Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#20 - Do Scientists Need to Have “Faith”?

American Heathen:  aired: 01 September 2012

Faith turns out a very odd word, so let's do one of my favorite things and go to dictionary.com for the definition of this noun.

1.    confidence or trust in a person or thing.
2.    belief that is not based on proof.
3.    belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion.
4.    belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.
5.    a system of religious belief

If we look at #1, this definition necessarily must be based on evidence.  If you've known someone for many years and have had a positive relationship with that person, then you can say something like "I have faith in her.  She's always been there for me."  This is trust based on experience and observation.  Trust can be developed by people in many different things, as well as in other people:  the Law of Gravity, or the US Constitution, for instance.  I'm going to refer to this type of faith as "faith-e" (for evidence-based faith) in what follows.

A believer friend of mine proposed that his faith in god was based on evidence - something to the effect that his god was always there for him.  I can't possibly evaluate this sort of evidence because it's based on his feelings and interpretations of events in his life, but I suppose it's real enough to him.  And that's fine for him, but his insistence that this establishes a solid empirical basis for his religious belief is simply incorrect.  His anecdotal evidence just doesn’t measure up.  I’ve talked in the past about the standards for scientific evidence.

Turning to #2, this form of faith is precisely the opposite of #1.  I'm going to ignore the dictionary's misuse of the word "proof" in this context.  You can go to my blogsite here to read more about why I believe this word should be evidence rather than proof.   Considering both #1 and #2, the word faith can imply two diametrically opposed ideas:  trust based on evidence ... and trust based on no evidence.

The religious message is that we should accept the existence, omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and infinite love of the presently-invisible deity "on faith" - that is, in the total absence of credible empirical evidence.  In the biblical stories, the mythical deity provides visible, tangible evidence of his powers to various humans right up to the death of the mythical jesus and then ... nothing.  No more empirical, verifiable evidence to support these extraordinary claims has been forthcoming.  All we have are delusions about the face of jesus in a slice of toast, or “bleeding” statues or whatever.  Beyond such cases of delusional hysteria, we’re left only with the hearsay "evidence" of the supposedly sacred religious documents of the Abrahamic religions.  These documents are filled with contradictions, historical inaccuracies, myths plagiarized from earlier religions, ambiguous meanings, and imaginary figures.  That they could be considered empirical evidence in support of trust in the existence of an all-everything being that is everywhere, all the time, is simply so ludicrous it's hard to believe than anyone would be so gullible as to imagine it to be evidence at all!  It’s comparable to using supermarket tabloids in support of faith in the existence of extraterrestrial aliens in spaceships visiting the earth.  It indeed would take a leap of faith to accept the existence of such an extraordinary being on such flimsy support.  So religious faith is going to be referred to herein as "faith-r" in what follows.

Clearly, #3 is faith-r.  No more need be said about that.

For #4, belief in "anything" is pretty vague, but all such "faith" would have to be faith-e, necessarily.

As for #5, that is certainly faith-r, pretty much by definition.

When a baby is born and cries for her mother's milk, the baby unknowingly has a sort of faith that someone will answer her and provide that nourishment.  This can't be based on evidence - at least not right away.  The baby wouldn't be conscious of having this faith - she's just programmed by evolution to respond to hunger pangs by crying.  But after some weeks of experience, she would begin to have empirical evidence validating her trust that crying will bring nourishment to satiate her hunger.

I have the benefit of many years of experience to back up my trust in science:  not necessarily in the specific findings and results of science (which change all the time), but in its methods - and in the people who do science, as well.  As I've discussed previously, science is built on trust.  Of course, examples can be found where individuals have violated that trust and been ostracized as a result.  Some parallels can be drawn between religion and science, but they are very different when it comes to "faith":  in science, faith-r is simply not acceptable.  Scientific faith is clearly faith-e.

When I apply scientific standards to religion, it's immediate obvious to even the most casual observer that religions simply fail to meet scientific standards of evidence.  Many of my believer colleagues are willing to admit this, but they argue that scientific standards of evidence aren't appropriate for use in their spiritual lives.  They say that science doesn't provide all the answers, anyway.  Unfortunately, they're more than a little unclear about why such standards shouldn't be applied to religion.  The claims of religion are so extraordinary, we have a right to expect extraordinary evidence, but it’s not forthcoming.

The fact is that faith-r is what drives extreme religious fanatics to commit heinous crimes in the name of their deity.  Their faith in the absence of evidence can't be swayed by any evidence, by any logical argument, by any rational reasoning.  It’s necessarily impervious to reason.  Faith-r is anthetical to logic and evidence, and even could be considered to be a form of insanity.  What sort of "answers" does religion provide?  They're always in the form of a deus ex machina (God did it!), which provides precisely nothing useful in the way of scientific insight.  Whereas science is limited by our ability to observe and collect data, faith-r knows no such boundaries.  Its "truth" is absolute, unchanging, and resolutely impervious to any rational thought.

Faith-e is a wonderful thing, because it allows experience and observation to modify its findings.  Anyone seeking to convince you of the absolute truth of something that requires you to accept it on faith-r is not only failing to meet the standards of science;  they’re likely dangerous deceivers, seeking to entrain you into a cult.

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.