Friday, July 3, 2015

FAITH, REASON, AND SCIENCE


I just heard a question the other day which I found thought provoking: “Is faith reasonable?” I’m going to answer that question with another: “Is reason faithful?” And I’m going to argue that the answer to the second question is “Yes.”

Reasoning begins from premises which are presumed to be true. They are not known to be absolutely, positively, certainly TRUE. They are just assumed to be true. Their truth value is taken on faith. For example: When Ptolemy designed his geocentric solar system, he took it on faith that the Earth was the center of the Universe. When Copernicus worked out his heliocentric solar system, he took it on faith that the Sun was the center of the Universe. When Newton was working out his physics, he assumed that the Universe was infinite. None of these men had any way of really knowing for certain, they just took it on faith. The history of science is a history of working from premises assumed to be true towards conclusions believed to be TRUE—and later proven to be unTRUE. The cutting edge science that I learned in high school just fifty years ago has almost all of it proven not to be TRUE. I presume that scientist fifty years from today will have proven that current science is not TRUE, it’s just as close as we can get to absolute truth today. I think I read somewhere that in this life we “see through a glass darkly.”

Now I’m going to ask another question: “Is science reasonable?” And we’re going to have to answer that one “If you mean ‘deductively reasonable,’ no.” The scientific method is based on the logical fallacy known as affirming the consequent. Affirming the consequent goes like this: [1] If it rains, the sidewalk will be wet. [2] The sidewalk is wet, therefore [3] it has rained. The problem is that rain may guarantee a wet sidewalk, but wet sidewalks don’t guarantee rain. How does the scientific method work? Like this: [1] If Einstein’s theory of relativity is true, the light from stars will bend when it passes close to the sun, making the stars look out of place. [2] In 1919 during a total solar eclipse astronomers observed that the stars near the sun looked out of place, therefore [3] Einstein’s theory of relativity is true.

Scientists realize the problem of affirming the consequent, so they attempt to verify their findings by replicating experiments and devising other experiments to test their hypotheses. For example, the bending of light by the sun was only one of three ways that Einstein suggested to confirm the truth of his theory. His other two tests, both based on the fallacy of affirming the consequent, were as successful as the eclipse test. Inductively, if you run enough experiments and all of them affirm the consequent, then the consequent is inductively true. But there’s always the possibility that it’s not TRUE.

Einstein’s theory of relativity was first confirmed by the 1919 solar eclipse experiment. Before the eclipse Einstein was asked what he would think if the eclipse experiment didn’t confirm his theory. He replied “Then I’d feel sorry for the good Lord. The theory is true.” Only it isn’t. Not TRUE, that is. It was just as close to absolute truth as we could get at the time. Quantum theory so disturbed Einstein that he famously said “God does not play dice with the Universe.” To which Neils Bohr is supposed to have replied “Don’t tell God what to do.”

When we talk about scientific theory, we shouldn’t talk about whether the theory is True or False. We should ask “How accurate is it? How close does it come to describing reality?” In Ptolemy’s day, his geocentric universe fit all the available data and was as accurate as humanly possible—it was true but not TRUE. As more knowledge was gained it was determined to be inaccurate and replaced with the more accurate but still not TRUE heliocentric universe. Aristotle’s physics, which was as accurate as possible in his day, gave way to Newton’s physics. Newton’s physics, which was as accurate as possible in his day, gave way to Einstein’s relativity. And Einstein’s relativity is giving way to quantum mechanics. And one day quantum mechanics will give way to something else. We see through a glass darkly. So when we say a scientific theory is true, we don’t mean TRUE; we mean that it gives as accurate a picture of reality as is currently possible.

So where do we find TRUTH? It seems the best we can do is take it on faith, which is not unreasonable at all. In fact faith is one of the cornerstones upon which reason is based.