Ed Key on Proteus
Edinburgh Interactive 2012

Faith in Science?

Stained Glass Equation What was brushed under the carpet when ‘faith’ and ‘science’ were positioned as opposites?

One of the interesting changes in the English languages over the past century has been the emergence of a taboo connotation to the word ‘faith’. Sacrilege requires sanctity for its meaning, and the sacred value in this case is ‘truth’. This is something valued by many people with many different views of the world, but it is the highest value of many Positivists, as I discussed previously. ‘Faith’ and ‘truth’ are now positioned by some as opposites, a narrative rooted in a certain negative view of religion. Yet this conjunction erroneously implies there can be no faith in science – and this is clearly an error.

A flash of negative affect just went through some readers, quite beyond their conscious control. Make a mental note of this experience, if you had it, as we will return to this shortly.

The concept of ‘faith’ generally refers to near-complete trust or confidence, and it is difficult to live a happy life without some kind of faith. We need faith in ourselves, for instance, else we slip into depression. Marriage is an act of faith – as emphasized by saying someone has been ‘unfaithful’ when they violate that deep trust that sustains married couples. Faith in science can be most clearly seen in situations where people have hope that apparently insurmountable problems have an imminent technological solution. When no cure currently exists, what does the terminally ill patient pin their hopes on if not science? Vanishingly few people have their lives saved by medical techniques devised after their diagnosis, but the fear of death is salved by hoping.

The knee-jerk reaction to the flash of negativity felt by those for whom “faith in science” is a forbidden conjunction rests precisely on the belief that faith involves, as Kierkegaard shrewdly saw of his own religious faith, taking something on the strength of the absurd. I believe that what makes a marriage work is exactly this kind of faith, and this is very different from the stock Positivists place in empirical testing. Positivism, which is based upon a view of the world that is curtailed at the boundaries of the testable, attempts to minimise faith. Trusting the testable over the untestable does not require faith as such, it is simply the best bet – and Positivists, generally speaking, are always trying to place the best bets, at least when they cannot avoid making bets altogether.

Faith in science, then, is not the pure, cold rationalism of the Positivist. They may love science (if that is not too emotive a term!) but theirs is not usually the faith of marriage or religion. However, faith in science manifests when technology is seen as a source of salvation – often with an accompanying downplaying of the risks. This kind of bias is very human, and does not seem to the individuals concerned to qualify as trusting in absurdity. Nonetheless, issues such as techno-immortality – which from a rational standpoint would be catastrophic for our planet – reveal a genuinely absurd faith in science.

In fact, it may be clearer to call this “faith in science fiction”, since this is a fairer assessment of what is entailed. A fantasy is projected in which miraculous outcomes are attained by the application of science to some problem, without any consideration of likelihood or the plausible negative consequences. The cost of faith is always a certain blindness – although as marriage demonstrates, sometimes holding true to the fiction is what is required to make it fact. Despite the bad reputation, faith is something we all need, and the challenge is not dismantling faith (which might also mean voiding hope) but believing wisely.

Unfortunately, the taboo against faith can make vital political dialogue very difficult to pursue because it all too often results in a demonization of the religious faithful (the married faithful, thankfully, are not embroiled in this problem). The same is true in mirror image: people of faith sometimes demonize the “godless”, which also makes political dialogue challenging. These us-and-them divisions are not as disastrous as liberally minded people tend to assert – which is just as well, really, since the liberal community is almost as bad as their counterparts at hating and persecuting those who hold different community values (see, for instance, my discussion of unmarriage).

These taboos are problematic precisely because they are unconsciously held – our inner animal is well-trained to defend our beliefs, like the guard dog that barks because its owner is afraid. “Faith in science” is as offensive to some as Nietzsche’s “God is dead” is to many theists, and there are innumerable other live wires in our the depth of our feelings. We all have these sudden emotionally-charged intuitions, which are learned responses by some of the older aspects of our biology. Our emotions are more ancient than our species and they have a great claim on how we react to the world, and thus think about it.

However, it would be wrong to believe (as Haidt suggests) that these reactions preclude rational thought from a role in moral judgement – the negative emotional response to “faith in science”, for instance, was learned in response to judgements that might originally have been perfectly reasonable. Often, however, these intuitions are archaeological relics of our emotional past – rebellion against a domineering father, horror at some emotive news story, or cognitive dissonance in the face of apparently inexplicable nonsense. Our default reaction once these intuitions have fired (as Haidt correctly reports) is to muster ad hoc justifications to support our initial response. We are primed for defence – wild animals often need to protect themselves – but when the threat is in our imaginations the grip of the response is no less intense.

Alas, productive democracy is impossible when a sharing of perspectives is precluded. Faith in truth (which is common to both Positivists and most religious people) becomes especially problematic: when someone is obviously wrong on some supposedly key point (such as God, whether pro or anti), all their other claims are automatically suspect. Our inner guard dog won’t let their views into our imagination. In overcoming this limitation, it is helpful to distinguish between what people seem to say, and what people actually want. We are all committed (at least in principle) to freedom of belief, but extending this right to people we disagree with can be insurmountably hard when we insist on understanding their world via the caricature of it that appears when it is translated into our own minds.

If faith were, as some attest, necessarily bad, faith in science (as I have sketched it here) would also be subject to this same criticism. That it generally is not reflects the role of subconscious bias in shaping our moral judgements. We would always prefer to find fault in other people than in ourselves (thus bolstering our faith in our own judgement). If, as Positivists hope and claim, their view of the world is more rational, perhaps a way forward on this impasse is to acknowledge that not all faith is bad faith (an idea explored by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty). This will not be easy for those whose inner animal leaps for the jugular whenever ‘faith’ is mentioned – but this could be our best bet for the cultural disarmament now desperately required to allow new dialogues to be forged.


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First thing first: never comment before, but frequent reader. I like your blog a lot (and your book, Imaginary Games), it seems we share the same interests, on ethics and videogames!

That said: have you read William James' Will to Believe? It's a similar defense of the importance of faith in everyday life, even in non-religious situations, and a direct attack on positivism (which was new then). I think the full version is available online, it's a short essay. He uses a lot of approximations to get his point across, but I still think it's an essential read on the question (especially at the time it was written). Like him, I'm not a religious person, but I still think faith is an essential dimension of human life (and there's nothing that makes me more angry than the current trend of religion-bashing, which is never based on what a religious life actually is, always on some shallow view of what the institution of Church can be).

Sylvain: thanks for sharing your thoughts! I am always especially thrilled to hear from regulars who are commenting for the first time. It means a lot to me that there is a community interested in my meandering rambles. :)

I haven't read any William James, although it is (in theory, at least!) on my reading list. My reading list in practice, however, is spiraling out of control. The words "short essay" give me hope, however - I'll add this to my list and see if I can fit it in.

Regarding "religion bashing", one of the thing that interests me about this phenomena is how a lot of this proceeds from a particular concept of "religion" - specially, that which relates it to the supernatural. This kind of viewpoint only makes sense when you're starting from a Positivist understanding of the world. When people come at religion from inside religious practice, what religion means to them is always far deeper and wider than the individual beliefs.

Thanks for the tip, and thanks also for commenting!

There is another aspect of "Faith in science" which I can´t see in your article, though I guess is vital to complete that concept. It is the way non-scientists relate to any theory, principle, law, discovery or proven fact exposed by scientists, that is, by those who propose hypothesis, measure facts, make experiments and expose their conclusions to other scientists for trial. Non-scientists don´t measure nor experiment those "proven facts". They can´t. They just lack the full knowledge or trainting to test convincingly any scientific truth. So when rejecting or accepting a scientific proposition, they can only rely on... Trust. Faith.

I do belive that the Earth revolves around the Sun, but I have never developed any systematic observation of the sky, with or without telescopes, to demonstrate it. In fact, my irrational bet on heliocentrism is in evident contrast to my daily experience of the Sun rising and setting over my stationary head. I reject geocentrism only because my non-true-scientific teachers, relatives, friends and social consensus told me so, and I trust them. I just blindly belive in science. Those who can´t make proper science or just don´t bother to make a try, can only have faith in science.

But I guess this is not just the case of the layman. With the high level of specialization that modern scientists need to achive in order to make significant advance in their fields, I think most science practitioners just can´t prove or test even a small fraction of scientific discoveries, present or past, of all science specialties. So I presume that their acceptance of theories unrelated to their own field, is based on trust of the scientific method and the global experts consensus. In other words, in their unscientific faith on science.

Joaquin: Yes, I heartily agree with what you say here - this is a theme I've explored in the past under the heading 'trust in science', which is perhaps why I elided it here. When we believe certain scientific experiments it is because we have faith that they are replicable - we do not actually replicate them ourselves. No-one is quite as sceptical as they may claim. ;)

All the best!

When I saw this post I thought to myself: are we still taking this issue seriously? In the wider political and media climate, faith takes part in what they call in the US the Culture Wars. The standpoint of religious creeds and the tribalism of being a religious believer (particularly Christian) seems to give people a weighted position about social, moral and legal issues that they are not really priviledged to (compared to say, anyone else in the discourse).

I could say that thinking about non-religious cases of faith would be worthwhile. In a legal case we have faith in the Judge's verdict and their interpretation of the law, and the institution of senior judges. I think faith in life is a really interesting case because it really pulls at what is at stake when we think about faith.

To talk about 'faith' (religious and non religious connotations) and science, or religion are all about an epistemic (or doxastic) appeal, that is, an appeal to what we know, or what we believe. To pose these terms in such a way basically says to me: here is one person with a conviction, and here's someone else with a conviction, both people may believe in different things, both people may have different reasons (faith, evidence etc). It begins to sound woolly to me.

JoaquinAgreda in his earlier comment makes a very good point that 'faith' is essentially a layperson's term of understanding things. IN lay speak, it is reasonable to speak about having faith in a scientific theory. There is also a sense of presumption about our good theories as well. When I turn my computer on, I really don't think about how the electricity going through the transistors are made possible by the innovation of Maxwell equations, or when I log on to foursquare I don't think about how GPS requires satellites that are held by Lagrange points.

Why isn't scepticism placed in such a valued place as faith? A lay person may understand science through the everyday term of faith, but it has its limitations. Doubt is much more useful.

Thinking as a moralist, I also suspect there is a merit to looking at life through doubt rather than faith. This is where I find your metaphor about faith in life interesting. I'll grant that its less obvious how doubt can be useful to one's outlook in life than it would for having a sense of faith.


Michael: thanks for your commentary! The interesting thing about this for me, and the purpose of this piece, is to comment on the opposition reflex (and/or cognitive dissonance) evoked in some by the coupling of the terms "faith" and "science", and the resultant attempt to ghettoise 'faith' as a category. (This was originally a sideline in the book review of "The Righteous Mind", but I decided to take it out as a stand-alone piece).

"The standpoint of religious creeds and the tribalism of being a religious believer (particularly Christian) seems to give people a weighted position about social, moral and legal issues that they are not really priviledged to (compared to say, anyone else in the discourse)."

The 'weighted positions' are by no means constrained to those coming from religious backgrounds! And your phrasing here is misleading - under our current Human Rights legislature Christians are entitled ("privileged") to hold the views they hold, but this privilege is not exclusive to them - it extends to us all, irrespective of our cultural background. Your phrasing implies there is a neutral position that such Christians do not have access to that everyone else does - I consider this an erroneous claim. On the issues at task, *everyone* involved has a weighted position. That, frankly, is politics! :)

Doubt and faith are interesting because both can be constructive and destructive - I have personal experience of just how crippling excessive doubt can be! We all walk a fine line between two extremes here, and people of faith often have a much better appreciation of doubt than is usually attributed to them in the caricatures that pass for tolerance these days.

All the best!

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