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FAQ: Faith and truth in science
« on: 2002-03-05 18:51:40 »
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FAQ: Faith and truth in science v. 1

URL: http://virus.lucifer.com/bbs/index.php?board=31&action=display&threadid=11535

Authors: Hermit

Revision: 1B (Full BBS mark-up)

Author’s notes for revision: 2.1B
This message (before revision) was originally posted to the mail list  of the Church of Virus 1999-02-09 under the topic "Faith and truth in science - was - RE: virus: Scientists and Philosophers". This FAQ has been extended with material from "RE: virus: Rose's Evolution/Creation Essay" and posted on 2000-03-24.

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Copyright (C) The Church of Virus, 2002. All rights reserved. Unlimited distribution permitted in accordance with the terms of the Full copyright notice below.

This FAQ addresses the question of "Faith" in Science in order to demonstrate why scientists eschew faith.

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    Faith in Science
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Faith in Science
FAITH, n.  Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
[The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce]

Faith, belief, trust and related concepts have no place in good science. Science does not need them, for example, we don't need to "believe" that the entire universe has certain characteristics including "constant-space linearity" to perform good science, in fact we have good reason to suppose it does not uniformly have this characteristic. What we do have, is a hypothesis that the universe is consistent within the ambit in which we perform our research, and we can hypothesize that the results of our experiments are applicable to the more general universe except under fairly unusual circumstances.

<humor warning> A good scientist knows that the universe is out to get him <humor ends>, and if he makes any untested assumptions, then it is probable that something in that untested assumption will come back to bite him (just ask Pons and Fleischmann about that).

Good scientists (and engineers) are very aware of the "conflict" between the utilitarian knowable and the theoretically elegant hypothesis. But in fact, from a theoretical perspective, the discoveries of modern physics do not oblige one to embrace any particular philosophical position, whether it be mystical organicism, dialectical materialism, or anything else. In the last resort, all such interpretations can be rejected by an astringent "positivism". This being so, Ockham would suggest that we discard them as foundations until such time as some blend of "positivism" and its offshoots fails to achieve a rational world view. In which case it will need to be discarded until a more useful tool becomes available. We can demonstrate this through a simple thought experiment.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong from postulating that the universe is a strange, unknown and unknowable environment except in our immediate vicinity. We can then analyze the environment in our immediate vicinity and develop a rational system to describe our immediate environment. We can then make the inductive step that all of the universe works the same way as our localized model. As and when we discover phenomena, which confute our hypothesis, we simply modify our model of the localized universe to bring it into alignment with this new information. As anyone with a smattering of exposure to science will recognize, this is the very basis of the scientific method. As anyone with a slight exposure to the philosophy of science will recognize, this is the basis of the philosophy of science. As anyone with common sense will recognize, this does not take "faith". There is no presumption that all of the universe can be described in this fashion, but in our experience to date, nothing in the substantive universe has proven unamenable to this approach.

Examining an example, modern physics posits the existence of "quarks" and "electrons". We speak of them as "things" as if they have an existence. In fact, from a theoretical perspective this is not necessary. A scientific theory may be regarded as a formal structure, in which theorems are derived from a limited number of axioms, and in which some of these theorems are interpreted by so-called "correspondence rules" as statements about things, which it is possible to measure or observe. In this way, one theoretical structure may co-ordinate a whole range of empirical laws. However, the terms in the axioms are not in general "directly interpreted" by being linked to the reports of observations or the results of measuring operations. "Quarks" and "electrons" on this account are theoretical terms, which do not correspond to any directly observed entities. The nearest one gets to "direct observation" is with phenomena like the tracks made in a bubble chamber, but here of course, it is strings of bubbles which are being observed, and not the "particles" which supposedly produce them. In other types of apparatus, the direct observation may be the results of examination of a field via a scanning tunneling electron microscope, or a sequence of sparks, or the movements of a pointer, or the readings of a counter. So do the theoretical terms refer to any kind of "entity" at all?

The positivistic interpretation of the question "Do electrons exist?" is "Does electron theory make correct predictions?" Thus characteristically positivism sees no difference between an "instrumentalism" which argues that talk about "electrons" is just a fiction for coordinating the results of observation, and a "realism" which declares that "electrons" really exist behind the observations and independently of our theories. So far as positivism is concerned, both "interpretations" agree that the theory is successful, and that is all that can be said. No need for "faith", no need for "trust", and no need for "belief". <humor warning> In fact, a firm expectation that instruments lie, variables won't and constants aren't is a prerequisite to experimental success. <humor ends> When people say that scientists "have faith" in the results produced by other scientists, the reply is simple. A scientists does not need to perform an experiment himself in order to use something based on the results of a reported experiment, not because of belief, but because there should be sufficient evidence that the results are correct enough to rely upon them having been extensively tested by others. When an anomaly (the "that's funny" which precedes almost all discoveries) is discovered, a scientist will return to the original experiment and validate the experiments for himself. Even though he is more than likely wrong than the thing he is testing if challenging “accepted” science. In other words, belief is not required, because each scientist can determine for himself what an acceptable degree of certainty is required before relying on a particular result, and can always challenge the result if a contradiction appears.

Joe Dees provided an elegant formal summary:
"The presence of evidence for a contention necessarily relegates adherence to that contention to the realm of empirical, and therefore probable - rather than absolute - knowledge; it is only in the absence of evidence that adherence to a contention can be considered to be belief or faith in it. Subjective transcendent conceptions of ultimacy are believed in, not known, as in fact are any ultimate conceptions, be they transcendent or immanent, since Popperian Falsifiability precludes the admittance of any absolute universal positive empirical truth-claim, and transcendent conceptions are by definition neither testable themselves nor derivable from other testable propositions.

We all posses a great deal of practical knowledge about the physical and social worlds and not even the most surreal post-modernist would be able to survive without it. Much of this knowledge is enshrined in recipes for doing things, set in frameworks of largely unarticulated assumptions, which may or may not be consistent with one another. People learn to "get by" without necessarily developing sophisticated theories. You can buy and sell without being able to expound a theory of money, and you can use a television without being able to say anything about the nature of the electron. This body of knowledge is both flexible and pretty robust. Because it is not coordinated in precise and explicit theory we tend to hold it in low esteem, even though everything else we do depends on it.

Scientific activity, in contrast, is explicitly theory guided, but this is not to deny that it is underpinned by the same kind of practical recipes. A physicist will learn how to wire up a circuit, how to use an oscilloscope, how to bend an electron beam by a specific amount. Theory itself may be construed simply as an instrument of prediction and control, and in one sense, to have such knowledge is indeed to "know what the world is like." A strongly positivistic interpretation of theory generates an "instrumentalist" account of science, and implies that attempts to integrate the results of science into frameworks of wider significance are scientifically and literally meaningless. Thus positivism can function as a professional ideology, appropriate for defending the territory of a technical puzzle-solving community, which is confident in its own expertise and contemptuous of amateur attempts to meddle in its practices.

Now to say that positivism, in one or another of its guises, can function as a professional ideology is not to refute it. As I am using the word here, an "ideology" is a system of "beliefs" about people, society and the world, which serves the interests of some group or other. Whether the "beliefs" are true or not is a separate matter. IMO the trouble with positivism is not that it is an ideology but that it reduces science to a rudderless cargo of techniques, and while this is by no means a disproof of positivism, it certainly limits its appeal.

Science's inherited images of itself conflict with arid instrumentalism. It has a pantheon of heroes, populated with the good and the great, all discoverers of some aspect of "The Truth". These figures serve as mileposts, signposts and guardian angels on the route to "Man's Unending Quest For Knowledge." These heroes, their quest and the truths they have found, have all come to play a role as cultural symbols. Thus science is seen not just as a means to other ends, however socially useful they may be, but as an end in itself. Science is pictured searching for the "Key to the Universe," hidden somewhere just beyond the frontier of current theory. Thus the advances made in fundamental physics by their very existence proffer a justification for the social milieu within which they were produced.

Scientific progress may be variously claimed as a justification for a "free market in ideas" or for "scientific materialism" or for "tough-minded positivism", but everyone (almost) agrees in seeing it as a pinnacle of human achievement, integrated into a scheme of social goals and values. And such considerations may provide a strong motive to those who commit themselves to a scientific career. Those who have interpreted twentieth-century physics have often been motivated by the desire to promote some value-laden world view (or meme).

Now "values" can enter science in a number of different ways. So far as scientific practice is concerned, value-commitments such as "telling the truth" are essential to it. It is also clear that ethical considerations may prohibit certain kinds of investigation; such knowledge is, as it were, "taboo." It is also evident that the choice of a problem for research depends explicitly or implicitly on value judgments. But while such decisions may affect the "neutrality" of science by making it the servant of particular interests, they do not affect its "objectivity." Indeed, the value commitments intrinsic to scientific activity are designed to safeguard science's objectivity. Sometimes, it is true, scientists distort the evidence, but if this is done deliberately then they risk expulsion from the scientific community: fraud is a "mortal sin."  However, as I have argued, all evidence is mediated by theory-laden descriptions and to that extent its acceptance must be provisional.

Theoretical commitments are inevitable and mean that the kind of objectivity sought by empiricism is unattainable. Of itself, however, this does not mean that science cannot be impartial and critical and thus "objective" in a different sense. Still the evidence shows that outside influences on science can go deeper and affect not only the interpretation of the significance of a theory, but the way in which it is presented and even the criteria which govern whether it is acceptable.

This conclusion may seem close to heresy; have we not been taught that physics and mathematics give us knowledge of a kind, which is absolutely hard, secure and objective? Moreover, if we are to believe science's heroic legends, all attempts to mould it in the service of some ideology have led to disaster, and it can hardly be denied that the process of scientific development is, to a large extent, driven by problems and goals set internally by the scientific community's own endeavors, rather than laid upon it as external obligations. But this does not mean that the scientific community is wholly cut off from the rest of society.

In the case of mathematics, its special status as the supreme exemplar of objectivity in knowledge is a little curious. The truths and proofs of mathematics do not depend on the evidence of the senses, and in consequence some have postulated that they depend on "transcendent objects", accessible only to Reason. But, as in the case of moral and political authority, invoking a transcendent realm to underpin a set of social institutions and practices may simply be a way of disguising the fact that they are grounded on a social consensus. Mathematics, after all, is a human invention.

In physics, the situation is obviously different: after all, there is a "real" physical world for physics to be about. Nevertheless, a similar misrepresentation can arise, for one can come to think of one's theories and concepts as themselves possessing the characteristics of the physical world, which they purport to describe and explain. Thus one is tempted to speak of knowledge as "rock-hard", "solid" and "real", and to think that when something is "obvious" that it is the facts, which have spoken rather than us. When we speak, however, we draw upon the cultural resources of a language, which reflects particular interests and ways of seeing the world.

What then of the idea of "Absolute Truth"? Obviously, except in the dreams of some post-modernist religionists, there is no transcendent realm of concepts and theories which rest forever in perfect correspondence with the states of affairs to be found in the world, and quite independent of all human conventions. Concepts are "social institutions" forged by a language using community, not "things" whether transcendent or otherwise. "Truth" we may grant is a relation of correspondence between what we say and the world, but it follows that a "truth" has both an objective and a conventional pole: it depends both upon the implicit rules governing particular concepts and upon what the world is like.

There could be (and are) many systems of concepts capable of being used to describe the world "correctly" according to their own implicit criteria. Greengrocers classify strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and loganberries together as "berries". Students of elementary botany are taught to say that they are wrong, and that berries are fruit like bananas, cucumbers, tomatoes and - as luck would have it - gooseberries. They learn to say that a strawberry is "really" a swollen receptacle covered with achenes, and that raspberries and blackberries are "really" clusters of drupes. But this criticism of greengrocers is a piece of gratuitous academic imperialism. Greengrocers and their customers have different interests from those of botanists: they are concerned with taste, appearance and whether you eat them with cream: it matters not at all for the practice of "greengrocing" that some vegetables are tubers or rhizomes rather than roots. There is no sense in asking which system is more "correct".

This does not mean that all systems of concepts are equally good. Evidently some systems of concepts are vastly superior to others, relative to certain kinds of pursuit. Science is one kind of pursuit, or perhaps one should say, a family of more or less related pursuits. However, to say that the goal of physical science is an "understanding" of the "laws of nature" is not particularly helpful. It suggests, "tuning in" to theories "laid up in heaven", but it does not offer any criteria, which might guide scientific practice. The instrumentalists insist that the goal of science is "prediction and control" (which fits some fields of science more happily than others), and this provides a means for comparing the relative fruitfulness of different theories. A false physical theory, employing "mistaken" concepts, can then be defined as one which fails to generate successful predictions, and we judge the concepts to be mistaken because of the failure of the theories within which they are embedded.

As we can see in the history of science, the criteria by which a theory is judged acceptable may undergo changes. Of particular importance here are what we may term the "regulative principles" of a science, and in the "big" scientific revolutions it has been such principles, which have been overthrown. Thus the mechanical philosophies of the seventeenth-century expunged sensory qualities and purposes from the vocabulary of physics, replacing them by matter in motion and causal action by contact. The success of Newton's theory of gravitation, however, required another change of viewpoint: good theories need not embody a plausible "mechanical" picture, but they must contain a mathematical formulation of the laws governing the forces acting in a system. Nineteenth-century field theory implied that "action-at-a-distance" theories were not really intelligible after all, and reinstated action by continuous contact. The aether theories offered to explain all in terms of picturable mechanisms once again, but when special relativity triumphed it gave priority to "invariance" over "mechanism". And when quantum mechanics was born, to Einstein's horror, it required abandonment of the age-old ambition of calculating with certainty every detail of the behavior of any system and reintroduced the concept of "spooky or strange action at a distance". In each case, the transition involved a change in the ideals of scientific explanation: across such discontinuities scientists themselves may stand in mutual incomprehension. The "convert" needs to accept not only new evidence, but also a new way of looking at things.

<Memetic Flag> A "worldview" presents both a picture of the physical world and an account of human values in a coordinated fashion. It is sufficient for people to believe that there are connections between moral and physical concepts for changes in scientific theories to be taken to have wider significance. As we have noted, many people hold that our whole conception of a moral order would founder if it were to be shown that the behavior of human beings were mechanically determined. Newton and the followers of the "corpuscular philosophy" insisted that matter was "passive" and was capable of generating neither order nor motion of itself. Thus not only did their physics enable them to invoke the "divine intelligence" in accounting for natural order, thus underpinning the values which sustained their social order, but it gave them an analogy for the "proper" governance of the land under the aegis of the civil authorities and the established church. The late-nineteenth-century aether theorists saw connections of a different kind between their worldview and their theories. Of course, you may argue that such connections are "extraneous", and that the "real content" is given by the equations and the experiments. But this too is an interpretation, and one, which is particularly adapted to the professional scientist, intent on getting results for the journals. <End Memetics>

Science has the goal of bringing its knowledge under a small, unified set of postulates. Thus it differs from "common-sense knowledge" in being systematic, and from the systems of the metaphysicians (such as those found on the memetics list :-) ) in that its unifying postulates can, albeit with difficulty, be brought under empirical scrutiny. It is this striving for a logically consistent unified set of postulates, which can be judged for their predictive success or otherwise, which leads us to say that science is an organized "search for the Truth" (capitalization intended). As Joe Dees described it, science seeks
three measures of validity, and therefore of sufficiency, internal consistency (no reductio ad absurdums within the contention), external coherency (there is no logical conflict with contiguous truths) and faithful referential correspondence (the proposition seamlessly represents an observable state/process of affairs). There three are practically never found in isolation; when one applies, all three do.

Please observe the word "sufficient." It acknowledges that we live in an analog continuum, where there are no absolutes other than the tests for consistency enumerated above. Absolutes belong in the realm of theory and rest upon axioms that define the behavior of a system. In the real world, we can use our common sense to overcome this difficulty by expressing statements in the form of truth propositions that have a continuous (or fuzzy) range from "absolutely false" through an "undefined or indeterminate state" to "absolutely true." We can then use a formal or informal logic to measure things by examining their truth-values to assign validity to them.

This way of organizing knowledge focuses attention on those parts, which may seem to be the most speculative, since they are of the greatest generality. The highest level of axioms is regarded as the foundation: it is here that work is said to be most "fundamental", where the deepest "secrets" are being "unlocked". This way of speaking, however, is misleading. A house collapses if you undermine its foundations; not so our knowledge of the physical world. Even if special relativity were refuted, radio, television and nuclear weapons would still continue to work. You would not hesitate, philosophically, before turning on the light switch. Paradoxically, the "foundations" of physics are insecure points at the summit of its theorizing. Most of the accumulated knowledge of the scientific community lies not up Olympus, but in its repository of technical know-how. And every good scientist (and engineer) is fully aware, even if it is usually at a subconscious level, of the lurking instability in the basement. This is what allows a scientist to view the overthrow of an entire theoretical basis for his work if not with equanimity, at least with resignation. This is also the reason why "faith" in a system is not only not required, it is a positive hindrance to any scientist interested in pursuing original work. All science is subject to refutation. I will cite but a few examples that have had a central place in the science of the day which have subsequently been scrapped: homuculus, tidal blood flow, the earth centric universe, phlogiston, aether, the canals of Mars and  conventional electric current.

Even granted the importance of successful predictions, there is an ineradicable plasticity in the interpretation of physical theory. A tough positivism will seek that interpretation of theory, which is most "economical" in dealing with experience (thank you William of Ockham). Those whose worldviews embody some account of the nature of things will find room amongst the conventions deployed in physics to structure an interpretation in conformity with their metaphysical preferences. Who knows whether one of these interpretations is "right"? The growth of knowledge of the world is shown in our increased practical competence, but all of our theories are entwined with conventional elements, which reduce their testability. To make these conventions explicit is to reveal the extent to which our theories can tell us nothing for certain about the world.

Faith in such uncertainty is not only foolish. It is misplaced. And the "Truths" which seem so self-evident and perpetual to the “metaphysicist” (a wholly discredited field), are perceived as being transitory and ephemeral by the physicist. Thrive on chaos, the world is not only stranger than we can imagine, but the strangeness metamorphoses every time we approach it, as perception of "truth" self-modifies our worldview.

Refer also: “Is Science a Religion?”,  Richard Dawkins
This article was first published in the January/February 1997 issue of The Humanist (Vol. 57, No. 1).

The 1996 Humanist of the Year asked this question in a speech accepting the honor from the American Humanist Association.
It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, "mad cow" disease, and many others, but I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.

Faith, being belief that isn't based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion. And who, looking at Northern Ireland or the Middle East, can be confident that the brain virus of faith is not exceedingly dangerous? One of the stories told to the young Muslim suicide bombers is that martyrdom is the quickest way to heaven -- and not just heaven but a special part of heaven where they will receive their special reward of 72 virgin brides. It occurs to me that our best hope may be to provide a kind of "spiritual arms control": send in specially trained theologians to deescalate the going rate in virgins.

Given the dangers of faith -- and considering the accomplishments of reason and observation in the activity called science -- I find it ironic that, whenever I lecture publicly, there always seems to be someone who comes forward and says, "Of course, your science is just a religion like ours. Fundamentally, science just comes down to faith, doesn't it?"

Well, science is not religion and it doesn't just come down to faith. Although it has many of religion's virtues, it has none of its vices. Science is based upon verifiable evidence. Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops. Why else would Christians wax critical of doubting Thomas? The other apostles are held up to us as exemplars of virtue because faith was enough for them. Doubting Thomas, on the other hand, required evidence. Perhaps he should be the patron saint of scientists.

One reason I receive the comment about science being a religion is because I believe in the fact of evolution. I even believe in it with passionate conviction. To some, this may superficially look like faith. But the evidence that makes me believe in evolution is not only overwhelmingly strong; it is freely available to anyone who takes the trouble to read up on it. Anyone can study the same evidence that I have and presumably come to the same conclusion. But if you have a belief that is based solely on faith, I can't examine your reasons. You can retreat behind the private wall of faith where I can't reach you.

Now in practice, of course, individual scientists do sometimes slip back into the vice of faith, and a few may believe so single-mindedly in a favorite theory that they occasionally falsify evidence. However, the fact that this sometimes happens doesn't alter the principle that, when they do so, they do it with shame and not with pride. The method of science is so designed that it usually finds them out in the end.

Science is actually one of the most moral, one of the most honest disciplines around -- because science would completely collapse if it weren't for a scrupulous adherence to honesty in the reporting of evidence. (As James Randi has pointed out, this is one reason why scientists are so often fooled by paranormal tricksters and why the debunking role is better played by professional conjurors; scientists just don't anticipate deliberate dishonesty as well.) There are other professions (no need to mention lawyers specifically) in which falsifying evidence or at least twisting it is precisely what people are paid for and get brownie points for doing.

Science, then, is free of the main vice of religion, which is faith. But, as I pointed out, science does have some of religion's virtues. Religion may aspire to provide its followers with various benefits -- among them explanation, consolation, and uplift. Science, too, has something to offer in these areas.

Humans have a great hunger for explanation. It may be one of the main reasons why humanity so universally has religion, since religions do aspire to provide explanations. We come to our individual consciousness in a mysterious universe and long to understand it. Most religions offer a cosmology and a biology, a theory of life, a theory of origins, and reasons for existence. In doing so, they demonstrate that religion is, in a sense, science; it's just bad science. Don't fall for the argument that religion and science operate on separate dimensions and are concerned with quite separate sorts of questions. Religions have historically always attempted to answer the questions that properly belong to science. Thus religions should not be allowed now to retreat away from the ground upon which they have traditionally attempted to fight. They do offer both a cosmology and a biology; however, in both cases it is false.

Consolation is harder for science to provide. Unlike religion, science cannot offer the bereaved a glorious reunion with their loved ones in the hereafter. Those wronged on this earth cannot, on a scientific view, anticipate a sweet comeuppance for their tormentors in a life to come. It could be argued that, if the idea of an afterlife is an illusion (as I believe it is), the consolation it offers is hollow. But that's not necessarily so; a false belief can be just as comforting as a true one, provided the believer never discovers its falsity. But if consolation comes that cheap, science can weigh in with other cheap palliatives, such as pain-killing drugs, whose comfort may or may not be illusory, but they do work.

Uplift, however, is where science really comes into its own. All the great religions have a place for awe, for ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation. And it's exactly this feeling of spine-shivering, breath-catching awe -- almost worship -- this flooding of the chest with ecstatic wonder, that modern science can provide. And it does so beyond the wildest dreams of saints and mystics. The fact that the supernatural has no place in our explanations, in our understanding of so much about the universe and life, doesn't diminish the awe. Quite the contrary. The merest glance through a microscope at the brain of an ant or through a telescope at a long-ago galaxy of a billion worlds is enough to render poky and parochial the very psalms of praise.

Now, as I say, when it is put to me that science or some particular part of science, like evolutionary theory, is just a religion like any other, I usually deny it with indignation. But I've begun to wonder whether perhaps that's the wrong tactic. Perhaps the right tactic is to accept the charge gratefully and demand equal time for science in religious education classes. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that an excellent case could be made for this. So I want to talk a little bit about religious education and the place that science might play in it.

I do feel very strongly about the way children are brought up. I'm not entirely familiar with the way things are in the United States, and what I say may have more relevance to the United Kingdom, where there is state-obliged, legally-enforced religious instruction for all children. That's unconstitutional in the United States, but I presume that children are nevertheless given religious instruction in whatever particular religion their parents deem suitable.

Which brings me to my point about mental child abuse. In a 1995 issue of the Independent, one of London's leading newspapers, there was a photograph of a rather sweet and touching scene. It was Christmas time, and the picture showed three children dressed up as the three wise men for a nativity play. The accompanying story described one child as a Muslim, one as a Hindu, and one as a Christian. The supposedly sweet and touching point of the story was that they were all taking part in this Nativity play.

What is not sweet and touching is that these children were all four years old. How can you possibly describe a child of four as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew? Would you talk about a four-year-old economic monetarist? Would you talk about a four-year-old neo-isolationist or a four-year-old liberal Republican? There are opinions about the cosmos and the world that children, once grown, will presumably be in a position to evaluate for themselves. Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question -- without even noticing how bizarre it is -- that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?

Looking now at the various things that religious education might be expected to accomplish, one of its aims could be to encourage children to reflect upon the deep questions of existence, to invite them to rise above the humdrum preoccupations of ordinary life and think sub specie aeternitatis.

Science can offer a vision of life and the universe which, as I've already remarked, for humbling poetic inspiration far outclasses any of the mutually contradictory faiths and disappointingly recent traditions of the world's religions.

For example, how could children in religious education classes fail to be inspired if we could get across to them some inkling of the age of the universe? Suppose that, at the moment of Christ's death, the news of it had started traveling at the maximum possible speed around the universe outwards from the earth. How far would the terrible tidings have traveled by now? Following the theory of special relativity, the answer is that the news could not, under any circumstances whatever, have reached more that one-fiftieth of the way across one galaxy -- not one- thousandth of the way to our nearest neighboring galaxy in the 100-million-galaxy-strong universe. The universe at large couldn't possibly be anything other than indifferent to Christ, his birth, his passion, and his death. Even such momentous news as the origin of life on Earth could have traveled only across our little local cluster of galaxies. Yet so ancient was that event on our earthly time-scale that, if you span its age with your open arms, the whole of human history, the whole of human culture, would fall in the dust from your fingertip at a single stroke of a nail file.

The argument from design, an important part of the history of religion, wouldn't be ignored in my religious education classes, needless to say. The children would look at the spellbinding wonders of the living kingdoms and would consider Darwinism alongside the creationist alternatives and make up their own minds. I think the children would have no difficulty in making up their minds the right way if presented with the evidence. What worries me is not the question of equal time but that, as far as I can see, children in the United Kingdom and the United States are essentially given no time with evolution yet are taught creationism (whether at school, in church, or at home).

It would also be interesting to teach more than one theory of creation. The dominant one in this culture happens to be the Jewish creation myth, which is taken over from the Babylonian creation myth. There are, of course, lots and lots of others, and perhaps they should all be given equal time (except that wouldn't leave much time for studying anything else). I understand that there are Hindus who believe that the world was created in a cosmic butter churn and Nigerian peoples who believe that the world was created by God from the excrement of ants. Surely these stories have as much right to equal time as the Judeo-Christian myth of Adam and Eve.

So much for Genesis; now let's move on to the prophets. Halley's Comet will return without fail in the year 2062. Biblical or Delphic prophecies don't begin to aspire to such accuracy; astrologers and Nostradamians dare not commit themselves to factual prognostications but, rather, disguise their charlatanry in a smokescreen of vagueness. When comets have appeared in the past, they've often been taken as portents of disaster. Astrology has played an important part in various religious traditions, including Hinduism. The three wise men I mentioned earlier were said to have been led to the cradle of Jesus by a star. We might ask the children by what physical route do they imagine the alleged stellar influence on human affairs could travel.

Incidentally, there was a shocking program on the BBC radio around Christmas 1995 featuring an astronomer, a bishop, and a journalist who were sent off on an assignment to retrace the steps of the three wise men. Well, you could understand the participation of the bishop and the journalist (who happened to be a religious writer), but the astronomer was a supposedly respectable astronomy writer, and yet she went along with this! All along the route, she talked about the portents of when Saturn and Jupiter were in the ascendant up Uranus or whatever it was. She doesn't actually believe in astrology, but one of the problems is that our culture has been taught to become tolerant of it, vaguely amused by it -- so much so that even scientific people who don't believe in astrology sort of think it's a bit of harmless fun. I take astrology very seriously indeed: I think it's deeply pernicious because it undermines rationality, and I should like to see campaigns against it.

When the religious education class turns to ethics, I don't think science actually has a lot to say, and I would replace it with rational moral philosophy. Do the children think there are absolute standards of right and wrong? And if so, where do they come from? Can you make up good working principles of right and wrong, like "do as you would be done by" and "the greatest good for the greatest number" (whatever that is supposed to mean)? It's a rewarding question, whatever your personal morality, to ask as an evolutionist where morals come from; by what route has the human brain gained its tendency to have ethics and morals, a feeling of right and wrong?

Should we value human life above all other life? Is there a rigid wall to be built around the species Homo sapiens, or should we talk about whether there are other species which are entitled to our humanistic sympathies? Should we, for example, follow the right-to-life lobby, which is wholly preoccupied with human life, and value the life of a human fetus with the faculties of a worm over the life of a thinking and feeling chimpanzee? What is the basis of this fence that we erect around Homo sapiens -- even around a small piece of fetal tissue? (Not a very sound evolutionary idea when you think about it.) When, in our evolutionary descent from our common ancestor with chimpanzees, did the fence suddenly rear itself up?

Well, moving on, then, from morals to last things, to eschatology, we know from the second law of thermodynamics that all complexity, all life, all laughter, all sorrow, is hell bent on leveling itself out into cold nothingness in the end. They -- and we -- can never be more then temporary, local buckings of the great universal slide into the abyss of uniformity.

We know that the universe is expanding and will probably expand forever, although it's possible it may contract again. We know that, whatever happens to the universe, the sun will engulf the earth in about 60 million centuries from now.

Time itself began at a certain moment, and time may end at a certain moment -- or it may not. Time may come locally to an end in miniature crunches called black holes. The laws of the universe seem to be true all over the universe. Why is this? Might the laws change in these crunches? To be really speculative, time could begin again with new laws of physics, new physical constants. And it has even been suggested that there could be many universes, each one isolated so completely that, for it, the others don't exist. Then again, there might be a Darwinian selection among universes.

So science could give a good account of itself in religious education. But it wouldn't be enough. I believe that some familiarity with the King James version of the Bible is important for anyone wanting to understand the allusions that appear in English literature. Together with the Book of Common Prayer, the Bible gets 58 pages in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Only Shakespeare has more. I do think that not having any kind of biblical education is unfortunate if children want to read English literature and understand the provenance of phrases like "through a glass darkly," "all flesh is as grass," "the race is not to the swift," "crying in the wilderness," "reaping the whirlwind," "amid the alien corn," "Eyeless in Gaza," "Job's comforters," and "the widow's mite."

I want to return now to the charge that science is just a faith. The more extreme version of that charge -- and one that I often encounter as both a scientist and a rationalist -- is an accusation of zealotry and bigotry in scientists themselves as great as that found in religious people. Sometimes there may be a little bit of justice in this accusation; but as zealous bigots, we scientists are mere amateurs at the game. We're content to argue with those who disagree with us. We don't kill them.

But I would want to deny even the lesser charge of purely verbal zealotry. There is a very, very important difference between feeling strongly, even passionately, about something because we have thought about and examined the evidence for it on the one hand, and feeling strongly about something because it has been internally revealed to us, or internally revealed to somebody else in history and subsequently hallowed by tradition. There's all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.

Richard Dawkins is Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. His books include The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, and, most recently, Climbing Mount Improbable. This article is adapted from his speech in acceptance of the 1996 Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Association.

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« Last Edit: 2002-03-27 21:07:43 by Hermit » Report to moderator   Logged

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. - Steven Weinberg, 1999

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Re:FAQ: Faith and truth in science
« Reply #1 on: 2003-10-17 08:03:23 »
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Greetings Hermit,

When you say, "faith, belief, trust and related concepts have no place in good science" I happen to agree 100%, but I think such a formulation misses some interesting epistemological issues. Whole books can be written (and have been), but as an example, I'll mention just three such issues.

You mention Ockham, but there is nothing fundamental in the structure of the universe that dictates a preference for parsimony. Parsimony is an important human concept in that it keeps us from overstating our knowledge and thus keeps us from cutting off avenues of inquiry prematurely. This is all well and good, but the degree of parsimonious coherence between our models and the ultimate things to which those models point is largely a matter belief and trust. When -- within the limits of experimental observation -- our explanations are in 100% agreement with that which is observed, we believe that our explanations are correct and we have arrived at the simplest, correct model. Lacking any contradicting evidence a good scientist never sets out to find a more complicated explanation. This is as it should be, but it also bespeaks an inherent trust of the laws of parsimony. One can even envision a situation where the model is wrong, but by tenaciously clinging to it we delay the ultimately justified abandonment of it.

Like it or not, there are fundamental logical differences between deduction and induction, and in so far as we use induction to guide, drive, or otherwise influence our research, we're placing some trust or belief in the concepts of continuity and conformity. These things often hold, but sometimes they do not, so a belief bias can enter into our quest for knowledge.

Within the limits of human knowledge and observation, there will at any time exist isomorphic models of reality which and indistinguishable.

When two models are observationally indistinguishable, how do we decide between them? Often we choose the one that seems to be the most parsimonious (see above), but that is ultimately a human judgment, and as such our faith, belief, biases, and even the structure of our nervous system can come into play.

(For an interesting example of isomorphism in cosmology, see the recent Scientific American article "Information in the Holographic Universe:"


None of these thing invalidate the scientific method, because science is a method, and so far as it is being practiced any biases which we introduce into the process can -- at least in theory -- be corrected for as we learn more about that which is being studied. I think this is the ultimate power of science, and it is why science has been so much more successful in learning about the physical universe than any other field of inquiry. But importantly (and this is why I think your case is overstated) at any given time the process is ongoing, our knowledge is imperfect, and our human propensities (such as belief and trust) rush in to fill that abhorrent vacuum.


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Re:FAQ: Faith and truth in science
« Reply #2 on: 2003-10-17 14:19:14 »
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Ok, right, let's get to it then shall we?

First off:


EVERBODY go read the article.

Done? Good. 

First paragraph: "Ask anybody what the physical world is made of, and you are likely to be told "matter and energy." (Bekenstein, J.)

Parse that. "Physical world" "made of" "'matter and energy'"

These three clauses of the predicate statement are carried through the article as if they were a given.

Fallacy: Begging the question

PROVE IT. Then assert it. If this is not done then any subsequent syllogism formulated from this predicate are fallacious

Then "information" is thrown in the stew to make the argument all better.

It is a good read: entropy, Boltzman/Shannon ratio (old thought that one), 10^23/10^10 for current silicon chips, degrees of freedom leading to dimensions in the known universe, thought experiment of the thought of most dense objects in the universe as comparison models for explanation - Black Holes,  event horizon area being correspondent to the entropy of the black hole, transcendence of the 2nd law into the GSL, Hawking radiation compensation for entropy disparity, universal entropy bound of limit of information carrying capacity of a bounded physical system, holographic model, black hole entropy less than one quarter of the surface area of the equivalent spherical mass pre black hole collapse, 10^66 bits of information per cubic centimeter as limit for information storage, information limit dependant upon surface are of system not mass, (he forgets to mention Lorentz contraction......hm....)extensibility of the hologram as model to "physical universe," 5D anti-De Sitter universe, superstring........

Hasn't anyone every read Flat Land?

This is an OLD argument. Posed MANY years ago, even by me as a very sophomoric freshman in high school.

The apparent limits of our system are bounded by our ability to describe our system until such time as these limits merge. When the information density approaches physical density.... ergo Boltzman/Shannon ratio......bbbys

Ok, now, what is Bekenstein giving us as a take home message that we didn't already know?

The basic argument hasn't changed for a century or so, just that the data is becoming more refined, the refinement of the syllogisms is becoming more precise, the information density is becoming more dense, approaching entropy.


Parsimony is a guideline, as offered by bircoleur. Stipulated.

Induction is a guideline, as offered by many before bricoleur. Stipulated.

Isomorphism. Stop.

This is where the train wrecks. 

Isomorphism implies degrees of freedom in the system used to describe. Differing degrees of freedom implies different states of the information describing something. Different states of information describing something implies different somethings being described, or differing states of the same something under description.

Only when there is a universally stipulated set of descriptors, a convergent set of "degrees of freedom" being used to describe things does the assertion of Isomorphism hold true. It does not.

This is where bricoleur missed his own great opportunity to truly expand the sum total of the gr8 argument.

Isomorphism is not possible until the degrees of descriptive freedom are stipulated. Until such time things "seeming" to be "observationally indistinguishable" must be stipulated as being disparate, by definition of being described differently.

[bricoleur]When you say, "faith, belief, trust and related concepts have no place in good science" I happen to agree 100%, but I think such a formulation misses some interesting epistemological issues. Whole books can be written (and have been), but as an example, I'll mention just three such issues.

[kirk]I think such a formulation was an inchoate segue, almost a non sequitor. When you say "parsimony, induction, and isomorphism" are asserted to offset the balance of our human biases when we exert our need to "rush in to fill that abhorrent vacuum," I think such a formulation misses a major morphological and recursive point. You are commiting the act of isomorphically describing a thing which has already been stipulated.

Ockham applies.


« Last Edit: 2003-10-17 14:20:55 by kirksteele » Report to moderator   Logged

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