Answering the Big Question of Faith I: Science as Useful, but Truncated Perception

We must begin our response by saying that Rich Sam’s questions (described in the previous blog) cannot be answered fully. It is possible that we are merely deluded. It is also quite possible that Rich Sam is. For Rich Sam’s questions are framed, as are most such questions presented by critics of religion, by a belief that scientific kinds of reasoning give us the best and fullest view of the world and thus we must judge all claims by the standards of scientific(-like) reasoning. Of course, that is question-begging,[1] but it may still be true.

So, let us consider what faith is, beyond value-laden perception, to see if we can begin to see a response to the challenge of scientism.[2]

I think the most important element here is something we covered a couple blogs back: That faith involves trust in a person. But what does this have to do with the question of faith and science? Does this mean that faith is something that arises only after one has proven that God exists? If that is the case, then talk of faith has little to do with apologetics, right?

But I don’t think that is true—at least not completely true. I think faith plays a role in the way each of us looks at reality.

Rich Sam Interrupts Again: Does science require faith?

Now, Rich Sam might respond, “But science doesn’t require that I trust anyone except my own faculties!”

So, let us get this objection out of the way first: Does science in fact require no faith? (This question is part of what introduced this series of blogs.)

Sure, science requires trust only in your own faculties, insofar as you don’t ask any questions about the metaphysical and epistemological ground on which science rests, and you are comfortable accomplishing almost no scientific advancements beyond, say, simple machines (like pullies and levers). For, in practice, science requires a lot of trust—in other scientists, in the academic establishment, in peer reviewers, editors, textbooks, engineers who make the technology, one’s own memory, and so on. And science, even in theory, requires that one trust that our epistemological faculties are attuned such that they reflect reality accurately.[3] This latter amounts to a trust in the universe, in the processes that brought us into being, and so forth. And that is a rather substantial amount of faith.

It doesn’t seem like a lot of faith only because we do it constantly and everyone around us believes it and supports it. That is, we live in a culture—though this “culture” is today almost a universal culture among humans—of the faith required for science. So it is easy. Just like being a Christian (that is, at least, being a “cultural Christian”) in medieval Europe was easy.

Nevertheless, we are dealing with meaningful philosophical critique—since that is what we are asked to do when dealing with questions of science and religion—therefore we will not simply submit to beliefs made comfortable by society. So, I conclude that only if you are willing to rest your view of the world on unstated and unproven assumptions, and are willing to start all scientific discovery (and the building of technology necessary for scientific discovery) over by yourself, trusting in nothing anyone has told you, then, yes, science requires no trust in anyone else. But that’s absurd intellectually and unacceptable practically.

Well, then perhaps what Rich Sam is saying is that science, in contradistinction to faith, avoids the trickiness of having to put our trust in someone that we cannot prove exists. But that doesn’t work either.[4] I think what he means is that science does not require us to trust in any kind of entity that we do not have our own reasons for believing exist, and our own reasons for believing they are trustworthy.

Well, you can see how much Rich Sam has already given up here. Indeed, I can make precisely the same claim about faith! I mean, I don’t trust in a being in whom I don’t have reasons for believing exists and reasons to believe that that being is trustworthy.

Then, perhaps Rich Sam needs to modify things a bit. For, he might say, the trustworthiness of other people and our own intellectual faculties are testable through public and repeatable experiments and reasoning. “Repeatability makes faith unnecessary,” Rich Sam might say. “And repeatability appears both when an individual does an experiment more than once and when the public carries out the experiment, or even simply scrutinizes the method the first scientist used.” He might sum it up thus: “What we agree upon when we have all examined the evidence ourselves as individuals is the content of science. And such includes all that we can prove is true. Everything else is questionable.”

I think here Rich Sam has offered us an excellent explanation as to why one could believe science to be better than faith. And the results of those “non-scientific” (meaning “those held without evidence based on repeatability”) beliefs might bolster his view: Religious and ideological violence, hatred, exclusion, etc.

Of course, this science still requires trust in memory, others, etc. This suggests that humans are hopelessly (or, perhaps better, in a hope-filled way!) bound to faith in persons—themselves and others—to be capable of a decent life.

OK. That’s enough work trying to show what faith and scientific pursuits have in common. Let us talk about some important differences, and some ways in which faith is better than science.

Truncated vs. Whole Perception

What does faith have over science? If you’re a believer, you obviously hold that faith is necessary for salvation, while science is not terribly helpful in the soteriological department. But let’s keep this discussion, for now, in the realm of epistemology (the study of knowledge).

Science has a truncated view of reality. And, I think, badly truncated.

Recently, on Eric Weinstein’s podcast “The Portal” (episode 23), Weinstein was interviewing a University of Chicago philosopher named Agnes Callard. It was a rather interesting conversation, covering issues about metacognition and so forth. At one point, Weinstein (who, though he attends Synagogue, is either an atheist or agnostic, and a lover of science) claimed that he didn’t hold truth to hold sway over all other values. He claimed, for example, that (I’m paraphrasing here) if the truth is that someone he loves is a mere collocation of certain elementary particles, then he would reject that truth. Why? Because he holds “meaning” or “meaningfulness” as just as important as truth. (He also mentioned two other values that were on par as well.) Callard responded—I think rightly—that Weinstein needs some sort of unifying principle to hold these values in place. Without a unifying principle, they need not stay fixed, and it is unclear how to define each of them.

I’d suggest, rather, that Weinstein already holds, in some tacit or implicit way (unknown perhaps even to himself), a unifying principle. He perhaps just hasn’t articulated it.

The issue with the scientific view is that it is truncated—not because it is concerned with “only truth,”   but concerned with only a certain kind of fact.

So, what is the focus of science? I think the concern is most manifest in the methodology. We know of the scientific method, and the concept of repeatability, the concern with objective verifiability, and so on.

The suggestion, already argued for in a previous blog in this series, is that the “objectivity” of science, defined in terms of the value that gives rise to that perception, as “that which can be controlled.” We already have this idea contained in our language, when we speak of “objectifying” someone. To objectify someone is to perceive them in a way that denies their personhood, rather seeing only an object to be used.

Science, which studies far more than persons, has the same set of values driving it. But it is not bad to see things as objects, nor even people as objects, as long as you don’t see them merely as objects. I mean, we cannot help but see most people and things as objects, because it is far too much for use to actively perceive the subjectivity of all people and the beauty and grandeur of creation around us.

Nevertheless, subjectivity is there—that there is someone “behind” that body, “behind” that face and those actions, “back there” perceiving, feeling, hoping, mourning, rejoicing, remembering, thinking, etc.—this is undeniable. Indeed, science is grounded in our subjectivity, for it is through our subjectivity that we establish the values that ground the perception required for science.

And yet science, by establishing the objective as all that there is, must deny the subjective. Just read some of the work of Paul and Patricia Churchland—two philosophers who have spent countless hours working to undermine the very existence of the subjective by a kind of reduction of subjective experiences to objective brain states. There is a kind of palatability to their work, if you are of a scientific bent. But if you are not bound by the constraints of scientism, their writings come off as almost silly. Indeed, one of Paul Churchland’s writings argues for ridding us of even much of psychological terminology because it is not predictive enough. Not as predictive, surely, as pure biology or physics.

Yes, indeed, the subjective is not nearly as predictable—that is, as controllable—as physics. How terrible if it were! It would rob us of (in Weinstein’s language) meaning.

So, as an initial statement about faith as that which is distinct from scientific study: Faith, insofar as it relates to trusting others, is a matter of recognizing and responding to that-which-is-not-controllable in the world. This sounds strange, but it is just another way of saying that, say, I trust Chrissy (my wife), as opposed to doing experiments to try to determine predictable results to particular inputs so that I might make my wife act in the ways I prefer. The latter is a kind of brain-washing or slavery, while the former is a necessary condition to ever be able to love.

From here, we’ll see about how faith relates to belief in, or of, God. And why faith gives us a view of the world that is less truncated than the view of science. And, of course, why this supports the idea that faith is a virtue for humans, even an epistemological virtue.

[1] “To beg the question” does not mean “what we’ve just said requires that we ask another question,” as it is often used and which seems the most obvious meaning of the phrase. Rather, “to beg the question” means that one can only believe all the premises if one has already assumed the truth of the conclusion. The argument, implicit in Rich Sam’s questions, would probably go something like this (this is a bit rough and a little redundant, but that is to make the reasoning relatively clear):

P1: Either science as a means of gaining knowledge or faith as a means of knowledge gives us a better (or truer, or fuller, or more accurate) perspective of the world.

P2: If a means of gaining knowledge gives us a good perspective of the world then it will not contain claims that are not made by science.

P3: Faith contains claims that are not made by science

P4: Therefore, given P3 and P2, faith does not give us a good perspective of the world.

P5: Science does not contain claims that are not made by science.

P6: Therefore, given P5 and P2, science gives us a good perspective of the world.

P7: Whatever gives a good perspective of the world is better than that which does not give us a good perspective of the world.

C: Therefore, science as a means of gaining knowledge gives us a better perspective of the world (than faith).

You can see the obvious unfairness, particularly in P2. In fact, P2 already “proves” the conclusion. To believe P2, we must already assume the truth of the conclusion. So, this argument is question-begging, and thus fails. (Of course, this does not mean that the conclusion is false, just that the argument does not support the conclusion.)

[2] Scientism, as I’m using it, goes beyond the belief that science “works” to the belief that science is the final arbiter of all truth claims. That is, while science is a method for discovering things about the physical world, scientism is a metaphysical claim that the physical world is all there is to discover and science is therefore the only (or, at least, best) means of discovering all truth.

[3] Nietzsche noted this back in the late 19th century, and it has more recently been brought up by Alvin Plantinga and his argument against atheistic evolution. The latter argues that, given that atheistic evolution crafts us to reproduce, we have no guarantee that our faculties are truth-producing, but simply surviving-long-enough-to-reproduce-producing. And thus, the further our faculties take us from those things that are directly related to surviving and reproducing, the more likely we are to be in error. The natural response to Plantinga is that usefulness proves the truth of the matter. But that is question-begging, and in reality reduces to usefulness is truth. Of course, such a claim merely gives up the fight, and is a kind of agreement with Plantinga’s critique.

[4] No historical figure can be proven by “scientific” methods, but only historical methods. Indeed, skeptical questions can be thrown at any claim that anyone exists, even (contra Descartes) that I myself truly exist (Buddhist philosophy suggests this).