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.