Doesn't science require faith?

This question isn’t about atheism per se, but it is certainly relevant since most atheists seem to prefer science to religion as a system for understanding the world.

Science is based on a few assumptions: 1) basic inductive reasoning. If a pattern seems to repeat enough times then it’s safe to assume that it will continue more or less identically forever. While doubting this assumption means doubting whether the sun will rise in the morning, it’s still unprovable.

2) Once inductions are made and accepted as natural laws (I understand that science regards such “laws” as hypotheses, so don’t get sidetracked), we assume that the natural laws (such as gravity, quantum physics etc, obviously certain natural laws are location specific) we observe in the local universe will be the same everywhere in space and time, even during events unwitnessed by any recorded person. Doubting this assumption can mean that gravity may reverse somewhere in the far, unobserved universe, or that some 4000 years ago the universe was created out of nothing. We have no evidence that either of these statements is false. Carbon dating and cosmic microwave radiation don’t prove that God didn’t create a world to appear billions of years old (creationists are so stupid! why do they argue against the science rather than allowing God to be complex and wonderful?).

3) perhaps most importantly, science values certain kinds of apprehension over others. Science does not value private gnosis, science does not value learning that comes from within (aside from its psychological value). I can’t really see why. Science values testability but it doesn’t accept evidence that can’t be demonstrated physically. Is there an a priori defense for this position?

Without these assumptions, science is nonsense, and yet these assumptions can never be proven or disproven. This is inconsistent with the value that most atheists give to falsifiability and the validity of science that derives from falsifiability. The third point raises the question of what constitutes falsifiability, what constitutes an acceptable test for a theory? I think these questions raise serious doubts about claims that atheists are using 'reason’ and not faith to judge the world.

Posted: June 19th 2007

brian thomson www

“Science values testability but it doesn’t accept evidence that can’t be demonstrated physically. Is there an a priori defense for this position?”

This is a confusing question: as pointed out already, how can something be “evidence” if it is not physical? Imagine that this is a courtroom, and you are a judge, and you’ll see one problem with such reasoning.

Another is the idea the “science” has a formal “position” on this – as if some scientific authority said “don’t do that”. A better way of looking at this question might be to ask “do gnostic methods deliver us reliable, repeatable empirical results?” No. Such methods are not valued, not out of any philosophical objection, but because they don’t work.

On the question of “faith” in science: if you had the time and the stamina to follow every branch of science back to its roots, you would find the roots of that branch to be empirical observations – whether observations of the world, the universe, or people. The word “empirical” is important here – it denotes evidence that exists independently of any particular observer. (Empiricism is, you might say, the opposite of gnosticism.)

Example: after much observation of the skies, Copernicus (carefully) published his theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun. What would have happened, do you think, if what he saw was a personal “gnostic revelation”, and those observations could not be repeated by someone else? We know what actually happened, of course; Galileo came along, after Copernicus died, repeated the observations, and gave his full support to Copernicus’ theory, risking his life and health in the process.

The sheer volume of science available to us today leads up to a practical problem; it’s too much for any one person, so anyone pursuing a serious career in science has to specialise in one area at the expense of others. A surgeon is not expected to be an expert in structural engineering. Similarly, an evolutionary biologist such as Richard Dawkins can’t be expected to be an expert in Cosmology – so it’s unfair to bombard him with questions about Big Bang theory.

With all the Internet resources available to us, why would we need to? A few minutes on Wikipedia will lead you to Hubble’s empirical “red shift” observations, and how every observation since then has supported the general theory. (There’s plenty of “tweaking” going on, of course!)

Do I need to have “faith” in the Big Bang theory? No; but even if I did, what would that imply, for me or others? Would that require me to wear special clothing or symbols? Do I go knocking on doors, or handing out Big Bang tracts on street corners? Declare “scientific war” on Big Bang Apostates? Hardly – science is a method, a way of looking at the world, and not a religion.

If you’re not a professional scientist, the science that interests you is more likely to be the science that has an impact on your life, such as the engine in your car, or electricity. A lot of “non-scientists” have complete understanding of those fields, from crude oil to the crankshaft, or from coal to coffee grinder. I put “non-scientists” in quotes, because one can argue that a humble motor mechanic is a respectable scientist in his particular field – and may even have a speciality e.g. transmissions.

In every science, all the information is out there – on the internet, in scientific journals, or in the heads of people happy to talk to you – in as much detail as you could wish for; where’s the need for faith? The fact that you, or I (or anyone else) can’t fit it all in to our tiny brains at once is a practical limitation, not a requirement for faith.

What we all can do is learn how to judge the ideas put in front of us, using a few reliable tools. The best description of these I know of is Carl Sagan’s famous Baloney Detection Kit – especially the “common fallacies” section. Reminder: this knowledge was not handed down, pre-ordained, or the result of a personal vision; it is a summary of stuff that gets results.

Posted: June 22nd 2007

See all questions answered by brian thomson

Stefan www

Ok, this is valid point so let’s go through it step by step. Now, we can certainly agree that when the central nervous system first develops months before birth, we start out as nihilists. We know nothing.

Obviously nothing is neither desirable as a permanent state of mind nor is it possible, you can’t avoid learning things.

So what knowledge should we accept?

One answer – and that is the naturalistic world view – is that we observe nature and look for patterns that we document and then build on it to look for deeper patterns or “laws”. Interestingly, this endeavor has turned out to be 1. objective: 99.9% of physicists agree with special relativity and 2. very useful: I like to give the moon landing as an example, but there are even more spectacular advancements in medicine, genetics and every other area we’ve studied.

The other answer is to believe something, because someone tells us it was supposedly written by some sort of higher being. There is always the possibility that people just made it up. If you are a Christian you certainly think that the Quran was just made up by Muhammed. Well, in the same way to me all these books are made up, so their claims have little validity. And while there is only one science, there are hundreds of religions, all of them conflicting in their respective beliefs. (80% of humanity think that Catholicism is misguided, 80% think the same of all the other Christian denominations. 80% of humanity think that Islam is just false. 85% of the world population think that Hinduism is bonkers. And a whopping 90% think all other faiths simply aren’t true. We atheists are simply agreeing with all of them.)

One important thing to note is that there definitely is room for the supernatural. To me all religions are very interesting works of fiction. And I have gained many interesting ideas by reading those scriptures and even trying the rituals.

But I don’t think there is any good reason to actually believe that these scriptures reflect reality. Because they don’t. Whenever they tried to, they turned out to be either wrong or ambiguous. Prayer isn’t answered more often when praying to God than when praying to a doorknob. Miracles happen just as much for Pastafarians as for Christians or atheists. Why? Because they only happen according to the laws of probability. Looks like science is right on that one, too.

I mean look at history … There are at least one hundred interpretations for the bible alone. There is only one interpretation for the theory of gravity. There is only one scientific interpretation of how stars are born. Would you really base your life on something that is horribly ambiguous and open to interpretation? Or shouldn’t you prefer something that may not have all the answers but at least is objective on the claims that it does make?

To me, I don’t see why this is so hard to accept for some theists.

Posted: June 21st 2007

See all questions answered by Stefan

bitbutter www

I don’t feel qualified to give a full answer to the questions, but I’ll mention some points (and I’ll edit this post if/when I learn that I made mistakes!).

Science doesn’t acknowledge gnosis as a source of evidence because it tends to say nothing testable or of use about the world we live in, and is not verifiable.

Science values testability but it doesn’t accept evidence that can’t be demonstrated physically.

Non-physical evidence is an oxymoron; an essential quality of evidence is that it is physically detectable.

Without these assumptions, science is nonsense, and yet these assumptions can never be proven or disproven

It’s not only science (in the sense of the the thing that scientists do) that depends on assumptions such as that natural laws will not change from one minute to the next or that causality is (usually) to be expected. Our world would be incomprehensible without assuming this kind of thing, we wouldn’t be able to function. These are assumptions we all helplessly make whether we are theist or atheist.

So why do we place any trust (I think trust is a more appropriate term than faith) in inductive/deductive reasoning or in other basic assumptions that we make? I think it’s because we can’t help it—we’re built that way.

We can easily see that reasoning, and making basic assumptions about the world, works really well in terms of keeping us alive. It’s not hard to imagine that during our evolution there would have been strong selection pressure in favour of organisms that began to demonstrate this kind of thinking.

Posted: June 21st 2007

See all questions answered by bitbutter


Science does not rely on faith. Science relies on data, evidence, testing, observation, and rigorous peer review. Nothing is accepted at face value. No answer is ever considered to be THE answer. There are always more questions to be asked.

Science asks questions and is never satisfied with the answers. Faith is satisfied with the answer “God did it” no matter what the question.

Posted: June 21st 2007

See all questions answered by Seshat

John Sargeant www

Science relies on empirical observation and the ability of a theory to be falsified.

No one ever has the final word in science. In fact good science never trusts to words alone.

Unlike certain other things (theology) that I could mention :)

If you want to understand the natural world a naturalistic philosophy will enable you to much better than religion.

But there is never a final word. We go where the evidence takes us. The scientific method is entirely unlike religious dogma which does the opposite—religious dogma insists on absolute answers without any evidence, clinging to the impotency of faith.

Posted: June 20th 2007

See all questions answered by John Sargeant


Is your atheism a problem in your religious family or school?
Talk about it at the atheist nexus forum