Thursday, October 30, 2014


In discussions with my Christian friends I often find myself asserting that their religious beliefs are based on faith, and when I use that term it’s clear that I am using it in a deprecatory sense.  I contrast the bases for their beliefs with the bases for scientific beliefs, which, I argue, arise not from faith but from objective evidence.  My friends respond that, yes, they have faith—in their religion, in scripture, in God—but that I, too, have faith—in scientific beliefs and in the scientific method.  But that’s not properly true if one defines faith, as I do, as belief despite a lack of objective evidence, because scientific beliefs arise not in the absence of evidence but by reason of the evidence.

Frankly, I’m not sure that I have made clear this distinction or that my friends have grasped that difference.  In part, I think, this is because they see their beliefs as based on evidence just as mine are.  It’s simply that their evidence is of a different kind.  It is based on the authority of scripture and on personal experience and feelings, which they see as just as real and legitimate as my “objective” evidence.  They speak often of having God or Christ or the Holy Spirit “enter their hearts” and of the peace and joy that follow.  They speak of conversing with God through prayer and the study of scripture.  These things don’t happen to me—they’ve never happened to me—so it is difficult for me to understand what they mean by these statements.  But I don’t think it matters, because there is a critical difference between what I refer to as “objective” evidence and the “subjective” evidence that my religious friends rely upon.  The difference is that objective evidence is, by definition, testable, that is, verifiable or falsifiable.  Subjective evidence is not.  And history is clear on the consequences of this distinction:  Applying the scientific method and rational analysis to objective, testable evidence has been supremely successful—in predicting astronomical events, in understanding our origins, in curing diseases, in alleviating suffering.  Relying on subjective evidence has not.  Just compare, for example, the abysmal lack of success of sincere prayer in curing childhood cancer compared to the overwhelming success of scientific research.  It’s as simple as that.

But let’s return to the question of faith.  I recently read an article that argues that, just as religious persons have faith, so do individual scientists.  And I guess I would have to agree.  The article points out that scientists, being human, can be just as committed to their points of view as Christians can be to theirs.  However, there is, I believe, a fundamental difference between the faith of scientists and the faith of the religious.

When I began reading about cosmology as a teenager back in the early 1960s, there were two leading schools of thought regarding the origins of the universe, the big bang theory and the steady state theory.  I think we are all familiar with the big bang theory because it has become far and away the dominant view regarding the origins of the universe.  But until 50 years ago the steady state theory held its own as a rival, plausible interpretation of existing evidence.  It accepted the evidence that the universe is expanding but argued that that expansion was offset by a continuous spontaneous creation of new matter so that the universe maintained a constant overall density and always had.  Of course, further evidence, particularly Wilson and Penzias’s discovery of the cosmic background radiation in 1965, supported the big bang theory over the steady state theory, and eventually the latter was largely abandoned by its former adherents.  I am sure there were those who had been taught and bought into the steady state theory or had done research in support of that theory who had an emotional commitment to it and who had a difficult time abandoning it.  I am sure, too, that for a time some at least of the steady state theorists devised modified versions of their theory that would accommodate the new research.  But eventually there came a time when the contrary evidence became overwhelming and the steady state theorists had to acknowledge defeat.

The article I referenced above mentions another scientific debate that took place in the first half of the 20th century, an even more fundamental one.  Let me simply quote the article on this.

Early in the 20th century, physics was in a major crisis. A series of experiments demonstrated that the theories at hand, based on the mechanics of Isaac Newton and on the electromagnetism of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, failed to describe the properties of atomic matter. In the world of the very small — the world of quantum physics — reality seemed to play by a different set of rules. Scientists were forced to revise their worldview in radical ways. 
In the classical world, the one we see around us, nature made sense — events following a nice chain of cause and effect — what we call determinism. In the quantum world, this certainty had to be placed aside: The properties of matter, of electrons in atoms, for example, had to be described by probabilities. However, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Erwin Schrödinger and other great scientists involved in developing the theory refused to accept its apparent randomness as final. They believed that, deep down, nature had to follow simple causal rules, that determinism would triumph in the end. 
This kind of posture, when there is a persistent holding on to a belief that is continually contradicted by facts, can only be called faith. In the quantum case, it's faith in an ordered, rational nature, even if it reveals itself through random behavior. "God doesn't play dice," wrote Einstein to his colleague Max Born. His conviction led him and others to look for theories that could explain the quantum probabilities as manifestations of a deeper order. And they failed.

Even the most casual student of science should be familiar with this historical dilemma and debate.  On the one hand was the classical belief, championed by Einstein, in an orderly cause and effect world, a belief that had been a fundamental tenet of physics and that had worked well at the macro-physical level.  On the other was the acceptance of the fact that, as argued by Niels Bohr, at the quantum level the world is inherently probabilistic.  As we know, Bohr ultimately won that debate, not through his powers of persuasive argument but by reason of the great weight of evidence from subsequent experimentation.  Along the way it was surely difficult for the “traditionalists” to relinquish their belief in cause and effect at all levels and there were many who continued to reject a probabilistic worldview and either discounted contrary evidence or reinterpreted it so as not to have to abandon their “faith.”  But in the end the scientific community did indeed abandon the traditional cause and effect view.

And therein lies the fundamental difference between scientific and religious faith. Religious faith is governed by dogma: principles based on beliefs that are deemed incontrovertible. To a rationalist this is the most maddening aspect of religious belief. There is nothing one can say, there are no facts one can present, that would change the believer’s worldview, no matter how clear the logic or overwhelming the evidence. Scientific faith, on the other hand, is in essence a reluctance to change one beliefs in light of the evidence.  It is simply a function of the fact that scientists are human.

But, and here’s the main point, scientific beliefs do change.  The scientific community does embrace the changes in belief wrought by the evidence established by ongoing research, even if individual scientists may have vested interests in particular, ultimately discarded points of view and find change difficult.  Witness the heliocentric solar system, the nature and causes of disease, evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics, the big bang.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for religious belief which still has the millstone of dogma still firmly positioned around its neck.

© 2014 John M. Phillips

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