The question I posed at the end of my last blog was whether any form of material evidence would be sufficient to satisfy the atheists’ need for “proof” of God’s existence.
A related query is whether there is such thing as belief or faith within the scientific model. To answer either question I think we need to start by defining “belief”.
Here’s one from the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (on-line):
belief: n. the feeling of certainty that something exists or is true
From Merriam-Webster’s On-Line Dictionary:
– a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing
– something believed; esp. a tenant or body of tenants held by a group
– conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon, especially when based on examination or evidence
These definitions do not suggest to me that science and belief are antithetical. In fact, the scientific process—as a human attempt to understand the known physical Universe—is very much based on faith and belief within the context of reason and evidence. In this context, belief must play a part.
Albert Einstein has said that “The most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible.”
The practice of the scientific process, by its very nature, implies a fundamental belief in an external comprehensibility—a sense of order—within the Universe that is independent of human observation and does not change with time. When we take a closer look at the type of research that’s taking place, a number of issues arise that affect human perception of objects in the Universe. These include our ability to perceive the existence of objects within the Universe that, when compared to human length scales, are:
- too large: stars, galaxies, galactic superclusters, Universe
- too small: cells, viruses, molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, strings (?).
For this reason, among others, all scientific theories break down at some level. Let’s take, for example, faith in the use of Darwinian theories of evolution to understand the Universe.
Undeniably, the atheist world-view crucially rests on belief in Darwinian evolutionary processes and their ability to explain everything in nature—such as the structure of living cells and complex molecules like DNA—without any obvious evidence to justify the claim.
This Darwinian principle also motivates the current string theory belief in multiple universes—again, without any obvious evidence to justify the claim. If an honest study of Darwinian evolution showed credible evidence for its breakdown at the macroscopic or microscopic level, then the atheists’ entire world view would be threatened.
Examples of Belief Applied in Science
One outstanding case of how belief impacts science is the discovery of neutrinos. Neutrinos are electrically neutral particles produced in the nuclei of atoms through radioactive decay. Literally billions of neutrinos from the Sun pass through us every second.
We have no way of perceiving neutrinos through our senses, yet we know they exist. How?
The concept of the neutrino was Introduced by Wolfgang Pauli in 1929 as a desperate measure to preserve the belief in energy and momentum conservation laws. Conservation laws cannot be proven, only inferred by repeatable observations that when [a collision or a decay reaction occurs involving two or more objects, there is no net gain or energy or momentum. When observations of beta decay (i.e. the spontaneous conversion of a neutron into a proton and electron in the nucleus of atoms) revealed a possible net loss of energy and momentum in the reaction, Pauli chose to resolve this dilemma by postulating the neutrino to account for the missing energy and momentum. It is very important to note, however, that Pauli’s position was not universally accept. In fact, Niels Bohr, a fellow Nobel laureate who contributed heavily to the development quantum mechanics, hypothesized that perhaps energy and momentum conservation is only true at the macroscopic scale and breaks down when dealing with atoms and subatomic particles. In other words, Bohr made the counterclaim that neutrinos don’t really exist because he was willing to modify his belief in energy and momentum conservation to fit with the existing physical evidence before him. It would take another 30 years following Pauli’s proposal before the discovery of neutrinos could be proclaimed by Reines and Cowan in 1956.
Clearly, Pauli’s belief that there were such objects in the universe drove his scientific research to propose their existence. While it is still extremely difficult to do experiments involving neutrinos, it is remarkable to realize that we can find out specific properties of neutrinos, such as the existence of a neutrino mass, based on a useful combination of theory and experiment, coupled with the implied belief that the universe is, indeed, comprehensible.
Another example of the role belief plays in science is Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (GR) and the existence of black holes. In 1915, Einstein proposed that gravitation is described in terms of the curvature of space-time due to the presence of matter, known as General Relativity (GR). His theory successfully explained the anomalous behavior in Mercury’s orbit around the Sun not accounted for by Newton’s law of gravitation, and correctly predicted the deflection of light by the sun during a solar eclipse.
General Relativity is the theoretical basis for modern cosmology and for predicting the existence of black holes. While there is yet no direct evidence for the existence of black holes, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to infer their existence.
Above is an artist’s description of the warping of space-time due to a solar mass black hole in orbit around a supermassive black hole. This picture, of course, is not really what a black hole “looks like.” In this picture, known as an embedding diagram, the black holes are represented as circular discs at the bottom of strongly curved spatial surfaces, whose boundaries describe the black holes’ outer surfaces, known as event horizons. For a distant observer sufficiently far away from the black holes, there is no discernible warping of space-time.
In plain terms: We cannot see black holes, we can only infer their existence.
Now, as a scientist, I may choose to call that a “hypothesis” or a “theory”—and those are both good terms—but in layman’s language, it is still a belief, and to say otherwise would disingenuous of me.
Next time: the role of inference in science.