Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Scientific Faith

I happened upon this statement by Jeff at Worldview Labs:

At the root of all knowledge is faith. Here is an experiment you can try on your friends to test my claim. Ask them, what did you have for breakfast? When they answer, ask them, how do you know? When they answer again, ask them, well how to do you know that? Eventually, you will get to the point where the person responds with a shoulder shrug and an answer something like "I don't know how I know, I just do." This is true whether you are asking a scientist about the properties of hydrocarbons, or your little brother about the properties of ice cream.At the base of all knowledge are assumptions. Unprovable assumptions. In other words, faith. A leap.

And I couldn’t disagree more.  Science assumes nothing.  Science uses observation to create theories by which to explain things.  But if one of those underlying theories is incorrect, then science changes to a better theory.  Or if no better theory exists, they drop the offending part and wait until they find something better.  But there is no faith involved.  You can go up and down any scientific theory, and everything is open to a better idea and further testing.  The only limitation on this is that the new idea must follow certain guidelines.  And that just makes sense.  Religious ideas are subject to religious-type guidelines; and scientific ideas are subject to scientific-type guidelines.

Now, before I get to deep into this, let me explain that this post is not intended for technical readers, and I often use certain shorthands that might sound technically wrong, but can be explained; assuming I wanted this to be much longer and far more boring post.  I’m just an informal kind of guy, and don’t write for a technical crowd.  So if anyone starts picking apart minor technical problems, I’m just going to think they’re a big dipwad and probably start insulting them.  I don’t mind if someone has a question about a concept that I wrote, I just hate it when people find petty problems and act as if it undermines everything.  

Secondly, while I sometimes use the word “science” to mean the formal study of Science; I often will use it in the general sense of what people and animals (and probably plants) do everyday.  We observe our surroundings, create theories based upon those observations, and then take actions based upon those theories.  Like when you’re driving in traffic and you observe that everyone around you is a jerkwad asshole; and you express yourself based upon that theory.  And so you’ll have to work with me, and not assume that I’m always using the formal Science, when I really just mean the stuff that we all do.  

And thirdly, I don’t really have a problem with faith.  I would prefer that people abandon it in exchange for objective observation, but I don’t see it necessarily as a bad thing.  Particularly as I think that faith is usually far more harmless than many folks realize.  I just don’t think that people care about their gods nearly as much as they pretend to.  They say it’s really important, but then they act just like the rest of us.  Sure, they talk a righteous game, but when they get cut-off in traffic, they’re just as likely to think bad thoughts as the rest of us.  And more importantly, they will usually attempt to find logical observation-based answers to life’s problems; rather than simply assuming that it was God’s doing.  If anything, I think that most Christians just use their beliefs as a window-dressing to their otherwise secular life.  And as I’ve argued before, religion is often used to justify a person’s moral-code; rather than having been the actual basis for it.  As somebody smart once said, man has created God in our own image.  But if faith makes people feel better, or prevents them from raping puppies; who am I to argue?  Now back to our regularly scheduled blogpost.

How Science Works

And sure, there are still many many many things that scientists don’t understand.  But they don’t just fill in those blanks with faith-based hoo-haw and supernatural guesses.  That’s Intelligent Design’s idea; to fill-in any holes with the supernatural.  But science moves on, working to eventually fill those gaps.  Because this isn’t like building a stackable tower, where each layer needs to be completed before we build the next layer.  It’s more like a jigsaw puzzle.  You find a piece here and a piece there that fit together, and you keep working until you’ve solved the whole thing.  And who knows, maybe you’ve put a few pieces in the wrong spot; but you just take them apart and keep working.  And the more pieces you put together, the easier it is to find the missing pieces.

And that’s the thing, we can learn about the evolution of life without knowing exactly how it began.  Similarly, we can discuss the expansion of the universe without knowing how the universe began.  But we just keep on putting the pieces together from what we know.  In fact, by studying how life evolved or how the universe expands, we can get better ideas of what started it.

But the main thing is that none of this is based on faith; but rather on observation.  The basis of science is that the truth of life can be best be obtained by observing life, and all scientific theories must be based on said observations.  With “observations” meaning something that is testable.  That isn’t to say that untestable things aren’t real.  It only says that we are limiting ourselves to testable observations.  And as I stated before, this is what most every man, woman, and dog does on a daily basis.  Only when it comes to matters of religion do some people believe that faith is a good enough substitute for observation.

Bad Burrito Breakfast

And so it is entirely wrong for Jeff to suggest that we all have faith as an underlying factor in our decisions.  I’ll use his breakfast challenge as an example: For breakfast this morning, I had a frozen burrito and a Hawaiian Punch.  I know that because I observed it happening and remember how much I had wished I had something other than a frozen burrito.  Now perhaps I only dreamed that, or perhaps I don't really exist.  But I did not observe that it was a dream or that I didn’t exist, so I ignore it.  Now, maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe I really did dream it, and could not have observed that it wasn’t real.  Science says that I must stick with my observation anyway; even if they could be wrong; even if they are dreamed.

Now, say I suddenly wake-up to find myself in an insane asylum and realize that none of this is real.  Rather than being some super-genius blogger CPA who had a lousy breakfast; I’m really some crazy-ass delusional psycho killer who had an even lousier breakfast.  Do I stay faith-based and continue to believe I ate the burrito?  No.  Assuming I’m not too delusional, I change my theory based upon my new observations.  But everything is observation-based.  I assume nothing.  I take nothing on faith.  I believe what I observe.  

And as I said, if something is not observable in a testable way, then it must be ignored.  For example, maybe there is a god.  If that god does not show himself in any observable way, then science can never recognize his existence.  That isn't to say that he doesn't exist; that only says that he falls outside of the realm of science.  And there's nothing necessarily wrong with that.  If God wants to be faith-based, that's fine.  But because his existence can neither be proven or disproven, he can never be included in science.  

And even religious people insist that they are using observation as the basis for their belief.  They observe the way they feel, the warmth of God’s love, remember having actual conversations with God, whatever.  But because that observation is within them, it is entirely subjective and untestable; and thus, must be ignored.  And that simply makes sense, as there are many different religions; the believers of which also make such subjective observations.  And again, this isn’t to suggest that this proves or disproves God; but that’s the whole point.  His existence cannot be proven or disproven; which is why he falls outside the realm of science.

That isn’t a knock against God or anything.  It’s simply a fact.  By definition, nothing supernatural can be included in the realm of science.  That’s what supernatural means.  And if that’s the way that God wants it, then that’s the way it is.  He’s supposedly the all-powerful one, and if he wants to be a jerk about his existence; then I guess there isn’t much we mere mortals can do about it.

But again, the point is that there is such a thing as knowledge that does not rely on faith.  Knowledge that is based entirely on testable observation.  That is the nature of science, but more importantly, that is what everybody does every day.  When you drive in traffic, it is not faith that is telling you that those other cars exist.  You know that based upon previous observations.  And maybe those observations are wrong and those other cars do not exist; it doesn’t matter.  You will continue to act based upon observations that you made, and not based upon a faith.  And it’s only in matters of religion that people eschew the demands of objectivism and observation-based theories, and allow themselves to fall victim to their own subjective whimsy.  Well, that and Bushism too.  But it’s easily argued that that’s just another form of religion; so I guess that just makes sense.


TGirsch said...

At the risk of being branded a big dipwad and being insulted, it isn't technically accurate to state that science "assumes nothing." It simply doesn't assume very much. It assumes, for example, the Principle of Uniformity, and it assumes that observation is a reasonably effective way of gathering data. Neither of these assumptions are unreasonable, and we don't really have any evidence to tell us they're flawed assumptions -- indeed, most of what we know seems to confirm them -- but they are assumptions nonetheless.

coturnix said...

There is no such thing as an even lousier breakfast than a frozen burrito and a Hawaiian Punch. Ergo, your whole post must be wrong. And if you do not like my reasoning, you need to spend some time on Dembski's blog and soak in the wisdom of the crowds by virtual osmosis.

Doctor Biobrain said...

Nice try T, but that wasn't nearly dipwadded enough to deserve an insult. In fact, I kind of like adding this kind of thing to my commentboard, as the original post was too long, but this probably needed to be said. I've often considered posting under fake names, just so I could further explain things on my commentboard.

I disagree with the use of the word "assume" regarding these things. My dictionary defines "Assume" as "to think that something is true even though you have no evidence for it." And that's not something that science does. As you say, these things have been confirmed, and that certainly counts as evidence.

When we're talking about something that is observation-based and tested, the proper term is "theory". And the Principle of Uniformity is based upon tested observations. Were scientists to observe that this is wrong, they would change the theory or dump it completely.

I'm not a bigtime science guy, but I believe this was why Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity was needed. As it was determined that Newton's physics didn't necessarily apply everywhere. And if we were to determine that our physics don't apply elsewhere, we'd have to take that into consideration too.

Overall, this is the science approach of doing things. Nothing is assumed. Everything is observable in a testable format. And everything is subject to change.

coturnix said...

Sorry, I just for once wanted to see how it feels to be a Creationist troll...LOL

Doctor Biobrain said...

There is no such thing as an even lousier breakfast than a frozen burrito and a Hawaiian Punch. Ergo, your whole post must be wrong.

Ahh, the wisdom of youth. I was about to concede my argument to your rocksolid logic, but my 13-year-old daughter saved the day. Instant grits. Instant grits are a lousier breakfast, and are quite likely to be served in an insane asylum. Particularly the kind that would store my crazy ass. Looks like I win again.

Jeff said...

A frozen burrito for breakfast? That is no dream -- it is a nightmare ;-)

T is right. The principle of uniformity is just one of the givens that science rests upon. So is the reliability of sense perception -- for how do we really know our sense perception is at all representative of reality? Logic must be assumed because science relies on induction, which must also be assumed. The existence of truth is assumed as is the reliability of our cognitive faculties. The adequacy of language to describe the external world must be assumed, as well as the existence of values (for example, reporting your test results honestly). The existence of numbers and mathematical truths must be assumed, as does the knowability of the external world. How do we really know what we know?

All of these are givens. To prove them, requires that you assume them. For example, to prove logic, you must use logic -- iow, a classical case of circular reasoning.

It is not really that big a deal to point this things out ... at the base of knowledge we must have givens or we get no where. Even our observations must rely on these givens ... so basing your knowledge on your observations does not get you away from presupposing things.

Do I make all the same assumptions as your average scientist? Sure. But not because anyone proved them scientifically using testable observations. You can't prove philosophical assumptions using scientific means -- because as you said, things like philosophy and faith lie outside of the ability of science to prove them.

We all just accept them as ... given.

Doctor Biobrain said...

Jeff - I'll give the benefit of the doubt that you hadn't read my reply before you wrote your response. But I will repeat that there is a difference between assumptions and theories. If anything, we could refer to the "theory of logic", the "theory of observation" and so on. What you call "assumptions" are all based upon testable observations and therefore should be considered theories. And while different theories have different degrees of proof; they all have some level of proof.

And secondly, as I posted, science does not assume perfect knowledge, nor will it necessarily find absolute truth. It is solely interested in one method of discovering truth, and is willing to accept the risks inherent with that method. Yes, our senses might fail us; as might our logic, cognitive abilities, and our language. But science does not assume that these things are adequate or infallible. Science says that we work with what we have, and we base our theories upon what we can observe. And if our senses or logic or language fail us, then science will arrive at wrong answers. And this most certainly has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen. Science will make mistakes. And it's possible that we will never arrive at all of the answers; just as it's possible that some or all of the answers are outside the realm of science.

So I will repeat again that science assumes nothing; not even to assume that it is getting the correct answer. It just keeps plugging away on testable observations; regardless of whether they might be incorrect. And while it strives to ensure that it uses the best possible methods; it does not assume that it has done so. Thus said, while it does not assume that its overall answers are correct; it does have a pretty darn good track record so far. But again, science has been dead wrong about many many things, due to faulty logic, observations, etc; and it will be wrong again. There is no assumption that these things are correct/

If science assumes anything, it is that scientists will continue to screw-up and get things wrong. But again, that's based upon observable fact, so that's not really much of an assumption either.

TGirsch said...

Dr. B:
And the Principle of Uniformity is based upon tested observations.

Not exactly. It seems to be vindicated by tested observations, but it had to be presumed (which is a better word than "assumed" in this instance) before the testing could even begin. After all, without uniformity, testing would be pointless.

As it was determined that Newton's physics didn't necessarily apply everywhere.

Actually, what was determined was that Netwon's physics were imprecise, not that they "didn't apply everywhere" -- Newton's formulas are approximations that work very well, but only within a confined range of data (so well, in fact, that for most applications, they're still commonly used today). The same can be said of special relativity (which only works well on a moderate-to-grand scale) and of quantum mechanics (which only work on a microscopic scale). But now we're getting into UFT, which is way the heck off topic. :)

Even our observations must rely on these givens ... so basing your knowledge on your observations does not get you away from presupposing things.

This is true, but at the same time, part of the reason I think "presupposition" is a better word than "assumption." Your presuppositions are a starting point, but at the end of the day, they aren't the be-all and end-all. It's possible that you could decide that this presupposition or that doesn't work or doesn't make sense. And in this case, you'd revise or abandon that presupposition (and ultimately re-evaluate what you thought you knew in light of the new presupposition).

The presuppositions of science are very broad, quite reasonable, and seem to be vindicated by most of what we encounter in daily life. The presuppositions of, say, Christianity, are not quite the same in this regard. It is presupposed, for example, that not only must some higher power exist, but that power must exist in the form of a single "triune" God -- this is something that can neither be proven nor disproved; it must be presupposed. That's different in kind from presuming that the universe behaves in consistent and mostly predictable ways.

Doctor Biobrain said...

It seems to be vindicated by tested observations, but it had to be presumed (which is a better word than "assumed" in this instance) before the testing could even begin. After all, without uniformity, testing would be pointless.

I think a better word than "presume" is that they had a hypothesis or educated guess that uniformity would be the case. Semantics aside, this concept did not simply arrive from nowhere, nor was it bestowed upon us by an all-knowing power. Long before any formal experiments were conducted, mankind has noticed the tendency for rules to be uniform. So it wasn't a complete guess that the rules would stay the same elsewhere. And if this theory was wrong, then the tests would not have worked and we would have developed alternate theories.

To describe this as "faith" would be completely wrong. Faith is believing completely in the existence of a being who has never been objectively observed by any human; and of a type which has never been observed and supposedly does not exist elsewhere. Faith is trusting that this being is who he says he is; rather than some alien race playing a prank on us. Faith is believing that we know exactly who this being is, and know what he wants us to do; entirely based upon what ignorant strangers wrote in a different language thousands of years ago.

That's faith. Here, there are no educated guesses. We can't simply expand upon what we have experienced to guess at more answers. This is a complete shot in the dark. An utterly random guess among an infinite number of alternative guesses which are just as likely. And in most cases, in which the only deciding factor was that the guess was the same one that their parents had taught to them. That's faith. One either believes or they don't believe, and there is no rational basis to decide which to do. And we are told that this is how it's supposed to be. We are told that faith is the only thing that can lead us to this decision.

And that is not what science does. The presumption that logic and perceptions and uniformity are reliable is not some complete guess pulled out of thin air. These were not bestowed on us from above. They are based upon observation. These observations might be skimpy and flawed; but they are observations nonetheless. To suggest that science and religion are equally faith-based is entirely wrong.

Anonymous said...

I agree with almost everything you wrote here, Biobrain, except for this sentence: "But because that observation is within them, it is entirely subjective and untestable; and thus, must be ignored."

Who really goes through life ignoring their observations of what's happening within themselves? Religious experiences aside, we take all sorts of actions based on our desires, conscience, and aesthetic tastes, all of which are internal.

Doctor Biobrain said...

Who really goes through life ignoring their observations of what's happening within themselves?

Sorry, I meant that it should be ignored for science-purposes, and that it can't be used by others; not necessarily that the people should ignore such things themselves. If I really believed that God spoke to me and told me to do something, I'd probably do it; even if this observation was entirely subjective.

Anonymous said...

'I am an agnostic; I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of.'
Clarence Darrow

Anonymous said...

'I am an agnostic; I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of.'

Then why do you pretend to know that?

makdom said...

Faith comes from within ones self through knowledge. You cannot be forced to have faith.