Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Science, another faith system ?

  1. Oct 23, 2005 #1

    A friend of mine has a very bitter attitude towards science. We've had numerous arguments and his main reason for this bitterness is that science is just another faith system, kinda like a religion. I failed to convince him that unlike faith, science's strength is the fact that it is backed up by experiments, but nonetheless he always managed to defend his point. I know that our argument is purely formal and more of a play on words than anything else, but I would still like to prove my point.

    So his claim is that I believe the different theories of physics just because I go to class and my professors or my text books tell me so, which is no different than going to church and believing what a preacher says there. But I said that unlike the church, I am able to check what I am being told through scientific experiments. So he asked me: Do you believe in the theory of gravity and I said yes and told him that I can give him a lot of experimental evidence. So he asked me, well what if someone tells you that an object falls downward because it is god's will, then it is very easy to construct a hypothesis that could be tested with millions of experiements and every time it will prove that the hypothesis that god's will makes objects fall is always correct !

    I argued saying that in this case all that you've done was give gravity a different name (i.e. god's will)...but you can find other situations where this reasoning doesn't work too good.

    How can you argue against that?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 23, 2005 #2


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    You can't and you shouldn't.

    If God is indeed real and is all-powerful, then he's pretty much responsible for anything and everything and can do anything and everything. There's nothing about God that can be tested and no logical statement that can be made to prove it's impossibility or plausibility. Anyone who thinks there is is sorely mistaken and wasting their time.
  4. Oct 24, 2005 #3


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member

    Science discards of such hypotheses by the principle of parsimony. That is, when two competing hypotheses have equal explanatory power and there is no other reason to choose one over the other, science will choose the hypothesis that postulates the least number of entities in its explanation. I still like this old example I heard years back:

    Take a wall clock. Hypothesis A postulates that the hands on the clock move because electricity from the wiring system is converted into mechanical energy in the gears, which transfer this energy continuously into the hands of the clock. Hypothesis B postulates that the hands on the clock move because there are invisible gremlins sitting on the gears that make them move, always in accordance with the laws of mechanics that dictate the behavior of solid bodies.

    Both hypotheses have equal explanatory and predictive power. However, hypothesis A does not require us to believe in the existence of intangible and superfluous entities, whereas hypothesis B does. Since hypothesis B postulates the existence of entities that are not necessary to the explanation (that is, the mechanical laws of energy transferrence are themselves enough to explain why the gears move the hands), we discard this hypothesis and accept hypothesis A.

    The hypothesis that your friend is putting forth was formulated most prominently by Malebranche, a contemporary of Descartes', and is called Occasionalism. Stated in its barest form, occasionalism is the hypothesis that there exists no such thing as physical causation; that is, there are no physical laws dictating the behavior of our world. Instead, the world is simply created moment by moment by God in a regular and predictable fashion to give the appearance of temporally sequential events causing one another. You can probably look up "occasionalism" online and find arguments for and against it, although the discussion will be dated. There is no one that I know of since the 18th century at the latest that has believed this.
  5. Oct 24, 2005 #4


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Well, for one thing, it is impossible to prove conclusively a general law like the law of gravity. If we find that experimental outcomes thus far have always agreed with a given law, all this shows is that our law is consistent with results we have already achieved; it is not a proof that the law extends over all possible cases. So scientific hypotheses cannot be proven true, but rather they can only be falsified (although if a particular hypothesis is very resistent to falsification, we may then have high confidence that it is true). This is called the problem of induction if you want to look into it further. But perhaps that's only tangential to your main concern here.

    loseyourname has provided an excellent overarching account of what is at work here, but here are some further considerations.

    Try telling your friend that from the time of your birth, it has been your will that has caused the sun to rise everyday. (If he asks you to make the sun rise earlier than it should, you can simply say that such a thing would be against your will.) Sure enough, the sun will rise every day, and by your friend's lights the hypothesis that your will is the cause will have been verified. If your friend finds this argument absurd, and if he is to be consistent in his reasoning, then he must also find his own argument absurd.

    Going beyond that, you can triangulate on what exactly is wrong with the argument, which is basically that it mixes physics with metaphysics. Physical hypotheses are about objectively observable phenomena, and they can be falsified when a predicted observable does not agree with an actual observable. Metaphysical hypotheses are not empirically falsifiable in this way. This is the difference between the scientific view of gravity and your friend's view of God's will: the former is a physical theory, the latter metaphysical. The former can be falsified by observing a physical system to behave in ways that contradict the theory's predictions, while the latter cannot be falsified at all.

    Suppose that we drop a ball to the floor many times, measure its acceleration and so on, and find this in agreement with the physical law of gravitation. This is a kind of limited verification of the physical theory (if it were not, we should have measured different results). But it is not a verification of the view that God's will is the underlying cause! In this case we have to consider two hypothetical scenarios:

    1) The ball is acting in accordance with the laws of gravity, and this is not caused by God's will.
    2) The ball is acting in accordance with the laws of gravity, and this is caused by God's will.

    Our experiments with the dropped ball are equally consistent with both hypotheses. How can we determine which is right? In order to compare the two above hypotheses, (1) and (2), we would have to show that they disagree about what should happen under some circumstance, and then we would have to observe that circumstance in reality and see which hypothesis generated the correct prediction. It should be clear, though, that we cannot really establish such a difference of prediction between the two hypotheses without being completely arbitrary or subject to significant doubt or second-guessing, etc. There is the big difference between scientific theories and your friend's metaphysical theories. One is testable in an objective, empirical sense and the other isn't.

    In a nutshell: Different scientific theories will make different predictions about physical observables, and we can use these different predictions to compare and falsify competing scientific theories. However, different metaphysical theories will not necessarily make different predictions about physical observables; multiple metaphysical views can be logically consistent with the same observed phenomena. Thus we have no firm empirical basis upon which we can compare and falsify such metaphysical theories. And of course, your friend's example of God's will is an instance of a metaphysical idea, not a scientific one.
    Last edited: Oct 24, 2005
  6. Oct 24, 2005 #5


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Hey by the way... what is that one saying about science...

    Something like "physics is just the culmination of a bunch of very precise measurements"

    Or something... maybe its not even close to that but it has to ring a bell with someone...
  7. Oct 24, 2005 #6
    There's your problem right there.
  8. Oct 24, 2005 #7
    ask him if the universe is composed of fundamental building blocks

    then ask him what god is made of

    then ask him if god's hand creates gravity then over teh # of particles > some M
    god's hand is in all those places simultaenously so he travels instantly
    over many ly or pc OR does he have that many hands

    if he has that many hands stretching...then what is he made out of
    Last edited: Oct 24, 2005
  9. Oct 24, 2005 #8
    And while he's at it, he can ask what the fundamental building blocks are made of.
  10. Oct 24, 2005 #9

    Les Sleeth

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    There is a difference between the ideals of science and how some people might relate to it. In terms of the ideal, science isn’t a “faith,” it is an epistomological method. It deserves faith in those areas it has proven to be an effective method for producing knowledge.

    Regarding “faith” as it applies to spirituality, there too are ideals and how some people relate to it. In the ideal, one has learned certain subjective skills, and to the degree those skills produce results, they deserve faith.

    Then there is another meaning associated with faith, and that is blind faith. In that case, people have faith in areas where a method hasn’t proven itself effective.

    Do some people relate to science with blind faith? You better believe it, so much so even scientists have referred to the attitude as secularly religious.

    However, it seems your friend is generalizing about all practitioners of science, which isn’t a fair assessment. There is nothing wrong with having faith in what has been proven to work in ways it has been proven to work.
  11. Oct 25, 2005 #10


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Many good replies, few answers. That is the nature of science. You collect the available evidence, position each piece where it appears to fit, and take your best guess. As additional evidence is acquired, you rearrange the pieces to their best fit position and proceed from there. Pieces are ejected when, and only when, the preponderance of evidence indicates they do not fit.
  12. Oct 29, 2005 #11
    wow ... very great feedback.

    So do we conclude that it is almost impossible to prove that a great scientific theory, say Relativity or electromagnetism or anything that we as scientists and physicists managed to convince ourselves of their accuracy, is not any better than a religious mass where the priest tells the flock that god said let their be light and that god created the earth and heavens in 6 days?

    I am no philosopher, but the two just don't sound to me equally worthy.
  13. Oct 29, 2005 #12
    ? If a thing has been "proven to work", then you have 0.0 % faith that it works, but you have some high percentage of uncertain knowledge that it works. For example, one does not hold by faith that gravity on earth has been "proven to work", one holds it via knowledge gained by scientific method. Likewise, one does not hold by faith that meditation has been proven to work, one holds it by knowledge gained via observation and experimentation on the human brain. I post again my philosophy on this: if what you hold to be true is based on 100 % faith, then you have 0.0 % knowledge of that which in reality is true.
  14. Nov 1, 2005 #13
    To play the Devil's Advocate or in this case God's advocate for the moment,
    the case of gravity is the prime example to use. Gravity doesn't fit in with QM, it is indistinguishable from inertia, it is addressed in Relativity but there is no evidence yet that it is correct as no gravity waves or gravitons have yet been detected. Newton didn't address it at all just explained some of its properties. In short, it is but we don't know what it is or how or why it is. Is it a property of matter, mass, energy? If so what is it that makes it so?

    There is no theory that can be tested or verified. There is only observations of what it does. None to how or why it does. God made or makes it so is as good an answer as any other especially since there isn't any other answer or theory that can be tested and verified.

    It is simply a matter of faith which you choose to believe, God or Physics. There is no valid reason other than personal bias for choosing one over the other. I personally believe in Physics but also believe that God made the physical laws of Physics when he created the physical universe. I know many will disagree; but, prove me wrong. Faith in Science with no God, faith in God with no science, or faith in God's Science, (Science is the study of knowing God's mind.) its your choice.
  15. Nov 1, 2005 #14
    But, how is a scientist to even consider this a valid hypothesis to attempt to falsify ? Science works within the rules provided by the laws of Physics, and by your view, these material rules did not exist prior to god forming them, thus, you have set up a request that is impossible to be answered by science.
  16. Nov 1, 2005 #15
    Yes, I know. There are many things not yet possible to be answered by science even though they are within its area of study. This is why so many things remain based on faith, even scientific things not just religious things.

    There is nothing wrong with this, nor is it a short coming or hindrance. It just is. Those who think science is totally fact based and somehow more respectable, reasonable or logical than faith based religion or anything else need to examine their own beliefs. This is all Moneer81's friend is pointing out and so many science students and teachers deny so energetically. So much of what we think we know is really faith when it comes right down to it.
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2005
  17. Nov 1, 2005 #16


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    This is not so. Just because we don't know everything about gravity, doesn't mean we don't know anything about gravity. I just dropped my remote and it hit the ground - another successful test of our theories of gravity!

    Our theories of gravity do make predictions outside the scope of what was initially observed. They are not ad hoc descriptions, a la Ptolmey's epicycles. Ptolmey's epicycles cannot be derived from first principles, but only constructed from observations. That means that if we find another planet, Ptolmey's epicycles cannot be used to describe it's motion, given only it's position and velocity. But our existing theory of gravity can. Furthermore, our existing theory predicted completely separate phenomena such as gravitational lensing.

    They are also not arbitrary, as a hand-of-God explanation would have to be.
    Why is that necessary?
    That is only true if you believe the coincidence theory: that when I dropped my remote and it hit the ground, God choose to do that. And every time I have done that in the past, God has choosen to make it do that. Scientifically, that makes God superfluous, and that makes a belief in God (based strictly on that experiment) unscientific. Accepting that the scientific theory is correct is the logically superior position.
    That is different from what you are arguing above. In fact, you just said you do agree with science. Even if science was created by God (fine!), that does not change the validity of science. Science still works. It's still correct. The belief in God is still superfluous. Still irrelevant. Believe it if you want, but that doesn't change that science is correct - even if your idea about God's creation of science is also correct.
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2005
  18. Nov 1, 2005 #17


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    But that doesn't make science a faith, it just means science isn't finished yet.
    Huh? Wait - when science doesn't know something - when evidence hasn't been found or a theory hasn't been worked out yet, scientists admit they don't know. Scientists do not revert to faith in that situation (except in that they someday will figure it out, but again, that isn't the same thing). You're citing a difference and calling it a similarity!
    No. What we know, we know, and what we don't know, we admit we don't know! We do not claim to know what we don't know. The very word "theory" means 'tentative explanation awaiting confirmation'. A scientist can't be acting on faith unless he is actually lying when he uses the word!
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2005
  19. Nov 2, 2005 #18
    What do scientists know?
  20. Nov 2, 2005 #19


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    I know that when I dropped my remote, it fell to the ground, as predicted by our current theory of gravity.
  21. Nov 2, 2005 #20
    How quaint it would seem if we read someone's statement from 100 years ago:

    We would smile and say "He didn't know what he thought he knew." Got anything else?
  22. Nov 2, 2005 #21
    russ, I have every bit as much faith in gravity as you and the next guy. I have no doubt that it exists or at least that its effects exist.

    Just as all of our sciences can be reduced to physics, all of physics can be further reduced down to a relative few elegant laws, theories, assumptions and undefined phenomena. However, once all this reduction is done it is no longer science but philosophy. Philosophy is by definition faith based as it is believed, accepted, as true without proof.

    Science attempts to answer how, what, where and when. Philosophy attempts to answer why and what it is. For instance,what is gravity, mass, energy, space, time etc? Did the the Big Bang actually occur and if so, how, why? Are the laws of physics everywhere consistent though out the universe, all of reality? "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

    We have no way of answering these questions with science or philosophy and certainly no way of proving them. Therefore if we accept them as true and believe them to be true then this is faith by the definition given above, belief without proof.
  23. Nov 2, 2005 #22
    I do understand what you're saying and I essentially don't disagree with you.
    However, I would still say that what the man 100 years ago said was correct.

    Using the Newtonian Field equation he would have gotten a scalar potential for gravity.
    Let us say the usual one:
    [tex]U = \frac{- G M m}{r}[/tex]

    And using this and the rules of vector calculus he could have predicted the fall of the object.

    What he was wrong about was that this scalar potential and vector calculus aren't sufficient to explain all of gravity's effects.

    He had appropriate concepts for the level he was discussing.

    Just as F = ma, is true or applicable on the Newtonian level.
    The concepts are justify.
    I'm not saying it's true in an absolute sense or it is fundamentally what reality is like. (As we know it is not)
    However it is true of the emergent phenomena of classical physics, just as the Newtonian Field Equation and the potential I gave above is true of the emergent "Newtonian gravity".

    To use an analogy (to make myself more lucid to others) when I say that a surge in electrical power will blow a light bulb, using rules from electronic engineering, even though I am not describing it in terms of the fundamental quantum electrodynamical processes, what I say is still correct.
    A surge in current will blow the bulb, (as described by the laws governing the current flow, voltage, e.t.c.), even though current is an emergent phenomena, we know this.

    So the remote will fall to the ground dropping through lower and lower values of scalar potential, governed by Newton's laws and this is true, we know this.
    Even though Newton's laws describe emergent "Newtonian Gravity" and are not fundamentally correct.

    Newtonain Gravity exists, just as current exists.

    I've probably been dreadfully unclear, but I hope that explains what I mean.
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2005
  24. Nov 2, 2005 #23
    Newtonian Gravity talks about things that from a modern point of view don't even exist, absolute space, time, momentum, energy, etc.

    But at a deeper level, no model should be confused with the thing being modeled. As someone's signature says: "The map is not the territory."
  25. Nov 2, 2005 #24
    Sorry, that is an err of my wording.

    I don't mean to say that "Newtonian Gravity", the abstract idea, is actual out there in a tangible form.
    Just that Newtonian gravitational systems as a classical ideal exists just a classical current in wire exists.
    That is to say not in actuality, but in spirit.*
    If you see what I mean.

    Classical momentum doesn't actually fundamentally exist, but it is an emergent entity.
    Even though it never truely gains reality, within the classical limit it is almost there.
    Similarly even though classical current doesn't exist, systems on our scale converge toward this ideal, to the extent that it is practically there.
    This is kind of what I was trying to say in the last post.

    *A poor word choice, but I couldn't think of a more appropriate one.
  26. Nov 3, 2005 #25


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    This reminds me of something I see often that I think needs to be used more carefully; when you talk of someone relating to science with blind faith, what do you mean by science? Scientific method, results/observations/evidence provided by employing scientific method, or the interpretations/conclusions drawn by scientists based on those results/observations/evidence? I think the blind faith aspect comes not from the method or the results, but in the unquestioned acceptance of conclusions drawn from those. One of the first things I teach grad students (undergrads too if I have the opportunity to do so) is not to just accept the conclusions anyone makes, even if it's in a peer reviewed paper. Conclusions can change when new evidence comes to light, it's more important to make sure the method is used correctly and the results are accurate. I teach them to treat the conclusions of any paper as a newly revised hypothesis; that's all it usually is.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook