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.

#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.

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.