On Science, Faith, Religion, and Mythology (Part I)

It is essentially the raison d’etre of the ‘New Atheist’ movement to assert an existential enmity between ‘science’ and ‘religion’; one that has always existed and can only be ended when ‘religious superstition’ is finally swept away by ‘scientific truth’. Which sounds awesome. But is any part of that statement valid? I shall examine this in three parts: In this, the first part, I shall examine the nature of science, and of faith; in the second part, of religion and of mythology; and in the third I shall examine their relationship to one another.

Let us begin:

What we refer to today as ‘science’ is really a subset of natural philosophy. In particular, it is a method of inquiry by repeated observation which traces its roots back to the works Aristotle of Stagira (in particular, Categories, Physics, and Metaphysics). In its modern form, science is a method consisting of Observation (of an actual event), Proposition of Hypothesis (that is, creating an imaginary model to explain how the observerved event took place), Experimentation (an attempt to disprove the hypothesis-model), and then either Discarding the Hypothesis (if the experiment disproves the hypothesis), or Peer Review (if the experiment does not disprove the hypothesis). Rinse and repeat.

It should be noted that many irrational beliefs exist today regarding the nature of science, which may be lumped together in the category of ‘scientism’–that is, imagining that science is something more that it really is (often, a panacea). In order to avoid the error of scientism, let us complete our definition of science by examining what science is not:

a body of knowledge
This error is probably caused by the fact that when we study our current understanding of various fields investigated by the scientific method (embryology, climatology, etc.), we refer to them as ‘the sciences’. However, not only is erroneous in itself to use ‘science’ to refer a body of knowledge, but it gives rise to serious issues, as people confuse ‘doing science’ with ‘believing what a scientist tells them’. Science is not ‘revealed truth’, nor is it arrived at by ‘consensus’. It is a method of investigation, and nothing else.

the Truth
One thing that the scientific method can never provide us: the truth. Science works by building models, and attempting to disprove them. Hypotheses which survive multiple attempts at disproof may be elevated to theories, and theories to laws. This gives us models of ever-increasing accuracy, but it will never, and can never, give us the Truth. Even Newton’s famous Law of Universal Gravitation was eventually replaced by Einstein’s General Relativity–and we already know that General Relativity must eventually be replaced, because it is incompatible with quantum mechanics.

This limitation is inherent in both the method of inquiry (science) and the inquirer (humans, with limited consciousness and perception). However, the fact that science cannot give us ‘the Truth’ does not invalidate science, because that is not the purpose of science. Pretending that science is a road to ‘truth’ leads to nothing but confirmation bias (as we start designing experiments to ‘confirm’ our beliefs, rather than to disprove our hypotheses), and corrupts the entire endeavor of inquiry.

applicable to everything
Many young atheists will insist that the scientific method is sufficient to every area of knowledge; or, when that is quickly disproven, retreat to Richard Dawkins’ favored position that any question which cannot be answered by scientific inquiry does not deserve to be answered. I believe that I have covered that sufficiently here, but I’m always willing to entertain legitimate questions.

The quality of ‘faith’ is of often mischaracterized by atheists, and this mischaracterization has even made its way into many modern dictionaries. ‘Faith’ is used as either a synonym for ‘religion’ (more on why that is incorrect, in Part 2), or is defined as “belief without justification”. Note that this second definition is actually the defintion of superstition; it has nothing to do with ‘faith’ at all. Am I a faithful friend because I believe in something without justification? No. Is a recording faithful to the original because the recording believes in something without justification? No.

Faith is not a matter of belief, but of confidence. One has faith in something, because one is confident in it (by definition). Something is faithful, if one may place confidence in it. Confidence, by its nature, cannot given without justification. One person may not be able to grasp another person’s justification, but that does not invalidate the justification any more than the existence of math-dyslexics invalidates algebra.

Finally, I should note for those who will insinuate otherwise, I am not suggesting that faith, religion, and supersition are mutually exclusive. I am simply expaining, for those who do not understand, that they are not the same thing.


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