Monday, July 19, 2010

Science and Faith

I've been silent for far too long, but recently, I've felt the need to return to putting my views on display. Perhaps it's egotistical, but there it is. Blogging is one of the primary means of participating in global conversations that is available today, and there are too many conversations worth having to sit idly on the sidelines.

One of those important conversations is on the nature of science and faith. It is often claimed that science requires faith, or that science is its own religion, or that science is somehow built on a house of cards. This post, then, is a manifesto to the effect of demonstrating that none of these is true. Science is, at its most basic, the formalization of those ways and means of learning that work. No one definition captures all of science, as the methodology itself of science changes as we learn what methods work and don't work. When we learned of the placebo effect, for instance, evidence collected without the aid double-blind randomization was no longer seen as good enough. That is, we identified a weakness in the very way that knowledge was collected by the medical sciences, and we fixed it.

To learn about the world, we don't need faith in anything other than the existence of something that can be learned. To then say that this simple and universal axiom is somehow a manifestation of faith in any religious sense strains the word beyond all usefulness and turns it into nothing more than a vehicle for ad hominems. Taking as a given the existence of patterns is what keeps us from thinking that we shall find ourselves to be bananas in some near-future moment, to pick one of the less strange possibilities. A world where anything can happen is a world without patterns, rules or causality. I have yet to meet any system of religious thought that rejects the idea of causality itself; indeed, we rightfully label as "insane" those people who reject causality. One can always go down the rabbit hole of hypothesizing an adversarial universe that merely seems causal by some cosmic coincidence, but down this path lies nothing but the most dismal form of navel-gazing. In order to function, we must take as axiomatic the existence of patterns.

In this way, science is the ultimate expression of pragmatism. If something contributes usefully to the realm of human knowledge, then science can and will adapt itself to incorporate this new knowledge. If you'll pardon a rhetorical bit of oversimplification, science has moved from armchair philosophizing to stamp collecting to a mathematical endeavor to the huge range of approaches we see today. Throughout human history, however, one thing serves as a strong indicator of what works and what doesn't. Without evidence-- objective and reproducible evidence-- we know nothing. Human memory is fallible, as is human reasoning. We are all too easily convinced of what is patently false, and thus must expand knowledge outside of the fragility of our minds. Thus, evidence is paramount. There is no faith to this, but only empiricism and pragmatism.

Of course, to fully refuse the "science is faith" claim, I would have to first understand the claim. I must admit that I find myself unable to do this. Despite my attempts at understanding the views of those around me, this is one point which fiercely resists my analysis. I admit that I am at a complete loss for any arguments as to the faith-based nature of science. If you have some, I'd love to hear them, as I hate leaving my arguments incomplete. It's rather unsatisfying, to say the least.

There are those who will, no doubt, interpret what I am saying here as some strong claim of science as omniscient or infalliable. Nothing could be further from my views. Science is, after all, a human affair, and we make mistakes. This is why our whole methodology is designed to minimize the room for the flaws inevitably introduced by our own human limitations. Moreover, science does not know everything-- simply more than any other systematization of knowledge available to humans. The nature of science is to expand knowledge, and as such, the realms of human experience off-limits to science are continually shrinking-- never growing. Neuroscience, for instance, demonstrates that human emotions are at least in principle subject to objective and evidence-based analysis. Anyone who takes SSRIs for clinical depression indirectly benefits from this shrinking of the unknowable. Why should we mistake the limits of our current methods as being intrinsic properties of the world itself? That seems like the ultimate leap of faith. To hold some phenomenon to be permanently beyond the realm of understanding, regardless of how much humanity grows (or how much our post-human descendants grow), is to take an unpalatable amount on faith.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice. But, it seems to me, although we really do know that science works in areas that are relative 'close to physics', we really don't know that it works for the study of society and people. I.e. I don't think there's any reason to believe that contemporary ways of teaching people, or managing drug addiction, work any better than the ones employed 50 years ago.

Which is a big problem for people who think that social problems should be addressed on the basis of reason and evidence rather than the currently most popular superstition.