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What is faith, other than believing in something without, or in spite of, evidence?

Patrick Powers

I don't believe in faith. What is it other than believing in something without/in spite of evidence? That's what most people do, but it just isn't my thing. I'm a scientist.

However, today's scientist has a surprising amount of faith. So I may write about things that scientists and their followers have faith in that aren't supported by any evidence. Science has become to some degree a religion, a faith-based initiative. Exhibit A is the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution. It is a very useful theory that explains a lot, and is so logical that it seem self-evidently true. But now it is used to refute the idea of intelligent design. Huh? The Darwin-Wallace theory is entirely consistent with intelligent design. Indeed, as far as I'm concerned Darwin-Wallace supports intelligent design. To me it seems it would be quite intelligent for a designer to use such a powerful method.

As far as I know, there is no way to disprove intelligent design. The jargon that is usually used is that intelligent design is not falsifiable. Some think that any unfalsifiable question is beyond the reach of the scientific method. There is no experiment that can disprove it. So how did atheism get to be part of science? Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein certainly didn't think so. Isaac thought that the Solar System might need a divine nudge every now and then to keep the gimcrack system working. Maybe it does. We don't know.

Often in science there are beliefs that are neither wrong nor right. That is, there is no evidence either for or against them. There is the belief that the human mind affects what is going on at the quantum level, that our minds to some degree create our physical world. Maybe that's true, maybe it isn't. It is another one of those unfalsifiable things so you can believe it if you want too, but this is faith as far as I'm concerned. Believers have heavyweights Werner Heisenberg and Neils Bohr on their side. That renders it a respectable belief, but most physicists today don't subscribe to this. Even if you do believe that your mind can control matter, what if a more powerful mind has a differing view as to what said matter should do?

Then there are many commonly held views that are thought to be supported by science but actually aren't. Over and over again I see that "the Universe began with a point" that expanded into empty space Scientists never believed that: if there is empty space surrounding the Universe, then we know nothing about it. We can't assume it is there. What's more, most scientists nowadays believe that the Universe was already infinitely large at the moment it came to be. But once an idea gets into the popular canon it is very hard to get it back out. Trying to get rid of "the Universe began as a point" is like trying to eradicate crabgrass.

One of the nice things about science is that, in the words of Warren Buffet, "you don't have to swing." (Iowan Warren was talking about baseball, not California partner swapping.) There is no three strikes, you're out. You don't have to choose sides on a scientific question. It is perfectly OK to hang back, reserve judgement, and wait for things to develop. If you aren't convinced, it is up to other scientists to provide the evidence and arguments.

However, this can be taken too far. You might be surprised how many scientists will cling to concepts for which there is overwhelming evidence against. There is forty years worth of experimental evidence for what Albert Einstein decried as "spooky action at a distance," but in my experience most physicists still don't accept it. They hope that some loophole will be found. Unscientific, I say. (The curious and intrepid may investigate Bell's Theorem.)

All this being said, there is less faith involved in physics than in other sciences. Twentieth century economics is based on the assumption that people always behave rationally. They can't really believe that. Or taking it to the other extreme, psychologist B.F. Skinner's assertion that the conscious mind doesn't exist. They can't both be right.

Then there's religious faith. The religious stance used to be that the fossils and so forth were faked by God as a test of Man's faith. If you let physical evidence mislead you into turning away from faith in the Bible then you would go to hell. Be persuaded by evidence, suffer eternal damnation. Hah, you thought you were so smart! I always liked the extremely in-your-face quality of this unfalsifiable argument. It could be true. Why take a chance? Play it safe. Sadly, religion has retreated to the more restrained intelligent design position. Oh, ye of little faith.

What say the faithful nowadays? A contemporary Christian who reasoned thusly. He sought perfect truth. Perfect truth, being perfect, could never change. Science changed, religion didn't, so his only option was religion. His logic remains irrefutable. Nevertheless, I'm sticking with science. Logic has it limitations.

Has science killed faith? Not at all. I think that faith has been incorporated into science, that it has become to a small degree a religion with a priesthood. Those involved must at least pretend to have faith. Denial of tenure takes the place of excommunication. Nevertheless, physics still gets my vote. It's the best game in town.

Patrick Powers is a bass guitarist and poet, formerly of Bali, now living in northern Michigan. Graphcs: NASA Pioneer 10 golden plaque; panels from Chick Publications creationist comic tract.

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