Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Faith vs Trust

There is a particularly insidious attack on science, one which attempts to undermine the whole basis of rational thought. This is one that has appeared in many avenues, including normally science-supporting, left-wing arenas. It is this: that science, like religion, requires faith. That to believe in the big bang, or evolution, requires you to hold that belief with faith, just like believing in the God of the Bible.

I want to state this very clearly: this is false. I fear that all too often, this idea is adopted by those who either have religious faith in order to defend their faith from rational inquiry, or by those who wish not to offend the religious by subjecting their faith to such scrutiny and feel that a statement of ‘Hey, we all require faith’ eases relations.

Truth, we may say, is more important than sophistry.

First, the definition I will use from here on is ‘scientific inquiry’. By this I mean observation and analysis of phenomena and the search for rational explanations which can illuminate our knowledge of the world and also be used to make predictions. I include not only the traditional sciences, but also the ‘soft’ or social sciences. This form of inquiry requires evidence. If there is no evidence for a claim, then that claim cannot be made with any form of authority. ‘I do not know’ is not an excuse to fill in the gaps with something for which there is no evidence. In short, simply because we do not know for sure where the universe came from, there is no rational basis for assuming it was created by a deity (especially a particular deity). Claims such as ‘God made it so’, ‘water has a memory’ or ‘it must have been magic’ do not help us to understand the world around us. Statements such as ‘disease is caused by germs’, on the other hand, allow us to investigate these things called ‘germs’, find out why and how they create disease, and how we can prevent that. It leads us towards further knowledge. Claims of supernatural intervention prevent further investigation.

So when Stephen Hawking claims the universe’s origins can be explained via natural means, he isn’t simply making things up. He isn’t saying that, for certain, the universe began this way. He is speaking out of knowledge – knowledge that telescopes can see a very long way away; that relativity and the speed of light mean that seeing a long way away is the same as seeing far back in time; that the indications are that at one point, the universe occupied a single space. Could he be wrong? Of course; any self-respecting scientist must admit that. But he is not exercising faith. Rather, he exercises his reason.

Now, the situation is different for non-scientists. We read books (or opinion blogs) and accept the conclusions in them. How is this different to reading the bible, or a book on acupuncture, and accepting those claims? The difference is that science has the best track record of success in terms of analysis and prediction. Alternative medicine has yet to produce significant results from the vast majority of treatments, homeopathy remains nothing more than water, dowsing has failed every test assigned to it. The history of religion is filled with failure of prophecy and a view of the physical world that has proven to be incorrect in every case that has been able to be analysed. Scientific inquiry has brought us effective medicines, weather monitoring, communication. It increases our understanding of the world on a daily basis.

When comparing the track record of science and other philosophies or beliefs in their ability to illuminate the natural world, we need look no further than this track record and ask whether science is worthy of trust. The answer is clear – it is. When evolutionary theory predicts that particular fossils should be found in a particular area, there they are. When analysis of those fossils suggests a particular lineage, DNA analysis backs that up. When the theory of relativity predicts time dilation and increase in mass as objects increase in speed, experimentation proves this (in fact, GPS satellites would be inaccurate without an understanding of relativity). Religion, of course, is not denied by science; there may well be a God out there... though certain aspects of various faiths are explicitly denied by scientific inquiry. This may be the true root of dissatisfaction with science from some areas of the community; not only religion but also homeopathy, chiropractic, astrology and the coal industry.

So when I say that I accept evolution, the big bang, relativity or climate science, I don’t do so through faith. I do so because science has the record to back it up. It has a power to bring understanding to the natural world that is possessed by no other philosophy or institution. I trust the scientific community when it makes bold pronouncements, because it does not do so if the claims are not justified. If a book tells me that the world was created in seven days, or that by drinking this pure water I will cure my insomnia, I ask: ‘where is the evidence?’ Science does not require faith, it requires understanding. To those who lack that understanding, the trust many of us have in science looks indistinguishable to faith. This does not change the essential character of our relationship with science: that it is rational and justified, requiring no leap of faith or logic to accept and trust its conclusions.


  1. This article is spot on. You should submit it to the Australian Rationalist magazine: