On Science, Faith, and Evidence

There is perhaps no idea I hear at church that I find more wrong, or more dangerously wrong, than that faith is a will to believe in the absence of evidence. I understand where the idea comes from, of course. Religious belief is not simply dictated by logic and observation. To get from even the strongest evidence to the acceptance of any particular creed requires an act of interpretation; ultimately, in some sense, it requires a choice.

But the choice–take note–is not a choice between faith and rationality, between believing something without evidence and simply following the facts where they lead. Instead, an act of interpretation is necessary to arrive at any beliefs, whether religious or scientific.

Take, for an example, the famous story of Galileo concluding despite persecution that the earth moves around the sun. As my high school history teacher would have it, Galileo simply looked into his telescope and saw things that made geocentrism impossible, while his critics ignored evidence and based their views on scripture and benighted tradition. They may have had the political power to force him recant, but political power and recantations were irrelevant to the facts. Galileo had seen the truth in his telescope. Eppur si muove: “and yet it moves.”

Of course, one cannot merely look into a telescope and see that the earth revolves around the sun. Leaving church politics aside, the actual astronomical debate of Galileo’s day was not between people who observed the sky and those who did not; it was between people who disagreed about the meaning of their observations. Galileo and Brahe both observed the heavens, but Galileo interpreted what he saw as proof that the earth moved, while Brahe went to his grave insisting that it did not.

The difference between them was not the accuracy of their observations: of the two, Brahe was the more careful and persistent astronomer, and it was Brahe’s data, not Galileo’s, that led Kepler to his laws of planetary motion. The difference was also not intellectual honesty or courage to face the facts, which were hardly Galileo’s greatest strengths. Having committed himself to the Copernican system, Galileo let his commitment blind him on at least two occasions: when he insisted that the tides were physical evidence of the motion of the earth around the sun despite that hypothesis not fitting the available data, and when he refused to accept Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, which were clearly superior to Copernicus’ work.

The difference between Galileo and Brahe was that Galileo possessed the intelligence and ingenuity–in short, the genius–to imagine a physics that would explain how such an immense and massive object as the earth could be moving at incomprehensible speed when it appears to everyone living on it to be quite still. Brahe lacked this genius, but we can hardly blame him. Even today, nearly half a millennium later, not a lot of people can explain the full answer to that question, to say nothing of figuring it out and testing it on their own. By and large we take it on faith, as we do so many things in this scientific world.

Anyway, real science is always like this, a messy back-and-forth between the things scientists see and the theories they invent to explain what they see, which then guide further observations, which spur the invention of new theories, and on and on round the circle. It is not, it cannot be, simply a matter of following the facts, of honestly facing up to whatever evidence the universe happens to throw one’s way.

Yet when science is set in opposition to religion, “just following the facts” is all too often the picture of science that religion is compared to. Religion does not claim to be just following the facts, and religious belief is therefore incorrectly portrayed as purely subjective and totally independent of evidence and argument.

Besides being a comforting fantasy for those who wish to dismiss religion without understanding it, this image of religious belief is an obstacle to sincere seekers of religious truth. Indeed, it is a denial of the possibility of religious truth, a rejection of the idea that one set of religious beliefs might correspond to reality more closely than any other. All might be equally valid, as I’ve heard some liberal Protestants tolerantly affirm; or all might be equally invalid, as the New Atheists rather intolerantly bellow; but attempting to persuade someone that your perfectly subjective understanding of God is more accurate than theirs makes roughly as much sense as responding to a friend’s “I feel sick” with “You’re wrong, I feel quite well.”1

If faith is not a choice to believe in the absence of evidence, what is it? For starters, it’s much too complicated to explain completely in the last two paragraphs of a blog post. But from one angle, it looks a fair amount like science–real science, that is, not the imaginary sort in which telescopes do all the work and scientists merely stand in front of them with their eyes open. From this perspective, faith, like so much of science, lies in interpretation, in trying to make sense of a complicated and confusing world. Faith’s work is harder than science’s, in that it must answer questions of what life means and how one ought to live, and harder still because it must make sense not merely of objective facts but of a person’s whole life experience–including what we commonly call spiritual experiences, when the Subject of our study becomes for a moment our Teacher. Nevertheless, the basic task is the same: to answer the questions that matter in ways that are faithful to reality, and to improve our answers “line upon line, precept upon precept” as we encounter new evidence.

One last thought to conclude: once such faith is found, and shown to make sense of life, it would be irrational to jettison it at the first signs of contrary evidence. Physicists did not throw general relativity overboard when they thought they had observed neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light, just as the Apostle Thomas should not have lost faith in Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection when he was crucified. Very often, the perfectly rational response to challenges to one’s faith echoes Galileo’s: “And yet the Spirit moves.”

1. Analogy borrowed from C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.

  • billwald

    In other words, there is physical evidence and then there is metaphysical evidence?

    • Kevin Osborne

      There is your evidence. If you poke around you’ll find a lot of different ways of looking at this place. None are wrong or right. But yours is the one that will determine your freedom to move around in this place.

  • http://rturpin.wordpress.com/ Russell Turpin

    Choosing to believe something as fact implies that at least in the making of that choice, evidence no longer is relevant. Hurst works hard, from his first paragraph, to try to have it both ways. And fails.

    Scientists don’t have to commit to a theory, or worry about setting it aside. For them, theories are tools and objects of study. If GR gets modified or replaced somewhere down the road, that’s a large intellectual step, but no big thing personally.

  • Lars

    Faith is indeed a choice, as is whatever evidence you interpret to support that faith. There are thousands of different beliefs but only one speed of light. All the evidence supports that constant. When there’s contradictory evidence, or interpretations of that evidence, such as the speedy neutrinos, there is justifiable scoffing and criticism. Even the folks reporting their results were incredulous! But religion, by its subjective nature, is essentially immune from such criticisms by its adherents (unless you’re willing to be considered a heretic within that religion). Once a text is deemed sacred, it becomes immutable and from that point on it can only be re-imagined/re-interpreted or disbelieved. Scientific theories, on the other hand, are under no such constraints and a theory rises or falls on its own merits.

    If a particular faith was actually the Truth, wouldn’t it survive all attempts at discrediting and we would eventually come to consensus that it is, or most likely is, true, much the way most have come to accept scientific theories like evolution or climate change as true? And yet every single faith/religion is a minority opinion with most of the rest of the world believing something different. In this light, I don’t see how faith “looks like science” (where facts aren’t interpreted as much as they are understood). As a result, faith should be easier than science, not harder, because it doesn’t have to be proven, only accepted (such as the earth being the center of everything) and evidence to the contrary can be safely ignored at the believer’s discretion.

  • nnmns

    What you fail to point out, of course, is that science is based on evidence. E.g. Galileo had the evidence of seeing Jupiter’s moons rotate around it and of the phases of Venus to show the error of the Ptolemaic model, the last desperate attempt to hold to the Biblical claim that the earth is immovable.

    And scientists do give up well established theories when they are shown to be wrong. A glaring example is scientists, at first reluctantly then enthusiastically giving Newtonian mechanics when it was demonstrated both relativity theory and quantum mechanics could explain and especially predict things it could not. And if a demonstrably better theory theory came along scientists would give up relativity and quantum mechanics. And some scientists are looking very hard for that better theory.

    What well established religious theory have the religion-mongers given up? None of the major (or minor, as far as I know) religions has any documentation nor can they be demonstrated to work no can they be used to predict things in the world. For instance there are no independent verifications of the miracles which Christianity claims as its foundation. None. And the Bible contains all sorts of errors so using it to try to learn about the world would be foolish. And there seems to be no prospect of updating it, leaving out the bad parts.

    And Christianity is not the worst of the major religions though its fundamentalist adherents are most dangerous to freedom in the US.

    So in fact religion is about taking things on faith and science generally is about forming hypotheses and verifying theories based on evidence.

    • Kevin Osborne

      Newton’s observations do, work however. They allow ;predictability on earth in a small field of defined motion. Einstein and quantum mechanics take on a larger field, but don’t explain why they exist or what the rules are outside the box. All information is limited because personal observation, focus and therefore, one’s willingness to see what is in front of one is limited.
      What I mean is science without a willingness to accept all existence as a part of the puzzle is going to fall short.

      • nnmns

        No, fundamental scientific theories don’t include justifications. Newtonian mechanics didn’t either, but it agreed with our intuition as it had developed after people knew about momentum and such. Of course it replaced religious ideas such as God keeping a thrown stone moving which probably agreed with intuition then. I suspect the question of why any of those, or their replacements, are true (or at least work so well) will remain a mystery. But that’s better than accepting an answer based on fantasies or millennia-old books.

        • Kevin Osborne

          Ah, better in what sense?

          • nnmns

            Better in the sense that knowing you don’t know is better than believing in fantasies that are often harmful. E.g. trying to force public schools to not teach real biology, parents denying real health care to children they pray over instead, … .

          • Kevin Osborne

            Okay. I’d say “better” is a tough gig. One is always inside an incomplete perspective, therefore judgment is going to lack accuracy. It is just what one chooses to hang a hat on.
            For any one child there is no way to tell what is best because one is making up that child’s future. He or she may be dead in a week therefore sitting in school is a cruel waste of time. He or she may be a great composer on whom biology creates a sense of failure so the great works never are composed. Or, in the case of a dying child, a life of pain is exchanged for quick release. We don’t know what is best or even what best is. We make it up.
            Now, is pretending one knows best a harmful fantasy? I couldn’t say.

          • Lars

            Better is tougher in that it requires research so you can minimize your chances at failure (and hopefully those of your loved ones as well!). You can walk into your local cell phone store and purchase the first smartphone you pick up. You might randomly pick up the best phone on the planet (and pay through the nose) or you may get a phone that sucks your will to live (ok, if you insist, a Galaxy S “Aviator”). Or you can ask your friends what they like, read a few reviews online and then make the best choice you can afford. We don’t live in a knowledge vacuum unless we choose to, or pretend to.

          • Kevin Osborne

            I agree with you in that knowing more, having more information, seeing more is a means toward better understanding. Better operation, better results especially based on morality, is subjective, my opinion.

    • AlanHurst

      I don’t care to tackle your claims about religion here except to say that I think they’re stereotypes and caricatures, true at times of some believers and some religious movements, but hardly an accurate description of Christianity or Mormonism as a whole. What well-established religious theory have religious people given up in response to evidence? Lots of them, as you would know if you studied religion rationally instead of buying into popular fantasies about it. Religious movements are constantly evolving in response to new evidences, including scientific ones.

      What I do want to tackle is your incorrect understanding of what Galileo accomplished with his observations. The discovery of Jupiter’s moons made it difficult to believe the Ptolemaic claim that everything revolved around the earth and nothing around any of the planets, but it did not prove that the earth moves. The discovery of the phases of Venus was a compelling argument that Venus orbits the sun; it was not proof that the earth orbits the sun. After both of these discoveries, there remained the question as to whether the geocentric model should be modified (as per Brahe) or abandoned (as per Galileo). Galileo recognized this, which is among the reasons why he was so desperate to prove that the earth’s motion around the sun caused the tides–a thesis which even in Galileo’s day did not fit the facts, as Kepler correctly argued.

      You might be interested to know, by the way, that Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton were all what you’d call “religion-mongers.” In particular, Kepler studied the motion of the planets to learn more about the Holy Trinity, and Newton wrote extensive (if heterodox) commentaries on scripture. Greater minds that either of us have found faith and science perfectly compatible. Who are you to call them irrational?

      • nnmns

        In what sense is it a stereotype or caricature to point out that there are no independent verifications of those miracles in the Bible? That’s just truth; uncomfortable no doubt for some people but truth.

        I knew at least Newton was pretty religious. And they were in their ways great scientists. And to this day there are religious people who are excellent scientists. But that doesn’t make their religious beliefs any truer.

  • Kevin Osborne

    One could say faith is a willingness to believe there is more. This is also quite scientific and where science as defined by restriction falls short.
    An individual can’t know everything. This means that there is always more to know and that what is not known is predictable only in that It will be something one does not know.
    Science that excludes any information will fall short. And faith that accepts and is willing to see more is science as it should properly be defined: The understanding of all there is.

  • James

    Please keep writing. I always enjoy your posts.

  • RaymondSwenson

    One of the main aspects of the Book of Mormon that attracted me as a young aspiring technophile was its discussions of the relationship between faith and knowledge, epitomized in Alma 32 but also addressed in Moroni 7 and 10.
    The Book of Mormon emphasizes that there are prophets who directly experience and witness the existence of God and communications from God, and transmit that testimony to us through the written records of their testimonies. Alma invites us to try “an experiment upon the word” of the prophets’ testimonies, and see if they are fruitful teachings, which parallels the kinds of standards that scientists often use to evaluate the probity of a theory. Does the theory bear fruit, does it give us more theories/explanations, and the ability to predict ourcomes? Does it help us see a unified reality underneath the disparate phenomena of what we observe in nature and human society? The promise from Alma that our experiment will be fruitful for us is one of the teachings from God that we are testing.
    We are also taught in Moroni 7 that we each are born with an inherent sense of right and wrong, that is a compass that can lead us to more truth. Indeed, even scientists have to believe in our own rationality, that our mental processes are reliable and that the universe we perceive is rational and comprehensible in its structure, even though this idea is more of an axiom among scientists rather than something discovered by scientific research.
    Then in Moroni 10 we are promised that the entire Book of Mormon has been a testimony from God through prophetic witnesses to us, and that God can confirm he is the source of the message if we meet the simple conditions of the experiment prescribed in verses 3-5. Moroni affirms it is a reproducible experience, and it is the observation of myself and millions of other people that the experiment works.
    I agree that churches which specifically disavow direct revelation to modern mankind and invite faith in ancient texts without confirmation, or that argue that reasoning about the nature of God from logical propositions ala Plato or Aristotle, are accepting the terms of the “reason has no intersection with faith” proposition. But Mormonism, as Professor Stephen Barr points out in his new book Mormon Christianity, takes a radically different view of the relationship between God and material things, one which Barr (a Catholic) suggests other Christians should consider.