An Ad NAUSEUM Metaphysics primer

Is Science a Belief or a Faith?


Des Pensable (copyright), 2012.

Is Science a Belief or a Faith

Faith and belief are commonly treated as synonymous hence it is not unusual for an average person to state they have faith in both science and religion.  In philosophical and religious debates and in this essay, however, faith is considered to be a special type of belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. Thus one believes in a god by faith alone but in contrast, one believes in Science based on knowledge which can be tested for validity using empirical evidence and logic.

To be a religious person you must believe, without evidence or challenge in the validity of a story and set of rules as handed down by a religious authority figure. The story will generally contain a god, supernatural elements such as miracles (magic) and may be fact or fiction but there is no way to determine its truth. If you have faith, it states that you will be rewarded after death and if you don’t you will be punished. Since no one has come back from death it is again not subject to validation.

To be a scientist you must have a strong belief in the fact that the previously tested knowledge and concepts, which make up the foundations of Science, are valid. Yet at the same time you must be sceptical and challenge the truth and validity of the knowledge and concepts. This is not that difficult as a scientist can repeat an experiment him or herself to verify that a scientific principle under examination is valid. Hence we may believe in Science but need not have faith in it.

As an analogy we could consider Science as a building where each brick that goes into making the building is an empirically proven valid concept. For example the periodic table lists over 100 types of element based upon the number of protons in each. Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Carbon etc.  These are the building blocks of the universe.

Each brick is valid based upon the current knowledge at the time it is discovered but as time progresses and we study the brick more closely we gain more knowledge about it and our understanding may change a little. Hence as the elements were studied it was discovered that each element had several unstable varieties called radionuclides. This led to the concepts that the atoms of elements were made of sub parts called protons, neutron and electrons. The elements, the basic building block of the universe did not change we just found out more about them.

The fact that the concepts of Science may change over time, allows our society’s knowledge to evolve from a more primitive elementary level to more rich and complex level. This increase in the quantity and quality of knowledge is mirrored in our society which is evolving and adapting to the new knowledge. The technology spin off from the knowledge gained by Science has enriched our world beyond imagination. We have a secure food supply, medicines to heal us, vehicles to move us and communications to educate and amuse us. The individual in our western society lives better than a king or queen only a century ago.

If we considered religion to be a building it would have to be an imaginary one at best as little of the structure can be examined and validated. The story of the god is cobbled together from scraps of stories, myths and legends translated from dead languages containing words which have uncertain meanings. As the meaning of words change with the context of the time and culture there can be no certainty in the translations.

What is said to be the absolute truth is in reality the exact opposite. It is a patch work quilt of plausible and implausible facts and fantasies, each unprovable and untestable. Gospel truth is not truth but hearsay. When you take the word of a religious authority you take the word of a person who has convinced him or herself that what they are saying is the truth even though they cannot prove it in any way. They have to have faith themselves that what they believe is true.

With science each bit of knowledge gained can be used in hypotheses and theories to confirm the validity of previous knowledge and predict new knowledge that allows us to further understand our physical reality and the universe around us. With religion no new knowledge can be obtained. It is set in rock. There is no change, no thinking, no improvement, no personal freedom, no evolution towards a better, fairer and just society, no democratic decision making.   

Religion has given us an authoritarian society which has stayed static. People were and still are bound by its rules and traditions and have little say in them. Most people were servants to the church and aristocracy for hundreds of years until the Enlightenment when a few brave individuals rebelled by challenging the old traditions, questioning whether god in fact existed. That’s when the modern era of Science, Art and democracy were born.

Using the empirical methods of Science and the concepts based upon them we have been able to construct a sound concept of our physical environment which we may call our physical reality. There is a world flying through space around a sun. There are other suns and galaxies etc. You and I exist in that physical reality as free autonomous creatures that may interact physically. We can think, reason and make our own decisions based upon what we think is correct. We are not being watched and judged but an invisible alien in the sky who demands we do things his or her way.

We can conceive of unicorns and dragons, ghosts and gods but unless we can use an empirical method to measure them they don’t exist in our physical reality. They are fantasies.  I cannot interact physically with the creations from my mind. I may draw or paint an image of them to show you but we can’t ride a unicorn or shake god’s hand. Perhaps in the future genetic engineers using the rules of nature that Science has uncovered will create physical unicorns that we can ride. That is the power of Science and within our grasp if we choose to do it.

You might ask what about love, pain, lust, guilt morality, happiness, colour, beauty, mind itself ? Can science explain these? The answer now is yes. Emotions such as love, pain, guilt etc. are behaviours all brought about by chemical reactions in our physical bodies resulting from interactions in the physical reality with other autonomous creatures. They evolved to help us socialise with ourselves and other creatures. It has worked as mankind is the most sociable of all creatures.

The old bastions of metaphysics, love , beauty, music etc. are all under examination by neurobiological techniques. Using PET and MRI neuroimaging techniques, scientists are now beginning to understand the physical phenomena in our brains that are manifested as thought, love, beauty or pain etc. You don’t have to like it but if they can reproducibly measure it and show that it exists then it truly becomes a part of our physical reality along with atoms and solar systems.

Our belief in Science is founded on the belief that the best explanation of a set of results on an investigation into an aspect of reality that fits together with all the other proven and well tested bricks of Science is the most valid one. The Science building grows larger and higher every day because the foundation can be proven to be solid not because we have faith in it.

Most people inherit the religion of the culture that they are born in. It’s not their fault. They are taught to have faith in the supernatural pillars of their religion and never to challenge or disbelieve them under threat of punishment or family disapproval. They are taught unprovable myths and legends over and over again from birth as if it was the absolute truth. It is laid down in neural networks in the brain as truth. Is it any wonder why when confronted with valid new knowledge that doesn't fit the religious myth then it is easy to believe that the new knowledge must be wrong.

Faith in the supernatural may have given us hope and comfort when we knew nothing about our world and ourselves. It helped socialise and pacify people so that they could live together. It was a part of the evolution of our societies but it’s given us a false sense of security. It’s based on a false reality with fictitious concepts that can’t be shown to be valid. Things don’t exist just because we would like them to exist, that is faith, fantasy and foolish. An airplane stays in the air not by faith but by the laws of nature as revealed by scientific method.

People everywhere now have access to provable valid knowledge via the Internet, so now it’s time for us to unshackle our minds and leave the nest. We don’t need an imaginary supernatural being to guide us. We’ve grown up and worked out how to live independently. We still have problems to solve but they are work in progress. The evidence is accumulating that secular societies are safer, more ethical, more benevolent and more humanitarian than religion based societies.

What neither all the valid knowledge gained by Science nor the superstitious dogma from religion can do is to make the world a better place to live in. We have to do that ourselves using not threats from a supernatural being but by using reason, understanding and compassion for our fellow humans. That requires casting off superstition, adoption of a secular education, equal access to resources and equal opportunities for all.

A better, more benevolent, peaceful and sustainable secular world also requires that companies, big business and governments act responsibly and ethically towards all people and are not ruled by greed and the bottom line of a finance report. I see these last items as the most difficult to achieve.  It will mean that the ‘Greed is Good’ and ‘Money Rules’ concepts of Capitalism have to be modified to a more socially benevolent concept and the rich and powerful will probably fight to the death to prevent that. That is for the future.

You don’t need to have faith in Science but you can you can believe in it as Science works.

For a more academic viewpoint on the validity of science check out my essay on Science Realism.

What do you think?

Updated 13th August, 2012.

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