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Faith, Trust, and the Oblate Spheroid Planet

October 23, 2009

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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Korbie permalink
    October 23, 2009 7:45 pm

    tl;dr version:

    We accept science because it’s testable and there’s evidence. We do not accept religion because it’s entirely the opposite. In fact, there is even counter-evidence.

  2. Jonathan permalink
    October 25, 2009 8:32 pm

    Ah, we are back to my original argument, which Jojo has done a fair job of recounting. Originally I had argued that blind faith in God or religion and blind faith in the space program, the roundness of the earth, and other scientific pronouncements were the same thing, because neither could be tested by the individual. As I wrote,

    “Korbie, The point isn’t that the earth is flat, or that it’s round. The point is that scientific literalism is no different from biblical literalism”

    I later got roped into arguing that the earth is in fact flat, which is a very difficult thing to do.

    Jojo’s argument is a sound one, and his logic is tight, which is why I have taken some time out to think about it before replying.

    Let me start with an arcane piece of history. The second temple period in Hebrew history began with the completion of the second temple in 515 BC and ended with its destruction in 70 AD. There was a small room in the second temple there was a small room called Kodesh Hakodashim. In this room there was a throne called the mercy seat, and on this throne sat God, in the form of a black cloud. The only person who could enter this room was the high priest, and he only entered it once a year on Yom Kippur. The other priests would tie a rope around his waist so that if he died from contact with the Holy Spirit while in the room they could pull him out. Nobody else would dare enter the room, because direct contact with God was believed to be fatal.

    To modern ears, this historical account sounds down-right comical. I am sure that everybody reading this post has read more than one science fiction or fantasy novel in which a high priest tricks his followers using some variation of the above scam. But ancient Hebrew culture did not have the benefit of wide spread religious skepticism that ours does. Soon it would. The rabbinic movement developed during this period in order to question the sanctity of the priests. It is ironic from a historical perspective, but the historical Jesus, who is a different figure than the biblical Jesus, if he existed, also was an oppositional figure.

    I mention this story because it is an example of trust, not faith. The Kodesh Hakodashim was a small room in the second temple, which was the center of Jewish life and commerce at the time. It was separated from the rest of the temple not by a door, but by a curtain. It was not guarded. The people trusted the high priest that God resided there, and that if they stepped or even looked inside, they would perish. But once again, they didn’t question.

    Our culture does not suffer from a lack of religious skeptics. There are so many that it is difficult to add anything new to the topic of religious skepticism. What we do suffer from is a lack of scientific skeptics. Sure there are people who will argue against one point or another, say, evolution, or the roundness of the earth. And of course, there are debates within science going on constantly about various theories, but what we don’t have is a popular philosophical argument against the basic paradigm of science. This lack of scientific skepticism (skepticism of science) makes me wonder how many notions and ideas that we take as common knowledge today will be laughable popular-fiction clichés 2000 years from now.

    Before we continue, I feel it is important to do something we have not yet done, which should be the first thing done when presenting a philosophical argument: define the terms. Here is a simple definition of science:

    Science is a system of acquiring knowledge through the scientific method.

    Now, Korbie has used the technological argument in order to support science, writing, “Do you use science today? Your computer, where does it come from? Science. Are you suggesting otherwise? Where do we get all our modern medicines? Science.”

    In order to further define the term, I am going to argue that science is something different and distinct from technology. For example, as far as we can tell, the Egyptians didn’t have any science at all, yet they were extremely technologically advanced. The great pyramid was the tallest man made structure of earth until the Eiffel tower was built during world war I. Athens on the other hand was a very scientific culture, yet their technology was nothing to brag about when compared to what contemporary cultures were doing. Our current technological advancement has to do with our economic system, which lets individuals profit from their inventions, as well as competition on the corporate level, which forces large corporations to invest in research and development, the importance world governments place in staying ahead of other governments even during peace time, and finally, the great wars of the twentieth century and the cold war which followed, when technological advancement was literally necessary for survival.

    So science and technology are two separate things, and technology is not what we are discussing.

    Back to the issue of trust:

    It would seem to me that right now there are two sciences. The science of the elite, or the scientist, and the science of the people, which is fed to them by the elite. For example, tomorrow morning Millions of children will go to school. Some of them, I am sure, will be asked in science class to build a model of an atom. This model they will be asked to build features a nucleus in the center composed of a proton and a neutron, with electrons revolving around it like planets revolving around the sun in science’s model of the solar system. The problem with this model of an atom is that it bears no resemblance to the actual model of an atom that scientists use. These school children will build their atoms, and grow up believing that this is what an atom looks like, even though no serious scientist actually believes in this model. So why is this model taught to our children?

    Another example is the evolution of man. When children open up their science text books tomorrow, many will see a diagram of the evolution of man, starting as a fish, and then a rodent, and then a lemur-like creature, followed by a monkey, then an ape, then various humanoids, and finally, a Homo Sapien. Once again, the diagram they will study does not correspond to the actual findings of scientists on the subject of human evolution, which are complex, full of many branches, and always up for debate. So why do we teach it to our children?

    To my mind, these two examples, and there are countless others, do not go a long way towards establishing trust in science.

    Even if you accept that scientists are honest individuals whom you can trust completely, in order to accept their results, one must still trust in the scientific method. Of course, if one uses a certain method in order to get a measurable result, and then repeats the experiment, using the same method in the same controlled environment, one will come up with the same result. This does not mean that the result is correct. It only means that it is the result you get using a certain method in a certain kind of controlled environment.

    Barry and I were chatting the other night, and I showed him an author Margaret Cavendish, who was very critical of the scientific method. One objection she had was the use of optical lenses such as microscopes and telescopes in order to observe objects. She believed that scientists who used these tools were seeing distorted versions of the objects they were looking at. For example, if you put a needle under a microscope, the point appears to be a ball. But we know that the point of a needle is not a ball. If it were, you would not be able to sew with it. It is possible that our understanding of the natural world is being led astray by the use of optical lenses.

    Jojo writes: “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 for the molestation, I challenge you to find a single large institution in which children and adults interact, which does not have a problem with child abuse. I can not think of one. Second, I challenge you to find an instance in which there was no attempt to cover up the abuse. Once again, an example eludes me.

    As far as their being no way to prove or disprove the existence of God, a lot of that has to do with the faulty philosophical proofs for God’s existence that have been presented, which stem from a lack of an actual definition of what God is. If you define God as the wizardly old man with a white beard that Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, then it is impossible to prove his existence. But the only people who have ever taken this definition of God seriously are the people put in charge of God’s graphic representations and the illiterates who could only look at the pictures. If one were to define God as the physical laws governing the universe, as Stephen Hawkings suggested, then it would be very difficult to disprove the existence of God. Furthermore, if one were to define God as the sum total of all mass and energy in the universe, or the totality of all infinity, which is in more or less words how many more liberal theologians of various faiths have defined God for the past 2000 years or so and beyond, then it is also very difficult to disprove the existence of God, and the only real complaint that can be made is about the masculine pronoun attached to God’s name, which you will see I have avoided using.

    For the purpose of this discussion, when I use the term God from now on, I am referring to the totality of all infinity, the entire universe and anything beyond it.

    Jojo also writes: “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.”

    This is not completely true. While Catholic priests do claim to have been born with a vocation, or calling, many religious leaders, such as Jewish rabbis and mainstream Protestants such as Lutherans and Calvinists, only claim to have gone to school, read a lot of books, and gotten a degree. Their claims do not come from a connection to God, but from their erudition.

    I have already discussed how many religious thinkers of the past did not take the bible as a literal account of history or even of the natural world. To repeat the example already given, here is the Wikipedia entry on St. Augustine’s theology, from the 5th century, with quotes on how Genesis is not a literal account of creation:

    He wrote:

    “if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.”

    Now, back to the example of the optical lens. If a scientist discovers something through an optical lens that he can not see with his naked eye, for example that a drop of water is teaming with life, he will believe what he sees through the lens over what he sees with his naked eye. If Augustine sees something in the bible that contradicts what he can see with his naked eye, he will believe what he sees with his naked eye over what is in the bible.

    It is, however, true that even theologians who did not take the bible as a literal account history or natural science, did and still do believe in its divine generation, that either it was written by God through men and a few women, or written by men and a few women inspired with the divine presence of God. This I guess is the one point of religious thought that I can not argue is anything but blind faith. However, I fail to see how having faith in the divine generation of a book written thousands of years ago, over a period of thousands of years, should measurably affect an individual’s behavior or character except in a metaphysical sense, especially if that individual does not hold the bible up as a literal account of history or of natural science, and does not hold a Priest or other individual as having a divine connection.

    Mainstream religion is composed of much less blind faith then it is given credit for, and science is composed of much more than it is given credit for.

    • Barry permalink*
      October 25, 2009 10:57 pm

      Jonathan, your divorcing of technology from science is artificial at best. The nascent fields of quantum computing and stem cell therapy will only be the next links in a chain of of technological developments in which cutting-edge scientific discoveries are packaged for wide use. Positron Emission Tomography uses antimatter to map the human body, the Ares rockets being developed by NASA take full advantage of the latest developments in physics and engineering.

      When you say that our society lacks overall skepticism for the scientific method, you seem to reject with a wave of the hand the mountains of evidence for the effectiveness of that method. It is science that allows us to leave the surface of this planet and zip to any other
      point on the surface at the rate of 600 miles an hour. It is the scientific method that led to the development of the medicines that have gone a long way toward reducing an HIV infection from a terminal condition to a chronic one. Hypothesis testing allowed Watson and Crick to describe the molecule that Mendel used science to anticipate, and it allowed Francis Collins to lead a monumental effort to decode the same molecule. DNA testing – with subsequent amplification techniques developed scientifically – has rescued innocent people from death row.

      Your computer’s internal components reflect a torrent of electromagnetic wizardry that allow you to write and post your comment to the CERN-developed World Wide Web. The reason that no widely-held philosophical stance disputes the effectiveness of the scientific method is that philosophers live in a world that depends upon that method to churn out innovative solutions to our problems while providing accurate descriptions of its conditions. To argue against such a method would be self-defeating on its face.

      As for your complaints about the linear presentation of evolution and the “solar system model” of the atom – you’re absolutely correct. They are lazy shorthands at best, and we’d be better off if they were purged from our classrooms. That said, what you have described is a failure of science education, not science itself.

      The whole reason we know that they’re incorrect models is that scientists have subsequently developed far better models. This speaks to your point that some things we believe as provisional truths now will be replaced in the future. However, you seem to miss that it will be science that gives us new answers, just as it has been science that got us this far. To use this as an argument against the method is perverse.

  3. Korbie permalink
    October 25, 2009 11:20 pm

    I remember once hearing about a certain college biology teacher that said it might’ve been better if students hadn’t been taught biology before undergoing college. Yes, it’s a fault of the education system. The United States does not have the greatest of schools. As you might know, our scores on testing compared to quite a few other highly industrialized societies are a little low.

    Now just some comments.

    Given a very well constructed pin, would it not be a ball? It would be an atom wouldn’t it?

    There are certainly other institutions that may molest children, but this is the freaking church. They say that religion is where people get their morality and this is what comes about? The problem isn’t that individuals are molesting children as we know just one individual doesn’t mean the rest of them are the same. The problem is that the church will purposefully hide it even if people find out. They also won’t punish the priests that do molest children. All they’ll do is move them to another place, where they’ll probably molest other children.

    Science directly leads to technology. Without biology and chemistry, we wouldn’t have medicine. Without physics, we wouldn’t have electronics. Countless other examples. I’m not sure about Athens being a scientific culture. They were more along the lines of the arts and, at some times, militaristic. Certainly philosophy as well; they churned out quite a few good philosophers. But they really never did much of what we would consider as science today.

    It is possible microscopy skews the real world. However, such a world would be similarly skewed all the time. If it works, it works. You can’t just assume something like things are lying to you. If you make too many assumptions, how would we ever know what’s real? For all we know, we could be brains sitting in jars imagining the entire thing. Assuming such a thing does nothing to help us better learn the world. There’s a logical fallacy known as unfalsibility. This is an argument that cannot be disproved. An argument that cannot be disproved is a faulty one as, if you allow it, anything goes and we can’t have that. You make many such assumptions. Although you’re allowed to do so, what purpose is there?

    If you define God as the pantheistic god, then we and most everyone else is talking about a different kind of god. Your god would not be the Christian type of god. The pantheistic god and the Christian god are not similar. Different arguments would be made.

    Though some religious people may have taken the bible as a metaphorical account of things, most people did not and took it literally. That’s the problem. A lot of people today still take it literally. It’s like today’s arguments about how some scientists are religious but most definitely are not. We’re looking at the overall, not the few.

    I doubt philosophy would prove God. God would require hard evidence. If he were real, such evidence would be given such as to make a believer out of anyone, and, just a note, contrary to popular belief, belief is not a choice, either you believe something or you’re faking it.

    And belief in the Bible or religion in general does a lot to sway a person. You might recall the 9/11 attacks.

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