A question about science

Today a very serious and intelligent fifteen year old asked me whether I thought that science is a form of religion. I was immediately wary – I didn’t know what form of rhetoric he had been listening to, and I worried that there might have been a political slant to his question of which even he himself was unaware.

I told him I thought that in some ways science is the opposite of religion, or at least the opposite of faith. If you’re doing science honestly, then you can’t be influenced by any pre-expectations of what you might find. If you drop a rock from a height and it falls, you need to report that. If next week the same rock hovers in mid air, you need to report that as well, no matter how emotionally disturbing you might find it.

Then the young man suggested that this view might also be a form of faith – a faith in science. I told him that he might be using “science” as a buzzword. In a sense science is just codifying what we all do every day, all the time. We look at what exists around us, and we react to what we actually see in the world.

What I meant by this was that when we walk we place our feet where there is firm ground, we choose to pass through doorways and not through solid walls, and we drink water but not gasoline. We simply form a model of everyday reality, by inferring from the evidence in front of us. Science starts there, and does not stray from that mentality.

Then he asked “But aren’t both science and religion a search for truth?” I responded that the problem here is that “truth” is an overloaded word, with multiple meanings, so a question like that doesn’t end up asking anything.

There are real and serious reasons that we try to find emotional sense in the world around us. We grapple with the enormity of birth and love and death, we try to come up with core principles to guide our relationships with each other, we see inequity and suffering in the world and try to understand what we should do about it. Religion helps many people to navigate these difficult and deep waters, although others try to navigate them without religion.

But science doesn’t deal with any of those issues. Scientists may, because they are human, and to be human is to grapple with metaphysical, moral and emotional questions. Scientists can be religious, just as they can be good citizens. But when scientists are engaging with these questions, that is not the “science” part of what they do. A scientist might be deeply motivated by a desire to alleviate suffering, but she cannot let those emotions replace an honest evaluation of what she is measuring, lest she find that she has merely engaged in pseudoscience, and has failed to help anyone.

Conducting science can be a scary business, because we may discover that the Universe doesn’t care a fig about us, that it is a cold and heartless place devoid of any meaning other than the emotional shadings that we ourselves provide. To engage in science means to be prepared to look honestly at the Universe, whatever the emotional distress one might feel at the outcome.

And then to keep looking.

9 thoughts on “A question about science”

  1. If you define “faith” as “belief in the unfalsifiable”, then I think we all have faith.

    I have faith that my perceptions reflect an objective reality, that truth exists, and that I can know the truth through science.

    Some would say that, since none can be disproven, all unfalsifiable beliefs are equally worthwhile. But, if all I can know is the present, I want to put my faith in the here and now, and in our ability to know this place through science.

  2. hi ken,

    this whole article sound to me like a prayer (*g*) to physics, but not to science in general. e.g. what about nutritional science? what about science in the name of big companies (pharmas, food, …). is this really “science” or searching for ways to keep science on a wanted path?

    greets from vienna 🙂

    PS. about your weekday-months – why is it the 7th of the month you’ve chosen as a reference, not e.g. the first of each month? 😉

  3. Hmm, Karl, wouldn’t you agree that such a definition of “faith” is weak to the point of being almost useless? It’s essentially a definition of being sane. If you and I are engaged in a conversation and I refuse to believe that you are actually standing there before me, then I am effectively reduced to questions about my own sanity.

    Hi Chris – nice to hear from you!

    It wasn’t actually a prayer. I am as wary of being naively starry eyed about science as I am about over-romanticising any human activity.

    My intent wasn’t to ascribe a good or bad value to science, just to pin down what is or isn’t science. I am wary of putting a social value on science itself, because then people could hide behind labels rather than take responsibility for their own ethical choices. It’s not science that gives ethics to people, but the other way around.

    It’s easy to get on uncomfortable ground if you try to claim “science is good”. There was science being done under the Nazis (and they were not the only ones) which we would find abhorrent. Yes it was science, but that doesn’t mean they should have been doing it.

    The reason I picked multiples of seven was just that it’s easy for me to remember the multiples of seven – 7, 14, 21, 28. But now I’ve been sold on Conway’s Doomsday Calendar, and I’ve noticed myself using that instead.

  4. I like how you differentiate between the moral dimensions of science and the definitional aspects in your comment above.

    I think to clarify even further, one should differentiate between the practice of science and Science in an ideal sense. Here’s where Kuhn would come in, showing how the personal prejudices and hobby horses of scientists shape the practice of science. So humans are always approaching some asymptote of Science, and that practice is a search for the truth. The different between science and religion on this point is that practitioners of science–at least ideally–are unwilling to accept things on faith and will admit to changing understandings of the world. In science, we don’t know as much now as we did in the future; whereas in religion, we don’t know as much now as we did in the past.

    Also, maybe the kid was thinking of the Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman? In that series, he reverses science and religion–but more to critique religion than science, I think. I haven’t read it all, but it’s lovely philosophical material for adults and teens alike.

  5. I would simplify it
    – if you are looking for questions go into science
    and live with uncertainty
    – if you are looking for answers go into religion
    and live with those answers

    Science itself isn’t good or bad – it is the use of it – the people who handle the research and the results.
    There is no truth in science for me, only the attempt to understand as much as we can.

  6. This is a classical debate. The conventional wisdom is that the main distinction between religion and science is that the former is purely based on faith and belief while the latter has a systematic method for verifying if one’s belief (i.e. scientific theory) is correct.

    However, even though this is true in principle, science itself involves a certain kind of faith. Einstein regarded quantum computing with the famous remark “God does not play dice with the universe”. That statement, even though coming out of one of the best minds ever existing in science, reflected more of personal religious belief than scientific truth.

    Granted, theoretical physics could incur religion-like behavior due to the difficulty for verification, but even for more down to earth scientific fields, belief still plays an important role. Take computer graphics as an example; even though in theory we could all easily verify each other’s claims, we could still manage to hold widely different opinions in a given SIGGRAPH submission. That is what I have seen in the past week on reviews for both my papers and others, year in and year out.

    Even the fundamental scientific method is subject to religious belief. I still remember the shocking revelation that I had when learning about different models in computation theory as an undergrad. Here is the story. The textbook says push-down automata are less powerful than Turing machines as a computation model. So, assuming somehow an intelligent life form on a certain remote planet has brain structured according to push-down automata, then that specie would have fundamentally limiting intelligence, but the problem is that they might not know it. (Could push-down automata somehow realize that they are inferior to Turing machines?) So, carrying the same analogy to human beings, how could we know that our brain isn’t structured in a fundamentally limiting fashion compared to some God-like creatures? In that context, even our self-acclaimed scientific methods could just be a form of religious belief, because these could all prove to be wrong by a higher intelligence computation model.

  7. wouldn’t you agree that such a definition of “faith” is weak to the point of being almost useless? It’s essentially a definition of being sane.

    I think the question of sanity is secondary, because you need to decide (not deduce) which is true before you can decide which is sane. Am I a butterfly who dreams he’s a man, or a man who dreams he’s a butterfly? It’s unfalsifiable – not just difficult to answer, but absolutely impossible.

    Does that mean that all premises are equally valid? Different belief systems ask us to accept more or less “fairy cake”. Science a little, religion a bit more, and that’s the crux: how much fairy cake do you have to eat? Myself, I try to keep my givens few and simple (perhaps to the point of being almost useless 🙂 ), but I cannot deny that I’ve eaten a few crumbs of cake.

  8. OK Karl, let’s follow your line of reasoning. Describe the nature of the fairy cake one needs to take in order to pursue science. Is it just trusting the basic evidence of your senses, such as “I have an arm”, “there is a person standing before me”, etc., or is it something beyond that?

  9. I have faith in science! Yet we should not be too smug about the superiority of science as a world view. Leave some room for humility. Carl Sagan’s novel Contact touches on this issue. Its protagonist, an agnostic scientist, is left at the end with hugely important knowledge and no proof: “Ellie … asks them to accept her testimony on faith.”


    (Butt then, speaking of smug, for a good time Google: Carl Sagan BHA)

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