Saturday, November 24, 2007

Taking Basic Beliefs on Faith: Common Ground for Science and Religion

Paul Davies is the director of a research center called BEYOND: The Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. Here's what the website for BEYOND says about its purpose:

For thousands of years, people have gazed in wonder at the world about them and asked the big questions: How did the universe come to exist? What is it made of? Where do human beings fit into the great cosmic scheme? Is there a meaning to it all?

Such questions have mostly been restricted to religion and philosophy. Now, scientists are addressing them too. On every front, science is transforming our world view and challenging age-old assumptions about the nature of the physical universe and our place within it.

BEYOND is a pioneering international center at Arizona State University specifically dedicated to confronting the big questions of existence raised by these stunning scientific advances, and facilitating new research initiatives that transcend traditional subject categories.

In an op-ed piece for today's New York Times entitled "Taking Science on Faith," Paul Davies argues that, like religion, science is grounded in faith. In other words, science as we know it is a faith-based enterprise. Here's part of what he writes:

Science, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do? ...

... both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

I'm not sure why "a complete account of physical existence" is either desirable or necessary. But I do find Davies' main point intriguing. There are, indeed, basic beliefs that cannot be proven true. Rather, they must be held as true - taken on faith - in order to make it possible for rational inquiry to begin and proceed in the first place. I'm thinking of believing the truth of propositions such as, "The world exists," or, "Other minds exist." Or the one Davies cites: "Nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way."

I don't think that holding such basic beliefs as true without irrefutable proof that they're true is irrational. On the contrary, I think that consistently rejecting such basic beliefs as true - refusing to take them as true on faith - would be irrational.

The point I'm making is that faith - placing our trust in certain basic beliefs for which we cannot obtain absolute certainty - is both rational and necessary. And rather than finding it disconcerting, I find it reassuring that, for all of their differences, both science and religion share at least this much in common: both take certain beliefs as true on faith.

The rest of Davies' essay is worth a look. Read it all.

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