We do not believe that mathematics is some magical thing, nor is our confidence (note: not faith) in mathematics a matter of faith – it simply works. If anything we are forced to admit that mathematical models produce excellent estimates even though there is no apriori reason why they should. For example, why does flipping a coin follow the same rules as rolling a die? They just do – and scientists (and mathematicians) accept that, at least provisionally, because we see no evidence to the contrary.

    • steve oberski
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      And there are whole areas of mathematics that don’t map onto reality, and guess what, science doesn’t use those parts.

      Not to say that some of those areas won’t be useful in the future.

    • abb3w
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      The reason that mathematics describes phenomena boils down to “mathematics can describe pretty much anything”.

  29. Drosera
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    1. Life arose spontaneously as a result of an as yet incompletely known chemical process.

    2. Life was created by a supernatural entity that has always existed and that subsequently impregnated an individual of one of the resulting life forms who gave birth to its son who was crucified for the sins of these same life forms so that the supernatural entity could forgive those sins to allow said life forms to live with the supernatural entity after they die in order to worship the supernatural entity for all eternity.

    Call me a simpleton, but I find option 1 just a touch more plausible than option 2. Only a wee bit. A little. Slightly.

  30. Sarah
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    My brother has this annoying, ignorant friend who is always trying to tell me that I have “faith” in science and evolution, and that it’s no different than religion! You could not have posted this at a better time! I just had an argument with him about it this weekend!! Thank you!!!

    • Smallworlds
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

      Define faith.

      I have faith that my car will start in the morning.
      Is that the same faith as a faith in an omniscience and omnipotent first cause that spawned the universe and cares about human affairs to point of who you f’ and how you f’ them and most importantly that you believe in it’s existence?

      Faith in my car starting is used as a colloquialism for an occurrence that is guaranteed on previous results.

      Faith in an omniscience and omnipotent first cause that spawned the universe and cares about human affairs to point of who you f’ and how you f’ them and most importantly that you believe in it’s existence is belief without evidence.

      • Notagod
        Posted September 9, 2011 at 7:32 am | Permalink

        I expect my car will start in the morning, would be a less entangled statement than suggesting you have faith in your car. Faith is a word for politicians and christians and others that desire a confused audience.

  31. Marella
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

    Science is the assurance of things demonstrated, the conviction of things understood.

    That’s my version anyway.


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