Is Science Just a Matter of Faith?

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Look at these books:

I see a pattern emerging...


If you don’t know who these authors are, you’d be forgiven for thinking these books came from the Bible Studies section of the bookstore. But in fact, these are science books, most of them written by the foremost thinkers in their respective fields, and many of them proud atheists. All of these books are about pure science. They are not about creationism, intelligent design, or even the relationship between science and religion generally. They do not attempt some religio-scientific synthesis. These books are not about the common ground. They are about science pure and simple, and specifically science’s answers to the great questions: what is the universe made of, where did the universe come from, where do we come from? They are some of the best-selling pop science books about physics, math, and evolution. And all of them inexplicably invoke God and the divine in their titles.

And this is just a sample of all of hte science books that do this. Walk through the science section of your local bookstore, or browse Amazon, and you’ll find many more science books with the same pseudo-religious titles. Why? Why do pop-sci book authors and publishers do this? Can’t they just sell the science book with science?

Teach the Controversy

To answer this question, I think it helps to look at the opposite situation. Why did creationists choose to cloak religion in the language of science when they invented Intelligent Design? I understand that the goal was to get creationism (and religion) into public schools. But why did they feel it was necessary to recast religious belief specifically as a scientific theory using all of the accompanying scientific language? Why try to get religion in to schools by wrapping it up as part of social studies, culture theory, or literature? Why did it have to be science? Why attempt create a scientific theory called Intelligent Design when they knew full well that the scientific community would never be fooled?

Because they were hoping to invest their particular Christianity with the certainty and authority of science. If creationism could pass as science, then schools could teach it–creationism according to fundamentalist Christianity–uncritically as a fact they way they teach science. And this would create an entire population of students receptive to the political and cultural narratives that are based on religion. This is also why creationists are comfortable with “teaching the controversy.” It implies there is a scientific controversy in which creationism/ID is the leading alternative theory to evolution. Teaching Intelligent Design, and teaching the “controversy”, expands the authority of religion in the secular domain that is traditionally the province of science

And that’s the key–authority. Creationists we’re trying to invest creationism with the authority of science so that creationists could speak with authority on matters of science, such as evolution and global warming. And that authority is substantial. Science speaks with unchallenged authority on most topics relating to the natural world.

With some notable exceptions.

Who Says What Science Says?

On the Big Questions of cosmology and biology, the questions of Life, the Universe, and Everything (as another famous atheist put it), religion has very simple, very comforting, and very accessible answers. God created the heavens and the Earth, He created us in his image and that’s we we’re so smart and animals are food, and one day He’ll come back and we’ll live together in paradise. For more details, inquire within.

Of course, science has answers to these Big Questions questions too. And that is precisely what these books and others are about. They are about science’s answers to the questions of the origins of the universe, the evolution of man, and the fundamental nature of the cosmos. And most non-scientists want to know these answers. Unfortunately, the actual scientific answers involve things like wave equations and quantum electrodynamics and molecular biology that very few non-scientists can ever hope to understand. “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Richard Feynman was including himself when he said that, which is disconcerting given how many books he wrote on that very subject.

Consider how science looks to the layperson, the average citizen who never progressed beyond high school math. These scientific theories–these scientific truths–are extremely dense and esoteric. To them, the theories are unknowable in their native scientific and mathematical forms. These theories are written in their own arcane language with their own unique symbology. For most people, this:

is indistinguishable from this:

In both cases, the layperson needs an interpreter. The fact is that it takes years of dedicated study before scientific truth in its truest, mathematical and symbolic forms can be understood. The rest of us rely on experts to explain it, someone who has seen and understood the truth and can dumb it down for us in a language we can understand.

How Do We Know The Science We Know?

And therein lies the big problem for science and scientists. For most people, science is really a matter of trusting the expert who tells it to us and believing what they tell us. Trust and belief. Faith. Not understanding. How can we understand science, if we can’t understand the language of science? Feynman said, “Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.” He also said, “To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature.” That’s one of the great popularizers of science telling you that without a strong background in postgraduate horrific math and an active imagination, you’ll never really understand what science has to say about the deep truths of nature the way a scientist does. All we can get is the scientist’s interpretation of what the equations and the theory mean. There is simply no other way to apprehend the concepts. Without the math, you learn science by taking what scientists say on faith. You don’t know that Schroedinger’s equation is a scientific fact, you believe it is.

If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we accept the incredibly complex scientific phenomena in physics, astronomy, and biology through the process of belief, not through reason. We don’t practice the scientific method. We don’t rationally consider the evidence presented for a theory. We don’t learn science by doing science, we learn science by reading and memorizing. The same way we learn history. Do you really know what an atom is, or that a Higgs boson is a rather important thing, or did you simply accept they were what someone told you they were? (See also: The Decline Effect is Stupid.)

Can You Trust A Scientist?

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. If this is what it takes for people to accept scientific truths as truths, then so be it. But ask yourself, if an economist or a drug company told you about certain facts about free markets or psychopharmacology, would you believe them? Or are physicists on physics more credible than economists on economics? Because if they are, you are admitting that the credibility of the speaker plays a role in what you will accept as scientific truth.

And on that basis, all the weirdness of science–the quantum entanglement, 11-dimensional string theory, the evolution of protozoa into dinosaurs and humans, etc., i.e. those things that contradict our experience of the world as perceived through our senses–appears less credible, and more incredible, than religion. Religion presents a very understandable, easy to learn story. There’s hardly any matrix algebra in Genesis. Furthermore, religion has a lot of people speaking on its behalf. A lot of people make a living explaining what religion says about life, the universe, and everything. Religion makes it easy.

Who is an Authority?

Science can’t speak for itself, it needs people to do that. Science speaks the same way philosophy, art, and religion speak. Through people. Science does not make statements. People make statements about science. Those statements can be false even if the science is true. There is no scientific truth about these difficult questions that laypeople can grasp, there are statements made by people about those scientific truths. But those statements can be false, because those statements are not themselves science, but rather are necessary interpretations of science and therefore are fraught with all of the problems that plague statements made by people on every other matter. The Schroedinger equation shown above is true. But Wikipedia’s statement about what the Schroedinger equation means may be may not be true. It may be a generalization, or an oversimplification, or it may have some of it wrong.

For most of the population to know science, someone has to explain it. And the person explaining has to be believed. Their success in explaining it turns on their credibility as an expert and an authority, which turns on techniques of rhetoric, argumentation, and persuasion. It also turns on structures of power and consent. Framing and context. Who decides who is an expert? Who decides which expert will tell us about science, and in what way? A cultural authority, not a scientific one. The publishing company, the TV network, the university, the school, the State. Entities who have a vested interest in what you learn about science, and what you don’t.

The authors of these books need to establish themselves in the eyes of the general public as authorities, as science experts rather than scientists, regardless of the fact that they are already regarded as such by their peers and the scientific community. The books are not sold to their peers or the scientific community. They are being sold to non-scientists to be accepted as the truth. To be believed.

Turf Wars

But belief is religion’s turf. Religion has created, refined, and mastered the rhetoric of belief. And religion has historically spoken with exclusive authority on the questions of the origin of man and the universe for all but the last 100 years or so. Regardless of our religious beliefs as individuals, as a society we have accepted that the answer to these questions will have a religious dimension or they will come in a religious form. Because laypeople take in science through the same apparatus of faith and belief that they take in religion, when a scientist wants to speak credibly on these questions to a layperson, he is intentionally or unintentionally usurping the role of religion. Successful science books code via the title that the scientific truths described therein are of a religious order, as having the same mystical and divine importance that religious answers to these questions do. To be believed on the big questions, the science expert has to cloak his book in the semiotics of religion. More precisely, for these books to speak effectively and persuasively on the origins of the man and the universe they need to vest themselves with the authority that religion has on those very topics.

The titles are not about communicating science or religion. They are about claiming and signaling authority. For the book and for the author. “I can be trusted and believed on the question of the origin of the universe.” By invoking God and the divine in the title, the books are signalling that they have the authority to speak scientifically to the fundamental questions that formerly only religion had the authority to address. It is an attempt to elevate science to the order of the divine, so that scientists can speak with the authority of religion on matters that our culture has historically considered to be the sole province of religion.

For most of us, science isn’t truth. Science is the belief in the authority of scientists. 

Related posts:

  1. Choose the heliocentric view, and despair
  2. Science Journalism, or, at some point you just believe
  3. National Academy of Sciences study finds that FBI’s anthrax evidence is inconclusive. Now to the voir dire

87 Responses to Is Science Just a Matter of Faith?

  1. PeteMichaud says:

    Thought provoking, and very true for the examples you brought up. I think the only difference is that science often delivers the goods. We have technology that works, which sort of lends impartial legitimacy to large swaths of what those experts say, so that when they talk about more theoretical matters, they are still using that authority.

    Religion can only hope to do that with ecstatic states and that sort of thing.

    • ecco says:

      Science: The accumulated knowledge gained directly by humans over the centuries using research and the latest available technology. Knowledge that is continually challenged and corrected by people with better educations using more current technology.

      Religion: (Judeo/Christian): Stories written by people 3000/2000 years ago who did not witness any of the events written about, who had no first-hand knowledge of the events, who based their writings on previous writings or stories down by word-of-mouth. Stories filled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies.

      I “put my faith” in science, not through the process of belief, but through the process of reason.

      • GrandSmithy says:

        [...]Stories written by people 3000/2000 years ago who did not witness any of the events written about, who had no first-hand knowledge of the events, who based their writings on previous writings or stories down by word-of-mouth.

        ecco, you might like to reconsider your statement. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were written by eye-witnesses, people that were actually present for most of the events they describe. Their accounts were written while other eye-witnesses were still living.

        Believe it or don’t. That is your choice. At least attempt to be a little more educated about that which you dismiss, instead of propagating misinformation.

        • akonitum says:

          Most accounts estimate that the Gospels were written between 60-90s AD — probably NOT by eye witnesses, but, of course, if you privilege your faith above evidence, that wouldn’t matter.

  2. typedef struct says:

    The primary difference is that science can be questioned, religion cannot. Science can and will draw conclusions, whether from actual data, or overblown analysis, that turn out to be wrong. And that is ok.

    The one thing that any layperson can understand is the scientific process. Theorizing, controlling variables, observing results, adjusting theories to move closer and closer to the truth.

    Science is always questioning the truth. Religion never does.

    • foxfire says:

      That is a pretty broad brush you are painting religion and science with. In most of the religious groups I have been involved with, questioning is actually encouraged.

      Cults attempt to brainwash people by isolating them for opposing viewpoints and then indoctrinating them.

      I have seen a cult like mentality develop among groups of research assistants in a college setting. They are all working hard to help a particular professor with their pet theory. They toss out data that contradicts the theory because the data must be wrong. None of them ever stop to actually question if the theory they are trying to prove is actually valid. The problem is that they are believers not scientists.

    • Mark H. says:

      Religion is never questioned? What of the 95 Theses and Protestant Reformation? The book of Job?

      The difference between religion and science is that science has worked out a way of answering certain questions that, ideally*, doesn’t ultimately rely on a human authority. Experiments can be repeated, observations can be confirmed, calculations can be checked for accuracy. Does this always happen? No. Independent confirmation of experiments at the LHC will either take another huge particle accelerator (which will probably never be built). There is also the problem that some specialized fields have very few people working in them, so very little replication takes place. You can also look at TLP’s posts on his blog regarding medical research. But there is a process in place.

      Ultimate authority in religion ultimately comes down to the recorded sayings and writings of certain people designated as important. Ultimate authority in science comes down to experiments that, ideally, anyone can replicate.

      * I say ideally because, as the original post states, science is done by humans, and is therefore subject to all the problems of any human endeavor, including religion.

    • Joe says:

      “The primary difference is that science can be questioned, religion cannot.”

      Yes, science can be. The point is that many people don’t question it.

      • tonyspeed says:

        “Yes, science can be. The point is that many people don’t question”

        amen

      • akonitum says:

        The scientific process regards “knowledge” as provisional. Religious faith as a way-of-knowing privileges faith above evidence, minimizing, ignoring, or denying uncertainty.

        Science and empiricism embrace on-going learning and self-correction. Religious faith as faith structurally discourages self-correction.

        “Faith” regularly is the trumpet call of charlatans and demagogues.

  3. CubaLibre says:

    Just sos everyone knows, that line of Greek is the first line of the gospel of John: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was God.” Clever.

  4. CubaLibre says:

    As for your thesis, I hear it a lot but think it’s pretty weak. In a certain sense we accept the conclusions of scientists “on faith.” But the results are also demonstrable. Scientists can accurately predict the future. You don’t really need to know how they predict the future in order to see that they do, and therefore know that their methods are accessing some kind of truth. Religious authorities cannot predict the future, or rather their predictions (mostly about what will happen after you’re dead) are untestable, so you are required to take those predictions on faith.

  5. JohnJ says:

    “Or are physicists on physics more credible than economists on economics? ”

    I think one difference may be that physicists have no reason to lie about physics. It’s easier to accept them as an authority on their area of expertise because there’s no agenda there, as there might be with an economist or a preacher. For example, debating climate change damages the credibility of climatologists because at least one side has an agenda. This hasn’t happened with physics.

    • Mark H. says:

      Physicists have no reason to lie? Perhaps you’ve never talked to a young-earth creationist about the age of the universe. We just want to convince ourselves that there is no god so we can sin without a guilty conscience.

      Oh, and we want to become rich from big projects like the LHC.

    • Joe says:

      Actually, I don’t your claim about physicists having no reason to lie is true. You are correct in that economists, preachers, and climatologists seem less credible because they have agendas. Physicists have agendas too; the difference between them and the people you mentioned is that their agendas tend not to intersect with matters of public debate that often. So, when physicists do lie, they tend to lie to funding agencies or within their own field rather than directly to the public on cable TV.

      You can replace the word “physicists” in that last paragraph with any other type of scientist of your choosing. And before I’m misunderstood, I don’t mean to claim that lying is more rampant in science than people believe, just that it’s less visible to the general public when it happens. Scientists are people too, and they’re just as likely to lie as any other person would depending on what incentives they face.

      • JohnJ says:

        I was simply trying to say that there’s not a lot of public debate about physics as there is about economics and climatology. Merely having the debate causes people to become suspicious and results in a perceived loss of authority (is that redundant?). For example, astronomers a few hundred years ago were regarded with suspicion due to the impact of public debate over the heliocentric theory. It’s not that the astronomers had an agenda (and maybe some even did), but it’s that debate creates suspicion.

        I guess it’s not exactly a new observation. Maybe I’m just stating the obvious. Military and political strategy has seemingly forever included sending spies and others to sew discontent and thus challenge the authority of the opposition’s leader.

  6. Dan Dravot says:

    The Dawkins, and Feynman, and second Hawking books up there don’t mention God in their titles. With the second Hawking, I can see a point: In the “Big Questions” context, some people think design implies a Designer. “The Blind Watchmaker” is obviously a metaphor for an unthinking process, though maybe that’s more clear to somebody who’s read some of Dawkins’ other popular writing about evolution (which, incidentally, highly recommended, along with Feynman). The Feynman… If you see God in that title, you brung Him yourself. Also Feynman’s not a current popular author writing popular books; he’s been dead for years, and his popular “writing” is mostly transcripts of talks and such. His books AFAIK are all anthologies. Surely You’re Joking was a series of interviews. I’m sure you could’ve found something more suitable to fill out the bottom row.

    Other titles by those authors on the same subjects: A Brief History of Time, Climbing Mount Improbable, The Accelerating Universe: Infinite Expansion, the Cosmological Constant, and the Beauty of the Cosmos. Ian Stewart (not the pianist, I gather) has written a trunkload of books; none but yours reference God in the title.

    By the way, Livio’s book about the Golden Ratio is unreadable filler, stuff Simon Winchester would blush to publish. Save your money.

    For most of us, science isn’t truth. Science is the belief in the authority of scientists.

    That’s true of some areas of science, like “climate” and evolution, where it can be hard for the lay person to see how you prove the stuff. It’s also true for “soft” “sciences” like psychology, sociology, economics etc. where the experts all disagree with each other. Medicine is an anomaly: Much of it seems to be shakier than lay people realize, outside of people chuckling about which foods are good for you this week.

    But nobody’s questioning physics or chemistry. Nobody. Have you ever seen a genuine Flat Earther even on the internet? Nobody knows how their cell phones work, but they know they do, and they know there’s Science in there.

    You have to take Margaret Mead on faith. Even in her field she’s taken on faith. Her authority is that she’s famous and respected by other authorities, like Thomas Aquinas. In her field, it’s authorities all the way down. The field’s authority is based on the fact that they keep calling it “science”.

    You don’t have to take Edward Teller on faith. We have film of the Ivy series (hey, cool name for a band…). His authority is that the device worked as he predicted. There’s an infinite number of ways to put a few tons of junk in a box and not have it destroy an island.

    Margaret Mead is not science in the sense that Teller is. You’re getting the two mixed up because we have a sloppy habit of using the word “science” to describe both of them. Words can be misapplied. The symbol is not the thing. The map is not the territory. People who weep about Science losing its authority are actually upset because mere authorities, who were never scientists at all, are being treated as mere authorities.

    Feynman coined the term “cargo cult science” to describe people in white coats doing elaborate statistics with noisy, unreliable, incomplete data and generating imposingly-formatted line noise that looks like science if you kinda squint and don’t think about it too much.

    By invoking God and the divine in the title, the books are signalling that they have the authority to speak scientifically to the fundamental questions that formerly only religion had the authority to address.

    Oh, blimey. No, they’re signalling that they’re going to address the so-called Big Questions, that’s all. “God” is shorthand for “Big Questions”. The authority they’re relying on is Edward Teller and William Shockley (who, speaking of taking weird beliefs on faith, Shockley went a little bit funny late in life; a sad story). Religious people, even fundamentalists, aren’t anywhere near that stupid. For the rest of us, shorthand.

    • Dan Dravot says:

      Maybe this wasn’t clear:

      There’s an infinite number of ways to put a few tons of junk in a box and not have it destroy an island.

      The point is that if your box of junk does destroy an island, you’ve successfully demonstrated that you really do know something.

      Also: In fairness to Margaret Mead, her field is infinitely more difficult than nuclear physics. Edward Teller could not have done much more with it than she did. It’s intractable. You can’t do meaningful measurements and you can’t repeat anything. It can’t be put on a scientific basis. My objection is not that she failed at an impossible task, but that she pretended to have succeeded.

  7. John R says:

    - You might be interested in Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, which contrasts Hobbes and Boyle. Boyle was setting up laboratory science as an alternative political authority to the State. An example he doesn’t mention: the inertness of matter was accepted as a centerpiece of Newtonianism despite being in fact unnecessary for Newton’s work (cf. Priestley) because it served as a political metaphor. To use the quick Hegelian way of parsing it: the master (colonialist, white man, scientist) is like creative mind, whereas the slave is inert like matter. That legitimates unquestioned political power of those on the right side of the New Science’s dichotomies.

    - You might also appreciate Latour’s Laboratory Life, Feyerabend’s Against Method, and Segerstrale’s Defenders Of The Truth, which look at scientific work as social, communal work. Kuhn’s watershed work The Structure Of Sci. Revolutions and the work of Polanyi also explore the sense in which good science is not just controlled empirical experiments but also the paradigms and conceptual schemes that are socially transmitted.

    - It’s not just that a non-specialist won’t be able to understand the complex math involved in some more complicated math. It’s that even the specialist relies on and builds off of the accumulated work of the tradition. Descartes wanted each scientific theory to come from the work of one individual from the ground up in order to avoid precisely this situation, because he was worried that error and doubt would creep in somewhere in the community. But that’s not how the society of scientists functions: Any given scientist will have repeated some experiments, especially those that are significant and not too difficult to repeat, but will certainly not have rebooted from the ground up.

    Any given scientist didn’t re-invent the bunsen burner, the methods of controlling lab conditions, and certainly not the superstructure from which new work draws. This example isn’t from science, but: Leibniz missed a necessary pair of parentheses in a momentous mathematical proof that wasn’t noticed until Frege! If every other intervening mathematician had rebuilt Leibniz’s proof from the ground up, the problem would have been obvious to somebody along the way because it was that simple. But you don’t re-discover and re-prove everything. It’s reliance on a tradition. Sometimes that gets you in trouble but on the whole it’s a good thing. Sure, some scientists who pose as philosophers are afraid of this conclusion (Dawkins), but cf. Gadamer’s Truth & Method, not to mention the many books I mentioned earlier — it’s not a problem unless you still hope to live the positivist dream, but I don’t see any advantage to that dream beyond its surface appeal as a way to brand yourself.

    - As for your conclusion, I’d add this to the fray. “The Big Questions” have concerned thinkers throughout history and have not been the exclusive domain of “religion.” A decent intro survey that would demonstrate the breadth of interest is Robert Solomon’s A Short History Of Philosophy. Different parts of this search for wisdom have split off into specialized scientific or quasi-scientific disciplines as they have tried to reduce their explanations to Descartes’s efficient causation and extension (see Dilthey, etc.).

    Modern science originally built itself (as a socio-cultural institution) according to the fundamental dichotomies of modernity — Mind vs. Body, Value vs. Fact, Freedom vs. Mechanism, Active vs. Passive, etc. So to have a voice in the realm of human wisdom it keeps running up against the fact that it made its bed and now it must lie in it. It’s got to bridge that discursive divide in order to speak to embodied people, who live in time and place with concrete histories and horizons of expectation (Heidegger). In stressing the divide two sets of languages were created, one for science and timelessness and reason and so on, the other for wisdom and people’s lives and emotions. How can it cross the chasm?

    Sam Harris’s new book is a perfect example of this problem. He’s trying to get to the other side, but simply revives the answer of 19th century Utilitarianism without providing anything fresh or, for that matter, even catching up with the nuance that was already there in Bentham and Mill, not to mention 20th century Utilitarians. Why is he grasping around blindly? Because he doesn’t even have a language in which to speak science and morality at the same time. He’s got one language for neuroscience and another language for the novel, but not one language that can treat both. This is precisely why the many books you’ve mentioned use the language they do: It’s not just branding, it’s that they are trying to speak in two incommensurable languages.

    They must either vacillate between the two languages or try to reunite the two. But most of the guys on your list really don’t want to give up their dualisms, and what’s worse if they started trying to reshape the languages back toward harmony they would have to write like Jacques Derrida. So they just use the only developed language they’ve got and hope that in time they will be able to speak wisdom and science together.

    - This is tangential to your conclusions, but I’d recommend paring down the excess of some of the claims you make about “religion.” First, we don’t even have a good definition of “religion” that can’t apply to all sorts of things we don’t think of as religious (e.g., liberal democracy), except if we say “NOT atheism or agnosticism.” But then we start having trouble defining atheism and agnosticism. For that reason, just be specific — e.g., instead of “religion” say “Christianity.” Second, “religion” is hardly less complex than modern science. (I have a religious studies degree if this is not obvious.) Science can be put on a bumper sticker, too, and can be quite comforting (see Apple commercials; Brave New World). Religion can also be complex (ecclesiastical Latin?) and at times far from comforting (guilt; fear of God). Only in a world with a domesticated god can religion seem like an exclusively comforting, simple phenomenon.

    • Pastabagel says:

      John R.,

      Excellent comment, but please get out of my head! I had a lot of Latour and Kuhn in the first draft of this article, and a digression into the philosophical exploration of the questions, but I axed all that because it was way too long.

      And you point about my casting of religion is spot on. Again it was an article about science, not religion so I didn’t want to digress too much into the subtleties, but you are right, there is no “religion” that speaks to these, there are many religions, with different and often very nuanced views.

      • John R says:

        Wait, you tried to improve your writing with virtues like brevity? Unacceptable! :)

        Btw, if you liked the other books I highly recommend Segerstalle’s Defenders Of The Truth. It was really, really interesting. Or at least I thought so. ;)

  8. Jerboa says:

    I think you have an interesting idea, but it’s been somewhat overstated. Scientific concepts vary greatly in their complexity, as does their required background knowledge. People also vary in their ability to communicate those ideas. So I would expect to see the need to invoke authority on more complex topics, but not so much on simple ones. Evolution and molecular biology are nowhere near as confusing as quantum physics, and you can reach a solid understanding of most concepts in biology without a lot of math. Still, I will concede that even though blind trust isn’t a necessity for many topics in science, a lot of people seem to choose it anyway.

    I think the main thing that separates great science writing (Simon Singh, Ken Miller, and Steven Pinker) from the merely good is that they’re frequently able to explain why people in a particular field believe something, rather than just telling you what they believe. You don’t see very many appeals to authority in their work.

    As a separate point, Dawkins isn’t invoking religious authority by using the title of “The Blind Watchmaker”. Instead he’s referencing William Paley to present a case against biological teleology.

    • John R says:

      The name of Paley’s book for the watchmaker analogy was Natural Theology, so PB is in good enough shape to make his claim that this is a reference to theological language.

      More generally: The books about big-d Design are trying to engage in (what is historically) theological discussion. In the 17th century God went from the one who raised Jesus from the dead to Designer. Descartes is a perfect example: He invokes God not in terms of love or redemption but because he wants a proof that will help him ground scientific knowledge and God is an important step in that proof. So God is around to make sure that Mind and Body are ordered in the way necessary to maintain the political/scientific orders — God makes sure my mind is free and the world operates according to mechanistic laws I can discover which can be manipulated in order to produce/exert power. Dawkins et al are trying to maintain the scientific (and political) order without God.

      • Jerboa says:

        The thing is, I don’t see how referencing a concept you’re attempting to disprove is the same thing as using that concept’s trappings of authority. Maybe it’s just too sophisticated for me to understand.

        • Pastabagel says:

          With the exception of the Blind Watchmaker, none of these books are attempting to disprove religion. Religion is discussed only in brief passing or not at all. The books about disproving religion I deliberately left off the list. I was trying to focus only on books that are about science and just the science, but which reference God in the title. If I did include theose books, the list would be massive.

          • disorient says:

            I’d guess that the references to God express the writer’s reverence to his study.

    • Joe says:

      “Evolution and molecular biology are nowhere near as confusing as quantum physics, and you can reach a solid understanding of most concepts in biology without a lot of math.”

      To you or I, it might be true that evolution and molecular biology are less confusing as quantum mechanics. The average person likely believes that they still need 4-10 years of study before they can have an informed opinion on the subject (and they might even be right).

      “Still, I will concede that even though blind trust isn’t a necessity for many topics in science, a lot of people seem to choose it anyway.”

      That’s because they have finite time to spend. I am likely quite capable of learning everything I would ever need to know automotive repair, agriculture, carpentry, plumbing, patent law, medicine, electronics, etc, to survive. I don’t because it’s more efficient for me to rely on other people to do those things so I can focus on other things that matter more to me. Like physical chemistry, computer programming, my family, and whatever form of entertainment I happen to favor at any given moment. It simply isn’t very rational for most people to invest more than blind faith in what scientists are saying. I’m not claiming that this is optimal; I think it would be better if people understood science more than they do now. But there’s nothing mysterious about people’s choice not to be more informed, it simply costs too much for them.

    • foxfire says:

      I saw that on this morning. Good one, it highlight so much of what is wrong with the public use of statistics. The only thing that would have made it better would be to have one more panel of some random member of the general public saying “I eat tons of green jelly beans, and I never get acne, science must be wrong.”

  9. Napsterbater says:

    I think the answer’s much simpler. The religious audience is much larger than the scientific one. Packaging your book to appeal to religious folk earns you an extra set of readers at the expense of nothing. I think it’s quite possible that all these book publishers are ramming this down the author’s throats, who themselves may or may not care.

  10. Napsterbater says:

    “That’s all well and good Dr. Hawking, but let me ask you something? Have you ever marketed a book? Do you know what it takes to succeed in this economy? Did you know science books were down 34.6% in 2009, and religion books are up 6%?”

    “Umm, no.”

    “That’s right, doc, here’s a chalkboard, you just go ahead and draw on it, ok? I don’t tell you how to draw on a chalkboard and you don’t tell me how to sell books. Does that sound like a good deal to you?”

    “I was in space. God. Damn. Suits.”

  11. chickadee says:

    An enraged scientist has yet to scream in my face that I’m going to hell, so I’ll take my chances with ‘em.

  12. octo says:

    Kinda changed your stance since last time you weighed in on this topic, yes?

  13. disorient says:

    By my completely unqualified judgement I’d say this is the case with most Athiests I know, whom tend to speak and act evangelistic about this belief which is important to them.

    It doesn’t have to be this way; There are great examples of Christians who are great thinkers in their Christianity; CS Lewis’s insight on the concept of love is Christianity-entrenched but his religiously motivated insights are relevant to anyone. Inventions of thought and science can be greater or lesser than their conclusions or supporting arguments, it happens all of the time.

    Athiests have a longer cultural path to their politics, but a Athiestic convert is likely to have been baited into his belief just as Christians are baited by God’s Eternal Love for their loneliness or Hellfore and Brimstone for their fear.

  14. Adrian says:

    Interesting post. I think though that science is treated in a different way than religion, for one people believe something till the next proof against that specific theory. Also, usually many of the things are testable and repeatable. I believe in invisible things like electromagnetic waves because I know how to generate them and I can prove them every time I turn the radio on, even though I don’t know exactly what they are or to explain the formulas that describe them. I don’t believe in invisible beings that appear in religions, because there’s no proof and no repeatability about them.

    There is a part of science that deals with wild theories: 11 dimensions, multiple universes, etc. I suspect those are less believed than the rest of the science by the lay people. FWIW, theory of evolution is pretty testable compared with these it’s not “believed” by many people because of their religion beliefs, not because it’s a wild theory.

  15. claudius says:

    Everyone wants to be happy. People argue for or against science and/or religion because they believe one will do good for society more than another, taking us one step closer to a better direction. It’s the right motivation, but we don’t judge the quality of action by its intention.

    The inherent problem isn’t science or religion, it is people’s psychological misconception that a particular belief system will free them from suffering. Neither science, nor religion, nor psychologically accepting any “belief system” will end your suffering. Only you can.

    But even the idea of taking responsibility for ending your own suffering (“only you can”) can be misconstrued as a belief system if we don’t do anything about it. This shouldn’t be taken as a belief — it should be taken as a call to action.

    I can change my belief systems as much as I want and not change how I behave. But if I change how I behave — and my thoughts, my words and my actions — I can begin working towards a happier life. No authority figure can do this for you. Only you can.

    Authority gives us something to latch onto. It gives us a feeling of safety. We latch onto authority figures — like new, surrogate parents — because there is a part of us that does not want to accept that nothing is stable, and that reality is shifting around us like sand being blown in a desert. We also do not want to accept that if we take full responsibility for ourselves, we take full accountability for our actions.

    How can you be happy if put your happiness in the hands of someone else?

    Be lights unto yourselves.

  16. Eneasz says:

    [This is a rather dangerous argument to make], from the religious perspective. If science is based on ‘faith’, then science is of the same kind as religion – directly comparable. If science is a religion, it is the religion that heals the sick and reveals the secrets of the stars. It would make sense to say, “The priests of science can blatantly, publicly, verifiably walk on the Moon as a faith-based miracle, and your priests’ faith can’t do the same.” Are you sure you wish to go there, oh faithist? Perhaps, on further reflection, you would prefer to retract this whole business of “Science is a religion too!”

    - Eliezer Yudkowsky, http://lesswrong.com/lw/mm/the_fallacy_of_gray/

    • Pastabagel says:

      Ugh, the Singularity “Institute.”

      The argument is NOT that “science” itself is based on faith, NOT that “science is a religion too”. The argument is that for non-scientists, i.e. for people receiving statements from other people about the world, the only way to acquire scientific facts and knowledge is through belief, trust, and faith in the authority telling you those things. Not in the things themselves. (For scientists, it’s different, science is a matter of the scientific method, which has no analogue in religion.)

      What you cannot verify yourself must be taken on what amounts to faith. There are degress of faith, degress of trust, credibility, belief, but they are all non-zero. There’s simply no other way to take it.

    • Jerboa says:

      It’s amusing to me that you would quote someone who actually does treat science as a religion. Here are a series of posts deleted from that website where he screams at some guy about why you shouldn’t contemplate that an AI god would send people to hell for failing to spend 100% of their time bringing it into existence:

      “YOU DO NOT THINK IN SUFFICIENT DETAIL ABOUT SUPERINTELLIGENCES CONSIDERING WHETHER OR NOT TO BLACKMAIL YOU. THAT IS THE ONLY POSSIBLE THING WHICH GIVES THEM A MOTIVE TO FOLLOW THROUGH ON THE BLACKMAIL.
      #
      There’s an obvious equilibrium to this problem where you engage in all positive acausal trades and ignore all attempts at acausal blackmail.
      #
      Until we have a better worked-out version of TDT and we can prove that formally, it should just be OBVIOUS that you DO NOT THINK ABOUT DISTANT BLACKMAILERS in SUFFICIENT DETAIL that they have a motive toACTUALLY BLACKMAIL YOU.
      #
      If there is any part of this acausal trade that is positive-sum and actually worth doing, that is exactly the sort of thing you leave up to an FAI. We probably also have the FAI take actions that cancel out the impact of anyone motivated by true rather than imagined blackmail, so as to obliterate the motive of any superintelligences to engage in blackmail.
      #
      Meanwhile I’m banning this post so that it doesn’t (a) give people horrible nightmares and (b) give distant superintelligences a motive to follow through on blackmail against people dumb enough to think about them in sufficient detail, though, thankfully, I doubt anyone dumb enough to do this knows the sufficient detail. (I’m not sure I know the sufficient detail.)
      #
      You have to be really clever to come up with a genuinely dangerous thought. I am disheartened that people can be clever enough to do that and not clever enough to do the obvious thing and KEEP THEIR IDIOT MOUTHS SHUT about it, because it is much more important to sound intelligent when talking to your friends.”
      -

  17. Vigil says:

    People don’t believe in higher-level science and math based on pure faith. They believe it based on the fact that the lower-level stuff, things they actually do understand, simply work. It’s like if god whispered little miracles whenever you asked him to.

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  20. hdon says:

    Very eloquent, but missing a very important point: I am prepared to have my conceptualization of the universe turn out to be wrong. That isn’t exactly faith in the religious sense.

    • John R says:

      Religious faith doesn’t have to be arrogant, solipsistic assurance. (Just as science doesn’t have to be but can — witness the comments from The Singularity folks.) Who is more humble and self-effacing — Richard Dawkins or the Dalai Lama? The Hebrew Bible contains criticisms of itself within itself, and the long tradition of Midrash et al just continues that criticism; Hindus have a similarly rich and diverse tradition. Or consider the story from Patriarch Timothy I when asked by the Caliph if Christianity was the final truth and Islam utter foolishness:

      “O our victorious King, in this world we are all of us as in a dark house in the middle of the night. If at night and in a dark house a precious pearl happens to fall in the midst of people, and all become aware of its existence, every one would strive to pick up the pearl, which will not fall to the lot of all but to the lot of one only, while one will get hold of the pearl itself, another one of a piece of glass, a third one of a stone or of a bit of earth, but every one will be happy and proud that he is the real possessor of the pearl. When, however, night and darkness disappear, and light and day arise, then every one of those people who had believed that they had the pearl, would extend and stretch their hand towards the light, which alone can show what everyone has in hand. The one who possesses the pearl will rejoice and be happy and pleased with it, while those who had in hand pieces of glass and bits of stone only will weep and be sad, and will sigh and shed tears.

      “In this same way we children of humanity are in this perishable world as in darkness. The pearl of the true faith fell in the midst of all of us, and it is undoubtedly in the hand of one of us, while all of us believe that we possess the precious object. In the world to come, however, the darkness of mortality passes, and the fog of ignorance dissolves, since it is the true and the real light to which the fog of ignorance is absolutely foreign. In it the possessors of the pearl will rejoice, be happy and pleased, and the possessors of mere pieces of stone will weep, sigh, and shed tears, as we said above.”

  21. rickyjames says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write a most thought provoking essay. I agree totally with the thesis you are presenting here. I had hoped to be a particle physicist myself a few decades ago and sat through quite a bit of that horrific graduate math you mention trying to get there. Alas, not to be. Yet I retained and still retain a deep interest in what the essence of science is all about.

    A few thoughts, not nearly as well developed as you have done.

    First, the Industrial Revolution marked the boundary between science as natural philosophy and science as the foundation of our current technocracy. In today’s world we have not only scientists but also engineers who learn only enough science to create truly remarkable things – invisible rays that carry voice, sand that thinks, metal that flies, powders that heal, machines that show picutres of galaxies and viruses and atoms. If science is viewed in a religious manner by today’s laypeople, it is only because engineers have acted as its priests and have performed miracles with it and so endowed science with indisputable public legitimacy.

    Second, I would argue that the cyber culture is rising to claim a quasi-religious standing in society equal to that of modern science or that Old Time Religion. I am stunned to go in bookstores and see the pathetic little science section full of predigested pap – the very books you picture in your article. And yet there are vast rows after rows of computer tomes that are just as cryptic in their language as Greek or quantum mechanical wave equations. The young are studying far more to fit in and create the cyber world than they are the scientific or religous ones. And that ultimately imaginary cyber world is / will be far more interesting and in-their-own-image to future generations than either the scientific or religious interpretations of the real world. I fear that beyond faith and atheism lies….apathy.

    Finally, the ability of the public to extend faith into areas beyond religion and into science means they can do so in other areas – namely politics. Witness Fox News. Journalism, which with its emphasis on facts is effectively a scientific process, is dying and being replaced by propaganda and opinion shaping. I would suggest that religion is abandoning the attempt to explain the natural world, and is morphing into a cancer that is attempting to explain (and control) the political one.

    • Pastabagel says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read it, I know it was very long.
      Second, I would argue that the cyber culture is rising to claim a quasi-religious standing in society equal to that of modern science or that Old Time Religion.

      I have to agree here. The science is very hard so most people are not scientists and do not have the ability to understand these things.

      But the cyberculture of non-scientists technologitst you mention that often advocates on the primacy of science is ignoring that the faithful remain so in light of the scientific truth, because the scientific truth doesn’t really understand the question laypeople are asking when they ask “Where did the universe come from?” When non-scientist, no-technical people ask that question seriously enough to want to read a book to get an answer, they are really asking a variation of “What more is there?” Religions answer that question extremely well, much better even than how they answer the question of the origins of universe or man.

      What I left out of this essay was philosophy. Philosophy is the domain missing between science and religion that illuminates the context of life while simultaneously abandoning the hierarchy and conformity of religion and retaining the skepticism and rigor of science.

      And I think that is the way through the apathy predicted in your comment.

  22. hughpickens says:

    You may be interested that I posted some of your points on slashdot today and the story has received over 1,000 comments so far:

    Pastabagel writes that the actual scientific answers to the questions of the origins of the universe, the evolution of man, and the fundamental nature of the cosmos involve things like wave equations and quantum electrodynamics and molecular biology that very few non-scientists can ever hope to understand and that if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we accept the incredibly complex scientific phenomena in physics, astronomy, and biology through the process of belief, not through reason. When Richard Fenyman wrote “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,” he was including himself which is disconcerting given how many books he wrote on that very subject. The fact is that it takes years of dedicated study before scientific truth in its truest, mathematical and symbolic forms can be understood. The rest of us rely on experts to explain it, someone who has seen and understood the truth and can dumb it down for us in a language we can understand. And therein lies the big problem for science and scientists. For most people, science is really a matter of trusting the expert who tells it to us and believing what they tell us. Trust and belief. Faith. Not understanding. How can we understand science, if we can’t understand the language of science? “We don’t learn science by doing science, we learn science by reading and memorizing. The same way we learn history. Do you really know what an atom is, or that a Higgs boson is a rather important thing, or did you simply accept they were what someone told you they were?”

    You can read the comments at:

    http://science.slashdot.org/story/11/04/07/146240/Is-Science-Just-a-Matter-of-Faith

    Best Regards,

    Hugh Pickens
    http://hughpickens.com

    • Pastabagel says:

      Very exciting! And the server didn’t even crash (* gives WordPress a friendly pat.).

      Thanks for posting this over there Hugh. Slashdotters certainly have a lot to say about this subject!

  23. cliche says:

    Richard Dawkins – Faith in the Scientific Method:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hYaPnkGTLM

    • Jerboa says:

      The problem here is that there are multiple definitions of the word faith. In the video you’ve provided Dawkins is defining faith as “trust”. He explicitly does this in the first second of the clip. Pastabagel is defining faith as “belief without evidence”, for the purpose of this article. By posting that link you’re failing to engage the question.

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  27. Dave Pinsen says:

    Excellent point that, for laymen, science is a matter of belief — in the scientists, or in the popularizers of their theories. Michael Crichton got a lot of heat (no pun intended) for his skepticism about global warming, but unlike the vast majority of his critics, Crichton, had the chops to go through the science himself, and he did: check out the exhaustive annotated bibliography he appended to his didactic novel “State of Fear”.

    There’s a paradox of atheism, in that atheists still end up faced with incredible stories to explain enduring mysteries.

  28. Dave Pinsen says:

    A suggestion for your comment system btw: allow users to edit their posted comments, like Disqus does.

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  34. duo says:

    excellent piece, excellent feedback…

    better, I think than my effort, and its responses…but then again what do I know?

    http://savedbydesign.wordpress.com/2011/02/19/faith-basedfact-based/

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  38. saintpat says:

    “Who decides who is an expert? Who decides which expert will tell us about science, and in what way? A cultural authority, not a scientific one.”
    That’s where pastabagel goofs. That’s not what science is. Science is not based on authoritarianism, it’s based on peer review and relentless testing. And it certainly is not based on “rhetoric, argumentation, and persuasion”.
    We do indeed initially get physics, astronomy, and biology through knowledge passed on, but we can test these beliefs in the real world, and scientists are always checking their theories and hypothesis’ for holes and self-correcting when necessary. That’s where it differs from faith.
    Science is most definitely NOT just a matter of faith.

  39. P.Sturm says:

    Science is never a matter of faith to me. If I am presented with a theory I read the available articles about it and study related material until I’m sure I understand it thoroughly. I then see what the peers thought of the theory, and make sure that every possible attempt has been made to disprove it.

    Only after all of that has been done will I accept it as a current modelling to work with.

    • octo says:

      Really?

      Did you do that for all of climate science? How about particle physics? Evolution? What about when you have to make a decision about whether to breast-feed your children or not? You’re taking it on faith that it’s either a good or bad thing (I have no idea which, but that’s not the point), unless you’re the most knowledgeable, well read person the world has ever seen. And based on the fact that you’re spending time commenting on this site, I’m going to guess no.

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  48. This was Peirce’s point: almost everything we believe is a matter of faith, and justified belief is a matter of chains of credibility.

    Learn that reputable scientists have been faking results or doing their stats wrong, and several of the Bayesian filters start to sound less truthy.

  49. Religion has created, refined, and mastered the rhetoric of belief. And religion has historically spoken with exclusive authority on the questions of the origin of man and the universe for all but the last 100 years or so.

    I think it’s more complicated than that. http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/radio4/iots/iots_20021024-0900a.mp3 Aristotle wrote the book on natural philosophy and that came under attack via Baconian science, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00jdb6c which was not simple http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00sdbw4 since science used to be such a different affair (nobles recreation rather than engine of the military industrial complex and “progress” generally … progress itself being a modern societal belief). http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/radio4/ioth/ioth_20080131-0900a.mp3 An historian might pin the advent of pro-science culture very differently than Darwin+Schroedinger=Sagan, if you see what I mean.

    Much more can be learnt from @rmathematicus / thonyc.wordpress.com.

  50. The titles are not about communicating science or religion. They are about claiming and signaling authority. For the book and for the author. “I can be trusted and believed on the question of the origin of the universe.”

    Maybe. Or maybe humans are rational, curious beings. Have wondered, always will wonder about the origins of themselves, the nature of mind, the meaning & purpose of life, and seek to answer these qestions with whatever frameworks they find credible during their lifespan.

    Given the technological creation by mankind of vehicles that carried men upward to stand on heavenly bodies, the current belief system — a rational framework and let’s say that the previous belief systems were also rational — the scientists become more credible. Given that science now at least tries with some answers to neral correlates of consciousness, evo psych / sociobiology, the origins of humankind as well as the nature of motion, I think it’s fair to say for the subculture of “the modern secular humanists” or whatever you want to call them, science has become the de facto religion.

    If the proofs before were authoritative, how much more authoritative are the figures when they produce true miracles?

    I might need to look up a definition of religion that would suit a religious studies professor but some similar phrase like “belief system” will do if there isn’t enough culture balled up with the technocratic , doubt-glorying faith of science.

    So science has been imbued with credibility, it’s taught to the youth as other doctrines once were, and it seeks to answer the same questions we always have. All that’s changed is the religion.

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