27 November 2007

Degrees of faith

Paul Davies wrote in an editorial for the New York Times over the weekend:
But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.
Putting aside the question of how a method for understanding the natural world "claims" anything...

The piece leans towards a very well-worn argument: Science is just like religion. It's particularly threadbare in the U.S. because it's a common ploy used to argue that creationism should get equal time in classrooms as evolution.

But to say science operates on faith is a little bit like claiming that lighting a match is an explosion. There's a difference.

The faith that you're required to have in science is roughly, "The natural world is lawful and understandable." That it a fairly sparse set of assumptions that you're asked to take on "faith," first of all, and second of all, it's the same kind of "faith" that your car will start in the morning. Why do you expect that? Because it did the almost all previous mornings and the car is in good working order. It's really inductive reasoning, not faith.

In contrast, when faith is used outside of a scientific context, it is usually referring to a long litany of very specific propositions that are backed by less evidence than a inductive reasoning. A list of propositions like the time and manner of the creation of the universe, the nature of the creator, a specific long set of historical events, that a particular collection of writings are true by definition, and so on.

I'm not saying that's bad... just pointing out a difference. A difference between a minimal set of assumptions backed by induction versus a long, long set of assumptions that are often held to be true despite large amounts on contradictory evidence.

Those are not the same thing, and to say they are is pure sophistry.

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