Belief in Science and Belief in God 4: Inference

Belief in Science and Belief in God 4: Inference

Albert E+

In a previous posting I positioned inference, evidence and belief on a scale of certainty about propositions. Today, I’d like to look at the place of inference in scientific inquiry.

From Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (on-line) we get this definition of inference:

infer:      v. to form an opinion or guess that something is true because of the information that you have
—What do you infer from her refusal?
— I inferred from her expression that she wanted to leave.

Here’s Merriam-Webster’s On-Line Dictionary:

infer:  v.
1.     to derive as a conclusion from facts or premises
2.     to guess or surmise
a) to involve as a natural outcome of thought
    b) to point out
to suggest or hint

So, how does inference apply to science and/or religion?

To illustrate what is meant by “inference” in context, consider the following two examples:

  1. The discovery of a black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
  2. The existence of the human soul, as described in the Bahá’í Writings.

In a particular sense, a black hole and a human soul share the property that they are “invisible” to the human eye, but differ in that a black hole is inherently physical, while the human soul is inherently spiritual (referred to as a “sign of God” in scripture).

Now, while no one has actually seen a black hole, there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence to infer that black holes exist in the Universe. For example, by observing the orbit of the surrounding stars around SGR A* over the past 10 years, astronomers were able to infer that:

Black Hole: Artist's Rendering
  1. The mass of SGR A* is about 4 million solar masses.
  2. Its radius is 1/10th the distance from Sun to Earth (0.1 AU).
  3. Its period of rotation on its axis is about 11 minutes!

Now, I should remind the reader that SGR A* doesn’t look like the artist’s rendering of a black hole any more than, say, God looks like the chap on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It’s an artist’s imagined illustration of qualities we believe or theorize a black hole (or God) has.

Question:  Is SGR A* really a black hole, as it shows all the outward signs of being one?

Answer: Yes, provided that the underlying theory of General Relativity for describing black holes remains viable when applied to SGR A*.

This seems to require some form of “belief” or “faith” on the observer’s part to justify this claim that SGR A* is an object known metaphorically as a black hole. No on-site measurement is possible now, nor are we strictly certain of what we’re measuring. And we must have faith that the underlying theory is correct and that it applies to this object.

In addition, I should note that SGR A* is 20,000 light-years away.

So, here’s the question: If we are willing to accept this level of inference, “belief” or “faith” when applied to scientific concepts, are we likewise willing to accept them when applied to religious concepts, such as the existence of the human soul?

Inferring Evidence for the Existence of the Human Soul

Let’s find out. Here’s the proposition: As a black hole cannot be perceived by the material senses except as it is expressed in its effect on the visible bodies around it, spirit cannot be perceived by the material senses, excepting as it is expressed in outward signs and works—the effects of its activity in the visible world. The human body is visible, the soul is invisible. It is the soul, nevertheless, that directs a man’s faculties, that governs his humanity.

The soul has two main faculties, here outlined by Abdu’l-Bahá in one of his Paris talks:

As outer circumstances are communicated to the soul by the eyes, ears, and brain of a man, so does the soul communicate its desires and purposes through the brain to the hands and tongue of the physical body, thereby expressing itself. The spirit in the soul is the very essence of life.

The second faculty of the soul expresses itself in the world of vision, where the soul inhabited by the spirit has its being, and functions without the help of the material bodily senses. (Paris Talks, p. 85)

I should make it clear that the ideas I’ve expressed above are not Bahá’í doctrine. This is my personal response to some of the propositions I’ve heard about the conflict between science and religion based on my personal understandings of the Bahá’í Writings and modern science.

Hopefully, I have demonstrated that the Bahá’í Faith can provide a useful and thoughtful perspective in better understanding the challenges of having both a belief in science and a belief in God simultaneously.

Ultimately, the notion of proving God’s existence is meaningless if human free will truly exists. There will always be debate on the subject, just as there is yet debate about the existence of black holes or the fact that we have put men on the moon. For some, there is never enough evidence.

Next time, I’d like to look at my pen-namesake, Albert Einstein, and his role in the relationship between faith and reason.

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One thought on “Belief in Science and Belief in God 4: Inference

  1. I just wanted to voice my appreciation for the analogy you draw between physical and spiritual phenomena. If we assume GR, then through a collection of logical steps, we get a theoretical description of a black hole. Then certain data can be interpreted to support them. If we don’t assume GR, we would have to come up with a different explanation for the same data. We get the same type of argument with the human soul. If we assume God exists, then through a series of logical steps, we get a description of the human soul. Certain data is then interpreted to support that conclusion. Without a God, we have to come up with other explanations for the same data.

    This begs the question: How do we compare two competing theories? In science, it’s done by comparing the accuracy and breadth of the predictions made. And it’s not always so clear-cut (see Kuhn and the “paradigm”).

    One way to determine the validity of the God assumption could be to compare the fruits of the two theories (God vs non-God – just like GR vs non-GR). In religion, we are told about our potential as humans. We are told that we have the capacity for extreme acts of kindness, love, compassion, unity, and so forth. Essentially, we are told we have the capacity to build a quasi-utopian society. With a materialistic assumption of reality, it would be easy to conclude that we will always have war and violence and injustice since we have always had it in the past. It’s part of human nature.

    Since we can’t really know what our capacities are unless we actualize them, until we achieve the promised peaceful society, it’s only a theory. It seems that we can choose which description is best almost simply by saying which reality do we want to live in. Neat.

    I know I’ve been a bit simplified here. For example, not all non-God theories assume violence is part of our nature. Nor do all God theories lead to a peaceful society. But the main point is still important: inference. Since we have no direct tie to knowledge even in the material world, there is a certain degree of freedom in the world-view we choose to adopt. And no proof is necessary, as Albert E+ has already mentioned.

    Thank you for being the seed (or a bit more than just the seed) in this thought process.

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