Faith and the scientific method

Another poster responded to one of my posts in another thread on physics, and I thought what he said was very interesting. It reminded me of a 35 page term paper I wrote for renaissance-enlightenment philosophy while I was in college. So I wanted to discuss it in a separate thread, in order to get others’ thoughts and so as not to diverge from the topic in the other thread.

I perceive the scientific method as requiring many acts of faith: faith in the scientist running the experiment, faith in the experimental design (as it relates to the real world), and faith in the interpretation of the experiment. The other poster pointed out that objects in the real world, quantum particles (like we suppose light to be), only have meaning as they relate to the sensory apparati of our bodies (eyes, neurons, our faculty for language and defining terms). I would say that this is essentially an accurate statement.

Science has not directly observed electrons, for example, nor can we define what positive and negative charges are or how they are attracted to each other. Electromagnetism therefore remains shrouded in a fog. Science, however, teaches in classrooms that these items exist, almost dogmatically, while the fact remains that we don’t understand said items.

I am not saying that quantum particles do not exist, but that proof for them is based on conjecture. We can indirectly experience them, but we do not know for sure. I believe that we have a good working model for quantum physics…otherwise we would t have computers and smart phones to post on message boards.

What I would like to discuss in this thread is the epistemic foundations of science, and how science requires a synthetic apriori judgment, or an act of faith. Dissenting opinions welcome!

The history of philosophy is replete with philosophers contributing their insights to science. Science only really took off in its present direction by the impetus of philosophers like Francis Bacon, who in the 17th century philosophized about the method and aims of true science. The philosophical foundations of science are built upon faith in the the rational construction of the world and the ability of the human mind to fathom the laws of nature. If people did not believe this to be true in the first place, without proof that it was true, hardly any scientific development of an efficient and streamlined nature would be possible. So modern science takes faith as a starting point. From there it goes on to allow not only faith, but also intuition and imagination to take a huge part in the scientific process. This is sometimes what many misguided afficionados of science forget. They think that reason alone rules, and that any part of our human nature that is not subject to rational exposition cannot be taken seriously as true or worthy of our contemplation or reverence. The very thing that began science, faith itself, they repudiate as worthless.

I may have a few comments, but let me start with some questions:

Could you clarify that point? Do you mean that the attention of a sentient being is necessary? What do you mean by “meaning” in this context? In what sense does a physical system not have meaning if it does not relate to our senses?

I mean that senses err. And as a result so does our interpretation of sensory experience. This is sort of an application of Descartes’ method. Say you are color blind, but just found out. You thought throughout your whole life that you were perceiving color just like everyone else, but now find out that you were not (I actually know someone this happened to). Sensory experience is also personally subjective. Two people can watch an event and come up with separate stories recounting what happened. Subjectivity of sense experience is what I’m referring to.

I’m not saying that there is no objective physical reality, just that we can’t make claims about the nature of this reality until it has entered our senses, entered our minds, and taken on the color of our own subjective system of thought. Thus, objective reality can only have its meaning interpreted by individual subjects.

I am a Catholic and don’t understand why the Church didn’t put emphasis on all of God’s creation; wildlife, native plants, water and soil all are God’s creation. We as humans should have a divine obligation for stewardship over the plants and animals that we share the earth.Man is as truly a part and product of Nature as any other animal and the attempt to set him up as an isolated point outside of it is philosophically wrong and moraly pernicious…
Leon Fager

“Faith” can only be used here in its most generic form, because it is a fundamentally different kind of trust than we put in God.

In a scientific experiment, “failure” is generally an acceptable result. An experiment may be well researched and designed, and still fail to prove its hypothesis. The design of the experiment, the methodology, must be clearly stated, and all assumptions and parameters disclosed. While a scientist may have “faith” his methodology is sound, he must submit it to other scientists for verification and feedback. They may find errors or logical fallacies that skew the results.

With God, we called to not put him “to the test”; God is fundamentally unprovable by science, apparently by choice. We relate to God on a spiritual level, a spiritual level designed by God, but outside the physical world. Science, meaning “with knowledge”, can only discern knowledge regarding the physical world.

Science has not directly observed electrons, for example, nor can we define what positive and negative charges are or how they are attracted to each other. Electromagnetism therefore remains shrouded in a fog. Science, however, teaches in classrooms that these items exist, almost dogmatically, while the fact remains that we don’t understand said items.

I am not saying that quantum particles do not exist, but that proof for them is based on conjecture. We can indirectly experience them, but we do not know for sure. I believe that we have a good working model for quantum physics…otherwise we would t have computers and smart phones to post on message boards.

Again, this is a fundamentally different form of uncertainty than with faith in God. With electrons, for instance we see that electronics devices work, and its because detailed theories regarding electricity happen to allow us to make electrons useful.

In miles long tunnels of electromagnets and sensors, we are crashing atoms together and measuring the resulting energy; these energy patterns observed are very well explained by detailed mathematic models describing subatomic particles. The sensors in the equipment effectively extend our physical sense so as to interact and manipulate these subatomic particles.

We have no such ability to even touch God, except for limited means such as the Holy Eucharist, which itself defies scientific explanation.

What I would like to discuss in this thread is the epistemic foundations of science, and how science requires a synthetic apriori judgment, or an act of faith. Dissenting opinions welcome!

you should state this in a new thread. I t think you will be happily surprised.
In brief, Judeo-Christian teaching is that man was made above all other creatures of the earth, but simultaneously caretakers of those creatures. There are zillions of clear explanations of the notorious consequences of equating man and beast morally, and so I won’t go into that here. However, rest assured as God’s creatures we have no license to mistreat animals.

Great post, runningdude. I partially agree and partially disagree. I meant to use faith in its most generic sense, and not in the sense of the Christian’s faith in Jesus. I should include a disclaimer, that my purpose for my op was not to discuss faith in the Christian God, but to discuss synthetic a priori judgments as basic acts of faith. One of the fallacies of pop-science is that it possesses 100% absolute certainty on subjects such as blackholes, wormholes, particle physics, etc. I can’t tell you how many people i have run into who claim that black holes exist precisely as hawking predic predicted they would. All without evidence. I am a fan of working models. We have a good working model of quantum physics, hence all of our modern conveniences. But there are many things that we don’t know, we just believe them based on indirect evidence.

The act of faith made in science is not all too different from the act of faith made in accepting the cosmological argument. This argument is why I believe in God. But to simply believe this argument and to give yourself utterly to Jesus are totally different actions altogether.

You wouldn’t be the first, and probably wont be the last, to note that modern science was in many respects a desire to just jump into the exploration and even exploitation of the natural world without asking the questions about what makes this all possible, worthwhile or even realistic. This is exactly why philosophy and science are seen as not only different, but completely diverse branches of knowledge, as if knowledge wasn’t a single thing but two completely different things going by the same name.

The loss of a coherent philosophy of nature has resulted in many problems for science. In part we are hampered in our ability to differentiate between what is actually natural or proper and what is not. Splitting the atom, for example, was seen as a cool thing to try to do and the wisdom or morality of it - the naturalness of it - was eclipsed and completely lost on the radar, except, ironically enough, for a few German physicists, who sincerely worried about the warring powers (Nazis included) harnessing this power as a weapon, possibly to the destruction of civilization. The desperate Canadians and British and their newly emergent American cowboy allies were not quite so worried about this, though for different reasons, so long as it was they who “got it”, presuming they could control it (i.e. its proliferation, which of course they couldn’t and still can’t). The Soviets were forced by the necessity of their circumstances to focus everything they had on winning in the terms of conventional warfare.

I think modern philosophy or, probably more accurately, scientists and physicists, being just taken aback by the successes of the scientific revolution, have - as a consequence of the inspiration generated by awe that, in fact, was and is the traditional basis for the source of philosophical investigation - rekindled interest in real philosophy by asking how this can all be possible in the first place. They are taking a more serious interest in the assumptions necessary before you even put your eye to a microscope or a telescope and expect to discover something or know something better. The awe of technological success, or even the fear of its potential negative outcomes (like a nuclear holocaust) has and is resulting in some new interest in actually doing real philosophy and how important it is for not only the prosperity but even merely the survival of humanity. This is making philosophy, hitherto seen as idle speculation, appear once more as something serious and important even for practical happiness. Hopefully we will rediscover the connection between happiness and ethics and start to bring the manifold branches of knowledge back together into unity and harmony.

I highly recommend that you read Nature and Motion in the Middle Ages by John A. Weisheipl O.P. His first article is " the Concept of Nature " in the Thomistic/Aristotelian sense. You will have to get it from a University or Seminary library, since it is out of print and copies available, even used are very dear. But it is well worth it. It is not an easy read but I think you can handle it. If you take me up on it, let me know what you think.

Linus2nd

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.