Nov 302007
There’s another point, one that I skirted around in my last post, that I feel is worth coming back to briefly. Remember that Paul Davies’ argument asserts that science relies on an assumption, and that therefore science is based on faith. I admitted that I have faith in the assumption, but not the same sort of faith that a person has in a God. What I didn’t address was the unspoken leg of Davies’ argument, namely that operating on an assumption is equivalent to operating on faith. This is not true, and it’s important to highlight this because it shines some light on the difference between science and religion.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we are engaged in a debate on some topic that is neither religious nor scientific. For instance, we are debating whether Hitler’s attack on the U.S.S.R. was a sound strategic move. I say, “Assuming Hitler hadn’t attacked Russia, he would have had more capacity to defend Europe.” You agree to this assumption, for the sake of argument, and we continue the discussion from there. Would you say you have faith in the proposition that Hitler did not attack the U.S.S.R.? Surely you know it to be counterfactual, so you do not even believe it. So assuming a proposition doesn’t necessarily mean you have faith in that proposition.

Of course, this may not be perfectly analogous—after all, the proposition about Hitler is clearly unhistorical. So suppose we were dealing with an uncertain proposition. For instance, two detectives might be attempting to solve a murder with two suspects. One way to go about it would be to assume that one of the suspects is guilty and examine the evidence to see if any of it is inconsistent with that proposition. Again, nobody would agree that the detectives have faith in a particular proposition of guilt as they are reasoning. The assumption is merely a stipulation, a point from which to begin thinking.

All right, so it’s pretty clear that making an assumption doesn’t require an act of faith, not even the modest, empirical kind of faith I was writing about yesterday. Of course, it might seem strange for a scientist to perform experiments on the assumption that the universe can be accurately described by natural laws when he does not in fact believe that it is so. It is important to realize, however, that a scientist’s actual state of belief towards the natural law assumption is irrelevant to the process of science. Science proceeds on the basis of that assumption, and I have faith in that assumption, but I do not design or perform experiments because I have faith in the assumption. Rather, I have faith in the assumption because the results of my research have always proven to be consistent with it. But even if I did not believe the assumption—for instance, if I believe that God occasionally usurps natural laws to make “miracles” occur—I could still perform science, so long as my experiments were predicated on the assumption of universal natural laws.

This is a sticky point, for religious believers and atheist scientists alike. A researcher must stipulate the truthfulness of the natural law assumption to interpret an experiment, but it is not necessary for the researcher to actually believe the natural law assumption is true, just as it is not necessary for our historical debaters to believe that Hitler did not attack the USSR, or our detectives to believe that a given suspect committed the murder. Making an assumption is not an act of belief, or of faith.

This is a significant difference between science and religion. Religious activities depend not only on the assumption of their legitimacy, but also an actual belief or faith in their central propositions. One can conduct meaningful scientific activities without believing the natural law assumption, but one cannot perform meaningful religious activities without believing the religious assumption. One can, of course, go through the motions of ritual without believing, but then the activity ceases to be religious in nature and becomes purely social or political. It is a problem in a religion, perhaps even a mortal sin, to be a hypocrite, but for science, hypocrisy (in the sense of using the natural law assumption without actually believing it) is just a personality quirk.

The only time that faith in the natural law assumption becomes relevant is when we move from the scientific process to the question of truth. Then we can object to Davies’ argument on the grounds that have been exhaustively described by myself and others.

Not that I expect anyone to actually listen. After all, more Americans believe in the Devil than believe in evolution.

  One Response to “Paul Davies, supplemental”

  1. What about those in science that also have room for faith in God?

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