Is science the antithesis of faith?

I wrote this essay for a seminar I'm taking on the philosophy of Physical Science.

Is science the antithesis of faith? This question always brings my mind back to the 1997 movie Contact, in which a staunch scientist seeking for extra-terrestrial contact has an out-of-world experience that she can’t “prove” but nonetheless in which she believes completely. This role reversal signifies that science and faith can co-exist, and that the traditionally dichotomous relationship between the two should be re-evaluated by both schools. I’m not saying that Hollywood is the key to bridging the gap between science and faith, but there is some credence to the point the movie attempts to make.

Traditionally, science is conceived as objective, factual and “real.” Western scientific thought has always assumed an “external reality independent of human perceptions” (Brown, p. 369), which has led many scientists – and most of the lay people – to the conclusion that the path of science is one that will eventually reveal all “truth.” This positivistic concept, though methodologically replaced long ago with a more critical approach to the world, still persists in the mind of the masses. I feel that much of the exaggerated debate between science and faith actually pivots around this mentality, rather than methodologies or definitions of either scientific exploration or religious experience.

But what if science is not objective? Scientific philosophy alludes that nothing can ever be proven as true, since an external reality in which the “truth” exists can never be reached by human perceptions. A theory can only be tested against falsification, and if it is not disproved, the theory is upheld until the next round of falsification tests – it is never true, but only not not true. In addition to this “negative nature” of science, the methodologies used to test theories can never be objective because the very fact that a theory is being tested creates a framework and context for the experiment that will influence the results. Inkpen refers to this as “world making” and states that scientists often ignore their world making because it “implies subjectivity in their world view.” (Inkpen, p. 84). He later goes as far as saying that science is not the rigid, fact-finding exploration of reality that most of us accept, but that “scientific thought and its change is strongly influenced, if not determined, by the society within which it exists” (Inkpen, p. 137).

I turn now to faith. Faith can be defined as belief without proof, but this is an overly simplistic view that begs for scientific scrutiny. However, criticizing the notion that faith is a "blind belief" belies the fact that faith and science share a common element: the inability to prove truth. Both science and faith espouse the assumption of unquestioned principles and the acceptance of a certain level of uncertainty. Viewing science and faith as dichotomous only illustrates a misunderstanding of the relationship between the two. Science claims a basis in proof, and some claim that faith can prove nothing (Comrie, p. 37). However, proof cannot be limited to things that are readily observable, as human observation is framed in social context and personal experience. In this sense, science can prove nothing either. According to one definition of faith in the New Testament, it is the "substance [basis or assurance] of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1). Is not theory an assurance of the hoped-for result of the scientific method? Are not data the evidence of phenomena which exist in a reality that in its purest form cannot be seen? A close examination of science and faith, in an atmosphere free of traditional debate, shows common ground at a fundamental level. The most divergent elements between the two may possibly be merely the terminology and constituents.

In light of the above arguments, I claim that science is not the antithesis of faith. Both require an acceptance of things not seen; both result in a near-complete belief in a reality that cannot logically be proven. Science views empirical data from observations as paramount; faith places personal experience of confirmation above all. In a way, science and faith can work together to make the world a better place – or perhaps they already do.

1 comment:

Allison said...

Bravo Ben. Very well written.

travel log
  • 02.13.08 - to the temple with Luan and his mom, good to be back
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