Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Do scientists really have faith?

I've my regular ABC column up today: 'Do scientists have faith?'

It's a common charge against scientists, particularly physicists.  I argue that scientists certainly have assumptions and presumptions, but religious faith has a different moral character.  A sample:
[F]aith is not simply assumption without evidence, but proud assumption in spite of it: one knows one believes without proof, and one is glad of it. While some religious minds are more comfortable with doubt, it remains a hallmark of the Judaeo-Christian religions that faith goes hand-in-hand with a certain pleased conviction: if not in one's own salvation, then certainly in the existence of a transcendent deity. 
This is not generally true of science. Scientists may become accustomed to their assumptions - resting on their cosmological laurels, so to speak. Hence Davies' bold criticism. But working scientists usually have good reasons for believing that 'the way things are' is a necessary part of reality: it works. The success of science in predicting and controlling the world gives many scientists rightful confidence in the truth of their belief. This might not be accurate, but it is a reasonable assumption. And given good evidence that the cosmos might be otherwise, most scientists may respond with bias, haste or anger, but not with happy denial of evidence in general.
(Illustration: Michelangelo)

2 comments:

Peter Fyfe said...

Hi Damon,

Forgive a long post, but something's been troubling me about your characterisation of faith and it beckoned me to my bookshelves where I rediscovered a delightful book by David L Miller, Gods and Games (1970), written at a time when the idea of "religion is play" was being explored.

Miller puts the view that faith is not belief but make-believe.
He points out the English verb "to believe" is a Greek verb (piseuo) based on the noun meaning "faith" (pistis). The Greek verb always takes the preposition "into". [I'll have to take his word for that!]

Quoting Miller, 'Hence, where we read "believe in" the original text literally means "faithing into".'

He then goes on to argue that Latin, French and English don't have a verb based on the noun meaning of faith (e.g. Latin: fides for faith, but credere for belief... etc).

Quoting Miller again, 'The reformation church... especially Martin Luther, preferred the word fiducia to the word fides because fiducia can never be confused with belief in something taken to be true. It, rather, means "trust" and "confidence".'

He then asks 'what is faith'. He later offers 'Faith is being gripped by story, by a vision, by a ritual (game). It is being seized, being gripped by a pattern of meaning... that becomes a paradigm for the way one sees the world. It is not belief'.

If we were to accept Miller's definition (note use of subjunctive!) , it might encourage a different way of looking at this whole question.

To my prejudiced eye it places faithing into as an act of Imagination, rather than of reason and intellection... which may have consequences for interpreting its motivation?

Thanks so much for stirring my possums (and quod possums?)

Damon Young said...

Thanks, Peter. This needs more reflection. But being hasty for a moment...

I've no problem with a religious story or character being a metaphor of sorts, i.e. a trope with which to see the world anew.

But the authority of most organised religion rests on this not being a metaphor. God DID make the world. Jesus DID die for our sins, and DID return. The power of the story is symbolic, but the institutions and morality go beyond the symbolism to straightforward truth claims.

God, to me, is a metaphor or symbol of this kind. For most of the faithful, he just IS. And it is the latter, for me, that marks faith. Play transformed into being.