2:45pm

Mon September 23, 2013
13.7: Cosmos And Culture

Does Science Require Faith?

Originally published on Mon September 23, 2013 3:38 pm

Does science require faith? According to astronomer Phil Plait, the answer is:

No.

According to the physicist at Ask A Mathematician / Ask A Physicist, the answer is:

No. Exactly No.

According to An American Atheist, the answer is:

No.

But it isn't hard to find another set of perspectives. Consider a presentation at Tufts earlier this year, in which MIT engineering professor Cullen Buie offered a version of "yes":

Some would have you think that faith and reason are like oil and water. This simply isn't the case. Some of the greatest minds in history have employed faith to advance the frontiers of science. Many of the greatest scientists in history are people with a deep faith, not just in their science, but also in God.

In his talk, Buie describes how the discovery of the Higgs Boson, for example, required scientists to have faith in themselves and in their theories.

Finally, the mathematician at Ask A Mathematician / Ask A Physicist offers a more nuanced perspective:

Sometimes, when people say "science requires faith", what they are trying to get at is the idea that scientists have to rely on assumptions that they can't prove. For instance, scientists have to assume that induction works (e.g. that you can generalize about the future laws of the universe by looking at the past laws). If tomorrow the laws of physics were suddenly different than they ever were before, science would be in pretty deep water. The thing is though that all methods for drawing conclusions about the world rely on some hidden assumptions, so saying this is true for science isn't saying much. In fact, the deep rooted assumptions that science relies on are pretty modest.

The trouble is that "faith" can mean different things to different people, a point that became abundantly clear in reading the comments to my 13.7 post last week, which asked whether faith can ever be rational.

Sometimes faith is used as an alternative to reason, a way to designate (and sometimes denigrate) beliefs that are aren't based on arguments or evidence, or that aren't assessed critically. On this view, science and faith almost certainly conflict; science is all about arguments, evidence and critical assessment.

At the other extreme, faith can simply mean something like a guiding assumption or presupposition, and on this view, science does require faith. Science as an enterprise is based on the premise that we can generalize from our experience, or as "The Mathematician" put it, that induction works.

Somewhere in between these extremes are the more interesting possibilities. In my post last week, I discussed one proposal for how to think about faith, an idea from philosopher Lara Buchak: that faith involves committing to act as if some claim is true without first requiring the examination of further evidence that could bear on the claim. So, for example, if you have faith that your spouse isn't cheating on you, you wouldn't hire a private eye to tail him "just in case" — the pursuit of additional evidence would amount to a breach of faith. To quote Buchak's paper on the topic:

Engaging in an inquiry itself constitutes a lack of faith.

On this view, I'd be inclined to say that science doesn't require faith. If anything, science involves a commitment to continual inquiry.

Of course, we can define faith however we like. People get worked up about this question not because they want to regulate the way the word is used, but because something about the relationship between science and religion seems to be at stake.

For some people, saying that science requires faith is a way of bringing science and religion closer together. Perhaps their beliefs span science and religion, without clean breaks. Or perhaps by claiming that science requires faith, believers can argue that science-minded atheists aren't on any firmer ground.

For other people, denying that science involves faith is a way to differentiate what they see as two separate realms, what Stephen Jay Gould called "nonoverlapping magisteria." For those who reject the supernatural, denying that science involves faith can be a way to distance science from religion.

So here's a final answer to the question with which we began. Does science require faith? That's the wrong question.

We shouldn't be looking for declarations of "yes" or "no," especially when they do little more than mark party lines.

There probably is no simple dichotomy that differentiates science from religion, such as "reason versus faith." But what we can do is aim to identify the many ways in which science and religion are different, and the many ways in which they — and more importantly their advocates — are the same.


You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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