Friday, October 18, 2013

Too Much Faith in Science?

As I stated in an earlier post, faith can be described as having trust in something based on our experience with it. Over the centuries, our collective human experience with the natural world led us to develop science as a trustworthy method for discovering how that world works. And we have reason to have a great deal of faith in the scientific process-- it is the most reliable system imperfect humans relying on their five senses have ever devised. But just how much faith should we have in science? Recall that science is by definition tentative-- it can only result in knowledge that is probably, not absolutely, true. Hence, putting 100% faith in science is unscientific.

No one can tell you just how much faith you should have in any particular area of science. Certainly some hypotheses have been more extensively tested and supported than others, and certainly there are some things we are confident accepting as facts. Some scientific analyses employ statistical tests that calculate confidence intervals around our estimates, giving us an idea of how reliable they are. But ultimately, none of us knows yet which parts of scientific knowledge will turn out to be right, and which parts will turn out to be wrong. Nor can anyone tell you what percentage of the time the scientific method arrives at truth. We simply don’t know. But it is quite easy to recognize when someone has too much faith in the scientific method, and “scientism” is the word that has been used to describe that view.

Scientism is the belief that science applies to and will answer every important question, or that science is the only source of truth. Let me give you a few examples of statements by scientists that demonstrate this inaccurate representation of science. (These and other statements are summarized in Miller 1999:171-172, 183, 186).

“The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” –Richard Dawkins

“We have come to the crucial stage in the history of biology when religion itself is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences. …the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competitor, as a wholly material phenomenon. Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline.” –E. O. Wilson

“Modern science directly implies that there are no inherent moral or ethical laws, no absolute guiding principles for human society.” – William Provine

“…the problem is to get them [the public] to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth.” –Richard Lewontin

DANGER: Scientists have no business making statements like these as scientists (though they are, of course, entitled to their own philosophical opinions). Such statements, which are not scientific, have done much to perpetuate conflict between science and religion. First, they have caused considerable backlash against science by those who have taken these statements at face value. Recent anti-science movements in the U.S. have been spurred by a belief, originating with such statements, that science is by its very nature antithetical to God. It saddens me that so many good people have written science off because of these “out of bounds” statements by scientists. A second and, in my opinion, more threatening danger is that these kinds of statements go beyond being careless; they have been used to support an aggressive atheism aimed at undermining all religion. Dr. Ted Peters summarizes the characterstics and fallacies of this new “evangelical atheism”: Evangelical Atheism Today: A Response to Richard Dawkins

Keep the faith: science does not, indeed cannot, demand atheism, nor can it tell us anything about meaning, purpose, or the spiritual realm. To sneer at another’s faith under the guise of being scientific demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of science and the kinds of questions it can address. Science, understood correctly and kept within the bounds delineated by its method, can be trusted to broaden and enrich our understanding of the world and thus be a great partner to religion.

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