Friday, August 05, 2005

Faith vs. Fact

I've been thinking alot about science and religion, faith and fact, and how they (ought to? should? do?) interact. We often try to make them fit together in a nice theory-of-everything. That's a western obsession of ours, trying to make all of our different knowledges and ways of knowing the world compatible.

The Bible tells us that faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Science, on the other hand, is a weaving together of logic and empirical fact. Faith-based and fact-based views of the world are necessarily different, yet often in our society we try to make them fit together. They dont NEED to agree with each other in order to individually be valid and useful in their different purposes. The primary difference between faith-based views of the world and science is that science relies on empirical, or experiential and observable, evidence to support its claims while faith relies upon that which is inherently unknowable or observable. These two views of the world are mutually exclusive; you would not want science to answer questions about the meaning of life any more than you would expect religion to provide a satisfactory explanation for the phenomenon of gravity.

Empirical evidence requires facts. Facts are mutually agreed upon experiences that can be simultaneously observed or experienced in any place at any time by any number of people. The appearance of an angel to a person or group of persons cannot be described as a fact: the event cannot be experienced again by anyone at any time. To believe this requires an act of faith. Science, on the other hand, is completely shareable. If I say that water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, this could be proven by anyone, anywhere.

Science also must be able to be disproved. Just as I cannot scientifically say that an angel appeared, neither can I say that an angel did not. The existence and appearance of angels, therefore, is not a matter in which science can concern itself. I can, however, prove that the Earth is not 10,000 years old by using carbon dating, or by counting rock layers. Because faith requires no evidence, it cannot be disproved. This is why science cannot answer the question of the existence of a God: it is ultimately and completely a question of faith, not one of fact.

Faith deals in absolute truths; the very nature of science does not allow it to deal with such issues. Science is about probabilities, the probability that a certain event will occur in the future given conditions and variables x, y, and z. Faith-based ways of knowing the world search for absolute truth and make absolute statements of Right and Wrong. Science cannot answer these questions, and we would not want it to.

Through history, people have always tried to make science and faith agree with one another, but often both suffer in the attempt. Pythagoras and others, when describing the universe, tried to make it conform to their faith-based views of the world. Their faith was tied up in the perfection of the universe, and thus the universe and everything in it was seen to be spherical or circular, the most perfect geometric form. When ideas about Beauty and Truth overshadowed ideas about science, the result was statements such as this by Plato: “This was the method I adopted: I first assured some principle which I judged to be the strongest and then I affirmed as true whatever seemed to agree with this, whether relating to the cause or to anything else; and that which disagreed, I regarded as untrue."

To make his science fit his faith-based views of how the world ought to be, Plato and his students introduced the concept of retrograde, explaining away apparent irregularities in planets’ paths while retaining perfectly circular orbits. Claudius Ptolemy, in his observations of the universe, was also determined to make his ideas about perfect harmony and order in the universe conform to his observed data. As we can see, when empirical observations are interpreted through the lens of a faith-based view of the world, science cannot accurately describe the present or predict the future.

A major breakthrough was made in rescuing science from faith-based ways of knowing when German mathematician Johannes Kepler, after working with Tycho Brahe’s meticulous data and attempting to fit it into both the Ptolemaic and Copernican models of the universe, decided to let the data simply speak for itself, finding that empirical facts simply did not fit with a faith-based view of the world that insisted on perfection and sphericity. Empirical facts were able to describe the shape of the universe more accurately than ever before; no longer was a certain view of the world and how it worked necessary to understand and accept the science: it became more universally shareable. No longer relying on faith-based ideals, theories could be disproved by empirical facts.

Yet we still try to make faith- and science-based views of the world agree with each other. Creationists try to find scientific evidence to support a 10,000 year-old Earth. The Archbishop of Canterbury sought out Einstein to ask how his theory of relatively would affect religion (his response: “None. Relativity is a purely scientific matter and has nothing to do with religion.”). We can see not only that these two different views of the world are designed for different tasks, but that when we try to make them agree we get perfectly circular orbits and impossibly young planets, both bad science and bad faith. Faith does not need evidence. Science can be shared and universally applied precisely because it can only be based on empirical facts.


John B said...

I really do think, however, that there are planes on which faith and science must interact. For example, creation. The Bible would appear to say one thing, science another. Yet, when the Bible is properly studied, the "faith" must be doctored--the Bible leaves enough room (considering the literature) to allow for the current scientific views of creation.

Also, miracles. Miracles cannot be disallowed for the exact reason you discussed. They cannot be proven that they did or did not occur. This is indeed an example of faith. Yet many scientists vehemently oppose the idea of bodily resurrection from the grave, and argue that it is impossible, doing so from the plane of science. In this case, science must "stay out of it".

I guess all I'm saying is:
1)There are areas that both subjects interact, but these are indeed rather few and far between.

2)Too often, faith tries to become scientific in areas that cannot be so, and science does vice versa.

John B said...

Also, there are some subjects that religious persons have entered scientifically to prove the truth of their religion. Example: (see Tuesday, August 9th)

I think this is not only ok, but great. Faith can scienfically enter the world of science to prove some truths. Like those historical claims of Scripture, or scientific claims even (though those are much harder to find in the Bible verses the historical aspect.)

Jennifer said...

If faith can enter the world of science to "prove" itself, is it equally acceptable for science to enter faith and tell it when it is scientifically impossible? Because, once you let science be the yardstick by which you measure the truth of your religion, then science can tear it down as well. If science can prove faith, why can't it disprove it as well?

To me, it seems that faith is no longer necessary when it can be empirically established. It's precisely because we can't that makes faith so important.

LOL: I actually read that post earlier today and responded to it!