Faith: the axis on which turns the wheel of science

Underneath each “fact” is a series of assumptions that cannot be proven. Like it or not, even science requires a leap of faith.

Can science be true if it has no faith?

Bill Nye, the “Science Guy”, says his “point of view is based on the facts of life” and not on faith”guesses of life.”1 For Nye, science is the only reliable, ultimate, unstoppable and undeniable guide to truth and is without faith. While scientific knowledge is the power that saves, faith, for the “Science Guy”, is a weakness that only blinds. Nye believes that science alone can save the world and faith must fade to make way for the future. That’s because, says Nye, people of faith “just can’t handle the truth.”2

But is science really faithless? Max Planck, Nobel laureate in physics and pioneer of quantum theory, thinks not. As Planck explains, “Anyone who has seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that above the entrance to the doors of the temple of science are written the words: ‘You must have faith.’ It is a quality that the scientist cannot do without.”3 For Planck, faith is the axis on which the wheel of science turns. If one does not have faith, then one may not have knowledge.

To illustrate Planck’s insight, consider Nye’s assertion, “Science is the only basis of truth. » Is this idea, in itself, really scientific claim? No way. This claim is not open to experimental testing or falsification. This is a claim that goes beyond the scientific method. There would therefore not be purely scientific reason to accept truth of the above claim. Therefore, the statement that “science is the only basis of truth” should logically be false if it were true. In philosophy, this is called a self-defeating assertion. At best, the proposition would be a paradox or mystery, but otherwise it’s just a referential incoherent.

Are there “scientific facts”?

The “Science Guy” Bill Nye is keen to trumpet the “undeniable facts of science” as opposed to the “mere guesses” of faith. But can science ever know anything definitely? Consider the confidently asserted certainty of the “central dogma of molecular biology”, proclaimed by the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix Francis Crick as a “fundamental biological law” in 1956. The central dogma holds that genetic information only flows in one direction – from DNA (and RNA) to protein, and never the other way around. This idea was seen as a biological “law of nature” that worked without exception and formed the conceptual basis for the Human Genome Project of the 1990s.

In the early 2000s, however, scientists increasingly witnessed phenomena that violated biological law. They discovered that DNA can be changed as a result of life experience and how DNA is read depends on the surrounding environment. In other words, “the body keeps the score”.4 With the discovery of what is now called epigenetics, it has become clear that information can be “transferred from a protein sequence to the genome”. Therefore, explains molecular biologist Eugene Koonin, “the central dogma of molecular biology is invalid as an ‘absolute’ principle: transfer of information from proteins (and more specifically protein sequences) to the genome Is to exist.”5 The history of science is full of such cases where scientists have found exceptions to what were once considered laws of nature without exception. How, then, can scientific facts be undeniable?

The scientific limits of science

Scientific uncertainty is perhaps the only scientific fact of which we can ever be certain. This is because science itself has discovered many areas where there are limits to what can be known through observation and experimentation. Take, for example, the big bang cosmology, the main scientific theory that describes the origin, structure and development of the universe. According to the standard big bang model, derived from Einstein’s theory of general relativity and observational data, the universe began 13.7 billion years ago in a singularity – an infinitesimally small point in which matter was infinitely compressed. Everything that exists physically, including matter, energy, space and time, came into being at the singularity of the big bang. Thus, it makes no sense to speak of physical reality or even a “time before” this point.

Science itself has discovered many areas where there are limits to what can be known by observation and experimentation.

The existence of such an initial singularity represents a fundamental limit to the powers of observation of science. Any “science” that talks about the conditions that gave rise to the singularity – like an infinite multiverse or a quantum vacuum state – isn’t really scientific because science can never test it. Affirm that science one day to be able to adequately describe the conditions “before” or “beyond” the initial singularity is not a claim based on current science but rather on philosophical faith.

While big bang cosmology reveals that there are limits to what scientists can know when studying the greatest known phenomenon (the entire universe), quantum physics has also shown that there are limits to what scientists can know when studying the smallest objects imaginable (atoms and their constituent parts). Classical physics, which was the standard view of physics before 1900, said that it was possible to know the position and motion of a given particle simultaneously with complete precision. While a classical physicist’s accuracy might, in practice, be limited only by available technology, there was in principle no reason to expect that better technology would not ultimately exceed these limits.

Quantum physics has also shown that there are limits to what scientists can know when studying the smallest objects imaginable (atoms and their components).

According to the standard view of current quantum physics, even perfect instruments cannot simultaneously measure the location and velocity of a body with impeccable precision. This fundamental limit of measurement accuracy is known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. As mathematical physicist John Barrow explains, “The quantum picture of reality introduces a new form of impossibility into our picture of the world. This impossibility replaces a past belief in unrestricted experimental investigation of Nature that was based on a misconception of what existed to be measured.”6 With quantum physics, says philosopher of science Michael Ruse, “we seem to have reached a point outside of what we can know.”seven

Can science ever be certain?

The famous philosopher of science Karl Popper has shown that the highest status that any scientific theory can achieve is “not yet falsified, despite our best efforts”.8 Scientific theories can never be verified, proven or confirmed because an infinite number of experiments remain to be performed before all other possibilities can be ruled out. Therefore, scientific theories can only be falsified. For example, it only takes one black swan to disprove the hypothesis that all swans are white. Whether a given hypothesis should be considered truly scientific, it must make testable predictions about the world that can potentially be disproven by further experimentation or eventual observation.

The cornerstone of the scientific mind is its continued openness to the possibility of being completely wrong. To make science work like science and make progress in knowledge, science must always be based on humility. If a given phenomenon appears to contradict our best-known science, then science should reserve judgment until scientists can find a way to adequately study it. Science, in principle, cannot infallibly pronounce on what is possible. Indeed, our best theory of atomic physics (quantum mechanics) says that scientific precision can only deal with probabilities. Science, in principle as in practice, can never know anything certain. So while Bill Nye’s “facts of life” may exist in theory, our current most advanced scientific knowledge of them is mediocre at best and always will be.

Featured Image: Unsplash.com, Kinson Leung

  1. Bill Nye, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation (Saint-Martin Press, 2014), 244.
  2. Nope, Undeniable18.
  3. Max Plank, Where is science going? trans. James Vincent Murphy (New York: WW Norton, 1932), 214.
  4. Nathan P. Kellermann, “Epigenetic Transmission of Holocaust Trauma: Can Nightmares Be Inherited?” Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sci. 50:1 (2013).
  5. Eugene Koonin, “Is the central dogma still valid? » Direct biology 7, no. 27 (2012): 1.
  6. John Barrow, Impossibility: the limits of science and the science of limits (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 160.
  7. Michel Ruse, Science and Spirituality: Embracing Faith in the Age of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 178
  8. Karl Popper, Logic of scientific discovery (London: Routledge, 2002), 278.