This particular rambling, pointless soliloquy was triggered by an argument that I hate hearing. It maddens me; partly because it is misrepresented and partly because it is ignorant. The following statement boils my blood: “You believe in science just the same as I believe in God.”
I have two immediate responses. I do believe in science, this is a factual statement, however not in the same way that you believe in God (the argument might be used in the context of other faiths too, but I’m talking from personal experience here). The primary issue I have with this statement is that the word belief is used, but it is not the word that is ‘meant’. This is an epistemological discussion and a fairly fundamental mistake has been made. In context, and simplified somewhat, there are actually two mutually exclusive forms of belief: knowledge and faith.
This is not an irreverent statement, and I am not demeaning the personal meanings of ‘faith’, least of all on a spiritual level. Even less so am I being disparaging of faith in strictly epistemological terms. It is important to remember that faith today may become knowledge tomorrow, and the entirety of human knowledge began as faith. Science should not be seen as the pursuit of faith by an alternate means, but the process by which faith (again in epistemological terms) is divided into truthful knowledge and falsehoods.
Faith is the belief in something that has no, little, or insufficient demonstrable evidence – in very broad terms. And knowledge for the sake of this argument should be considered as a belief in something that can be observed and demonstrated with accuracy and reliability. To take an iconic scientific example: I believe in gravity, but this is not faith because if I let go of an apple held aloft it will fall to the earth. More importantly it will occur in a way that I can accurately predict and describe. This is knowledge.
I can’t deny then that anything taken in faith has the potential to be observed/proven as true (the strength of that potential may be the subject of heated debate), but I do get offended when it is suggested that I have faith in science. Though then of course there’s a further ‘grey area’. Particularly in physics, in order to form a hypothesis it is becoming more and more important (especially in fields such as quantum physics) to project and extrapolate from existing knowledge to find new things to test. Theories are things that bridge between knowledge and faith and this is indeed why the word theory is applied. Much of modern science is not accepted as knowledge by virtue of the fact that they are not assumed to be true at all. Much of science occupies a space where we’ve evaluated what knowledge we have, used it to select a section of ‘faith’ and essentially decided to suspend belief altogether while we poke at it with sticks to try and figure it out. While the media might tell us that ‘scientists believe in string theory’ this isn’t really the case. Science doesn’t have that luxury. It’s possible to believe that you can predict the outcome of a given experiment based on available information (a faith in all cases where a theory is new) but science does not allow the lack of objectivity to believe in newly proposed laws of reality until there is something a little more solid to run with. On a personal level there may be faith, but the scientific process is deliberately constructed to isolate itself from this kind of influence.
I suspect that this is the aspect of science that allows for the level of confusion and misunderstanding that often arises between religion and science. I think people misunderstand what science is and what it claims to do. Science would dearly like to provide answers to all our questions but more often than not only gets to spend it’s time better-defining exactly what those questions are. It’s not here to disprove your religion, it’s here to describe and understand the world that we can see, hear, feel and watch around us, and that will always bring it into opposition with cherished faiths like those highlighted in numerous creation beliefs. But it’s worth keeping in mind that even if you don’t share a belief in science, by misrepresenting its meaning and it’s capabilities you’re doing disrespect and a disservice to pretty much the whole of mankind, including a lot of respected theologians and proponents of your own faith whom have been key figures in understanding our universe through science.
Just a few words for your consideration.