Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Faith: One word, two meanings

I was reading an interesting (and very old) post at the Gene Expression blog that, among other things, dealt with the fact that the vast majority of people who believe in evolution don't actually understand it at all, and simply accept that evolution is true because it is the scientific consensus. One interesting conundrum this raises is that it makes me question whether I understand the ideas behind natural selection as well as I think I do, but that's a topic for another post.

The other thing the post reminded me of was that I've been planning to write a blog post about the unfortunate double meaning of the word "faith." In the comments on that post, the phrase "faith in science" was used, and while I agree with what the commenters and the blog author were getting at, I am not comfortable with that word being used. I think there are two meanings of the word faith, and I think this is confusing for theists and results in that whole "Well, I have faith in Christ, you have faith in science. No difference!" fallacy.

Both meanings of the word faith involve believing something with insufficient evidence, or at least, without enough evidence to justify the level of confidence. So there is a similarity there. The two major differences, in my mind, are in 1) the presence of a pragmatic justification in one case for believing with insufficient evidence, and 2) the amount of contradictory evidence required to change the belief. I think these differences are distinct enough to make the two meanings of faith entirely different concepts.

As the post at Gene Expression describes, having "faith in science" is usually a matter of recognizing that reality is often counterintuitive, that as a result the scientific method is a better way of discerning truth than common sense, and lastly that it takes specialized knowledge to really understand the truth in a particular field.

The logical conclusion of this is that one's own intuition in a field where one does not have specialized knowledge is probably not going to be particularly accurate. The alternatives are to try to become educated in every possible area (which is not practical for those of us who have jobs and/or social lives), or to put tentative implicit trust in what the "experts" say about fields in which we are not knowledgable.

Of course, figuring out who is an "expert" worth listening to is easier said than done, and hence this is why I say that this is believing on insufficient evidence. I can't check out the claims of every expert I chose to trust. I can educate myself and see if their claims even make sense, but in many cases I'm ultimately going to have to chose between people who strongly disagree and yet whom I have no way of knowing who is right. We just do the best we can in these cases, because pragmatism dictates it must be so.

The other thing that makes so-called "faith in science" different from religious faith is the standard of disproof. This is not to say that those of us who chose to put stock in the consensus of "experts" are always perfect at reacting to solid evidence that our previous beliefs were false. It's always hard to change one's beliefs; that's human nature.

In some ways, this is even a good thing: As previously mentioned, reality is often counter-intuitive, so if I am presented with evidence that seems to me to contradict the established scientific paradigm, I would be well-advised to be resistant to accepting that evidence until I gather more information, no matter how plain the evidence may seem to me. This is because there may be some grievous error in the argument that I am not aware of due to my ignorance in a particular field.

The result of this is an undue preference for the current scientific orthodoxy. This has been historically demonstrated, with a recent example being the powerful resistance to plate tectonics theory. However, I don't see any reasonable way of avoiding this momentum for the status quo. The other alternatives are to either become 100% educated about everything (impossible), or to shift undue stock in our own personal intuition about things which we know nothing about -- and most educated people understand that doesn't usually work out so well.

But while pragmatism may lead us to exhibit an undue preference for scientific orthodoxy, this is nothing compared to the immutability of religious faith. This is complete apples and oranges.

For one thing, religious faith is mostly atomic, or at least highly interconnected. If one part is proven to be abjectly false, then sometimes it becomes difficult to continue to justify belief in the rest, e.g. if the story of Moses is shown to be pure fable, then the rest of Judaism kind of falls by the wayside. In contrast, the body of scientific knowledge is constantly changing, with old ideas shown to be mistaken, misunderstood, or even abjectly false, yet this does not in any way impact the validity of the scientific method -- or even in the idea of "faith in science" in the sense I am referring to it in this post.

For another, religious faith seems uniquely capable of spreading unwavering crankery more effectively than any other ideas. Certainly, you will get the rare cantankerous old scientist who does all sorts of mental contortions to stick to an old idea from the scientific orthodoxy which has since been proven false -- perhaps even contortions on the order of what Young Earth Creationists are known to do. But this is rare. YECs make up a non-trivial percentage of the American population. Not sure one can say the same about Flat-Earthers... and yet both ideas are equally ridiculous and require similarly fantastic mental contortions.

Recognizing these differences, I think it would be preferable to use a different word for the "faith in science" idea. I'm not sure what that word would be... but it should be a word that captures the idea that, yes, although I believe this with insufficient evidence, I am ready to change my mind or adopt a more nuanced position if presented with sufficient evidence to justify the change.

This post is already too long and I need to get to work. I may revise it or expand on it later..


  1. I think maybe you're looking for a phrase like "trust in the scientific method"? If a religious person said to me, "Ah ha! I have faith in God, you have faith in science.." I'd pretty quickly answer them, "No. I have trust in the scientific method."

  2. It's more (or, less?) than that though... I'm not just talking about trusting the scientific method, I'm talking about an implicit trust in the scientific consensus, unless proven otherwise.

    For instance, I have not particularly looked into the data showing a link between smoking and lung cancer, yet I implicitly trust the scientific consensus that there is a link. I have no direct knowledge of whether any study linking the two used a valid methodology, whether the data was strong enough to show a real correlation, etc. Even if I was aware of such a study, I would still be assuming the data wasn't falsified.

    A certain amount of this can still be justified, e.g. if I had looked at all of the papers, the fact that the conclusions were consistent might be sufficient evidence that the data wasn't falsified. But I haven't even done that. I just trust that the scientific consensus is correct, and I don't think mere "trust in the scientific method" is enough to justify that.

    I think you are onto something with the word "trust" though. "Trust" in a particular entity or idea allows me to believe the object of the trust with what would otherwise be insufficient evidence -- but unlike faith, trust is both earned and revocable.

    Yeah, I like that... I have "trust" in science -- not just the scientific method, but in the present scientific consensus. But I don't have "faith" in the scientific consensus, because this trust has been earned through past results (unlike faith, which starts from nothing), and I recognize that, despite my trust, the scientific consensus might be wrong.

    I think you've got it. It's a difference between "trust" and "faith".

  3. "...unlike faith, trust is both earned and revocable."

    Also, trust can be revoked for just the part that failed, where faith, if it is broken, tends to fail completely. For example, suppose a single scientist lies about his/her results. Those of us who trust in the scientific method and the scientific consensus will remove our trust from the specific scientist, but will probably consider our trust in the scientific method to have been validated (since that is probably what uncovered the lie). Those who merely have faith in science could lose that faith completely over the lies (or even honest mistakes) of a single scientist.

    As for the scientific consensus vs. the scientific method: A moderate degree of trust in the honesty of individual scientists, a moderate degree of trust in the competitiveness of individual scientists, and a very high trust in the scientific method (and its self-correcting mechanisms) combine to give me a fairly high trust in the current scientific consensus.

  4. Absolute certainty is impossible. We have to specialize to promote as a species, so we can't all study medicine and the law and raise children and manage finance. We specialize and we rely on each other. It's when one industry/set of individuals being reliable that things fall apart. (Think Wall Street.)

    I think faith is belief without evidence. My firm belief that the sun will rise at about 6 am-ish tomorrow isn't "faith". It's based on mountains of evidence. 99% of life happens somewhere between "zero evidence" and "absolute certainty". It's when you can't accept that gray area that you need religion to make everything black and white and above all SIMPLE. Clearly, the reliance we non-scientists have on the scientific method, the peer review process, and respectable journals is necessary. Neither of us is science, and it is the arrogance of creationist non-scientists who think they are BETTER qualified to interpret data.

  5. I was going to drag out the old chestnut "trust but verify" myself...

  6. Faith or trust, with science, U can haz evidins.
    Religion offers no such evidence that is repeatable or can withstand much scrutiny.

    Religion offers no useful models for anything (regardless of good intentions, say, with some of religion's morals). Science offers good models, where applicable, and continually approximates better or more specific models as necessary.

    Faith in science is more like "dealing in good faith" - a social or contractual relationship will not be abused. It is the faith that thousands of scientists, over extended periods of time, and with differing personal agendas, are not colluding to lie to you for some bizarre reason.

    Faith in religion is simple blind acceptance that something is the "inspired word of god", and acceptance that the person preaching his version has got his interpretation right. Thinking, far from being required, is discouraged.

  7. Faith in science is more like "dealing in good faith"

    Ah hah, nice, and this explains why the confusion over the word.

    I do think, as I've said before, that the trust we place in science is more than just a belief in evidence -- we are, indeed, extending "good faith" to the scientists and other researchers to be honest about their results and to have done a halfway competent job.

    Anyway, yeah, I think you hit the nail over the head in terms of why the term is overloaded: Accepting a particular proposition "on good faith" implies something entirely different than accepting a proposition "on faith". Unfortunate, that ambiguous English language...