Is science faith-based?

The entire universe in blog form
Feb. 18 2008 11:36 AM

Is science faith-based?

No.

Oh, you want details? OK then.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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If you read any antiscience screeds, at some point or another most will claim that science is based on faith just as much as religion is. For example, the horrific Answers in Genesis website has this to say about science:

Much of the problem stems from the different starting points of our divergence with 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).

This is completely wrong. It shows (unsurprisingly) an utter misunderstanding of how science works. Science is not faith-based, and here's why.

The scientific method makes one assumption, and one assumption only: the Universe obeys a set of rules. That's it. There is one corollary, and that is that if the Universe follows these rules, then those rules can be deduced by observing the way Universe behaves. This follows naturally; if it obeys the rules, then the rules must be revealed by that behavior.

A simple example: we see objects going around the Sun. The motion appears to follow some rules: the orbits are conic sections (ellipses, circles, parabolas, hyperbolas), the objects move faster when they are closer to the Sun, if they move too quickly they can escape forever, and so on.

From these observations we can apply mathematical equations to describe those motions, and then use that math to predict where a given object will be at some future date. Guess what? It works. It works so well that we can shoot probes at objects billions of kilometers away and still nail the target to phenomenal accuracy. This supports our conclusion that the math is correct. This in turn strongly implies that the Universe is following its own rules, and that we can figure them out.

Now, of course that is a very simple example, and is not meant to be complete, but it gives you an idea of how this works. Now think on this: the computer you are reading this on is entirely due to science. The circuits are the end result of decades, centuries of exploration in how electricity works and how quantum particles behave. The monitor is a triumph of scientific engineering, whether it's a CRT or an LCD flat panel. The mouse might use an LED, or a simple ball-and-wheel. The keyboard uses springs, the wireless uses radio technology, the speakers use electromagnetism.*

Look around. Cars, airplanes, buildings. iPods, books, clothing. Agriculture, plumbing, waste disposal. Light bulbs, vacuum cleaners, ovens. These are all the products of scientific research. If your TV breaks, you can pray that it'll spontaneously start working again, but my money would be on someone who has learned how to actually fix it based on scientific and engineering principles.

All the knowledge we have accumulated over the millennia comes together in a harmonious symphony of science. We're not guessing here: this stuff was designed using previous knowledge developed in a scientific manner over centuries. And it works. All of this goes to support our underlying assumption that the Universe obeys rules that we can deduce.

Are there holes in this knowledge? Of course. Science doesn't have all the answers. But science has a tool, a power that its detractors never seem to understand.

Science is not simply a database of knowledge. It's a method, a way of finding this knowledge. Observe, hypothesize, predict, observe, revise. Science is provisional; it's always open to improvement. Science is even subject to itself. If the method itself didn't work, we'd see it. Our computers wouldn't work (OK, bad example), our space probes wouldn't get off the ground, our electronics wouldn't work, our medicine wouldn't work. Yet, all these things do in fact function, spectacularly well. Science is a check on itself, which is why it is such an astonishingly powerful way of understanding reality.

And that right there is where science and religion part ways. Science is not based on faith. Science is based on evidence. We have evidence it works, vast amounts of it, billions of individual pieces that fit together into a tapestry of reality. That is the critical difference. Faith, as it is interpreted by most religions, is not evidence-based, and is generally held tightly even despite evidence against it. In many cases, faith is even reinforced when evidence is found contrary to it.

To say that we have to take science on faith is such a gross misunderstanding of how science works that it can only be uttered by someone who is wholly ignorant of how reality works.

The next time someone tries to tell you that science is just as faith-based as religion, or that evolution is a religion, point them here. Perhaps the evidence of science may sway them. Perhaps not; it's difficult to reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into. But the next time they get on a computer, maybe they'll take a slightly more critical look at it, and wonder if its workings are a miracle, or the results of brilliant minds over many generations toiling away at the scientific method.



*The irony of Answers in Genesis denigrating science on a website is not lost on me.