Belief in Science and Belief in God 3: Faith Within the Scientific Model

Belief in Science and Belief in God 3: Faith Within the Scientific Model

Albert E+

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:

belief: n.
– 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.

Black Hole: Artist's Rendering

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.

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4 thoughts on “Belief in Science and Belief in God 3: Faith Within the Scientific Model

  1. Dear Albert:

    You write:

    “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.”

    I think it certainly is true that Darwinism plays a strong role in new atheism, but it is certainly not crucial. Nor did it play much of a role in early 20th century atheism when Darwinism was out of favor.

    I suggest the causal chain is the following:

    – early modern science, most notably Newton, but others as well, developed a scientific worldview that explained “much that traditional believers had seen as the work of God” (quoting Kwamme Anthony Appiah in NYBR, Dec. 9, 2020).

    – early modern science was characterized by a strong sense of the overlap of science and religion – scientific argument was thought to buttress and justify Christian belief in a European world where religious warfare had severely undermined traditional religious views. Science came to be seen as “proving” the existence of God. Revelation as proof began to recede.

    – in the 18th century, French “enlightenment” thought – the philosophes, the Encyclopedists – espoused highly successful atheistic and secular systems of thought (very strongly influenced by the incredible success of Newtonian physics) that increasingly became not only the hallmark of cultured thought, but of major advances in society as well. The English and German enlightenments, to whom we owe much of modern day thought along with that of the French enlightenment, were also part of this secularization process.

    – by the time that Darwin successfully turned evolution to a much more scientific direction (it had been a kind of philosophical pseudo-religion before him), the stage had been well set for what we now call materialism. [the idea that scientific explanation based on material phenomena pushes aside belief in God]. The success of Darwinism was/is seen as proving the case.

    So, the point is that a fairly ridiculous idea – that religion is mere explanation of physical phenomena (and a social/political construct of powerful church-based elites) – was firmly entrenched by the time that Darwin came along and he was sanctified as the embodiment of those beliefs.

    In other words, the success of evolution, including the powerful contributions of Darwin, and it contributions to the old-school scientific worldview is what is at play.

    Stephen Friberg

  2. Hi, Stephen:

    These are interesting comments about the role of Darwinism in 19th century atheism and the role of the Enlightenment predating Darwin in promoting secular thinking. I don’t claim to know much about the Enlightenment, but it’s certainly true that Dawkins, Hitchens, and others want a return to a new Enlightenment. I also have no problem with the idea that the attachment to Darwin has more to do with the “new atheism” than with a “classical atheism” for lack of a better term.

    However, I still contend that it is crucial point for them today to anchor their atheism within Darwin, if you accept at face value the quoted claim by Dawkins that Darwinian evolution by natural selection allows him to be “an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” If any one person or group, such as the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, starts questioning the scientific premises of natual selection based on what I think are legitimate issues to raise, you can bet your bottom dollar that Dawkins will become very defensive very fast, and there’s already plenty of evidence to support this observation.

    My initial point about the atheists’ “devotion” to Darwin is more to highlight what I think is a misapplication of Darwinian evolution to scientific concepts far removed from where natual selection is relevant, such as the “landscape” argument of existing “multiverses” beyond our ability to observe, which is utter nonsense. Also, it’s not unreasonable to ask about the limitations of Darwinian evolution when going from the macroscopic to the microscopic to explain cell structure, DNA, etc.. I think a good parallel can be drawn about the initial resistance to statistical mechanics in the microscopic realm–before there was any evidence for atoms–though it can successfully explain thermodynamics in the macroscopic realm. While I have no position when it comes to ID, I do support the idea that ID advocates should be free to explore their ideas on the basis of legitimate scientific questions and see what happens. The fact that there’s a virtually rabid resistance about any sort of “tinkering” with the foundational principles of Darwinism—mostly from atheists—suggests that the advocacy of Darwinism has become more ideological than scientific in motivation.

    1. Hi Albert E+:

      We both agree that the concept of evolution can readily be misapplied in science. And we are in good company, as the controversies generated by sociobiology and E. O. Wilson’s book’s (for example, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge) well attest.

      One of the central points buttressing new atheist thought – and certainly, in a large measure, a correct point – is that we make up creation stories and substitute them for knowledge derived from science. Human creativity tends to do this, the argument goes.

      Clearly, the scientific community, in so far as it is human, does this too. In science, when it is bad science, it will in due process be discarded.

      What is problematic – and here is where Baha’is with their concept of the unity of science and religion can help out – is where belief systems derived from scientific worldviews are used as substitute religions. This is clearly done in new atheism where there is a pronounced tendency to view atheism as anchored in Darwinism.

      To be specific, what Dawkins does is to use Darwinism as a creation story, wave it about, and then claim that his creation story is bigger, better, and more advanced than Genesis. Ergo, religion is wrong. (I err by brevity, of course.)

      The problem, I suggest, is not so much Dawkins – he is just a science writer – but scientific, academic, and secular communities with a poor – and very naive – grasp of the religious dimensions of thought and history,

      The idea that religion is simply a primitive understanding of the world – and this is the assumption behind both Dawkins claim that Darwin made it possible for an atheist to be intellectually fulfilled (and much of modern secular thought about religion) is, I suggest, what needs to be addressed.

      Currently, I hypothesize that it is merely one component of enlightenment polemics against the religious establishment of the day – an establishment that was then very entrenched and very corrupt.

      It was an idea that was simple, easily popularized, seeming to be self-evidently valid (given that the religion of the day was often a barrier to knowledge and progress), so it has become a widely accepted – and unexamined – assumption.

      It can only be accepted as true if it not examined. But, the unfortunate truth is that people in general and scientists in particular are no longer knowledgeable about religion, so such a patently absurd assumption goes unchallenged.


  3. Great piece. I’ll be reading the next post right away.

    But I had a quick question. I’m wondering why you say that there isn’t any obvious evidence to justify the claim that evolutionary processes can explain everything in nature.

    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.

    Are you making reference to the non-biological evolution models (such as memetic evolution proposed by Dawkins) that seek to explain things beyond biology? Or are you refering specifically to biological evolution? Because, it seems to me that there is a wealth of evidence to justify biological evolution as an explanation for how the natural world operates.

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