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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Faith in Science

I just watched a pretty creepy video that I had to share with you folks. It’s a Nightline segment following a tour of a natural history museum guided by young earth creationists. The visitors are home-schooled kids with fundamentalist parents.

http://www.i-am-bored.com/bored_link.cfm?link_id=28375

What with Ben Stein’s new Intelligent Design film coming out, I’ve been concerned about a rise in the acceptance of anti-evolutionist thought, so I was prepared for some pretty devious logical trickery.

After watching the video, however, I breathed something of a sigh of relief. Clearly the best way to combat Creationism is to get these people in a museum and let them talk. The funniest part was when the reporter asked the creationists why we never find people and dinosaurs (who lived together in the Garden of Eden before the Fall) in the same level of sediment, and they just have no freaking answer.

Not that it wasn’t disturbing to see this handful of eager inquisitive children made to repeat creationist drivel (at the precise cadence the guide demanded). I was especially unhappy thinking about a boy at the beginning who said how much he liked science. But I somehow have “fatih” that most of those kids are going to one day think for themselves, and in retrospect be real pissed that their parents subjected them to this deception.

One of their arguments got me thinking, though. They called evolution a religion – you either have faith in the God of the Bible (as they interpret him, I suppose), or you put that same faith in “evolution”. I’ve heard this before, recently. It’s the whole “science is a religion, too” argument, meant to bring religious doctrine up to the same level as scientific findings (or bring the latter down to the former). As with many perservering arguments, though, it has an element of truth. So I wanted to try to parse out what this whole “faith” thing is, and if the thing we do differs imprtantly from the thing they do.

Imagine we have come to a dark and dangerous forest. How to get through? The religious person decides to refer to an untitled map he’s been carrying around. The scientist points out to the religious person that they can’t be sure who drew the map or when or why, and have no evidence or reason to suspect that it depicts this forest in particular. Moreover, the map is hard to read, and we don’t know which way is up. The religious person replies: “I have faith in this map”, and moves into the forest, and, promptly falls into a hole and is eaten by a bear (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

The scientist produces a flashlight and proceeds (and who knows…maybe gets eaten by the same bear. His dying thought – “if it weren’t for my flashlight, I would not know Ursus arctos inhabited these woods”).

The question is… did the scientist enter the wood with his own “faith”?

At a basic level, life requires faith of all kinds. The world is uncertainty. As we come to know it, we detect patterns and create generalized rules about its workings such that allow us to make predictions about the future and the foriegn, and explain the here and now. In this sense, we are all scientists. We expect the sun to come up in the east tomorrow because we’ve divined or adopted the general rule from repeated experience and evidence from others’ experience. My bathroom shower has rather nervous operation: a slight push of the handle makes the difference between comforting warmth and scalding or chilly dousing. I’ve discovered the rule that governs this – and I am able to set my shower temperature now without worry. But every time I step into that shower, I am making a leap of faith.

When we decide to rely on one of these rules, we are expressing a sort of “faith” in that rule’s adequacy. If that reliance is functional and passes repeated tests for us (that is, our faith is rewarded – look! The sun – just where I predicted!), we tend not to think of this as a guess about the world at all – it’s just a fact. Again, this is a simple form of the scientific process – theory testing and paradigm building. Let’s call it belief in knowability.

At an even more basic level, we have to have “faith” in our senses. Seeing is believing, as they say, but that’s just an expression of faith in the physical reality of the world and one’s eyesight. Neither of these things must be true. On the other hand, doubting them makes modern life pretty complicated. Let’s call this belief in material reality.

We all subscribe on a mundane level to the premise that we can and do increasingly know reality through observation of the material world. Let’s call it belief in evidence.

The religious and the nonreligious among us share these beliefs in material reality, knowabilty, and evidence on the whole. No creationist I’ve ever heard (and certainly not the IDers) seems to operate without them. Neither, certainly, does an athiest, postmodernists notwithstanding. If this is “faith”, then the term is essentially meaningless, because it is universal. I’ll call these “operating beliefs”.

So… did the scientist enter the wood with his own “faith”?

I don’t think so. A flashlight is not an indication of faith; it is a repudiation of it. Faith, as the term is used by religion, and the investigatory approach to knowledge are in opposition. Religious faith literally denies one’s capabiltiy of knowing certain parts of the world without a particular document. Indepndent of religion, science simply systematically applies the same beliefs in knowability, evidence, and material reality that we do elsewhere. Science simply formalizes and extends these operating beliefs. The “faith” it require amounts to no more than the adhrence we all give these principles every day.

Where we diverge, it seems to me, comes from an intervening thing: religious doctrine. The “faithful,” when it suits them, accept something OTHER than material reality, deny knowabilty, and dismiss evidence. To posit that science is a faith like to religious faith is fundamentally denying the operating beliefs that we all otherwise live by. Not always…just when told to by doctrine.

“Evolution” is no more a leap of faith than is any other use of evidence to know material reality. Clearly, it is a more difficult reality to know because it occurs on a time scale so vast invisible to us. Luckily evidence need not be direct. (We need not directly view the sun, e.g., to know it is rising in the east—in fact, I advise against it. We can experience its diffuse light, watch flowers open, and note the termperature rising to know the sun is up.). And like the sun rising in the east, thousands of repeated observations have convinced nearly all scientists that the process of evolution has been going on for millenia. No other generalized explanation can account as well for this tremendous pile of disperate evidence.

And that’s the hilarious position the creationist museum guides are in. They overtly subscribe to the very operating beliefs I’ve described. But they are surrounded by the actual evidence. In order to support their arbitrary beliefs, they are forced into grotesque contortions of willful ignorance.

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