Leaps of Faith in Science and Religion

Is treating existence as meaningful a ‘leap of faith’? Is our experience of meaning sufficient to make it something other than a blind leap in the dark?

Is treating existence and meaningless, a brute inexplicable fact, also a leap of faith? Is the experience of tragedy and chance enough to justify it? Do such experiences make it any more reasonable a leap than those that people with a religious outlook take in the opposite direction?

Paul Davies wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times recently entitled “Taking Science on Faith”. His main point is that science proceeds on the basis of “faith” that the universe is rational. I’m actually not sure I agree. Einstein assumed the universe would be rational and opposed quantum mechanics on that basis. There is something that is at least arational about having something be inconceivable, with the best we can come up with being “sometimes it behaves like a wave, and sometimes like a particle.” Of course, if quantum mechanics ends up being incorporated into a larger framework that explains its oddities as having to do with our perception and measurement, then science may once again point to a universe that is rational and logical. But it will point to it rather than assume it. Science, it seems to me, points to a universe that is mathematical and intelligible (if not always subject to analogy and conceptualization). And perhaps it is the case, as Goedel’s theorem suggests, that our mathematical universe is inevitably ‘incomplete’ and thus points beyond itself. And if we are to avoid an endless regress, then we must situate it within another sort of reality. But even if we could make such a case, the larger framework, the transcendent reality, will be the ineffable one of the mystics rather than the anthropomorphic one of popular piety.

Davies’ piece is discussed in many places around the blogosphere and the web in general: Evolving Thoughts, Uncertain Principles, Edge.org, Cosmic Variance, Pharyngula, The Bad Idea Blog, Adventures in Ethics and Science, The Reference Frame, Ontogeny, A Guy In The Pew… OK, so maybe I won’t list them all. But the amount of discussion that has been generated indicates not only that this is an interesting and important subject, but that many scientists find Davies’ argument not merely unpersuasive but uncomfortable. I can understand why they feel that way, and as I have said above, I’m not sure whether I agree with the exact way Davies has formulated his point. He could well be wrong – he is, after all, a physicist (and physicists are sometimes wrong) and a human being (and human beings are sometimes wrong), and he is branching off into philosophy of science. But what he has written has people talking, and thinking, and that cannot be a bad thing. Even if science does not have faith in a rational universe, it certainly presupposes that a universe exists, and that something rather than nothing exists is itself an awe-inspiring mystery, one that regularly leads cosmologists to use the term historically applied to the ultimate mystery, i.e. God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04417266986565803683 John S. Wilkins

    James, I don’t find Davies’ thesis uncomfortable, I find it false. If it were true, however, in no way would that either justify theism (nor does the fact that it ain’t affect theism negatively), or make science rely now on faith. There is a fallacy of logic that perhaps you have heard of called the Genetic Fallacy, that the worth or validity of something now is determined by its origins. Science is what it is now, not what it came from. I have argued in my blog post that science in fact relies on Greek naturalistic assumptions, but that doesn’t make science Greek.The leap of faith required to do science is pretty weak and unspectacular – assume that you can investigate something. If you can’t, then you can’t, but so far that assumption has a good track record. That is hardly an act of faith. In fact, it is quite the reverse – if we found science collapsed on some topic, then we would have to accept that, with some slop to allow a scientific discipline to develop over time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I did try to word it carefully – I thought I was clear that some simply think he is wrong, but some also find the very suggestion uncomfortable. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that you found it uncomfortable. I also made clear that I personally find at least some elements of Davies’ argument unpersuasive and/or unjustified.I nevertheless think that science leaves genuine room for intuition (or ‘faith’ if you will) that the universe points beyond itself to something transcendent, but that certainly isn’t a scientific claim or something we can ever hope to know in the sense in which that term is normally used. To the extent that science points to something beyond the universe, it would presumably be to a multiverse or another universe.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00559055709208918638 Eric Rowe

    The very trust in human senses that science demands in acquiring “empirical” evidence is an axiom the scientist must accept on faith. It is, incidentally, also an axiom that only holds because we are made in God’s image, and is thus not merely faith but theistic faith. The same can be said about trust in the reliability of the laws of logic. These cannot be attained from a blank slate, they must be held by faith, again faith that ultimately stands on the assurance that the universe is rational, being the creation of a rational God.The dogma that scientific enquiry into the unobservable origins of our world must proceed on the assumption that all came about by non-miraculous processes is also an axiom that must be taken on faith. As Adela Yarbro Collins talked at SBL this year about “the game of history” which is the search for historical explanations of the Gospel accounts that rule out the possibility of actual miracles, so this approach to origins is itself a game. It’s not a meaningless game. It’s at least worthwhile to see what we can come up with when we bind ourselves to such rules. But we mustn’t confuse this with a genuine search for the Truth.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11335631079939764763 Bob MacDonald

    James – Godel’s theorem does not show inconsistency but incompleteness. I find I really dislike ‘leap of faith’ as a concept – but I am OK with walk and being off balance, unable to prove my own consistency at any time. If I engage with science, I come to extend the knowledge of my walk with science. It is similar with God. If I engage, I grow in understanding. That God’s universe is understandable by science is consistent with the evidence we have. We are to grow in our understanding of the hidden wisdom. (Just to pick a psalm of deep psychology to prove my point.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07225890125470949454 Bad

    As I argued in my article, the claim that science requires taking anything, even the existence of the universe, on faith is just false. At least if by faith you are comparing and contrasting to religious faith: i.e. when one has faith that Christ was ressurrected, you really really believe it is true. The axioms of empiricism (and assumptions of plain old daily life) are not like that: there is no reason to assert that they are true in any ultimate sense. They are just the provisional option we have to work with (and pretty much the only option if we want to do any work at all).Furthermore, what makes me uncomfortable about Davies article is not that he believes in God, or thinks that the universe suggests such: it’s his misleading and grandiose portrayal of what science is. He acts as if unexplained, or potentially unexplainable phenomenona committs science to faith in those answers. It does not. Science is not an ontological endeavor that seeks to explain everything: it seeks to explain what evidence will allow us to explain. We do not know why the universe is the way it is. We may never know. We may not ever know whether it even makes sense to speak of it beggining or even not beginning. We can argue over whether whatever conclusions one might draw from the particular state of the universe (i.e. that it seems “fine tuned” for anything) are really philosophically justified (I argue not: they can’t tell us much of anything), but they are certainly not a scientific matter.Furthermore, I don’t think your pulling Godel into the discussion works. Godel’s Theorem concerns logical systems: ways of making and comparing logical statements, and whether they can both cover all sorts of statements and avoid self-referential paradoxes. It does not necessarily imply anything about physical reality, and the idea that it is a general principle for anything, even outside of formal logics, is tempting, but unsustainable. Even trying to use it as an analogy to the idea that the universe may not be all there is (which would be quite a problem for some definitions of “the universe” which include in the universe everything that is, even if it is outside our known universe) is strained at best, and gives a false sense of insight where in fact there is only more confusion. As others have argued, the idea that the universe points to some sort of fundamental mathematical nature, let alone follows some tidy mathematical principle, seems to be a poetic preoccupation of physicists in particular rather than science in general.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for the comment. I like the way you put it – a “poetic preoccupation”. I have no problem either with the preoccupation or the definition of it as poetic. I think it is something that falls under the heading “myth” as John Maynard Smith defines it, as distinct from science. I had hoped to link to an online copy of his article “Science and Myth” but could not find one in the public domain.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07225890125470949454 Bad

    Some more of my many more than two cents: )As George Smith once argued, the idea that there is something signficant or indicative about the fact that the universe is intelligible would be a lot more convincing if anyone could explain what an “unintelligible” universe would be like. It’s not clear to me what such a concept would even mean, much less if it would be possible. The weaker statement that we should be amazed that we in particular are capable of making sense of the universe seems to be just as unconvincing. First of all, if we weren’t we wouldn’t be in a posistion to comment on it. And even given that we are, we have no idea of how capable or how limited we are in our understanding: for all we know, our perception could be missing the vast vast majority of the interesting stuff going on all around us. We are no position, and never will be, to judge our own judgment and find it incredible.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12344192935890766744 Drew Tatusko

    To Eric’s comment “The very trust in human senses that science demands in acquiring “empirical” evidence is an axiom the scientist must accept on faith.”This seems to misunderstand what science actually is in terms of its processes. Science looks for predictable and reliable explanations into empirical reality and does not and ought not makes such explanations outside of what can be attained in terms of what can be observed.This is not an axiom that a scientist simply observes without any principle to guide it, but it simply the processes of knowledge that inhere in that field of observation.Or, perhaps there is a misconstrual of the nature of faith here. If we are to understand faith as a vehicle of blind trust, a scientist surely does not blindly trust the methods that he or she uses in the course of investigation, but the processes of scientific investigation call those very methods of investigation into question! That’s called internal validity seeking external validity and how confirmed hypotheses attain to theory. Faith, in scientific terms, is a relation of trust in that which has low probability of existence as an empirically verifiable reality. Any scientist worth his or her salt will reject acceptance as this as a foundation for scientific knowledge as irrational.As for the assumption that you can investigate something I would hope that we all operate with such an assumption or else what do we really know about the world in which we live? How does one truly live without an assumption that there is a something in which I live that I can investigate and about which I can possible know more? This is not a leap of faith because there has been no valid and verified assumption to the contrary other than in some religious and philosophical understandings of reality e.g. maya, samsara, and the understandings of nature from Christian Science. It is thus a leap of faith to believe the latter in as much as the meaning of the phrase leap of faith truly implies!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00559055709208918638 Eric Rowe

    Drew said, “If we are to understand faith as a vehicle of blind trust, a scientist surely does not blindly trust the methods that he or she uses in the course of investigation, but the processes of scientific investigation call those very methods of investigation into question!”I’m sorry, but at the most basic level scientists do not do this. They cannot. It’s impossible. We as human beings have certain methods of accruing and analyzing information. We use our 5 senses, we use the laws of logic and of mathematics. These things are properly basic. We can’t subject these very items to some means of evaluating whether or not they are genuinely truth conducive because to do that we would be forced either to use these same tools in evaluating themselves, which would be circular, or we would have to appeal to some other more reliable tools, which we don’t have. All scientific methods work with axioms that go untested. They may be reliable axioms, again because creation is upheld by a trustworthy Creator. But they are still axioms implicitly held by faith.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06071672526594753513 Richard M

    I think this issue has two fundamental components: one epistemological, one more broadly “religious”. Treating the cosmos as meaningful is a different question from whether, and how we know, it is intelligible. Ill address the religious part first.I am inclined to affirm that yes, some act of “faith”, though I dislike the word, is part of what it means to be religious in this sense. Mordecai Kaplan suggested that faith in God meant exactly this: an affirmation that the universe is meaningful for us and that it can be made in to a home. He wrote: “It is sufficient that God should mean to us the sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos. This is what we understand by God as the creative life of the universe” (The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion)I think this perspective is useful because it shows us just what the task of religion is, or at least what one central part is, in the face of science: to teach us, through myth, metaphor, story, as well as community and ritual, just how we go about *making* a cosmos of the chaos. The universe itself is just one damn thing after another. Science shows us the regularities, and how to push nature around a bit. Religion – faith, if you prefer – makes is into a home. I don’t think this is a leap of faith; I think it is a decision, a “will to cosmos”, and an immersion in the stream of human religious life. At least, this makes a lot of sense to me.The second issue, the epistemological one, is a bit trickier. I think it is true that science proceeds on assumptions, but this gets us into epistemological foundationalism (vs other approaches). The issue, I think, is to recognize that science (or more accurately, human beings doing what they call science) do make assumptions – i.e., the nature is uniform, inductive logic works, a few “self-evident” laws of logic (e.g., noncontradiction), as well as some other assumptions which might better be called properly basic, like other minds, the past, the reliability of our senses. With these ingredients we can build empirical science.I’m not sure calling this “faith” is the right word. Faith is an ambiguous term, itmeans different things to different people, it is emotionally charged. So I’m not sure myself that much is served by calling these aspects of science, “faith.” I think axioms or assumptions work better, because I don’t think they are the same sort of thing people mean when they usually talk of faith.Moreover, I think Davies hasn’t really looked into the philosophy that underlies these sorts of questions, especially re: natural laws. Laws can be understood in various ways, not the least of which being that they are simply regularities in nature. E.g. a law can be seen as simply descriptive about what is always observed to happen, not prescriptive about what *has* to happen. Indeed, the more hard-nosed empiricist position within the philosophy of science is to argue that science is not in the business of providing explanations at all. It is in the business of systematizing experience and making predictions. This was, in fact, the position of the logical positivists, and their modern day descendents. In other words, at some point asking why simply doesn’t get you any better understanding. To me, the conceptualization that makes the most sense is that of Quine. His “web of belief” suggests that we believe what we do, and make sense of our experience (scientific and otherwise) as we do, for eminently pragmatic reasons: because it works, and it’s the simplest theory going. He even suggested that the laws of logic themselves were not impervious to modification by experience if that seemed the most parsimonious way to make sense of our data from the world. So in this view, natural laws become just handles on the world. They are not, as Rorty said, mirrors of nature; they are tools. If/when we find a better tool, we will use it.So in sum, I don’t think faith is a good word to use because its too charged and too ambiguous. I think that’s why people are uncomfortable with this. It makes one faith seem as justified as any other in which case I could lay claim to faith in Marvin the Paranoid Android as lying behind the laws of nature. But I think we can accept his basic point without importing religious terminology, the meaning of which is highly relative to a given speech-community. “Assumptions” is a nice, workaday, (more) neutral term that I suggest is better. Science does indeed make assumptions, but they are practical, and generally nondisputed ones, that make our web of belief work. And religion is about making our web of belief matter.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06071672526594753513 Richard M

    Eric-You suggested that belief in the laws and methods of science, in the “axioms”, is an act of faith. That may be, though I dont think faith is a good word for it, as described above.YOu position sounds similar to that of presupposionalists. The problem I have with that view is that saying the laws of science/logic etc are “the creation of a rational God” advances our understanding of the world not one bit. It just makes us feel better, or at least thats what its trying to do. But unless you can explain in some detail how and why a rational God did these things, you havent done anything except, perhaps, define God as “that which upholds the rationality of the universe.”I suggest the axioms we use — which we all use, you, me, and everyone — are used because they seem to work, nothing more. “God” introduces an entity that does no epistemological work.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00559055709208918638 Eric Rowe

    Thanks Richard. You’re right about me. I don’t have the background in epistemology that you apparently do. But, yes, as far as I can tell, I fall into the presuppositionalist camp. I don’t deny that my claims don’t advance our knowledge about how God made the laws of logic and such. But I don’t think that’s the only reason that should be acceptable for me to make my claims. Any alternate claim about why the law of noncontradiction holds (together with the other properly basic things you listed–a good list btw), would suffer the same fate as mine. Even your own claim that the reason we hold these properly basic things is because they work doesn’t sit right with me. That claim only pushes the problem back another level and establishes a sort of utilitarianism as a properly basic axiom. Moreover, I don’t think it’s really true. I think we trust our senses by nature, likewise with the laws of logic and the outworking of mathematics (which follows certain set laws regardless of the system in which you work). The reason I trust that the proof that e^(i*pi)+1=0 is not because I have experienced that any part of the proof “works”. I’m not enough of a mathematician even to be able to conceptualize the elements of that proof apart from being able to work through them when they’re placed in front of me. But I trust it because the math is sound in its nature. But even though my understanding of this doesn’t advance our knowledge of the “how” of it all (a question that I expect is impossible for us to answer in this life), it still presents a way of conceptualizing a theistic world view that is internally consistent. On the other hand, atheists who trust science, but deny the God on whom the very axioms of all sciences depend, don’t have that internal coherence. The meaningfulness of their operations does not comport with the meaninglessness of the universe inherent in their professed religion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07225890125470949454 Bad

    “They may be reliable axioms, again because creation is upheld by a trustworthy Creator.”You’re using a verb “upheld” to modify a subject (axioms) that makes no sense whatsoever. I am familiar with the argument you are referencing, however, and I find it groundless. Assuming a trustworthy creator is not any less of an arbitrary assumption, and to boot it’s simply more convoluted, all to no practical explanatory purpose that I can discern. “But they are still axioms implicitly held by faith.”Again, no (and my article covers this in more depth). There is no requirement to hold those axioms by faith, or even believe that they are true. They are unavoidable for anyone wishing to actually interact with the our seemingly shared physical reality, certainly, but look, I’m sitting right here telling you that I don’t have faith in those things. Telling me that I do and that I must in the face of that is just silly. Telling scientists that they must is just silly. Read a book on the theory of science and empiricism and so forth. You are not going to find people who recite a credo that “I affirm that existence exists.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00559055709208918638 Eric Rowe

    “You’re using a verb ‘upheld’ to modify a subject (axioms) that makes no sense whatsoever.”Sure it makes sense. We appeal to these things as axioms. That only means that we don’t place something prior to them in our reasoning. It doesn’t mean that they exist without any reason.”Assuming a trustworthy creator is not any less of an arbitrary assumption, and to boot it’s simply more convoluted, all to no practical explanatory purpose that I can discern.”Again the appeal to utilitarianism as the axiom that proves the other axioms.”There is no requirement to hold those axioms by faith, or even believe that they are true. “Believing they are true IS holding them by faith. You are right that nobody has to believe them. But we all do because we are made in God’s image.”You are not going to find people who recite a credo that ‘I affirm that existence exists.’”What does that have to do with the faith commitments that all people make when they engage in the search for truth?”Read a book on the theory of science and empiricism and so forth.”Thanks. I think I’ll do that.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06071672526594753513 Richard M

    Eric — Well, I think we’re in agreement here about most of this. I certainly appreciate your candor! I agree that both of our “systems” suffer from the same flaw, in that they both must terminate at an unexplained entity — I just stop one step shorter than you do. I think introducing a supernatural entity as a way of “grounding” axioms adds unnecessary complexity. It may, however,make one feel better — and thats not a bad thing. I am not saying that to be snippy! Im actually a big fan of credo consolans for those who feel drawn that way of living their life. Creating intellectual systems that respond to human needs is perfectly valid — from my pragmatic persepctive. Martin Garder argued beautifully that emotional reasons are the *only* reasons to make metaphysical leaps. For me, though, I am happy to simply stop at the level of positing axioms and/or basic beliefs and build from there.I will take issue with one thing you said, though, rather a big issue within the presupp argument: that atheists are internally inconsistent. This is, of course, the sine qua non of the presupp critique, but it doesnt work. After all, where is the contradiction? Positing axioms cannot, pretty much by definition, be contradictory. Again, what do they contradict? What is subsequently built on them — i.e., the edifice of scientific (and other) theories — is built with logical (deductive or inductive) consistency in mind from the start. E.g., if a scientific theory concluded “sense data are completely unreliable” then we’d have a problem, of course, but thats not generally the case. And individual theories can, of course, contradict one another, but those are routine everyday matters and are resolvable. But the “atheist system” as a whole is not, somehow by necessisty, internally incoherent just because it rests on axioms.You said: “The meaningfulness of their operations does not comport with the meaninglessness of the universe inherent in their professed religion.”I think you are equivocating two senses of term “meaningful”. Meaningful in your first use connotes logicality and rationalism, meaningless in your second use has to do with design or purpose or telos. The fact that the universe was not made for us or with us in mind or for some particular reason is not contradictory with the idea that it is orderly — i.e., law governed.And I do think we can make a case that parsimony and nonarbitrariness are reasonable — not “proven”, but reasonable– criteria by which to evaluate theories, if for no more reason that thats what we all do and consistency is a virtue. I.e., if you want your web of belief regarding matters theological to be consistent with the rest of your life then you would have to apply it both places, since you almost certainly use it in your daily life. Unless you are a *very* interesting person, I doubt you would explain your difficulty finding your car keys in the morning to gnomes having moved them. Not that Im saying youre not an interesting person. ;)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00559055709208918638 Eric Rowe

    Thanks Richard,I’ll just jump to your critique of my saying, “The meaningfulness of their operations does not comport with the meaninglessness of the universe inherent in their professed religion.”I don’t believe I’m using the concept of meaningfulness equivocally here. I just don’t believe that loigicality and rationality are separable from design and telos–but I appreciate your call to make a distinction. I would also have to admit that my very linking of these things occurs at a pretty basic level in my own thinking, and I’m not sure that I could work it out in a syllogism.But I do think that I can point to some lines of thought that might evoke the same conviction in others. The first is the essay, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” by Nobel Prize winning physicist, Eugene Wigner, which readers can read online at a number of places, such as here:http://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Wigner.htmlThe second is the equation e^(i*pi)+1=0, which I mentioned above. When Euler discovered that equation he himself declared it a proof of God’s existence (so, at least with Wigner and Euler I’m in good company). And I too when I see things like this in mathematics am compelled to believe that there is design not only in the material creation, but also in the very logicality that is underneath it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06071672526594753513 Richard M

    Eric – Interesting! So kind of like an “intelligent-design-ish” argument for logic and rationality itself.Ive always thought that presuppositionalism shared a lot in common with First Cause and other arugments for Gods existence. They (presupp’s) tend to deny that one is *inferring* God, instead saying it is a presupposition (i.e., a necessary implied premise or precondition), but it always seemed to me that they had nonetheless “inferred” the precondition so it amounted to the same thing. So, instead of looking at the order in the natural world anc concluding “God”, they are looking at the orderliness of, well, order itself and concluding “God.”Anyway, I guess what i would say is that although it may potentially be the case that reason and telos are intertwined, I suppose my objection would be that it hasnt been established that that is necessarily the case. And even if it were, all the objections to First Cause would apply: this does not necessarily imply one god, or that god is good, or that god is omnipotent, and certainly not that this god is christian.I agree with you that any effort to analyse epistemological foundations is going to get squirrely and probably, strictly speaking, cant be dont. And pragmatically, most people are able to get by in their lives quite well without being epistemologists anyway.Ill have to check out the article you referenced — sounds interesting!


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