Does Science Require Faith, Too?

Different ways of dealing with the unknown

With all the circumstances needed for life to exist, it seems more plausible that someone would be orchestrating it.

The above was recently said to me by my acquaintance Tammy Gregg who contacted me when she was considering leaving Christianity and has since returned to it. This conversation began as a discussion of the ethics of persuasive writing, then shifted to the topic of hell and God’s love; eventually we ended up talking about faith and the origin of the universe.

I responded to her statement: “If a complex set of circumstances requires a more complex being to create them, where does that logic end? Doesn’t God’s vast complexity require an even greater intelligence, and so on?”

To me, it makes more sense the other way around — complexity seems to emerge from the interaction of simpler units.

Looking back into the history of the universe using astronomical data, we understand that hydrogen clouds condense into stars, where they undergo fusion reactions and eventually go supernova, distributing higher elements and ultimately creating solar systems like our own.

Using the fossil record and DNA analysis we can infer that life has grown increasingly complex since it first emerged a few billion years ago, and now here we are, riding the wave of the evolution of consciousness, which is getting more complicated all the time.

She replied: “Indeed, if every complex thing requires a creator then it’s hard to understand what might be going on above the level of God. Does God have a god? I don’t know, but I’m OK with that; I take it on faith that I don’t need to know.

“Similarly, you can reduce matter down to simpler and simpler units, even down to subatomic particles — but where does that logic end? Where did atoms come from? You don’t know that, either, so you have to take it on faith that it happened anyway, and that somehow consciousness came to exist out of all this mess. You’re OK with that, aren’t you? None of us can have a solid answer, so the question isn’t whether you have faith; it’s ‘what idea do you have faith in?’”

To some extent, I agree with her: the universe’s origin is certainly a mystery far beyond what we can understand. Scientists might never have a solid answer to the question of why the universe exists or how it began. I accept that I will never know these things for sure, even though I have an opinion about which origin story makes the most sense.

But I do contest the idea that we all equally have faith in something. It’s a talking point I’ve heard before, sometimes phrased as “everyone worships something”, as a way to imply that there’s nothing unusual about religious faith — because everyone accepts some kind of answer to the unknowable questions, and we’re all guessing wildly as to what the truth is.

Sure, we all trust in ideas that we can’t fully prove. For example, I generally believe the scientific community does their best to create models of reality that align with real evidence. I can never prove that all scientific ideas are legitimate, or verify them all for myself, but I have a certain level of confidence in the underlying scientific method.

I don’t automatically trust everything science thinks is true, and I know there will always be dishonest scientists. There are are problems in the community, for example, when people rush to publish exciting new findings — for notoriety and funding — rather than working diligently to verify every step of their work. Of course. Nothing is perfect, so you have to stay skeptical and use your own discernment. Still, I don’t know of any other system of inquiry that does a more honest job of discovering the truth of the reality we find ourselves in.

To me, valuing the scientific method is categorically different from the kind of faith that is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

Scientists are real. They objectively exist. You can see them and talk to them and ask them questions. You can study science tangibly; you can do experiments with material objects that demonstrate the laws of physics and chemistry right before your eyes. You can make accurate predictions about the future using mathematical equations. You can witness the advance of technology based on the effectiveness of the scientific method — for example, the fact that you’re able to read this article on your device right now, which you couldn’t have done 50 years ago.

Science doesn’t ask me to accept anything on blind faith. If I want to verify a claim, I can investigate the evidence for myself — and if I can demonstrate that the scientific consensus about a topic is incorrect, then the consensus will have to change as it gains access to my contradictory data.

Where religion says “we have all the answers we need in scripture” and “no new information can change what we know about God”, science is willing to say “I don’t know the answer, but let’s keep looking for evidence” and “show me good data and I’ll change my mind.” Scientists even get excited when they say “look, we were wrong all along!”

I have no problem admitting that the origin of the universe is shrouded in mystery and we will probably never understand it. It seems that religion can’t handle not having an answer, though, and so it creates the idea of a creator, who is kind of similar to a human, who created humans to be the pinnacle of creation. They have an answer, and it’s one that puts them in a special, significant role, so they are satisfied.

Humans conceived of God back in the time when we thought the Earth was the center of the universe, so of course we thought we were the pinnacle of creation. Eventually we realized the Earth orbits the sun, and the sun is just one of the many stars in the sky. It’s only in the last 100 years we realized there is a vast universe beyond our galaxy, and in fact there are at least 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. In that light, it seems clear that any claims of a personal God are only an attempt to grasp at a meaning for our existence, like all creation myths that sprung up around the world.

I’m honestly fine with the idea that there is a higher consciousness somewhere beyond us (how could we disprove that?), but if anything is so vast that it was able to create the whole universe, then certainly any attempts by humans to name, describe, or understand this entity are futile. If it wanted us to understand it, surely it could have been a lot more clear in presenting itself.

My acquaintance then asked: “How would you describe your acceptance of not knowing the answer (until science finds it)? There’s no concrete proof that science will definitely find an answer. They may come closer, but for now you say ‘I’m satisfied’. You keep searching, and the unknown doesn’t destroy you.”

I assume she meant to draw a comparison between religion’s blind spots and my acceptance of the unknown: we all seek to understand as much as we can, and then we accept what’s unknowable.

My position is that having unknowns is inevitable, and natural, and I leave it at that. I don’t expect to be able to know everything — I only want to believe in what has evidence. It’s nice when we find answers, but ultimately it doesn’t matter if we do; there’s no cosmic significance riding on our figuring it out. It’s just fun to try. It’s part of our curious nature.

Learning to think of it this way came as a relief compared to my previous struggle to believe in a God for whom I find no direct evidence. I thought having access to divine knowledge would answer a lot of questions about the nature of things, but it actually left me feeling more confused about what was real.

To me, the big difference between science and religion is that science derives directly from the physical reality that surrounds us. Religion requires an acceptance that certain claims about an invisible deity are absolutely true, and that ancient mythologies are factually — or at least morally — reliable. This kind of faith can interfere with an objective interpretation of reality.

I don’t see any harm in embracing a religious tradition if it’s one that you’ve aligned yourself with because it meshes with your personal values, allows you to remain open to new ideas, and motivates you to become a better person.

But I do think accepting a supernatural worldview takes more faith than the alternative, and I think that when this faith comes in the form of dogmatic fundamentalism it can be quite harmful to individuals and society at large.

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