Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Scientific Faith

I recently had a discussion about challenging my faith. I have always done this myself, believing that my faith would be strengthened through challenge. It was last night that it occurred to me that this was the scientific method applied to my faith. The following is an expansion of that thought.
Faith is very much like science. You may be shocked by this, but look at how similar they are. Both study truth. Both use methods involving the formation and testing of theories. Both are self-critical, challenging the theories to strengthen them. Those who make a discovery in each attempt to communicate it to others.
Faith is a Study of the Truth
If there is a God then there are things that are true about Him (or her/it/they), and things that are false. Either He performs miracles or He does not (Either a Man was born of a virgin or He was not). Gravity is either 9.81m/s^2 or it is not. There are no two ways about it. We can certainly argue things beyond that ("How do you know gravity is 9.81"), but these questions must presume that there is a fixed, true thing that we're trying to understand.

Because it is a study of true things, faith, like science, has claims of truth which may be right or wrong. And as with science, we ought to be rigorous in deciding which claims, beliefs, doctrines, and practices to accept and which to reject.

The Scientific Method

How does science decide which claims are true and which are false? "The Scientific Method". What's that? It's a process of discovery which tries to test theories with experiment.
At its core is skepticism. You need to question and show that your theory cannot be dis-proven, try as you might. It's not a way to prove things. No number of white swans would be sufficient to 'prove' the statement, "All swans are white," for there may be an undiscovered black swan. Nevertheless, if the statement is limited, "All swans on Swan Lake are white," and the evidence is strong against the alternatives ("Of 1000 swans observed, 1000 were white") one can be fairly sure of the theory. Even still, one has not proved the statement; one has only showed that it is the most reasonable thing to believe. This is all science can do.

And this is all faith can do. I cannot prove God, but I can provide powerful evidence for Him. I can provide compelling evidence to disprove the alternatives ("The Bible is not inspired," "God is not knowable," "Jesus was just a good moral teacher"), but I can't prove that Jesus was born of a virgin. I can only show His virgin birth is the most reasonable thing to believe.

Expanding Knowledge

Science grows by challenging itself. A scientist does experiments which would disprove his theory ("I'm going to watch for a black swan"). When they fail to ("Zero black swans were observed"), it further strengthens the theory. Only after doing this can a scientist go to the world and put forth a theory ("All swans on Swan Lake are white").

Faith grows by challenging itself. A person ought to challenge his beliefs, even actively looking for things which would disprove it. When these fail, this strengthens the person's faith. As Paul says, Rom 5:3 (NLT) We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us-they help us learn to endure.
With challenges answered, he can then answer criticism and question alike. And this is what Peter wrote: 1Pe 3:15b ...[be] ready always to [give] an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear." This is exactly like what a scientist ought to do (sans the "with meekness and fear" part, which would probably substantially improve science writing).
In both cases, if these challenges oppose the theory, it means the theory ought to be revised or completely thrown out. The scientist who sees a black swan on Swan Lake must amend his theory ("Most swans on Swan Lake are white"). The Atheist who reads a verifiable prophecy must amend his theory, as would the Christian if he found a contradiction in the Bible (praise God these are absent).
When they have established their ideas, scientists communicate their theories via publishing, posters and conferences, and call it “Advancing Knowledge.” Christians, though a bit more sophisticated in their methods, communicate their theories in a similar manner (books, conferences, conversation) and call it ‘Evangelism’.
Faith is very scientific. It is a process of discovery of truth which uses rigorous and repeatable instruments to discover what is true. It is strengthened by questioning and challenging itself, and can be communicated to others effectively only afterwards.
Faith includes all the essential elements and processes of science including logic, hypothesis, revision, and criticism, but omits the physical tools in place of philosophical and historical ones. In short, faith is science without microscopes.
But, as happens to all scientists eventually, I got scooped (had someone publish my idea before me). Paul beat me to the press (by about 2 millennia): 1Th 5:21 Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

It is humbling and encouraging knowing that this is nothing new; this is not some big new idea. It was written by a guy a long time before I was born. I just realized now what God was talking about all these years. So now I’ll smirk every time I see scientists attacking faith on the basis that it is “unscientific”.

"But science is so much simpler. Unlike faith, there is clear data which proves or disproves a thing."
I used to think that. I used to argue as follows. While science did have more precise instruments, it did not mean that faith was any less valid. A postal scale may be more precise than a fruit scale, but that doesn't mean that a fruit scale is wrong.

Now I don't even have to use that argument any more. Now that I have been in science, and read about science, and published in science, I can say without a doubt: science sucks. It's not precise. It's not clean. It's not unbiased. It's messy. It's usually very messy. And that's why there's so much contention within science. "Why Most Published Research Results are False" was an article that came out which argued this point.

Faith has to use old books instead of the scientific literature, philosophy instead of mathematics, and history instead of observation. As biology is not better than astronomy because microscopes are better than telescopes, so science is not better than faith.

"It's no use arguing, we're not going to change each other's minds. You can just talk in circles with matters of faith."
People argue in circles both about science and about faith. People talk in circles usually because they don't listen to each other.

The only reason that an argument is guaranteed to go nowhere is if the thing contended has no common basis. "Deep-dish pizza is the best" "Nu-uh" "Uh-huh". This argument is based on internal feeling and preference, not on something common. When we agree on reason, we can have productive arguments (I've written on this before here).

If the argument is "I believe in God." "I feel that's stupid" then of course it will go nowhere. But if the disagreement is on matters of fact ("Jesus lived in 30AD") or matters of truth ("God could not exist and allow evil") then these things can be discussed productively and minds can be changed... unless of course you're so close-minded as to refuse to listen to rational argument. But of course, that is not the case.

As far as the mind-changing goes, I have witnessed three of my closest (and smartest) friends change from Deism, Atheism and Agnosticism to Christianity. Much of this was because of argument. Simply because you have not seen a thing does not mean it does not exist (Don't say all swans are white; don't say all arguments on faith don't change minds :).

"Philosophy isn't true like science."
Scientists try every so hard to cling to the keys of the gates of Truth. Their efforts are simply laughable.

Science is a branch of philosophy. It used to be even be called philosophy (Bacon, its inventor, called it "Natural philosophy"). Science pretends it can know things without the branch of philosophy which studies knowledge (Epistemology). It tries to describe the things which are, without considering what exactly are true things (Ontology). It dismisses the most important questions about life, purpose and origin as being either purely biological ("to procreate") or as unknowable.

How do scientists argue their points? With logic (a branch of philosophy). Science uses the language of philosophy, but claims it is superior to it. It is as silly as the sentence, "I have no need of the English Language!" Every discovery of science depends on the foundation of philosophy which supports it.

Philosophers don't use microscopes, but they know some things more certainly than scientists do. Their tools are different, but that does not invalidate them.
We can overlook this utter foolishness of scientific hubris and believe what is reasonable: Philosophy is a way to discover truth, along with science.

"Isn't science the opposite of faith?"
I'm sorry, but that is not the kind of 'faith' I'm talking about. Of course you could always talk about something else and call it faith, and define that as "believing something against the evidence," but then you're talking about what I call 'insanity'.

What I mean by faith is simply trust. We trust in all sorts of things. I, for example, have faith in elevators. The engineers who designed them had faith in Universal Gravitation. In precisely the same way, I have faith in God.

We certainly can believe in things we don't see. For example, we believe in things called electrons. Why? Because people have indirectly observed them, and so we now have faith that such things exist. Like the Bible says, "Now faith is ... the evidence of things not seen." (Hbr 11:1). Electrons being 9.1 x 10^-31kg, we cannot see them, but we have lots of good evidence that they exist, so we have faith in electrons. God is exactly the same (except the evidence is quite a bit better for Him than electrons).

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