Q: Does science require faith? A: No.

By on April 14, 2011

The inevitable debate begins with someone who claims to share similar beliefs with you. You both go through the motions saying how silly religion is and how archaic their beliefs are. “Haha, yeah. We’re so right. Woo!” you both say while high five-ing. You share a drink, sit back and have a little laugh. “I’m so glad we’re so similar in our opinions and how we aren’t blinded by religions,” you say. But then you continue, “I can’t believe people believe this stuff and not observation-based science. It’s really crazy!”

The conversation participant looks at you puzzled, then says, “Well, I don’t know.” You pause at this. Jaw beginning to drop. “Science requires a lot of faith, too.”

I know you’ve all heard this argument before. People want to be fair. People want to be balanced, or at least seem to want to be balanced. Science requires faith. Science requires faith. Science requires faith. Keep reading that and keep analyzing that. The argument goes that science can’t prove anything 100% so you have to have faith that it’ll work. You can’t believe it’s always going to work. There’s no way. It’s just a theory (I won’t even go into that now because we’ve hammered that nail plenty of times, I’m sure).

Your first response should be to pick something up and drop it. And pick it up. And drop it. And pick it up and drop it. Gravity. It always works. It doesn’t not work. Light can’t escape a black hole because of gravity. That’s the most extreme example of course and it should be enough. Gravity works, dammit, and it’s going to continue to work until the end of the universe (if that’s a possibility. See: open universe, closed universe hypotheses).

You can go through the motions and even if you’re a mathematician and can show them the proof and graphs and limits and conversions and integrations they still won’t believe it (mainly because they can’t understand it, nor can many). You can pay for them to go to school and earn a degree in biochemistry and they’ll still say that science requires a certain amount of faith. They’ll say you can’t know anything for sure, as I mentioned. You know what? I agree you can’t know anything for sure. And I’m not the one writing or proofing or responding to articles in scientific journals. I, personally, can’t prove science and mathematical theories. But I still don’t require faith to believe in science. Not even an iota. You know why? Because when I stand on my roof and I see the millions of tons of concrete that were poured to create the New York City skyline, or when I use my cell phone or watch my HDTV or feed my dog dog food, or use my gas oven or sit on the 3rd story of a building on a couch from IKEA or drink a beer or watch Lost or ride my bike or realize there are thousands of satellites orbiting the earth doing everything from transmitting cell data to spying on foreign nationals to scanning the entire surface of the earth—when I think of all these things I realize that mathematics can’t be wrong because without it none of these things would work. Not a single one. Ever.

I can’t imagine how the level of irony of sitting in an air conditioned home built by skilled architects, engineers (both electrical and mechanical), surveyors, construction workers, etc. is 100% missed by the people making the “science requires faith” argument. How can they even possibly say this when the rely on the absoluteness of science everyday on their commute to work or while using their eleven inch MacBookAir with a Verizon Wireless Internet card to talk to their kids who are studying abroad in India?

I didn’t even mention DNA, Atoms, Genetics, Medicine, Warfare, Agriculture, Pet Grooming, Fires, Projectiles, Quantum Physics, CERN, LHC, the Sun, Stars in general, Solar Systems, Pillows, Doors, Finger Print Scanning Locks, The Metal Gear Project, Pharmaceuticals, Paint, Pyramids, Sine Curves, Children’s Aspirin. Blah blah blah. I could keep going.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Certainly their are things science says that aren’t exact and need revising, but that’s what the scientific method is for. That’s what vetting published papers is for. String theory, for example. It’s so ridiculous that it could be right. Time Travel. We don’t know if that’s even possible. Some people say it is, some people say it is, but both people saying both things are scientists and professionals. It’s not the same as some people saying Evolution’s true and some saying Creationism’s true. That’s not the same. The Evolution believers have math and evidence and models and observations on their side. Creationists have the none of this. None. Zero. This isn’t the same.

Did God give us any of these things? Did belief in any gods provide anything except theological and philosophical arguments and people being offended because that picture of Santa is bigger than the one of Jesus? I’ll give religion beautiful chapels and churches, but even those are reliant on science. Without science those magnificent buildings would never stand the test of time. Without the consistencies of science you the earth won’t float through space around a star that floats through space around some other point of gravity that rotated around some other point of gravity while other such stars in other galaxies get further and further away from us never to be seen again. But no the earth is flat and is orbited by a small sun and moon and is stagnant, never moving. We’re the only star system and are alone in the universe because a omniscient, omnipotent being (never mind the logical inconsistencies of that) loves us, but only a few of us who believe and obey. I’ll take my skylines and cell phones, thank you.

So when some “Atheist” or “Secularist” or “Humanist” or whatever it is they want to be called get uppity and defensive when someone says “science requires faith just as much as religion does” it’s for a good reason. It’s because that’s a bullshit statement with no grounds in reality. Science doesn’t require faith, because without the absolutes of science our modern societies would never work.

Discussion

Tom Coward

Great essay.

“Faith” in god and “faith” in gravity are two different, even contradictory, uses of the same word. Is there a better term that should be used for one or the other?

I think they are very different too, but unfortunately the people who say science requires faith also are the ones who believe they are the same types of faith. Unfortunately the version of faith they believe in is a perverted version and notion of the original intent. The word becomes useless after a while and we can no longer use to mean belief that something will work because it has worked in the past. It now means we believe without evidence or reason.

MattyJ

Nice article. I’m not so concerned about religious belief for myself, because I cannot grasp it. I have a thoroughly scientific and rational worldview. However, I often flip-flop between calling myself atheist or agnostic on this issue of faith. I think when one says science requires faith one is trying to point out there will always be unprovable assumptions in the scientific epistemology. It is a faith that what one sees actually exists, and a faith that the causal nexus one identifies running throughout is all that is required to explain what one observes. The first element of faith, that what we see actually exists is common-sense or intuition. The second element of faith, that the universe obeys laws of causation, and nothing else, is an assumption that the universe is rational. What we need is a proof, according to our own high standards, that the scientific and the rational are the best, indeed the only means to apprehend reality. Unofrtunately, any proof would need to address these assumptions, or articles of faith, which in turn would lead to more assumptions, ad infinitum. It is a logical fact that no argument can establish the truth of its premises, since if it tried to do so it would be circular; and therefore no argument can establish the truth of its conclusions. Something, somewhere along the line must be accepted with faith. Which leaves the possibility, the slightest chance, no matter how ridiculous and unintuitive and unreasonable it seems, that there is a god in an immaterial world performing miracles in an irrational universe.
Today I’m agnostic. Again, great article. I believe it.

Matt

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