Saturday, November 19, 2016

Science involves faith

As I have discussed before, I do not like the term "science and faith".  It is misleading because both science and Christianity involve faith, reason, and evidence. I prefer terms such as "science and theology" or "science and the Bible" or "science and Christianity".

A nice example of how science involves faith is a column, Reasonably Effective: Deconstructing a Miracle, published in 2006 in Physics Today. It is by Frank Wilczek who shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics.

He first discusses Eugene Wigner's famous 1960 article, "Unreasonable effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences." He then continues:
Acts of faith
Since any answer to a “why” question can be challenged with a further “why,” any reasoned argument must terminate in premises for which no further reason can be offered. At that point we pass, necessarily, from reason to faith. Our present faith in symmetry and locality is grounded in the good experience we’ve had with them so far. At present, I think, we can carry our explanations no deeper.
As good believing scientists we must take our faith seriously—so seriously that we feel compelled to act on it, and thereby to test it.
He then goes on to discuss supersymmetry in quantum field theory and says how he anticipates the associated elementary particles will be observed in the Large Hadron Collider in the following years (i.e., from 2006). However, it is interesting that ten years later this is not the case. Nevertheless, despite the evidence to the contrary, some physicists still have "faith" that supersymmetry is valid. 


  1. You state " both science and Christianity involve faith, reason, and evidence."

    Could you give a few examples of what you consider to be "evidence" in Christianity?

    I understand this whole subject is often quite contentious with people not even willing to try to put themselves in a position where they can understand the other's viewpoint. Questions like mine are therefore often a starting point for rehashing beliefs from each side instead of a dialogue.
    It's not my intention to be polarizing, or to start a (long) dialogue here - I would like to learn what you think constitutes evidence in Christianity so that I can understand better how you see this subject.


    1. Hello pcs,

      Thanks for the question. I appreciate your comments on condensed concepts and I am glad you have asked a question here. I respect your desire for genuine dialogue on a topic that is too often polarising.

      First let me make a few general comments about “evidence”.
      When we form a view on a diverse range of topics [supersymmetry, biological evolution, climate change, the trustworthiness of a political candidate, whether an individual is guilty of a crime, historical events] we evaluate evidence. The nature and the
      quality of the evidence is not the same in each. Furthermore, different individuals may draw different conclusions even when presented with the same evidence. Thus, there is a subjective element.

      What evidence is relevant to discussions about Christianity?
      For me, there are three types of evidence I personally consider significant.
      I list them in no particular order.
      All of them need to be critically evaluated.

      The Bible presents a record of certain events: from the history of Israel, to the life of Jesus, to the beginnings of the church.

      Jesus Christ has had a significant effect of the lives of individuals, on communities, and on history. Furthermore, this influence transcends time, geography, ethnicity, language, culture, race, education, social and economic class.

      The Bible and Christian theology present a particular view of human nature, of the material world, of God, of history, and more… I find it to be intellectually rich and a view that has a greater coherence than alternatives.

      Let me be clear that none of this “proves” Christianity is true.

      I concede there are good counter arguments to each type of evidence. We can debate the reliability and different interpretations of the evidence, just like we do in science.

      I am also not claiming this evidence is the same as scientific evidence. But that is because science and Christianity are not the same thing. Just like science is not that same as politics or marriage.

      But, my point is simply that there is evidence that needs to be evaluated.

      I hope this helps.
      Feel free to ask more.

  2. Thanks for the clear answer and caveats (and the kind words). It does help.

    I agree with what you write about "certain events" under the Historical heading (with for me an emphasis on "certain" and not all).

    I also agree with what you write under Coherence (intellectually rich).
    (BTW, have you read "God: a biography" by Jack Miles? A tough (dense) read, but an interesting and I would argue rich viewpoint to immerse oneself in.)

    One follow-up question that popped in my mind after reading your answer under the Transformative heading: how does one separate cause and effect in (human) transformation in this respect?
    This is a bit critical: is the change in psyche (human being) a consequence of becoming Christian, or is the change in belief system a consequence of a change in the psyche?

    And a related point, since we are using scientific language ("evidence") for something of a different nature (not the "same" type of evidence): do you think there could be evidence to the contrary? I.e. "against Christianity being true" - although this sounds weird because it's a fact that Christianity exists.

    What I'm asking is: you propose the transformative nature of Christianity as evidence for it being true (with noted caveat that it does not "prove" it's true).
    What would in your eyes be acceptable evidence of the opposing viewpoint?
    If no such evidence would be acceptable (or would ever be thought possible to exist), I would question the value of the evidence you list /for/ it.
    This because it would appear that then the mind-set dictates how the world is seen, as opposed to the evidence (i.e. what is seen in the world) dictating the mind-set (Christianity or not).

    Here one may need to insert a caveat that none of this would prove Christianity is not true. However, I think one has to put these caveats a bit on a back-seat because otherwise it does not make much sense discussing the merits of evidence one way or the other.

    Again, this could be perceived as accusatory - it is not meant that way.
    I appreciate the effort you take to enlighten me.

    1. Thanks of more nice questions and points.
      Here are my answers in order.

      I have not read the Jack Miles book but will look at it.

      “how does one separate cause and effect in (human) transformation in this respect?”

      I am not sure I completely understand the question.
      I think it is hard to separate cause and effect in this area.
      William James, said something like “faith in a fact can create the fact”.
      He gave the example, that if I believe people like me then they are more likely
      to like me. If I constantly seek evidence that they like me, particularly by asking them whether they do, it may lead them to not like me. Jesus said, “ Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John 14:21). Sorry, if that is obscure.

      I think there can be evidence against Christianity being true.
      For example, if someone found some human bones in Palestine that could definitely be identified (by DNA analysis?) as being those of Jesus Christ.
      But, given so many uncertainties, is that really conceivable?
      Maybe more conceiveable is reliable documents being discovered which revealed that the disciples of Jesus or apostle Paul recanted their beliefs.

      I don’t think that Christianity exists is convincing.
      Atheism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, … also exist.

      With regard to transformation.
      “What would in your eyes be acceptable evidence of the opposing viewpoint?”
      Suppose it could be established that countless Christian martyrs,
      philanthropists, social activists, and founders of schools, hospitals, and universities, did not act based on a love for Jesus and deep personal transformation
      but from psychosis, corruption, cynicism, hypocrisy, or self interest.
      Indeed, there are certainly cases where people who appeared to be “saints” later turned out not to be. But, the problem for me is I find it hard to believe that this is true for the majority of cases, particularly for people I know personally.

      I should stress that I don’t think I find any of these “evidences” compelling in isolation. To me it is when you put them all together. It is a cumulative argument that makes faith reasonable.
      This is actually similar to what happens in science.
      Why do I believe Big bang cosmology?
      I would not believe it just based on the Hubble expansion. But, when you put that together with the cosmic microwave background, relative abundance of the elements from nuclear synthesis, the prediction of Einstein’s General Relativity, …
      then it becomes compelling.

      I welcome more questions. This is a nice discussion.

    2. Thanks again.

      (Aside: though Miles is a former Jesuit, the book does not read the Bible through Christian eyes. As such it may be regarded as impertinent. It tries to analyze the character of God by studying the Bible, with no regard to dogmatic ideas. This could be perceived as impertinent. You appear to be a person able to look to something with a fresh view, and only afterwards form a judgement. )

      Cause and effect:
      Your example is well-taken.
      What I meant with cause and effect: there is (you see) transformation in people when they become Christian.
      Could it not be possible that people change, and sometimes arrive to being (a better fit with) Christian as a consequence of the transformation that happened due to the interaction of their psyche and the circumstances in/of life.
      I.e. ascribing the transformation to the effects of Christian faith may not necessarily be correct.
      (Similar issues exist (often not recognized) in experimental physics...)

      Your examples near the end (martyrs) could fit under what I tried to say w.r.t. cause/effect. But I think this (martyrs) would only fit the case if one accepts the assumption that people can do "good" (and even die for it) without being Christian/acting out of love for Jesus. This I think is where these to lines of thought diverge as Christianity views that people are intrinsically in need of Jesus/God in order to be able to "be good".

      Evidence against:
      Yes, that's a good example, which indeed is not likely to happen.
      This suggests that the potential evidence against would be based in historical facts (bones), but that it is in reality not likely obtainable. (Potentially it is, but the probability of uncovering such bones is almost negligible even if they do exist.)

      You gave three classes of evidence.
      My question regarding the evidence hinges on that historical evidence is hard to obtain. As such Christianity is in practice likely not falsifiable.
      I agree with your Coherence argument, but it's hardly unique and quite subjective. Others may argue other schools of thought have similar coherence. So Coherence confirms, but does not discriminate.

      That leaves a large weight on the directly observable evidence; the transformative nature.
      My cause-effect question probes (pokes) into this.

      Your Big bang example is true, but it's also quite falsifiable: finding an elemental abundance inconsistent with Big bang scenarios would immediately relegate the idea to the trashbin.

      I recognize I now disect your argument in a way you did not intend it because you state it's the totality that is compelling, not the individual ones. I apologize for that, but unfortunately I find it very hard to assess this in its totality. Maybe that's me having a hard time forming overall (holistic? - in the non-new-age way) assessments. On the other hand, my Big bang trashbin example is also disecting in nature: finding one inconsistency has consequences for the totality.

      At the end of this it appears I'm hunting for ways to shoot down the Christian faith. Again, that is not my intention. I'm very glad you indulge me in trying to understand the role of evidence in faith. This because often (mostly?) people claim that they experience something that leads them to a conclusion. In absence of that, with a mind trained to think scientifically, (and an "untrained soul"...??) I find it hard to "believe".

      This is getting quite personal. On the other hand, I presume I'm not the only one with questions like this.
      Don't feel obligated to respond; this could easily be a non-ending bakc and forth. I already appreciate how far you've gone with me, and I hope I've been reasonable/not offensive in my poking into what is (I think) the core of your convictions.

    3. typo:
      where these tWo lines of thought

    4. Thanks for another interesting comment. I particularly appreciate your honesty and your respectful tone. You are helping me clarify some of my own thinking. You are doing a good job of showing how "faith, evidence, and reason" in Christianity are not the same as in science.

      I would like to expand on a few points.

      First, a minor (possibly unnecessary) clarification on some issues raised by the comment.
      "But I think this (martyrs) would only fit the case if one accepts the assumption that people can do "good" (and even die for it) without being Christian/acting out of love for Jesus. This I think is where these two lines of thought diverge as Christianity views that people are intrinsically in need of Jesus/God in order to be able to "be good".

      My view is that the Bible says any human is made in God's image and so is capable of doing good. This is why any person [regardless of their particular religious or non-religious beliefs] can do great good. When it comes to patience, generosity, and service some atheists vastly "outperform" me. However, the Bible also have a "fallen" nature, that impedes good works. Trust in Jesus and following him can transform people so they can do greater good than they could without him. This has certainly been my experience and that of many others I "observe". These good deeds are not done to earn salvation but in response to receiving it as a free gift from Jesus.

      I agree that there are different line of thoughts about that intrinsic need for transformation.
      I also concede that one can come up will alternative explanations of these transformations.

      I agree that the Big Bang example does show the difference in the likelihood of "falsifiability" between science and Christianity. However, I think "falsifiability" in science is also a lot easier in principle than in practice. This was emphasised by Popper's critics. With the Big Bang, we can see this too. For many years, there was significant observational "evidence" that the age of the universe from Hubble expansion was less than that of the stars. Yet the theory was not abandoned. Today, the theory leaves us with "nonsense" such as dark matter, dark energy, inflation [which some think is not falsifiable], and the ridiculous fine tuning of the cosmological constant. Yet I still don't reject Big Bang cosmology. I proceed in faith.

      I think you are correct that all of this quite personal. Michael Plane emphasised this was true in science and religion. But, I would say the personal dimension is less in science. Unless my career is entwined with a specific theory the personal cost or benefits of acceptance or rejection are relatively minor. In contrast, with Jesus both the personal cost and the benefits are extremely high. This may be why it is sometimes hard to have a calm, objective, and reasonable, and respectful discussion. So, many thanks for providing such an opportunity.

      I think you should have the last word.

      I also hope you will write questions and comments on future posts. Offline discussions are fine too.

    5. Thanks for giving me the last word.

      -I very much like your "good human"/God's image statement. It's much more appreciative of the value that actions that are not based in a religious motivation can have. The "do greater good with than without" Jesus then also makes sense. Thanks for clarifying this. It's an attitude that is much less judging than what I've heard elsewhere, and it is so without compromising the basic ideas. I.e. it does not water things down.

      -I have to go back to the criticism on Popper's ideas. I agree with your "falsifiabiity is easier in science".
      The notion of falsifying faith (analogous: theory) is not that important in itself for me, but when one speaks about evidence (for Christianity) it makes things practical, more "real life" (and thus easier to grasp with the human brain...?). At that point the notion of "evidence to the contrary" (and thus falsifiability) comes into play. Your responses were fair - you did not rule things out a priori, which takes a lot of faith.
      For me the problem is that I then start weighing for and against, which may not be the best way to approach faith - faith it requires faith after all.

      -I fully agree with your last point (personal).

      Thanks for being gracious; it's your attitude to these things (and to people!) as evidenced in your post-writing and replies that pulled me along and allowed me to engage with you in this way. I enjoy this.

      I do not often have useful things to comment on this blog, but I will do so when I feel that it's worth mentioning (for me or others).

      I will keep your kind off-line offer in mind. Thank you for that! It's easier to do this anonymously (though I'm not sure I am anonymous to you).
      Maybe I'm too self-conscious (weak?) to take you up on that - for now.

      I admire your openness in your faith, especially while being exposed within the scientific community.

      Thank you.

  3. Good one gentlemen keep it going . I like the idea (Over simple though it may be) that where reason is missing ( pretty common) you need faith to continue walking . If you don't exercise some kind of faith you don't continue; you don't move on . Faith as you seem to suggest pcs , limits the value of more reasoning on its own and our ability to share across the word logic and science borders. Such is life?