I admit that occasionally I have had disagreements with some of my conservative Christian friends over discrepancies between beliefs based on scientific principles and beliefs based on what is written in the Bible. At some point in our discussions we might have the following exchange:
Me: “My beliefs are based on objective observation, rational analysis, and scientific research. Your (the Christian friend’s) beliefs are based on faith in scripture as the true word of God.”
Friend: “We both rely on faith. I put my faith in God and the Bible. You put your faith in science and in the opinions of scientists. It’s just a question of what and who you want to believe and where you put your faith.”
Well . . . not really. I don’t put my faith in science. Let me explain.
First, by “faith” I mean belief in something despite a lack of objective evidence for its existence. I know there are other definitions for the word faith, but this is the one that I and my Christian friends are referring to in our “dialogues.” Some Christians are uncomfortable with the implications of this definition. They realize that in other realms they would demand objective evidence before accepting something as true. They would want the reassurance of objective, scientific support for a proposed medical procedure, for example, LASIK surgery, before they agreed to such a procedure. But they put no such qualifications on their belief in the veracity of scripture. I think they recognize that discrepancy and subconsciously find it troubling.
Christians are also uncomfortable with this definition of faith in reference to their belief in God because they contend that their belief is in fact based on evidence. They feel God’s presence in their hearts. They claim a personal relationship with God. They see God’s handiwork in everything around them (well, maybe not in, ahem, hurricanes, earthquakes, or floods, but that’s a different discussion). But there is a major problem with this “evidence”—it is internal and subjective, not objective and testable. If someone claims to hear voices or to have an invisible friend, we immediately raise doubts because we know that people can experience hallucinations or delusions and there is no objective evidence for their claims. In addition, the fact that a sunset or a full moon on the horizon appeals to our aesthetic sensibilities simply means that we humans are fortunate to be able to appreciate such natural phenomena. It says nothing about who or what might be responsible for their existence. In short, such subjective evidence is not falsifiable.
OK, so why do I say that I don’t have faith in science? First, I have a belief in specific facts or principles derived from scientific research, not despite a lack of evidence, but because of the existence of objective evidence. I believe in the principles of evolution because there is overwhelming scientific (that is, objective) evidence to support it. Similarly, I believe in other established scientific concepts—plate tectonics, the Bernoulli’s principle, the expansion of the universe—not because I have been taught they are true by authority figures, but because their existence has been established through extensive scientific experimentation and analysis. The objective evidence is overwhelming.
Second, my beliefs in scientific principles are provisional. That is, I am not irrevocably committed to a particular position on these matters. If convincing conflicting evidence were presented, I would find myself changing my beliefs to accommodate such evidence. Fifty years ago there were two competing scientific theories to explain the fact that the universe is expanding, the steady state theory and the big bang theory. Both theories had their advocates among cosmologists. Then came the serendipitous discovery by Penzias and Wilson in 1965 of the cosmic background radiation that provided definitive evidence to support the big bang theory. I will admit that at the time, in my callow naiveté, I had been rooting for the steady state theory, perhaps because it seemed to provide a solution to the origins question. But once it became clear that the experimental observations favored the big bang theory, my beliefs changed.
This is fundamentally different from the beliefs that Christians hold based on authority rather than on objective evidence. For most Christians belief in God or in the inerrancy of scripture is not provisional; it is not falsifiable. And this is a fundamental difference, because it indicates that such beliefs are not based on objective evidence. My beliefs in matters of science are.
My Christian friends may argue that my beliefs in science are not based on actual evidence but on what scientists have claimed as evidence. I have not personally conducted the experiments on which such findings are based. I have relied on scientists and the scientific community to vet such research. There is a risk in such reliance, and mistakes—and deception—do occur. But in the long run the scientific community’s self-policing procedures serve to ensure that faulty research, whether inadvertent or intentional, is uncovered and corrected. Otherwise, one would have to conclude that the scientific community is either incompetent or involved in a massive conspiracy. I guess I just don’t think that is the case.
Finally, my friends could argue that I do have faith, not as to belief in specific scientific discoveries but as to reliance on the scientific method. In short, the argument goes, I have put my faith in science and the scientific method as an epistemological philosophy. My response, once again, is that confidence in and reliance on the scientific method is based, not on insufficient evidence but on an overwhelming wealth of objective evidence. No other approach to the discovery of knowledge has been as remotely successful as the scientific method. It is responsible for nearly all of the advances we have made in understanding the physical world, from the heliocentric solar system to the fundamental forces of nature to advances in medical treatments to all of the other technological inventions that we enjoy. And that is because knowledge based on science is self-correcting. It is under constant review, modification, and refinement. That is simply not the case with respect to belief based on faith in authority.
In short, I don’t have to put my “faith” in science. There is more than ample evidence to support my beliefs both in specific scientific knowledge and in the scientific method in general.
© 2014 John M. Phillips