NOTE: saw this article today, and decided to update this post from July 2009.
I’ve been thinking for a while about science having a common foundation with religion, and how science is a parallel, direct alternative to religion. The commonality between the two is faith. By religion, I should clarify Christianity as widely practiced in the United States; to some degree, what I say about religion here may apply to broader definitions of religion, both geographically and philosophically.
So what are the assertions or tenets of my faith in science?
- That there is a universe.
- That we exist together in that universe.
- That we can observe it together.
- That we can share our observations of the universe with one another.
- That the universe at least sometimes operates consistently according to a set of rules.
- That we can know at least some of those rules through observation.
- That we can use some of those rules and our shared knowledge to sometimes predict outcomes.
- That we have some free will to choose our own goals.
- That we can affect the universe.
- That we can use some of our knowledge of those rules and our shared observations to effect the realization of some of our goals.
And that final tenet is the key differentiator with religion: it presumes that we can effect the universe sufficiently to realize the goals we set from our free will. Religion, on the other hand, suggests that ultimately some of our goals are not ours (e.g., our tendency towards sin), and that we are to some extent powerless to effect the universe (e.g., it’s in God’s hands; God’s will be done).
What separates this faith from that of religion or other schools of philosophy is a single quality: consistency. It asserts that we can use the observed consistency of the universe to affect the universe to achieve our goals, and that when we observe our goals being met that consistency is affirmed. The consistency travels in a circle, complete in itself, even though the ultimate reality, completeness, or veracity of that consistency is unknowable. Yet within that circle we find no contradiction that breaks its utility.
Religion, on the other hand, is riddled with inconsistencies. If God made the world 6,000 years ago, then how to explain the presence of fossils that have lain under the earth for hundreds of millions of years? How do we explain the vastness of a cosmos that extends 13 billion years in all directions? How do we reconcile the goodness of God with cancer, with the existence of Hitler?
All of these tenets swirl about one central aspect: consistency. These tenets have reliably shown they are true together, and continue to behave, well, consistently together. Yet why? What if one day the universe (or God) decided should not be so consistent? Just for that one day? Or perhaps from this day on be consistent, but under a new set of rules than we have ever seen?
And that’s why science itself still rests on faith: an abiding belief that what was true yesterday will continue to be true tomorrow. So far, that has proven itself to be true, and even when it appears the rules of changed, we simply discover that we had deduced the wrong set of rules. But we take it for granted that the universe has this consistency. That is faith.