Science and Faith


Here are a few random thoughts connected with the subject of Science and Faith.

Fact and Faith

The orthodox understanding in Western society is that rational people (such as scientists and engineers) deal with facts, while irrational people (such as religious believers and conspiracy theorists) rely on faith. Many people are highly committed to this story. Many of those who consider themselves rational refer to this story as a fact; when asked for the evidence (as I sometimes cruelly do), they affirm that it is ‘self-evidently true’, and thus they have no need to produce evidence. The irony seems to escape them.

The reality is that the world is not divided into rational and irrational people: everybody deals with facts - there is no other way to live in the real world. But everybody also works on the basis of faith, from big, risky steps of faith (such as getting married), to small steps with little risk (such as getting on a bus, trusting that the driver will take you where you need to go).

Science and the Scientific Method

We happily talk about 'Science' and 'the Scientific Method', assuming that we (and the person we are talking with) understand what we are talking about. But the more we try to pin down what we mean, the more difficult it gets. It sometime seems that the most accurate definition of Science is a recursive one: the activity which is undertaken by Scientists.

This point has been made by many people in the past. To give one example, here is a quote from Robert P Crease:

You know what the scientific method is until you try to define it: it’s a set of rules that scientists adopt to obtain a special kind of knowledge. The list is orderly, teachable and straightforward, at least in principle. But once you start spelling out the rules, you realise that they really don’t capture how scientists work, which is a lot messier. In fact, the rules exclude much of what you’d call science, and includes even more of what you don’t. You even begin to wonder why anyone thought it necessary to specify a “scientific method” at all.

This raises the interesting question: why do we need to define the Scientific Method? In his book, The Scientific Method: an Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey, Henry Cowles (a historian from the University of Michigan) offers his theory about why some people thought it necessary to define “scientific method” in the first place.

In a review of Cowles’ book, Jessica Riskin (a historian from Stanford University) argued that the 'Scientific Method' originated not within science itself, but “in the popular, professional, industrial, and commercial exploitation of its authority” (New York Review of Books 2 July 2020). Integral to this idea, she writes, was the claim that “science held an exclusive monopoly on truth, knowledge, and authority, a monopoly for which ‘the scientific method’ was a guarantee”. Cowles wants to reject such a view of scientific method and suggests we should think instead of science “as the flawed, fallible activity of some imperfect, evolving creatures and as a worthy, even noble pursuit”.

Science and Faith

In the real world, both fact and faith are important, and there is no inherent conflict between scientists and religious people - not least because they are often the same person. Fact plays a vital part in religion, and faith plays a vital part in science. So, instead of assuming a conflict between the two, I would like to propose a different framework.

It seems to me that the important division is between people who seek the truth (by whatever means they use), and the people who seek to prove that their beliefs are correct (whether they are talking about matters of science or religion).

What we see now as science was developed within the Christian worldview, by people who were seeking truth. At that time, there was no real distinction made between theological truth and other kinds of truth. People sought truth, partly for its own sake, and partly because all truth helps us to know the Creator better. The move away from trusting institutions and ancient authorities came about as alternative approaches to seeking truth developed, fueled by belief in a Christian God who wanted to be known, and who could be known through the revelation contained in scripture and the revelation contained in nature. In seeking truth, people learned to formulate a story clearly, and then test the truth of that specific story by looking for evidence, either for or against it; simplicity was an advantage, and contradicting other known truth was a serious disadvantage. The same disciplines worked, whether you were seeking truth concerning doctrine, or truth concerning creation.

And the move away from trusting institutions and ancient authorities was only a move towards embracing other ways of discovering truth, it was not a complete rejection of the institutions and authorities. Whether you are dealing with science or religion, the only way you can move forward is by trusting the bulk of what you have been taught, but recognizing that what you have been taught is not the whole truth, and some details may need to be modified.

In every age, some people have sought to understand truth better, and some people have sought to use the establishment (either the religious or scientific establishment) to assure the public that their ideas were correct. And, of course, sometimes the same people did both: the world is not divided neatly into good and bad people. But, for some people, the emphasis is on "I want to know the truth"; and for others, the emphasis is on "I want other people to know that I have the truth."


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