Should we trust science?

Today, I’d like to address a second issue from Canterrain’s post at LifeQuill. They write:

Let me pose this question.  Right now Science has yet to find an answer for an impossible number of things.  Should I therefore no longer treat Science as a valid point of view, or something to be trusted because it can’t provide me the answers to the hard questions “right now?”

The answer is of course no.  And the same applies to the hard questions regarding Christianity.

This example of a potential objection to science is not analogous to my complaints about Christianity and, more generally, the Bible as a supposedly authoritative document. No one’s saying that Christianity shouldn’t be trusted because it doesn’t offer an answer to some random difficult question. The objection I was discussing was primarily grounded in the existence of blatant logical contradictions in the text of the Bible. It says that a particular rule for good behavior exists, and later says that that rule does not exist. It describes the same stories multiple times with key details, such as names, numbers, and sequences of events, that do not match up.  This leads to a question that goes something like: “How do you reconcile these apparently irreconcilable statements, and go on believing that the Bible is a reliable and true text?” Christians do not seem to have an answer for this question. I have yet to hear the Christian way to pick which parts of the Bible are definitely true.

It’s undoubtedly true that there are questions that science is unable to answer. However, these questions are not like the questions that Christianity is unable to answer. Most of what science can’t answer is in areas where we have not yet applied science, new topics we have not yet fully explored, or in areas where science does not really apply and cannot answer any questions, things that are more a matter of opinion than testable fact. Science has not claimed to have these answers, whereas Christianity did claim to have its answers — at least two of them, in fact.

All in all, I think the disanalogy makes this an unconvincing line of argumentation against what I said about contradictions in the Bible. Nevertheless, people do bring up this idea of whether science is worth trusting quite a bit when arguing with atheists, so I think it merits some further discussion.

Let’s consider a very slightly more analogous special case, the parts of science that don’t quite match up with other parts of science. (I believe this is still ultimately disanalogous.) The example that comes to mind most readily is the way that general relativity applies to the very large (in terms of mass, time, and space), and that quantum mechanics applies to the very small.  These approaches have not been reconciled at the boundary; if you “scale up” quantum mechanics you do not get the results of general relativity, and if you “scale down” general relativity you do not arrive at quantum mechanics. An apparent contradiction!

Yet each of these scientific theories has been verified to the best of our abilities, in the regimes in which they are supposed to apply. No one is claiming that quantum mechanics (or general relativity) on its own should describe every interaction, that its axioms are always in effect in the system you are considering. Scientists are open about the fact that science is a work in progress. We don’t have a theory of everything that describes physical laws on every scale. What we are pretty sure of is that whatever that theory of everything is, in the limit of the very small, that theory of everything should reduce to a form very much like quantum mechanics, and in the limit of the very large, that theory of everything should reduce to something closely resembling general relativity.

When we say that we should “trust science,” we don’t mean that we should put our uncritical faith in the idea that science has all the answers to every question. Trusting science means valuing the scientific method. In most cases, this doesn’t mean the thing you learned in third grade where you write down a hypothesis, then do experiments, etc. etc. The “scientific approach” refers more generally to the process of making observations about the world and drawing the best possible logical inferences from those observations. By definition, somewhat tautologically, this means that you will get the best answers possible from science — assuming that you value logic in the first place.

On the other hand, trusting religion does mean using uncritical faith to get answers. Not only does religion not particularly value logical inference as a way of deriving information about the world, on many issues it asks adherents to behave deliberately illogically, assuming things to be true in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary, or at least in the face of vast improbabilities and a total lack of evidence in favor.

Theists, maybe you don’t think that logic is a good process to use to gain knowledge about the world around us. I think logic is the best thing we have to go on — but I admit that that’s a decision that is, by necessity, made illogically. Looking at the number of debates and rational discussions between theists and atheists on the topic of what we ought to believe, it seems to me that the vast majority of us are working on the assumption that we should be using logic — debate would be a nonsensical activity otherwise.

If you value logic, science is obviously, definitionally, worth trusting. At the same time, I argue, religion is pretty clearly not.

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1 Comment

  1. My apologies for late responses. Work schedule has me busy.

    I’d like to respond to this, your other post concerning my comments, and your comment on my site. This is going to take time, again due to a work schedule. (Apparently mostly ignoring a blog doesn’t pay millions a year, who knew?)

    But please know I have been paying attention, and am already forming thoughts on a response.

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