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
#28 - Just What Are “Scientific Beliefs”?
American Heathen: aired: 02 February 2013
The word “belief” is defined in dictionary.com as
belief - noun
1. something believed; an opinion or conviction: a belief that the earth is flat.
2. confidence in the truth or
existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof: a
statement unworthy of belief.
3. confidence; faith; trust: a child's belief in his parents.
4. a religious tenet or tenets; religious creed or faith
Consider these, in turn. Number 1 uses an example of a belief
that simply isn’t true. Hence, having a belief of this sort is no
evidence of its validity. Number 2 is probably close to the
“beliefs” of science, as I will demonstrate shortly. Number 3 is
also related to a scientific “belief”, in that confidence in something
can be developed on the basis of evidence supporting that
“belief”. Number 4 is faith – belief without evidence.
In an earlier segment,
I rejected the notion that scientific ideas ever represent “absolute
truths” for which no evidence need be offered. Some scientists
might be very confident that their personal pet ideas are correct, but
if pushed, most would admit they don’t believe in those ideas with the
sort of immutable “faith” exhibited by a religious believer.
The issue of belief comes up frequently in the context of believers
saying that both science and religion are “belief systems” and
therefore are on equal footing. Scientists can’t prove a deity
doesn’t exist, religion can’t prove a deity does exist. This
seems like a stalemate. However, elsewhere I’ve discussed the notion of proof in science. Consider again what dictionary.com provides,
proof - noun
1. evidence sufficient to establish a thing as true, or to produce belief in its truth.
2. anything serving as such evidence: What proof do you have?
3. the act of testing or making trial of anything; test; trial: to put a thing to the proof.
4. the establishment of the truth of anything; demonstration.
5. Law. (in judicial proceedings) evidence having probative weight.
Again considered in turn: Number 1 is close to the use of the
word in science; the evidence is sufficient to have confidence in an
idea. Number 2 is all-inclusive, including hearsay, mythology, or
anything. Number 3 refers to experiments seeking evidence.
Number 4 is a bit muddy. If it refers to absolute truth, then it indicates infinitely
compelling evidence, like mathematical proofs and logical
syllogisms. Number 5 is limited to what constitutes proof in the
eyes of the law.
Scientific ideas are inevitably provisional.
They’re based on the evidence we have and our interpretation of
it. What some might call “scientific beliefs” are just the
current findings of consensus science. In order to be included in
this class of ideas, they must first be testable using the tools we
have to collect evidence. If they can’t be tested, then in no way
could they be considered “scientific beliefs”! If they’ve been
tested and the data don’t fit, then they’re rejected
(provisionally). If they do fit the data, they’re accepted
(provisionally). This certainly doesn’t sound
anything like a religious
belief, does it? New evidence or new ways of looking at old
evidence can cause provisional acceptance or rejection to be withdrawn
and the whole matter given new consideration. Science and religion work in dramatically different ways!
Some scientific concepts have been validated in so many ways, we have
extremely high confidence in them. No sane person disbelieves in
gravity, but Newton’s description of gravity is very different from
Einstein’s. Would you dispute the laws of gravity with enough
confidence to throw yourself off a 100 meter high cliff? Other
scientific ideas seem to have passed a number of tests, such as the
so-called “Standard Model”
of the Universe, but it turns out we know the standard model is
incomplete, and may contain elements that are incorrect. It’s not
a perfect model, although it does explain many things well enough to
match a great deal of the evidence we can collect about it.
Existing understanding is always finite, and is constantly being
challenged. Argument by authority is unacceptable and there are
distinct standards of evidence
that must be met. The existing concepts within the whole of the
scientific enterprise are not “beliefs” on a par with those of
religious beliefs – they are mutable, subject to revision, and
entirely based on evidence.
The only thing about science that is even remotely akin to the belief
without evidence (faith) of religion is the use of logic in
consideration of the scientific evidence. Without this
cornerstone, no sort of rational argument is possible. If we
don’t accept the rules of logic so that any irrationality is
acceptable, including supernatural beings, the blind acceptance of
hearsay evidence or even falsified
evidence, the acceptance of contradictions, infinite regression,
delusions, myths, and so on, then here’s what you’re left with:
when logic is rejected, there can be no rational discussion that puts
scientific findings and religious beliefs on an equal footing.
Logically, they’re distinctly different, so they can only be equated if
you reject logic, but then you’re using the very logic you’ve just
rejected! It comes down to a simple choice, then. You
accept the power and value of logic and rational consideration of
evidence in formulating arguments – or you don’t. On that basis
and that basis only (i.e., either you accept logic or you reject it)
can the choice between scientific and religious “belief systems” be
considered “equal”. Obviously, they’re very different world views
that are diametrically opposed.
Note that science doesn’t propose that its viewpoint is the only valid
viewpoint (except of course, within the domain of science), whereas
religious believers typically do make such an assertion about
theirs. Science admits its limitations, whereas most
religions acknowledge no such limits. Science is not necessarily
relevant in every aspect of human life – humans do irrational,
illogical things to which science cannot or need not be applied.
It’s only religion that seeks to impose its control over every aspect
of human life. Think about it and decide for yourself which
worldview you prefer.
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