Thursday, March 23, 2006

And America Will Have a Lot of Faith

Yesterday I was in the waiting room of dentist’s office, waiting for my daughter. A young man was standing in the office area nearby, having a discussion with the receptionist regarding the origin and age of the universe (which I couldn’t help but overhear). I later learned that the young man was the dentist’s son, a college student home on spring break, and a math-physics major. The woman was pretty clearly a Christian who believes in the literal truth of the Bible as far as the creation and age of the Earth and the universe.

The physics student was making some pretty good points about observation, evidence, the scientific method, and so on, but the woman was not buying any of it. She said that there were obviously “various theories – like the Big Bang, evolution, and so on, but there really is no proof,” and for her, the explanations of the Bible (seven days of creation, direct creation of humans by God, 6000 year old Earth, etc.) were perfectly convincing. She admitted that she didn’t know much about the “various scientific theories” but this didn’t bother her since these were just a few of many possibilities anyway. When asked what proof there was for the Bible’s version of events, she said, well the Bible of course, and pointed to her heart to add, “but all the evidence I need is right here.”

This was none of my business, of course, and I didn’t say anything, though I really wanted to tell the physics student to save his breath, as it was clearly a physics vs. faith discussion, and faith wasn’t going to budge. They would have to agree to disagree at best. But it made me wonder about a couple of things, and especially why these sorts of discussions seem to always focus on the origin and age of the universe and on the origin of humans. Of course this is because these are pretty much the fundamental questions, but since no one was around to directly observe the key events, and because the scientific view is based on a chain of observation-based reasoning, these basic questions are difficult or impossible to resolve in such discussions or debates. The basic assumptions are just too different.

You could even argue that the scientific view itself contains elements of faith – faith in the importance and validity of the scientific method, belief that observations that can be independently corroborated by different observers are better than results obtained by assertion and literary analysis, and so forth. I suppose it is also faith to believe that physical phenomena must have physical explanations, and that physics is a better description of what we see around us than magic. I see these more as “working assumptions” than as elements of faith, and these working assumptions have served us well in terms of understanding (science) and controlling (technology) many aspects of nature. But faith also has its fans.

So what to do? Give up? That would probably have been the best thing in this case. But in general, I would like to see such a discussion steered to a more immediate level. True, no one was around to see the Big Bang, and we infer that it happened through a lot of rather technical steps. Many people have reproduced these steps, and scientifically educated people agree that they make sense, but it is still an indirect argument. The same with evolution – true, “we have the fossils,” but Biblical “young Earth” advocates and creationists have alternate explanations (e.g., Matt Bors’ revised science textbooks for Christians), however far-fetched these may seem to the scientifically minded. Again it is difficult to reach common ground when the basic assumptions are just so different.

I would ask instead, do you believe your TV works? The satellite TV receiver on your roof? Your cell phone? The cells in your body? Do you believe that airplanes fly? Do you believe that bacteria become resistant to antibiotics? Physics and the sciences that derive from physics – chemistry, biology, and all the rest – can explain these things, and you can observe the results. Engineering, biotechnology, medicine, agriculture, and much more, all depend on the results of science, and on the scientific method, and we rely on these technologies for our very survival in the modern world.

You could go into detailed explanations of these things, but I won’t do that here. The point is that science works, and that we accept and rely upon many things that result from our understanding and application of science. If you want to believe that science only works here on Earth (and not in distant stars and galaxies), and only now (not thousands or millions or billions of years ago), then you can believe that God is pulling the wool over our eyes to make it look like galaxies are billions of light years away and moving as if expanding from the Big Bang, and to appear that fossils are tens of thousands or millions of years old. I can’t see why he would bother to fool us in this way, but if you want to believe that, OK. The good news is that you don’t have to believe in or understand science to enjoy its benefits. The bad news is that people who don’t understand and accept science are more likely to have children who don’t understand and accept science. That’s OK too as long as you don’t mind the likelihood that most of our future scientists and engineers will be in China, India, Korea, and other Asian countries. And America will have a lot of faith.


Anthony Kendall said...

Thanks Bruce, I really enjoyed this post. It's certainly true that once the idea of an all-powerful being is invoked as an explanation that there can be no common ground for debate. After all, where a reasoned line of argument requires evidence and rational explanation, faith requires only acceptance. From there, God or whomever is the reason for everything, direct or indirect.

Unknown said...

Good post, Bruce. At some point I think I realized that the disconnect between scientists and religious conservatives was mostly due to their different assumptions. There could be no reasonable debate between the two sides because there could be no agreed upon ground rules (basic assumptions).

It also seemed to me that the reason scientists (myself included) kept getting trounced in these debates is because they were forced to admit (through a combination of their own objectivity and rampant political correctness) that the assumptions of their opponents were just as valid as their own. Meanwhile the religious conservative was not forced to make any such concession, as doing so would imply a lack of faith. Once this concession was made, the scientist is put on the defensive. The debate then focuses on a critique of the scientific method and its inherrant uncertainty rather than its incredible success at answering many questions of practical concern. The religious position is seen to be unassailable simply because any challenge to it would be considered religion bashing by atheistic scientits (who could not possibly understand the subtlties of faith).

But I digress. After reading your post (particularly the part about having faith enough in science to trust modern technology), I've come to another conclusion. Most people will believe what they are told if it is presented in an authoratative manner (i.e. the information is from a credible source and is presented as having a high certainty). Scientists have credibility on their side, but on certain issues there remains enough uncertainty that the overall effect is a less authoratative statement. Religious pronouncements, on the other hand, are usually given an enormous amount of credibility (by virtue of people's faith in God alone). Couple this with the percieved absolute literal truth of the unchanging word of ... etc... and you get a very authoratative message. A message that typically overides most people's fair judgement when presented with conflicting ideas.