Faith and rationality: a comic and a quote

XKCD-debugger

Science requires faith.

I realise that statement will upset people, but those are the facts. The comic above, from the excellent xkcd, presents the issue particularly well. To do science at all, we must at the very least have faith in our rationality and the ability of our brains to discover truth. Faith in the regularity of the universe helps, too.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga published a book last year entitled Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, which was reviewed by Thomas Nagel in the New York Review of Books. The excerpt below comes from that review:

[Plantinga] holds, first, that the theistic conception of the relation between God, the natural world, and ourselves makes it reasonable for us to regard our perceptual and rational faculties as reliable. It is therefore reasonable to believe that the scientific theories they allow us to create do describe reality. He holds, second, that the naturalistic conception of the world, and of ourselves as products of unguided Darwinian evolution, makes it unreasonable for us to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable, and therefore unreasonable to believe any theories they may lead us to form, including the theory of evolution. In other words, belief in naturalism combined with belief in evolution is self-defeating. However, Plantinga thinks we can reasonably believe that we are the products of evolution provided that we also believe, contrary to naturalism, that the process was in some way guided by God.

Put another way, if we believe that evolutionary pressures select purely for reproductive fitness and survival, why would we believe that our mental faculties have been evolutionarily selected to reliably discern truth?

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Related posts:

Maths, science, and abstractions

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Believing and understanding

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8 thoughts on “Faith and rationality: a comic and a quote

  1. Science requires faith.

    This is a PRATT.

    Science is a method. It is a method that produces technologies, therapies, and applications that work for everybody everywhere all the time. We call this knowledge. To equate what works with what is believed to be true – but has no equivalent method to establish this claim independent of the believer who hold the belief in esteem – is silly. It relies on confusing the two meanings of the word ‘believe’. When dealing with scientific claims, replace the term with ‘understand’. When dealing with faith claims, replace the term with ‘assume’. Now let’s re-read your final question with the correct synonym (understand) and discover together HOW and WHY the answer is achieved ONLY through using the method of science! You see? No faith is required at all. In fact, the inclusion of faith as if equivalent misleads the credulous and gullible into assuming that they hold answers of knowledge. What they hold is, in fact, nothing but their own assumptions as likely to be wrong as right. And that’s why science and faith are and ever shall be incompatible methods of achieving knowledge.

    • Faith: Confidence or trust in someone or something.

      Your comment makes no sense. Faith is not a “method of achieving knowledge”.

      What you have faith in can be a source of knowledge (such as the scientific method).

      • Interesting: you left out the very first and central component that differentiates ‘faith’ from ‘confidence’ (in the OED version, anyway):

        1 complete trust or confidence in someone or something,

        2 strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof

        From neither of these definitions do we see any practical or positive use of faith in this sense in the method of good science; what we clearly see is how any acceptance of such an a priori belief in a predetermined result undermines the scientific process with assumption as likely to be wrong as right.

        I simply don’t need faith to do good science; I need to respect reality and allow it, rather than my faith-based beliefs, to arbitrate claims made about it. Faith alone cannot produce knowledge (which is historically demonstrable and you admit) but its greatest contribution can definitely impede its acquisition with competing pseudo answers wrapped up in piety. Again, lots of history to demonstrate the truth of this claim, which makes the inquiring mind want to know how these clues as to the truth value of these incompatible approaches to understanding reality are missed (or ignored) by so many.

      • The first word makes no difference to the statement “Science requires faith”.

        Without complete and absolute trust in the rational intelligibility and consistency of the universe, and the reliability of the human intellect to discern truth, science is impossible. And such complete and absolute trust is by its very nature unjustifiable by science. Hence, it is appropriate to call it “faith”.

        Again, your comment makes no sense. You seem to be insistent that “faith” is identical to “religious belief”. Rather, it is one facet of some religions. But it is also a fundamental part of science.

      • But it (meaning faith, meaning a complete trust or confidence in the ‘rational intelligibility and consistency of the universe) is also a fundamental part of science.

        No it’s not. The universe doesn’t have to be this way at all, and the method of science does not assume it must be so. And that’s the point. The method of science inquires into how reality actually is by allowing reality, and not our presumed confidence or trust in how it is, to determine answers to this inquiry. There is no presupposition that we can determine or discern what’s true. That’s why we turn to reality to see if the answers we think are true work for everyone everywhere all the time because THAT (the practical applications, therapies, and technologies based on these answers that work) is what indicates the level of confidence awarded to these possibly truthful answers (truthful meaning accurate descriptions reliable and consistent over time). Scientific conclusions are post facto determinants and discernments, whereas faith claims are a priori assumptions. To argue that science is built on equivalent assumptions as faith-based beliefs like creationism is simply wrong, regardless of how slickly the arguer uses theologically inspired wiggle words (like naturalism and belief) to paint this false picture.

        Specifically, evolution does not require equivalent belief to creationism (as Plantinga stupidly argues) because changes to life over time is a statement of fact concluded from overwhelming evidence from reality that is true for everybody everywhere all the time. Creationism is an assumption that directly competes with what reality indicates. So trying to present evolution and creationism as compatible beliefs is an obvious theistic ploy by using this recognizable PRATT and throwing in some obfuscating terminology. It’s still a ploy to try to discredit good science in the service of an incompatible faith-based assumption.

      • tildeb :

        But it (meaning faith, meaning a complete trust or confidence in the ‘rational intelligibility and consistency of the universe) is also a fundamental part of science.

        No it’s not. … The method of science inquires into how reality actually is by allowing reality, and not our presumed confidence or trust in how it is, to determine answers to this inquiry… Scientific conclusions are post facto determinants and discernments, whereas faith claims are a priori assumptions.

        Yes it is.

        Reality cannot answer anything. Reality has no voice. Science cannot speak to it.

        Observations of reality are interpreted within a scientific framework, and this interpretation gives us insight into reality. The framework within observations are interpreted is a set of “a priori assumptions”, and as such, is taken on faith. These assumptions cannot be tested scientifically. They are outside the scientific domain. That may be unpalatable, but that’s the step of faith that you need to take to even start scientific inquiry. (Read Gödel if you want a rigorous mathematical proof of why it is so, but it should be intuitively obvious).

        When Descartes noted that “I think, therefore I am”, he wasn’t describing a starting point. He was describing the end point of how far we can go without assumptions that we just take on faith. Your conscious awareness of yourself is all that you can be certain of. Beyond that, you’re in faith territory.

        Faith is a part of life, of science, of everything in the human experience.

        tildeb :

        Specifically, evolution does not require equivalent belief to creationism (as Plantinga stupidly argues)…

        No, he doesn’t. He has no problem with evolutionary change over time as a biological theory. He simply suggests that unguided evolution does not provide a philosophical basis for belief in human rationality.

      • Observations of reality are interpreted within a scientific framework, and this interpretation gives us insight into reality.

        This is where I think creationists derail.

        No matter how we might interpret reality, this is not the conclusion but a tentative starting point. It is from here that we start to test whether or not the insights hold up and accurately reflect how reality is, by finding out how well it works indicated by its reliable and consistent results for everybody everywhere all the time. Most of our interpretations about reality are wrong, let’s be clear, and we only find this out by allowing reality to arbitrate them.

        Yet it is exactly here where faith removes people from staying on the rail of honest inquiry, at the point of testing and trusting reality to hold the power necessary in our considerations to arbitrate what we only hope are insights that are true for everyone everywhere all the time. But it is here where the methods that inform faith and science diverge, where those who hold faith to be assumed to be an accurate conclusion leave behind the means to test it honestly by disallowing reality the final say to arbitrate. And it is here where the faithful – those who assume their faith is warranted, be it religious or conspiratorial or naturopathic or superstitious – set the stage to allow themselves to be fooled. And we see this happen all the time, where only what fits the faith model is allowed to be picked as meaningful and what does not is discredited by fair means or foul.

        For example, Plantinga uses the term ‘evolution’ – which includes as part of its very definition an unguided process shaped over time by environmental pressures on reproduction – only in the way that fits his creationist model without dealing (as evolution must do to attain the status of a ‘theory’) with contrary and absent evidence, evidence that does not show the influence or insertion of outside design and evidence that should be present in biological detail if outside design were an accurate insight. This is how reality arbitrates what we presume are insights, but the claim to insight for creationism simply does not meet this challenge… no matter how well or poorly Plantinga and his creationist ilk tries to use words to get around this problem.

        The model put forth by Plantinga is a failure in terms of being arbitrated as such by reality itself. This is ‘voice’ reality uses. And yet we are supposed to ignore this central flaw in creationist belief in order to uphold a philosophical model about reality that supposedly deals with the discrepancies between belief and reality with slippery words! That’s a sure-fire way to fool ourselves, to convince ourselves that reality is a poor judge of claims made about it, and I don’t think that is good method to inquire into reality honestly… if our purpose is to find out about it. It seems quite obvious to me that this is not Plantinga’s intention or goal, and why should we pay attention to anyone who speaks about the importance of what is true by upholding faith as the best means (when we know this is how we fool ourselves) but is not in the least concerned with finding out what is actually true by using word craft to suppress what reality has to say in the matter (metaphorically speaking)?

  2. A lot of it hinges on how people define “faith” and “science.”

    Most don’t look at the dictionary when reacting to “faith” but seem too stuck in a textbook definition (as opposed to real-world functionality) when speaking about “science”. “Faith” is often linked with something people want to avoid (e.g. whether attitudinal things like narrow-mindedness and judgmentalism; or can’t hermeneutically unlink pre-modern elements in religious texts from their meaning; and let’s not forget that faith is often used to plug what’s not working in many a person’s life). As science gets linked to things that work, its easy to feel that there’s no room for … doubt, speculation, belief based on gut ahead of evidence, etc.

    Totally LOVE the XKCD and think it summaries really well.

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