Confidence in science: Faith, fact, or something else?

A discussion in the New York Times starting with an article published on December 21, 2011 titled "On Flu Strains, Folkies and Faith in Science" prompted readers to ponder whether scientific inquiry and discovery will lead humanity down a smoother road, whether scientific inquiry will produce more good than harm (or vice-versa), whether there should be limits on scientific inquiry, and whether 'faith' in science is the same kind of faith as, say, religious faith.

A follow-up article published on December 23, 2011 titled "Is Confidence in Science as a Source of Progress Based on Faith or Fact?" includes various views on whether, as you might guess, "confidence in science," according to the article, "as a source of human progress is underpinned by fact or faith." The author notes, "Some readers may have missed that the discussion was not about confidence in science as an enterprise, but confidence that benefits would always accrue to society from applications of scientific knowledge."

These topics ought to be interesting to many whether they have a very slim understanding of philosophy, science, and philosophy of science. Unfortunately, though, those with a slim understanding of philosophy, science, and philosophy of science are often confused or missing some major points such as when they think 'faith in science' [this phrase should not even exist, especially amongst those who do have an understanding of science, philosophy, and philosophy of science because the definition of faith, I would wager, is generally 'belief without evidence'] is the same as 'faith in religious ideas.'

Andrew C. Revkin, in the "On Flu Strains, Folkies and Faith in Science" article, seems to put quite a high bar on the word 'prove.' He writes, "I'm a huge fan of science, as is obvious given that I've spent my life studying it and writing about it. I think that more science and science literacy, and fostering a culture of innovation and inquiry, will boost odds of a relatively smooth ride for humanity as our appetite for resources crests. But can I prove that? No." He continues, "...I have confidence that scientific inquiry, as long as it is carried out in a transparent way, will endure as a force for progress - particularly in comparison to the track record for movements in which ideology trumps reason. And, no, I can't prove that."

I'm not sure why the author notes that he "can't prove that" and perhaps am further confused as to why he doesn't continue noting that, from what we have seen so far, scientific inquiry has yielded a tremendous amount of information, discovery, new technology, and so much more that has made human life better. Although, of course, we have also created technology which can kill people at a rate much faster than ever before, it seems evident that the scales are tipped in favor of 'good' and not 'evil' in this case. We're living much longer, we're understanding more about the universe, we're using technology that was once only dreamed of in science fiction, and we have almost eradicated diseases which would regularly kill or make life horrid for many.

While we can't 'prove' what science will yield in the future, we can be very inductively justified in assuming that, on good evidence, that scientific inquiry will make life much better by looking at the current trend...and this isn't faith - or at least the same kind of faith as, say, religious faith like Pete Seeger, in the article, mentions. The author notes, "...Seeger recalled how his father used to prod friends who were scientists in this way: You think that an infinite increase in empirical information is a good thing. Can you prove it? He'd then retort that faith in science is no different than faith in anything else (emphasis mine).

'Faith in science,' if we must use this term, is much different than 'faith in anything else.' As I noted, we are inductively justified in believing that science will continue to be a source of human progress.

When religious claims are concerned, proponents often lack good reason for their claims and can and do often admit that they have no reason to believe, but rather hold faith. Faith, according to some, is a virtue.

"Trust that God has a plan for you," people say.

"My experience thus far has dictated that there is more than meets the eye even though I can't show you this," people say.

That boy over there who recovered from a bacterial infection... just believe that a Mohawk Indian who lived 350 years ago named Kateri Tekakwitha intervened and the doctors, simple regression of the disease, or other naturalistic explanations had nothing to do with it and instead of simply saying "I don't know," jump to the conclusion that there was supernatural intervention.

Additionally, as you might expect, the arguments/reasons for belief in the Christian god are often very problematic and do not 'hold up' to inquiry. "Have faith" is the 'last card' that is often played, even if some incontrovertible evidence came about that showed the belief were false a la Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig [videos in links] who believe that the Holy Spirit has given them reasons to believe via an immediate experience and nothing can serve as a defeater to Christian belief [thus, it seems, making Christian belief unfalsifiable and irrational].

Scientists do not, by any means, operate on "faith" like those of religious sects often do. Consider methodological naturalism -- the assumption scientists make that the natural world is all that exists -- when doing research. Some religious persons might say that this is a faith-based claim. Scientists operate under methodological naturalism because they want to explain the natural world and look for naturalistic explanations [and supernatural explanations do not have good explanatory power, generally are not testable, and are not conservative or fruitful].

We see that 'faith in science,' if we must call it that, is much different than 'faith in religion.'

When I consider belief and what I believe, I think that knowledge is provisional - it is best on the best interpretation of what we know now and could be, of course, wrong in the future or undermined by various skeptical hypotheses. For all I know, I could have been created five minutes ago with pre-programmed memories and holes in my socks or I could be a brain in a vat. I don't believe these things because I have no good reasons to do so. I can't be "100% certain" or 'prove that I am not a brain in a vat,' but belief in the external world, for example, as opposed to the world being an illusion, is justified - and very much so. The word 'prove,' it seems is quite useless in contexts such as these.

Philosopher Jonathan Kvanvig writes, "There is no reason whatsoever to think that believing the truth is always impossible; the best that could be claimed is that there is no guarantee in any given case that we have achieved the state of believing the truth. Perhaps it follows that we should not hope for the chimera of infallibility."

Returning to the article, and moving away from whether 'faith in science' is the same as religious faith, Brad Allenby writes:

There has to be a big dollop of faith: no single person can possibly begin to understand the world we live in from first principles. It is, of course, a rationalistic faith, in that I am fairly confirmed in my belief that, say, 747’s will fly because in fact the vast majority of them do, and frequently. More fundamentally, my faith that 747’s will fly is of a different kind than the traditional religious kind, in that the latter cannot be supported by direct experience, but only by interpretations of direct experience which pull on the faith narrative.

Allenby is indeed "fairly confirmed" in his belief that "747s will fly because in fact the vast majority of them do, and frequently," but I don't see the value of calling this belief faith. This belief can simply be called a justified belief and direct experience is not needed for this sort of belief to be justified. We can assent to the experts, appeal to others' past experiences, and so much more in order to be justified in believing that future 747s will fly.

Steve Fuller writes:

The prospect that scientists have created a lethal strain of avian flu and are on the verge of publishing their technique in the world’s leading scientific journal has reopened the debate over science’s aspiration to ‘universal knowledge’ in two distinct senses: Should science investigate everything, and should its findings be made available to everyone? Doubts on both fronts pertain to the potential evil that might be unleashed, either by will or by accident. That the doubts should center so clearly on evil consequences betrays the theological origins of the concern. From the serpent in the Garden of Eden to the Cartesian demon of modern skepticism, evil is always portrayed as something that simulates good in nearly all respects. Yet knee-jerk moves to censor and otherwise restrict scientific inquiry threaten to compound rather than the remove the evil in question.

The common lingering concern of "Well, what if advances in technology lead to ruin, horror, and misuse" has probably permeated almost every new technological advance that can be used for harm. Despite this, we're quite happy to continue progressing and rightfully so. We're happy to enjoy our smartphones, laptop, new vaccines, and lives generally free of tuberculosis and polio. While technology might be used for 'evil' (and can often be), it is 'up to us' to police.

We often balance the benefits and costs of our actions and can do so regarding technology. For example, I'm quite aware that my privacy has diminished because of my internet use, owning a smartphones, and much more. To completely refrain from taking advantage of modern technology because of concerns of privacy, it seems, is quite silly. If, though, the trade-off were much more in-line with the negative, I might refrain, but I enjoy my technology and don't want to give it up because of what seem to be very minute concerns.

While some 'evil' may and almost certainly will come about because of progress, it seems to be the case that the benefits far outweigh the costs and deciding to stop progress in fear of some negative consequences is more harmful than progressing to begin with.

To be fair, there are, of course, some moral concerns that may come about when considering progress that we should be mindful of. Perhaps it may be for the best, for example, to not produce a technology which can be embedded in someone's skin at birth that would be unremovable and would constantly transmit a GPS signal to a government. Civil liberties concerns, we can see, crop up. We can, though, stop some progress/technology and not all. We can 'sit down' and consider certain issues without abandoning the entire enterprise of progress.

A refreshing comment from Angela Dellaporta on the difference between 'faith in science' and religious faith reads:

Science is intrinsically humble. Any scientific hypothesis must be tested repeatedly, by many different people, before it is believed. If the hypothesis does not meet the standards, then it is not considered to be scientific truth. These high standards make it easy to have faith in scientifically proven facts — though the best scientists will admit that there is always a margin for error, however small. Faith in religion is a very different thing. It is faith in the unprovable, faith in the mystery, faith in the unknown and unknowable. Because of this, humility, rather than stridence, is usually expected in those who have a deep religious faith, too.

While I enjoy this comment, I still find the phrase 'faith in scientifically proven facts' to be useless because it is not faith, but rather warranted belief. Hope not for the chimera of infallibility, for "100% certainty" is a distraction.

Confidence in science is not faith, but it is rather inductively justified. Reject the phrase 'faith in science' and do not allow belief about scientific principles or advancement to be relegated to the same status as religious faith. It is all too often that religious persons try to claim that their 'faith in science' -- which is justified if we must use the term -- is the same as religious faith, but this is simply not the case. Additionally, people argue that a naturalistic world view is simply inadequate and that religious faith is needed. We can be justified in looking to science for progress and answers to questions. Fear not, though, those of you who may be having visions of scientism floating in your heads...science is not the only way to arrive at conclusions, for other disciplines such as philosophy are needed.

For more on the topic of faith, please listen to the second episode of the NEPA Freethought Society Podcast in which I talk about some ideas I presented here and much more.

As always, feel free to add comments and questions below...and don't assume that I'm talking about all religious people or all definitions of faith.