As Above, So Below

The Faith, Hope & Love of Science

"Science, or rather a scientific attitude, is incompatible with religious belief," writes British philosopher John Worrall.1 For thinkers like Worrall, the warfare between science and religion is an established fact. As nineteenth-century polymath John Williams Draper famously put it, "The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other."2 In this clash, science is the victor; faith, the vanquished.

Such is the view of those who advocate "scientism," the claim that science provides a superior—or exclusive—means of gaining knowledge. On this view, science is the only discipline that boasts a self-correcting method, expansive confirmation, massive technological application, unrivalled consensus-building power, and a clear record of historical progress. The secret to these virtues, apparently, is an empirically based method. When widely applied, this method supports a kind of secular creed:

Empiricism is the way
Science, the truth
Secularism, the life

But contrary to this creed, science itself is at odds with scientism. Science, it turns out, depends upon faith, hope, and love—virtues beyond the empirical realm that are very much at home with religious life and belief.

Two Flavors of Scientism

Before exploring why this is so, a brief distinction is in order. Like politicians, scientism comes in two flavors: robust and moderate. Generally speaking, robust scientism is the view that the actual claims of well-confirmed scientific theories are the only beliefs appropriate for rational and informed adults. This sounds alluring: it affords the promise of a lock-tight set of truths complete with strong empirical credentials and undergirded by scientific objectivity.

The only downside is that the view is false. Indeed, it has the disadvantage of devouring itself: the claim that "the actual claims of well-confirmed scientific theories are the only beliefs appropriate for rational and informed adults" is itself not a claim in any well-confirmed scientific theory. In fact, it's not a scientific claim at all. It's a prescriptive claim about what a rational and informed adult ought to believe, not a description (or model) of the physical world. Robust scientism is an epistemological assertion masquerading as a physical fact. So the view fails to pass its own standard of rationality. It falls on its own sword.

What about moderate scientism? Roughly, this view holds that science is a privileged way of knowing. Other areas of inquiry, like theology, sometimes stumble upon insights, but science is the best, most rational, most justified. If one must choose between what a geneticist affirms and what a priest opines, best to go with the scientist.

What can one say about moderate scientism? Ironically, even this muted view is at odds with science itself. For when we take a close look at the question, we see that science depends upon faith, hope, and love. Let us examine how.

Faith Guides Judgment

First, faith. In science, faith commitments abound, in that scientists trust practices (or ways of thinking) that extend far past the empirical data. Faith is particularly essential in what is termed "realist science," which tries to understand the deep structure (or ancient past) of the natural world that lies beyond our direct and unaided sense experience.

To see this, consider the famous "under-determination" problem. In realist science, theories always go beyond data. (If they didn't, they'd be a mere restatement of the data.) But because theories go beyond the data, empirical facts alone cannot determine which theory is true. Lots of theories are compatible with the facts. (Thus, the facts "under-determine" which theory is correct.) So how do scientists find the right one? They turn to extra-empirical factors like simplicity, elegance, coherence, fruitfulness, unifying power, independent testability, explanatory scope, predictiveness, and so on. Realist scientists believe that the theory with the right combination and degree of these factors has the ring of truth.

That's why, for example, scientists believe the sun is at the center of our solar system rather than the earth. Sophisticated geocentric models are just as compatible with the physical facts as heliocentrism. But geocentricism relies on clunky theoretical features, such as epicycles within epicycles. The heliocentric model doesn't require these features, making it much simpler and more elegant.

Again, both models explain (or predict) the factual data; they are at an empirical stalemate. Scientists favor heliocentrism because of its non-empirical factors. In realist science, these factors are not simply instrumentally useful; they are truth-tropic, guiding scientists to the correct description of reality. Moreover, the justification of these factors does not lie in the physical world, for these factors govern how scientists make sense of the physical world itself. Scientists accept them as an act of faith beyond the empirical. Without this faith, realist science withers.

Hope Enables Success

What about hope? In a way, hope is simply future-looking confidence and trust. In realist science, hope is indispensable. Consider one example: virtually all scientists believe that a given experimental result, repeated countless times in the past, will hold tomorrow under the exact same experimental conditions. But on what grounds?

Pretty clearly, scientists can't appeal to empirical evidence about the future. They're not in the future and, hence, have no empirical evidence about it. Moreover, they can't appeal to past cases in which predictions about the future turned out to be true. There's no empirical evidence that those past vindications are relevant to today's predictions about the future.

In truth, scientists' confidence in the future extends far beyond empirical data; their actions today rest on hope in tomorrow. They simply trust that nature is stable over time. Without this hope, scientists would have to re-do every experiment every day. ("Whew! It worked this time.") Progress would grind to a halt. Hope, like faith, undergirds successful science.

Love Illuminates Truth & Beauty

The greatest of these is love. In particular, love of truth and beauty. Taking the latter first, beauty is a widely praised extra-empirical factor that has often illuminated the path to correct theories. Even in contemporary physics—perhaps the quintessential science—aesthetic intuition has played a crucial role. "[T]ime and again," writes Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, "physicists have been guided by their sense of beauty not only in developing new theories but even in judging the validity of physical theories once they are developed."3

By way of example, Weinberg notes that "for forty years general relativity was widely accepted as the correct theory of gravitation despite the slimness of the evidence for it, because the theory was compellingly beautiful."4 Little wonder that physicist Paul Dirac said, "A theory with mathematical beauty is more likely to be correct than an ugly one that fits some experimental data."5 Pulchritudo splendor veritatis: beauty is the splendor of truth. Proficient scientists love beauty. This love guides them to truth, even in cases where the empirical data come up short.

The second object of scientists' love is truth itself. To study the natural world effectively, scientists must passionately seek the truth. Indeed, like all of us, they have a rational obligation to believe true claims (and to avoid believing false claims) about the natural world. One might use logic, physical facts, and the "scientific method" to discover what is true, but these things alone don't require you to respect the truth. The germ theory of disease? The periodic table? Water as H2O? These are mere intellectual curiosities unless scientists (and the rest of us) ought to follow the evidence where it leads. Without an obligation to the truth, empirical discoveries lose their power to command assent. Something beyond the data—love and respect for truth—makes these empirical discoveries worthy of belief.

So science is an enterprise of faith, hope, and love. Contrary to scientism, science is not a privileged way of knowing. Rather, science draws its lifeblood from the same basic marrow as religious life and belief. No wonder Newton, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, Faraday, Maxell, and many other pioneers regarded faith and science as harmonious.

Transcendent Source

Two final points are worth noting in conclusion. First, the faith, hope, and love of science are not merely subjective interpretations or human inventions, for they reliably lead scientists to objective knowledge of external reality.

Second, it's a stretch to say that our ability to do realist science arose from a mindless process of evolution. For one thing, our ability far exceeds anything needed for survival and reproduction, the only dynamic evolution ultimately favors.6 By contrast, the fact that realist science requiresfaith, hope, and love—and that, strikingly, we can meet this requirement—-readily fits with the view that God designed our minds to know the natural world.7

Collectively, these two points suggest that the source of faith, hope, and love transcends the subjective and physical realms. Noted biologist Edwin Chargaff caught sight of this higher realm when he remarked, "If [a scientist] has not experienced, at least a few times in his life, this cold shudder down his spine, this confrontation with an immense, invisible face whose breath moves him to tears, he is not a scientist."8

In the end, advocates of scientism misunderstand the nature of science. If they looked deeper, they might see that the study of things below rests upon things above.

is a philosopher of science at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #32, Spring 2015 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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