In what sense might science require faith?

A bunch of us (MC Spanky McGee, Griff, me, et al.) were out last night at Joe’s Place:

And amongst other things we started talking about god, religion, and atheism. At one point, our homeboy MC Cigar (aka YoMama) brought up the issue of science requiring faith. Rather than recount the details of that conversation (which I couldn’t do anyway), I thought I would piece together various things here from other sources.

At, they make the following claim:

Much of the problem stems from the different starting points of biblical creationists and Darwinists. Everyone, scientist or not, must start their quests for knowledge with some unprovable axiom—some a priori belief on which they sort through experience and deduce other truths. This starting point, whatever it is, can only be accepted by faith; eventually, in each belief system, there must be some unprovable, presupposed foundation for reasoning (since an infinite regression is impossible).

There are a number of sticky issues here, but one of the problems with the above is that science is founded on experience and it is experience that is what, in some sense, stops the regress. That is, science is based, among other things, on the observation that the world behaves in a law-like fashion. That the world appears to behave in a law-like fashion is not an a priori (i.e., prior to or independent of experience) belief. There is of course the little ol’ problem of induction (thank you Hume) concerning whether there is any possible justification for believing that the world outside of one’s actual experience (say in the distant past, in the future, or just outside of the range of one’s sense organs) behaves in the law-like way that one does experience it (see here for more details). However, it is not clear that belief in induction requires faith in the sense claimed in the above answersingenesis paragraph.

More interesting than the answersingenesis claim is the following from the Transterrestrial Musings blog:

Belief in the scientific method is faith, in the sense that there are a number of unprovable axioms that must be accepted:
1) There is an objective reality
2) It obeys universal laws
3) Its nature can be revealed by asking questions of it in the form of experiments
4) The simplest explanation that fits the facts is the one that should be preferred

There is a similar problem here as with the other. The problem of induction is forever looming, but that aside, 2)-4) seem to be grounded in our experience of the world in general and in the process of formulating hypotheses and testing them. So, for example, with 4) it typically turns out that if my wife’s car is gone and she is gone at the time when I know she works, the reason she and the car are gone is not that aliens visited Jerry Seinfeld, brainwashed him into being a kidnapper, dropped him off at our house and he took my wife., but rather she is at work (i.e., the simpler explanation is the correct one). (Another question concerns how we should read the “unprovable axioms.” That is, what are the provable things that we are supposed to be contrasting with these axioms, if the axioms themselves are unprovable.) “Axiom” 1) from above is more complicated: while most scientists may accept 1) without much thought, it certainly is something that has been heatedly debated in philosophy using various arguments, i.e., reasoning. As such, even if it is just assumed by many, it is not therefore groundless or faith-based. Much more could, of course, be said concerning all of this.

Much more interesting, to my mind, than the claims above concerning science requiring faith is the following from Robert Pollack:

Science makes the following claim for itself, legitimately: most of what is knowable is unknown at this moment, and most of what is unknown will be knowable eventually through science. The faith of science makes a further claim: all that is unknown will be knowable through science. The distinction between the two turns on the question: Is there anything unknown now, whether or not it lies on the outer edge of what is knowable, that will never be understood, anything that is ultimately unknowable? No one denies that science will push the margin ever closer to full knowledge. The issue is whether some unknown will always remain. That question about science is by its very nature not answerable by science. Therefore to claim there is nothing unknowable is an act of faith, and to affirm this statement makes science into a faith. [From Practicing Science, Living Faith, Eds. P. Clayton and J. Schaal. Page 229]

Importantly, he goes on to make clear that he does not think that all scientists make the claim that “all that is unknown will be knowable through science.” And that may simply be because there are questions that science cannot answer as a result of contingent human limitations (e.g., whether there are extraterrestrials). Thus he is not claiming that the practicing of science necessarily requires faith. Rather, his claim is that a certain way of viewing science and knowledge requires faith. The crucial move in Pollack’s argument is “The issue is whether some unknown will always remain. That question about science is by its very nature not answerable by science. Therefore to claim there is nothing unknowable is an act of faith, and to affirm this statement makes science into a faith.” It would be great to see what others think about this move.

4 thoughts on “In what sense might science require faith?

  1. I assume given the things said in the quotations, the context, and that faith is supposed to be in contrast to belief based on empirical, evidential support, that “faith” is something along the lines of “faith in X means ‘belief in X without empirical evidence for X or in spite of empirical evidence for not X.’” Something along those lines, though the question of what faith is is itself difficult, of course. I believe, for instance, that the Jewish conception of faith is different than the Christian (and it may even be wrong to say “the” Jewish one or “the” Christian one).

  2. “I gotta have faaaaaith, I gotta have faitha faitha faitha….

    Baaaaybay, I know you’re askin’ mee to staaaay, sayin’ “Please don’t go away,” say “Ya givin’ me the bluuuuuesssss….”"

  3. Thanks for that interlude Spanky.

    Now that I think about it, I would revise comment no. 2 above so that it has to do with reasons more generally and not just empirical evidence. So, as Spanky mentioned last night (details are coming back), some people with religious (Christian) faith believe in god in spite of not only empirical evidence (though depending on how one spins the bible, I’m not sure what empirical evidence necessarily counts against a Christian god–though perhaps the problem of evil comes close to being an empirical problem) but also logical or a priori reasons, e.g., concerning the various contradictions one runs into with god supposedly being omni-this and omni-that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>