Science is not a religion, nor does it involve faith

Suppose you had a friend who saw the world in terms solely of his football team. If you are discussing politics, he refers to the boardroom of the team; if you are talking morality, the on-field ethics of his favourites stars. Now you start to talk about science, and he says: “Well, science is just another game.” What would you think about that?

It is true that there are aspects of science that are game-like. There’s competition, goals, and rules. But is science just another game? Only in the sense that having children is just another economic decision, or choosing to continue to live is just another career choice. There is a fallacy of thinking that leads you to think everything is like something you personally value. I will call it the Gamer Fallacy.

Instead of games, though, consider religion. If everything looks like a game to gamers, everything looks like religion to religionists. So, if there are assumptions that are fundamental to some activity, that’s “faith”. If something is a sufficient explanation for a domain of the world, that’s “dogma”. If you have a view of things, that’s just a “worldview”. Reason becomes religion, and thus it is all about your game competing with mine in the public sphere. That’s all there is to it, really. The Gamer Fallacy in spades!

On this account, there is no rational position to take. You take a leap of faith and live on that basis, and my leap is at least as valid as yours. Mind, if your leap has led you to the moon, to curing the bulk of cancers, to preventing diseases and manipulating the building blocks of matter, while mine still thinks mental illness is a moral failing or demonic possession, that doesn’t matter, because, you see: the very criteria of success are leaps of faith too!

Why, you are just playing your online game like I am. In your game, travel around the solar system and fixing diseases matters. In mine it’s all about the moral and psychic choices. Surely you can see that it all boils down to faith?

Arse biscuits, it does! Science is about living in the physical world in which we find ourselves. You can pretend it doesn’t exist, or give abstract philosophical explanations of how it is all really Maya, but when it comes down to it, if you believe things that are false, tough for your religion. You are invited to challenge science the way Hume’s skeptic was invited to challenge gravity, by leaving through the upper floor window.

People who see things in terms of deities think this is somehow the default view that all things must be seen in terms of. They are like the football fanatic, who thinks what he believes defines the way the world is. Science, on the other hand, assumes that it doesn’t have a handle on the world before it investigates, and seeks to learn about the world. Which is more like an act of faith? The believer who “knows” before learning, or the learner who investigates before believing?

If you have to ask, you’ll never know.

26 Comments

Filed under Epistemology, General Science, Philosophy, Religion, Science

26 Responses to Science is not a religion, nor does it involve faith

  1. Which is more like an act of faith? The believer who “knows” before learning, or the learner who investigates before believing?

    A believer does not ‘know’ until s/he actually experienced and saw what it was first believed. We believe in things we do not see, and know things that we do see. Things that we experience (feel, see and understand) strengthen our faith in things we do not yet see.

    And that’s because we think there are problems more important than why ice melts and the temperature it does.

    What’s the use of curing cancer if you have absolutely now clue why you live the extra years you gain? Or how do the few years you loose because of cancer or a cold car crash, compare with an eternity (be it happy or not).

    You may argue that there’s no life after death. But is it science or faith behind that?

    Science is not a religion, but some made it a tool within a religion.

    • Physicalist

      . . . is it science or faith behind that?

      Oooh, oooh! I know this one!

      Science!!!

    • “What’s the use of curing cancer if you have absolutely now clue why you live the extra years you gain?”

      Indeed. Next time I see someone in trouble I’ll make sure to check that their opinions coincide with mine before helping them. After all, there’s clearly no point in saving anyone’s life if they aren’t going to live that life the way I think they should …

    • Rosemary Lyndall Wemm

      “What’s the use of curing cancer if you have absolutely now clue why you live the extra years you gain?”

      On that reasoning we would shut down all the baby and children’s wings in hospitals. Let them all die from cancer. They won’t know what they are missing.

      Your religion appears to have rotted your brain.

      “Or how do the few years you loose because of cancer or a cold car crash, compare with an eternity (be it happy or not). ”

      That argument is meaningless unless you (a) believe that there is a life after death and (b) that all victims of cancer and car accidents go to your version of heaven and (c) your version of religion is correct and all other beliefs and opinions and reasoned conclusions are wrong.

      Your religion has rotted your moral values, also.

      With attitudes like that no wonder good people are disaffected by your religion.

  2. Yeah, I’ve been flabbergasted by the “reason is just your religion” gambit. It seems (to me) that it’s a bad idea to explicitly say that your position is unreasonable. But maybe that’s just my philosophical bias speaking :-)

    The most explicit example of this that I recall was in a video with Eric Hovind and a guest. They proudly posit two distinct starting points: For the Christian it’s the Bible; for the atheist it’s reason.

    Then they accuse the atheist of cheating, because the atheist refuses to allow the Christian’s ultimate authority (the “lordship of Jesus Christ”) any weight in the argument, while still insisting on using reason (the atheist’s “ultimate authority”).

    Yeesh.

  3. Mike from Ottawa

    “If everything looks like a game to gamers, everything looks like religion to religionists.”

    A false premise implies anything, eh.

  4. Sam C

    Your suggestion:

    If everything looks like a game to gamers, everything looks like religion to religionists.

    does not always extrapolate.

    Everything (I mean every field of belief or study) does not not look like science to a scientist! In fact, it’s rather the opposite, the tendency is to exclude studies as “unscientific”, not to appropriate them.

    But does everything look like philosophy to philosophers? I suspect a little! I have heard philosophers grumble that everybody should study moral philosophy and that it’s very important. Yet, I (and most of the rest of the population) don’t avoid killing or harming people because of any well (or badly) argued moral philosophy, I avoid it because it seems like generally a good and popular idea, and the alternative holds no attractions.

    I have wondered about the grumbles from theologians that antsy atheists are poorly grounded in theology so the atheists’ musings on religious issues can be ignored. Do the theologians not understand that if there is no “theos” means there can be no useful “logos” of “theos”?

    I used to fear the possibility of one day getting caught up in the nonsense of Christianity (I don’t fear it now because I think I’m grounded enough). The thought of living in such a restricted, irrational and inhumane world view terrifies me, especially with its disconnect from the reality of the human condition. When I read “Christian” (above) saying:

    What’s the use of curing cancer if you have absolutely now clue why you live the extra years you gain?

    I cannot understand how someone can be so unutterably, unashamedly blind, and I don’t want to be that person. Most of the world is not Christian, yet it happily bumbles along, can they not see that? Is the denial of the evidence of their senses so strong?

    Is that why Christianity lauds denialism – or faith as they call it – as a virtue? In the rational world, it’s more of a sin!

    • The Gamer Fallacy occurs in some cases, but (as with most fallacies) not all. Some philosophers do see everything as philosophy; not all. To a Man with a Solution, everything looks like that Problem.

  5. Chris' Wills

    I read the linked article and think you are being a tad unfair.

    Where Lightman really impressed me was his acknowledgement that science, as a philosophical commitment rather than the specific practice of it, also requires a leap of faith.

    My bolding.
    So it wasn’t saying that science is a religion at all, just that some people follow scientism and try and claim that science and scientism are the same thing. Which, of course, they aren’t.

    • I think “scientism” is a red herring. Almost always justified criticisms of scientism elide over into criticisms of the results of science. While people do use science to illicitly shore up their doctrinaire stances (think of “scientific socialism” a la Lenin, or “Christian Science” or “Scientology”), I do not think there is a general stance that is worthy of the term “scientism”. Instead, there is a modernist stance that treats “primitive” views as lesser, and the problem there is the philosophical equivalent of the Whig Interpretation of History, not “scientism”. A better term might be “modernist exceptionalism”.

      • Chris' Wills

        Have I criticised the results of science?
        Well I’m not enamoured of the H Bomb, but I see that as the application of science rather than a result of science;.
        Some people claim that some things are scientific when they aren’t, euthanasia to reduce pension costs and such like. I oppose that.

        No matter, my point was the article said it was the philosophical stance that required the faith and was similar to religion, not science.

  6. Jeb

    “We believe in things we do not see”

    Indeed, though living in a world where you are blind to love is a somewhat unfortunate existence.

    I can understand why you set you’re hope and mis-placed faith on fictive realms, the world must look like ashes and dust to you and that is a sad fiction.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_Good_Samaritan

  7. bob koepp

    I think that whether science involves faith depends on how ‘science’ and ‘fatih’ get defined. For example, in some contexts I’ve seen ‘faith’ defined as “belief in the absence of evidence.” Well, in such a context, science would seem to involve faith, since it clearly is not “evidence all the way down.”

  8. joe

    I agree that science is different from religion in that it gets closer to reality, as time passes, while religion gets farther away from it.

    Science as a historical process that somehow abstracts from individual human feuds and foibles, however, should be distinguished from scientists as just another buch of fallible human beings. The gamer fallacy hinges very much, it seems, on mistaking these two levels of the scientific endeavour.

  9. Marilyn

    I suppose it is how you define faith. But for what it’s worth, you have to have faith that the out come of a project or intention either scientific or effects of prayer comes out right if there is no way of knowing what the out come is or even if you do know what an out come should be you have faith that what is intended will materialise in the right way. Take the LHC, I think there is a certain amount of faith needed that eventually, that what it was built for, will find the Higgs Boson, even if it doesn’t we have to keep faith that one day it will or point the way.

    • You are conflating “faith” with “expectation”. Expectations can be undercut by experience and revised on the fly. This is not the case with the sorts of doxastic stances that get called faith.

  10. joe

    Eer – no. In the simplest case you have null-hypothesis and an alternative and the question whether you can reject the alternative hypothesis does not depend on faith. If the Higgs Boson is not found though on theory it should be, that will be a scientific result as well. Closer to all-day experience, if a pharmaceutical is tested for a certain medical effect and it turns out that it does not have that effect (people who get it are none the better, statistically, than people who get the placebo) , then dump it. There are hopes and interests involved, of course, but the rules of the game “science” get away from them and closer towards facts and reality.

  11. Science, on the other hand, assumes that it doesn’t have a handle on the world before it investigates, and seeks to learn about the world.

    It has. There are many a priori rules which apply both to thinking and “reality” and all sciences are based upon them. Logical and mathematics are sort of such rules. Reality can’t illuminate you regarding both sciences. They are consistent in themselves, in their concept.

    One of such a priori logical rules are modus ponens you wrote about some times ago.

  12. Pingback: Does science have a central doctrine? | The Heretical Philosopher

  13. Owen

    Oh round and round with semantics. Part of the trouble with science v religion or “faith” is that they do work by different rules. Faith of a blind kind is what is being discussed I presume and I don’t have much time for that except in matters of romance. The Christianity I know and love ,as an atheist follower, is a mish mash of beliefs and practices and does not hold to the primacy of reason even though Theologians often try to drag congregants some of the way. That doesn’t mean it is useless but it is pretty bad at some things in my opinion. It is very good at other things that humans generally like.
    Faith should not be a dirty word. For most all of us it is like trust and is a something we develop from experience and prior knowledge. Many things cannot be proven but we have “faith”. We place our trust in all kinds of things and parts of religion are like this. There are giant gaps of reason but you need to make specific arguments at those points in a reasoned debate. I certainly don’t accept the notion that religious belief should hold any unnassailable position out of dogma and revelation but it often contains wisdom born of experience. A jealous husband has no faith even if his wife is completely vituous and all it does is make their lives miserable.

  14. “You are conflating “faith” with “expectation”. Expectations can be undercut by experience and revised on the fly.”

    Yes, and I think a lot of the more thoughtful faithful would tend to draw that same distinction. Belief is not necessarily faith (and my Tillichian friend would go as far to say Faith doesn’t necessarily need belief as a precondition at all, which is a position becoming increasingly mainstream among the liberal worshipers = Owen above may be of this category).

  15. John,

    The first phrase in the title of this thread “Science is not a religion” is clear to me. But the second phrase “nor does it involve faith” is unclear to me. For example, in this thread, How do you define “faith”?

    For instance, here are definitions of “faith” from Merriam Webster (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/faith):

    1
    a : allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty b (1) : fidelity to one’s promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
    2
    a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
    3
    : something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs

    Science could not possibly be most of these definitions, but do you reject that science requires “firm belief in something for which there is no proof” because science “proves” nothing? Please note that I am not suggesting that science requires “firm belief in something for which there is no compelling evidence,” but I merely suggest that science requires “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”

  16. The word faith has multiple meanings depending on how the word is used. Faith can mean a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny. It can mean a loyalty or allegiance to a cause or person. It can also mean a strong belief or trust in someone or something. The most common modern usage of the word faith is associated with the first definition that I provided. In today’s day and age, faith is synonymous with religion. But faith is only synonymous with religion because because many people use the word faith and interpret the word faith in accordance to the first definition. If we go by the first definition, faith has nothing to do with science.

    However, if we focus on the third definition, the strong belief or trust in someone or something, then it is hard to argue that science does not involve some amount of faith if we go by this definition. Science has it’s own assumptions of the nature of the world we live in such as the assumption that we live in an objective reality, and that this objective reality is governed by universal laws that are unchanging (or at least not radically) now and forever. When scientists perform their experiments in order to test their theories, they do so with a strong belief or trust in the previously stated assumption. They then assume that our five senses are reliable enough to interpret the meaning of the results of these experiments as well as the observations that they make. Through reason and logic, scientists then deduce more facts and create, discard, and modify their theories as the evidence changes. Even within reason and logic, all deductive and inductive/abductive activity involves a starting point in the form of assumptions, which are statements that we assume to be true even without proof (even though they appear to be self evident). Is that not an example of faith?

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