Faith, Trust, and the Oblate Spheroid Planet
JoJo has weighed in on yesterday’s goings-on, and his thoughtful response is well worth its own post. Enjoy!
Jonathan characterized Barry as having “blind faith that we have been to the moon,” and also said “You [Barry] make fun of Christians because they have never really seen God, but have you ever been to space? Have you ever seen a satalite with your own eyes floating through the cosmos? Or have you just seen images on TV and the internet?”
Assuming Barry has not been to space (though I wouldn’t put it past him), Jonathan seems to consider belief in something one has not directly or personally experienced as “blind faith.” Accordingly, Jonathan believes that anything not directly experienced is equally (un)justified. His arguments for ‘flat earth’, whatever else one may say about them, are in large part motivated by his declaration that “We [the flat-earthers] go out and come to our own conclusions, based on our own observations.” Again, the salient distinction to him is “directly experienced” vs. “blind faith,” and because believers in the round earth may not have directly experienced the earth’s roundness (supposing this so for arguments’ sake), they fall into the “blind faith” category of “conformists” who believe the earth is round just because some sciencey authority figure tells them so.
And because, according to Jonathan, anything not directly experienced is on equal epistemic footing- being believed by blind faith- he concludes that there is no real justifiable difference between believing the pronouncements of science as opposed to religion. As he puts it, “Science and religion are both manifestations of opposing cultures. We chose which culture we most want to identify with, and then adopt that culture’s beliefs…. Both beliefs are about acceptance into a specific culture rather than well thought out analysis. Scientists are just priests in modern clothing.”
But the problem lies in Jonathan’s premise (rather than his reasoning from that premise). Not everything one has not directly experienced is believed by “blind faith”. Let me first introduce what may seem like a facile distinction; between ‘faith’ and ‘trust’. When one trusts a friend not to steal money from one’s wallet lying on the table while one takes a leak, one assumes something about reality- that the friend won’t perform a particular action. Whether the friend would or will or has stolen is a testable proposition- one could count the money before and after, both in one’s own wallet, and in his, etc.- but that doesn’t mean one should actually go about spending the time, effort, or diplomatic ridiculousness and violation of friendship of actually testing it (with a hidden camera, say). ‘Trust’ is assuming the test would come out a certain way if actually performed, but for whatever reason, not going through with the actual test. Trust, then, is grounded in something testABLE, in cases where something is not actually being testED. The ‘able’ indicates a non-actual possibility. But leaving the wallet lying around is not having “blind faith” in the friend’s virtue precisely because the friend’s trustworthiness is testABLE, even if it is never actually testED. And what that means is that even if one never directly experiences the friend taking the money (or not), or sees it with his own eyes, one’s trust in the friend is nonetheless grounded in the possibility of actually testing the friends’ virtue if it is ever in doubt.
The same applies to science. Barry doesn’t need to go out and perform every single science experiment every performed by anyone in order to test the veracity of each and every one. In actuality, this is impossible. But every proposition considered true by scientists is testABLE, and has been testED by someone or many someones. And we the laypeople, and also the professional scientist who also does not repeat every experiment ever, can trust that if he were to test it, that it would come out the same way. But each and every human being obviously does not have the time, inclination, ability, or money to go out and reinvent the wheel each and every time. So, we TRUST what other people have said, knowing that that trust is ultimately grounded in something that is testable- that if we were to become skeptical, we could actually test the claim, and check its veracity (or lack thereof.) Therefore, Barry does not have “faith” in science, he trusts scientists to be telling the truth about their results, the other scientists to perform the check of peer-review, and, most importantly, the theoretical possibility of testing the trust itself in cases of doubt.
None of this occurs with religion. Sure, one may trust one’s priest not to molest their children (though the church does everything it can to make sure that’s not actually testable either), but the reason one has faith in god- as something distinct from trust- is because there is no conceivable test to prove or disprove his existence one way or the other. As a result, the pronouncements of religious “authorities” must be taken on faith because they are not even testable, let alone tested (except for all those, well-detailed on “Is It Luck?” that have been tested, and shown wanting.) The “authority” of religious figures presumably derives from their claims to have some connection to god, but of course no one else can possibly know this to be true, and as a result, their authority is itself taken on faith.
By contrast, scientists derive their authority from testABLE and observABLE propositions. Though I have never been to space, nor even taken college physics, I trust that any claim about reality a physicist makes can be backed up by testable and publicly available evidence. I trust that it could all be explained to me on the basis of what is observABLE and testABLE, even if I never observe it or test it myself. Again, that’s not faith, it’s trust, because if I was really determined, what is possibly observABLE and testABLE could become actually observED and testED. But I trust rather than observe because I can’t build my own hadron collider doohickey, but if I was really skeptical, and really determined, I could find out how it works, why scientists believe the results they derive, etc.
So religion and science are not in the same epistemic position vis-à-vis the skeptic. Not having direct experience of something does not make belief in it “blind faith.” The difference between faith and trust is whether or not the belief is testable, even if not actually personally tested. Religious doctrines not directly experienced are accepted on faith when there is no possible way of testing them, scientific propositions not directly experienced are trusted because one knows the evidence for them is available to anyone who cares to find it.