Friday, April 1, 2016

Why there is no Faith in Science

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed that misunderstood concepts are expressed quite a lot in social media. The other day I saw a post of a witty cartoon showing how philosophy is still relevant to science. The cartoon, shown here, can be found at Completely serious Comics.

One commentator said the following, "We ALL do. It's just that those who hide behind science think they don't- i.e. that they are all reason, no faith. It reminds me of the know-it-all kid in class who says "well, Teacher agrees with ME!" lol"
Another commentator replied, and I'll paraphrase, that faith is unnecessary in science. In fact, faith is the opposite of science. To which, of course, the first commentator replied the following:
"You do have a faith, you just pretend to be above it all and made of pure reason. Put away your childishness and perhaps we could have a conversation on such an important topic. But I don't joust with snobs..."

Naturally, I had to chime in. My reply is below.

Philosophy =/= faith. the philosophical ground work of science relies in observation and logic grounded in some assumptions.
The assumptions are that there IS a physical universe, that we can learn things about the universe and finally, that explanations that predicts future observations are superior to explanations that do not.

Now, saying all of that, science is a method of decreasing uncertainty, not a method for "absolute" truth. After all, "absolute" truth is still an unanswered philosophical question. The great thing about science is that it is not a belief system. It is a way to explain the physical universe. that distinction is important because explanations can be abandoned if needed for better ones (see last assumption above).

A case in point is gravity. Various cultures had various myths as to why things fell to Earth. Sometimes fairies were involved, at other times it was a deity of some sort. Along comes Sir Isaac Newton. He develops a theory that gravity is a force of attraction between two objects. His theory predicted that a body moving at a certain velocity can balance with the force of gravity creating an orbit. However, his equations showed that the orbits would be unstable and thus it must be the hand of God that corrected the minor discrepancies.

A few decades later, a French mathematician named Pierre Laplace refined the equations and showed how the Solar system is stable all by itself. When asked by Napoleon as to why there is no mention of a creator in his model, Laplace answered, "I had no need of that hypothesis." In other words, deities and fairies were not necessary, the natural forces did it all by themselves.

And here's the kicker: They were BOTH wrong. Gravity is not a force (at least not in the conventional sense), it is a curve in the space-time continuum. Imagine a bowling ball on a foam mattress. That is a good visualization of gravity. This theory of gravity is Einsteins. Why is it better? First let me back up just a little. Einstein's theory of gravity is incredibly complex from a mathematical point of view. In fact, if his theory were developed first, the work of Newton and Laplace would probably be replicated as just a short cut because their equations are much simpler for everyday mathematics! So why are they still "wrong"? Einstein's theory predicts more phenomena. One such phenomenon is that gravity will bend light. This has been observed during solar eclipses. But perhaps some day Einstein's theory will lose out to an even more precise and predictive model. or maybe not. But how exciting will it be if it is so!

As you can see, faith isn't necessary. Now, no one pointed this out, but one could counter that holding the assumptions are done in faith. No. They are assumptions, not beliefs. The assumptions I pointed out are made for the sole purpose of just getting on with it. If better assumptions come along that improve the scientific process, then the old ones will be thrown out and the new ones accepted. We make those assumptions because they are useful, and keep them only as long as they are useful. A faith-based belief is something often adhered to in spite of contrary evidence. Often the belief is handed down by authorities that cannot be questioned, not experts who gained that title through being rigorously questioned.

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