Does science require faith?

by Neil Rickert

There was a recent post at the heterodox stem substack, arguing that science requires faith. My thanks to Jerry Coyne for the reference. Coyne has already expressed his disagreement with that viewpoint. In this post, I’ll add my own disagreement.

In elementary school, after we learned to use fractions we were taught to use 22/7 for the value of \pi. We did not actually use the symbol \pi at that stage. We were not given any reason for using 22/7. We had to trust the teacher for that. This was for doing what we called “mensuration” problems — finding areas and perimeters. So, yes, you could think of that as a kind of faith. A child needs to trust teachers and parents while growing up.

The next year, we learned decimal fractions. And we began to use 3.14 or 3.1416 for \pi. I quickly worked out that this was not the same as 22/7, so by then I understood that these were approximations.

In high school, we studied physics every year. One of our first physics experiments was to find the value of \pi. We were given wooden cylinders, and wrapped a thread around the cylinder as a way of measuring the perimeter. And we directly measured the diameter. At first this seemed strange. I had done enough reading to know that the value of \pi was usually found mathematically (with an infinite series), so the physics experiment seemed bogus. But then I realized the point being made. We did not need to depend on faith. We could find these things out by ourselves. And that’s what is distinctive about science.

The argument

Let’s look at the argument given in the referenced substack post.

Some believe that science is a superior alternative to faith. But if we peer a little deeper, we see that the scientific method actually requires a great deal of faith before it can even get off the ground. For example, here are five axioms that every scientist (often unconsciously) believes:

The author then goes on to list 5 items that he takes to be matters of required faith for science. I disagree with all of them.

  • The entire physical universe obeys certain laws and these laws do not change with time.

This is a common misunderstanding of science. We often describe science as if the universe is following laws. But the universe is not checking our laws to see how to behave. The laws are human constructs. It is really the scientist who is following the laws. The scientist sees an object that is accelerating, so the scientist then ascribes a force to explain that acceleration. The universe is not doing anything beyond behaving as it normally does.

  • Our observations provide accurate information about reality.

This is a misunderstanding. Yes, we want our observations to be accurate. But this accuracy takes hard work by the scientist. It is not axiomatic and it is not guaranteed. We must be careful in how we do our observations.

  • The laws of logic yield truth.

This is wrong. If false premises are used in a logic argument, the conclusion may well be false. The correct statement should be that logic preserves truth.

  • The human mind recognizes the laws of logic and can apply them correctly.

I have taught mathematics and computer science for many years, and it is my experience that many students have difficulty with logic.

  • Truth ought to be pursued.

Why ought truth be pursued? Boyle’s law is false and known to be false. It is a good approximation, and it works very well. Should we then throw it out as false? Similarly, heliocentrism is false, but works very well. Should we throw it out as false?

Science is a pragmatic venture, rather than a truth seeking one.

Summary

No, science does not depend on faith. The idea that it does is just a false claim that religious apologists repeatedly use.

I do not criticize people for their faith. But they need to be honest about recognizing that science is different.

Is science a superior alternative to faith? I do not make that claim. What counts as superior depends on what you are evaluating and why. Science does not answer every question that we have. But it appears to be the best way of understanding our natural world.

34 Comments to “Does science require faith?”

  1. I agree Science is different. The difference is an intelligent being i.e. God created science down to the DNA of everything in every universe. Several scientist will back me up on that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m FAR from being a scientist … or even a mathematician. But your logic makes sense to me! But then, as you know, I’m not persuaded by airy-fairy religious thinking. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bravo! One of the first radical ideas we were exposed to in Philosophy 101 was that there is no such thing as ‘truth’. It’s a human construct much like the laws of physics. I suspect that people who cling to these ideas are simply incapable of accepting that there is no ‘guiding’ force controlling the universe.

    My Dad was a mechanical engineer who innovated large plants based on the things we’ve discovered about the world around us – like gravity, friction etc etc. He knew how to harness those facts to create machinery that often seemed counter intuitive yet always worked.

    The deeper we delve into the universe the more accurate our understanding becomes, and the things we can’t understand today, we may learn to understand next year, or in a hundred years, or a thousand.

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    • One of the first radical ideas we were exposed to in Philosophy 101 was that there is no such thing as ‘truth’. It’s a human construct much like the laws of physics.

      Yes, quite right. But there are many people who don’t want to hear that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Apologies. I thought I replied to this but apparently I didn’t. :/ Anyway, I’ve found that for many people, the myth of order is far more comforting than what actually is because order implies control. -shrug-

        Liked by 1 person

        • So, am I to believe if I never put my house in order and leave it to complete chaos, I’ll live a normal existence?

          Liked by 1 person

          • In a word, yes. But chaos is not as scary as it sounds. And we /can/ create order in our own small slice of chaos because it’s mechanical. Step in front of a bus and you’ll be run over no matter what you believe. Turn on the gas and light a match and…poof, you’ll burn. Don’t do those things and there’s a good chance you’ll live a long and happy life.
            Believe it or not, I’m a bit of a control freak, but only about things I know I can change.
            I don’t need the promise of an afterlife to be happy in /this/ one because I’ve tried to live a good life at every step. I have tried to use my ‘talents’ to the best of their ability. And I have tried to treat others as I would have them treat me.
            Last but not least, I have never tried to force my beliefs onto anyone else. When I’m lying on my death bed I hope to look back at my life and have no regrets. I hope to die happy, not fearful.

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      • Do you follow all radical philosophical ideas or choose which ones you believe?

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        • Enough already.

          This is not a religious blog. It is a blog about philosophy, science, epistemology.

          If you want to argue against atheism, take it to your own blog. It is not welcome here.

          Jesus taught “love they neighbor”. He did not exclude atheists from that love.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Why start a blog about whether science requires faith if you don’t want to hear from a person of faith? God bless you all. And I believe I will start a blog on my Christian website concerning this debate. Only anyone is welcome to opine. I will not exclude those who don’t think exactly like I do.

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          • Why start a blog about whether science requires faith if you don’t want to hear from a person of faith?

            The topic is whether science requires faith. The topic is not atheism.

            I have unapproved your two most recent posts, because they are off topic and they ignore my earlier request that you stop.

            Liked by 1 person

          • I wish you well. However, prayer for another is more effective. If there ever comes a time you need a prayer, I’m here.

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