Friday, May 2, 2008

Science Is Not Faith

Science does not have every answer -- cures for cancer and AIDS remain stubbornly and famously elusive, and there's much left to explain in quantum mechanics. Science has yet to produce a consensus on life's beginnings -- there are, to date, nothing better than promising hypotheses in the science of abiogenesis. Given gaps in scientific knowledge, and the persistence with which scientists continue toiling away at these matters instead of razing their laboratories and flocking to churches and mosques, what follows about the relationship between science and faith?

Does it mean that philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism collapse to the same position, one that takes as a matter of mere faith that there is no god?


This is just a version of the god-of-the-gaps nostrum, among the oldest and weakest of theistic arguments: find an unanswered question, roll your favorite god into a wad, cram him into the gap of understanding, then clap hands together in self-satisfied fashion and declare victory for your favorite god. The god-of-the-gaps argument is equally compelling no matter what the question, and has proven its moxy over a wide range of questions once beyond the reach of science: the causes of the bubonic plague, the cure for polio, the laws governing planetary motion, the shape of the earth, the nature and make-up of the moon, the explanation of the seasons, why children resemble their parents, countless more.

PZ Myers has addressed and exploded the fallacy quite eloquently in response to a version of the god-of-the-gaps, science-as-mere-faith position as advanced by Stanley Fish. His piece is well worth reading in its entirety, but here's the nub of it:

Fish complains that people like Harris and Dawkins claim that we will someday understand the natural cognitive processes that underlie principles like altruism, but that since we don't understand it all now, it is exactly equivalent to religious faith. In fact, his entire argument rests on this bizarre conflation of religious belief in things unseen with the confidence scientists have that they will puzzle out the unknown.

They are not the same thing. I can think of two key differences.

One is that scientific belief is not built on an acceptance of the invisible and unseen. It is the product of a demonstrable history of success, of near constant progress in increasing our understanding of the natural world. It has proven useful to dismiss the supernatural hypothesis in the lab and in fieldwork; so useful, in fact, that many of us are arguing that the antique hypothesis of supernatural entities has been an obstacle to human endeavor for millennia, and it's time to dismiss it altogether. Meanwhile, the utility of religion has been demonstrably shrinking—it explains nothing, and has been reduced to the domain of hucksters and the traditionalists who cling to ancient hierarchies. The "faith" of scientists is not faith as Stanley Fish understands it at all: it's more like confidence born of a distinguished record of success. Meanwhile, the faith of the religious is more like the pathetic and forlorn hope after ages of failure that some tiny scrap of vindication might be found by closing their eyes tightly and pretending that a god dwells in the darkest parts of our ignorance.
Science proceeds on the basis of methodological naturalism because that method has a demonstrated track record of success in ferretting out answers to difficult questions. It's also a definitional matter: science is no longer science if it starts positing entities and agencies that can't be observed, measured, analyzed, tested, or otherwise subjected to rigorous scrutiny. Plugging gods into gaps doesn't count as a part of the scientific method. At best, it replaces one unknown with a bigger unknown.

Because it has a very successful record, science has earned a high degree of probablistic trust. People continue with methodological naturalism because it has worked so well in the past; there is no "faith" involved in the derivation of confidence from the observation of this successful track record. That said, "what have you done for me lately?" will continue to be a valid question to ask of science. It will have to continue to earn trust. Another valid question will continue to be, "did the scientists before me really get this right?" There are and will be no unchallengeable idols in science.

I don't have "faith" that science will arrive at complete answers to all questions. That would indeed oversubscribe to a teleology, one in which mankind is somehow destined to reach some glorified end point, some winner's circle of complete knowledge. Whereas, in fact, as far as I know, we might destroy ourselves tomorrow morning, with all our extant gaps in knowledge left on the table.

Nor do I believe that every question can, in principle, be answered by the methods of science. I do wonder if the origins of life can ever be finally proven with a high confidence level; and I likewise wonder if we will ever truly grasp the nature of consciousness; and I question whether we will ever attain scientific certainty about the origins of the universe -- I mean to say I hold open the possibility that when the last member of our species clocks out (whatever the cause), we may still face unknowns in these questions, and if not on these questions, then others, perhaps including others we don't yet even know enough to pose. There may be unknowables now and in the future.

This possibility, I take it, genuinely disturbs some people. I think it's just realism, whatever comforts it delivers or fails to.


Spherical said...

A christian and an atheist were out hunting together. In the course of the day, the christian was accidentally shot. In a panic, the atheist grabs his cell phone and calls 911.

911: What is your emergency?
Caller: My friend and I were hunting. He was accidentally shot and I believe that he is dead.
911: Calm down sir. The first things I need you to do is to make sure your friend is dead.

The line gets silent, then a click and a bang is heard.

Caller: Okay, I'm sure he's dead, now what?

Dale said...

Not bad!

Aimee Brons said...

I didn't know Cheney was an atheist ;). Anyway, I love this description: "find an unanswered question, roll your favorite god into a wad, cram him into the gap of understanding, then clap hands together in self-satisfied fashion and declare victory for your favorite god". I think I may have to revisit your blog.

Dale said...

AB - Cheney an atheist? Oh dear me. I may have to reconsider my association with it. ;-)

Thanks for stopping by.