Does science require faith, like religion?
Quora.com question: Does science really require faith like religion?
“Anybody who has seriously been engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with… Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. That is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of nature and therefore a part of the very mystery that we are trying to solve.”
–Max Planck, the Nobel Prize winning physicist who founded quantum physics, and who is therefore one of the most important physicists of all time.
Virtually ALL of the founders of the major fields of science were Christians. Indeed, the very person who is credited with discovering and popularizing the scientific method (whereby the laws of science are discovered by gathering and analyzing data from experiments and observations), Sir Francis Bacon, was a devout Christian.
For those who are reluctant to accept that science is a Christian creation, here is a list of just a few of the many devout Christians who are/were absolutely crucial scientific contributors:
1) Sir Joseph J. Thomson, the founder of atomic physics.
2) Max Planck, the founder of quantum physics.
3) Sir Isaac Newton, who requires no introduction.
4) Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics.
5) James Clerk Maxwell, the founder of classical electromagnetic theory (whose contributions to science are regarded to be of the same magnitude as those of Newton and Einstein).
6) Louis Pasteur, the founder of microbiology and immunology.
7) Robert Boyle, the founder of modern chemistry.
8) Allan Sandage, one of the founders of modern astronomy.
9) Wehner von Braun, the founder of space science.
10) John Ray, the English naturalist who is regarded by many to be the founder of modern biology.
11) Werner Heisenberg, the founder of quantum mechanics (which is absolutely crucial to modern science).
12) Michael Faraday, the British scientist who made crucial contributions to the study of electromagnetism and electrochemistry.
Philosopher of science Michael Polanyi (who was also an Oxford University chemist, elected to the Royal Society) demonstrates why it is necessary to first believe before one can know. In other words, belief precedes knowing. Mark T. Mitchell discusses Polanyi’s philosophical insights in his article:
“…the rationalist, who refuses to begin with any commitment or faith and instead seeks to proceed on the basis of reason alone, actually cannot avoid beginning with faith. At the simplest level, he necessarily begins with a faith in his rational faculties. Furthermore, as Polanyi argues, all thinking persons necessarily depend on a tacit commitment to a particular tradition, which includes one’s language and one’s culture, and even to articulate a rejection of one’s tradition requires a dependence on resources provided by that tradition.”
“Since all knowing rests on a fiduciary framework, belief, as we have seen, precedes knowing. [Fiduciary is defined as ‘involving trust’] But belief requires an object, and this role is filled by tradition operating within a community committed to its perpetuation. For example, at its most basic, language requires belief. When a child learns a language, he believes that the language-speakers who surround him are not uttering gibberish. The acquisition of skills, as we have seen, requires submission to a master even though the novice does not yet comprehend the meaning of that which he is practicing. Science is no different, for the aspiring scientist must submit himself to the authority of a scientist, and such submission requires belief. ‘Thus,’ in Polanyi’s words, ‘to accord validity to science—or to any other of the great domains of the mind—is to express a faith which can be upheld only within a community. We realize here the connection between Science, Faith and Society.’ The connection is that science or any other area of knowing, depends on a fiduciary framework in which belief necessarily precedes all knowing. This belief, though, cannot exist apart from a community of believers who sustain the tradition by passing it to the next generation through a process of apprenticeship.”
Because we are so accustomed to taking our rational faculties for granted, the idea that we rely on a faith in these faculties in order to participate in activities such as science may seem strange to many in modern day society. But, as Albert Einstein famously said, “The most unintelligible thing about the universe is that it is intelligible at all.”
And unless one has spent some time studying various philosophical and cultural traditions, one may fail to realize that there have been, and continue to be, many such traditions which reject the belief that our rational faculties are reliable, and therefore that the universe can be intelligible to humans. The most up-to-date example would be the philosophical stance known as “postmodernism”. Asmentions:
“In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one’s own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.”
Postmodernism is ‘post’ because it is denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody – a characteristic of the so-called ‘modern’ mind.”
One is compelled to ask: How could scientific progress ever occur in an intellectual climate which lacks belief in such a thing as scientific truth? How could scientific progress occur among a group of people who don’t believe human rational faculties are reliable because there is no objective world for our rational faculties to study?
In short, scientific knowledge can only be constructed upon an adequate framework of underlying belief. The concept of scientists advancing science without a suitable underlying belief framework, upon which to build, is as absurd as the concept of a child advancing his/her understanding of the world without a language structure (as Polanyi alludes to above).
Here, the important question is which belief framework fits best with reality, and therefore, best allows for scientific progress. Christian beliefs are often ridiculed by skeptics of Christianity as unscientific. But the problem with this stance is that science itself is a product of Christian beliefs. In point of fact, without Christianity,there would be no science. Cambridge University historian of science Ronald Numbers notes:
“Generations of historians and sociologists have discovered many ways in which Christians, Christian beliefs, and Christian institutions played crucial roles in fashioning the tenets, methods, and institutions of what in time became modern science. They found that some forms of Christianity provided the motivation to study nature systematically; sociologist Robert Merton, for example, argued seventy years ago that Puritan belief and practice spurred seventeenth-century century Englishmen to embrace science. Scholars still debate what Merton got right and what he got wrong, and in the intervening years they have drawn a far more detailed portrait of the varied nature of the religious impetus to study nature.”
“Although they disagree about nuances, today almost all historians agree that Christianity (Catholicism as well as Protestantism) moved many early-modern intellectuals to study nature systematically. Historians have also found that notions borrowed from Christian belief found their ways into scientific discourse, with glorious results; the very notion that nature is lawful, some scholars argue, was borrowed from Christian theology.”
(Efron, N. 2010. Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion. p. 80.)
Concepts with Christian origins are necessary for modern science
Regarding Numbers’ above comments about the lawfulness of nature, please recall that the purpose of the scientific method is to discover regular, repeatable, and predictable (law-like) patterns in nature, such as the laws of physics, chemistry, and thermodynamics. This is why the scientific method demands that experiments be repeatable. Only a worldview which perceives nature as conforming to laws could give birth to the scientific method.
The Christian worldview declares that nature follows the laws instituted by God. As Robert Boyle, the founder of modern chemistry (and a Christian), put it: “The nature of this or that body is but the law of God prescribed to it [and] to speak properly, a law [is] but a notional rule of acting according to the declared will of a superior.” Or, as James Joule, the propounder of the first law of thermodynamics (also a Christian), put it: “It is evident that an acquaintance with natural laws means no less than an acquaintance with the mind of God therein expressed.”
Nancy Pearcey elaborates on specifically how Christian belief was a crucial ingredient in the birth of science in The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy:
Science “demands some kind of unique soil in which to flourish.” Deprived of that soil, it is “as capable of decay and death as any other human activity, such as a religion or a system of government.” What is that unique soil? [Science writer Lauren] Eiseley identifies it, somewhat reluctantly, as the Christian faith. “In one of those strange permutations of which history yields occasional rare examples,” he says, “it is the Christian world which finally gave birth in a clear, articulate fashion to the experimental method of science itself.”
Eiseley is not alone in observing that the Christian faith in many ways inspired the birth of modern science. Science historians have developed a renewed respect for the Middle Ages, including a renewed respect for the Christian worldview culturally and intellectually dominant during that period. Today a wide range of scholars recognize that Christianity provided both intellectual presuppositions and moral sanction for the development of modern science.
Science is the study of nature, and the possibility of science depends upon one’s attitude toward nature. Biblical religion gave to Western culture several of its fundamental assumptions about the natural world. To begin with, the Bible teaches that nature is real. If this seems too obvious to mention, recall that many belief systems regard nature as unreal. Various forms of pantheism and idealism teach that finite, particular things are merely “appearances” of the One, the Absolute, the Infinite. Individuality and separateness are illusions. Hinduism, for instance, teaches that the everyday world of material objects is maya, illusion. It is doubtful whether a philosophy that so denigrates the material world would be capable of inspiring the careful attention to it that is so necessary for science.
Many scientists, too, have noted that Christianity was a necessary ingredient for science.
But the stance that Christian belief is a necessary ingredient for science is not limited to historians of science. Prominent scientists have also taken notice of this truth. Indeed, the very person credited with establishing the scientific method, the 17th century scientist and philosopher of science Sir Francis Bacon, was himself a Christian. Bacon wrote:
“It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy brings about man’s mind to religion: for while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity.”
(Sylva Sylvarum Century X (1627))
Similarly, physicist Paul Davies, winner of the 2001 Kelvin Medal issued by the Institute of Physics and the winner of the 2002 Faraday Prize issued by the Royal Society (amongst other awards), writes:
“People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature–the laws of physics–are simply accepted as given, as brute facts. Nobody asks where they came from; at least they do not do so in polite company. However, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as law-like order in nature that is at least partly comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.”
(, Paul Davies’ Templeton Prize address, August 1995)
There can be no doubt: Atheism is quite fashionable in current day academia. But, as Davies elucidates above, even a hardened atheist scientist must borrow elements of Judeo-Christian theology in order to perform science. For example, how can the atheist worldview explain why matter so consistently follows natural laws? In short, atheism cannot explain this orderliness of the universe, but rather, must merely assume it to be a brute fact. But to accept brute facts without explanation is, well…brutish. Biochemist Melvin Calvin, winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of the Calvin Cycle, echoes Davies’ above points:
“As I try to discern the origin of that conviction, I seem to find it in a basic notion . . . enunciated first in the Western world by the ancient Hebrews: namely, that the universe is governed by a single God, and is not the product of the whims of many gods, each governing his own province according to his own laws. This monotheistic view seems to be the historical foundation for modern science.”
(Melvin Calvin (1969), Chemical Evolution (pg. 258))
Famed English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead discusses how Christian belief furnished the conceptual framework in which science could take root, and his view that the possibility of science was “an unconscious derivative of medieval [Christian] theology”:
“When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilizations when left to themselves, there seems but one source for its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality. Remember that I am not talking of the explicit beliefs of a few individuals. What I mean is the impress on the European mind arising from the unquestioned faith of centuries. By this I mean the instinctive tone of thought and not a mere creed of words.”
“In Asia, the conceptions of God were of a being who was either too arbitrary or too impersonal for such ideas to have much effect on instinctive habits of mind. Any definite occurrence might be due to the fiat of an irrational despot, or might issue from some impersonal, inscrutable origin of things. There was not the same confidence as in the intelligible rationality of a personal being. I am not arguing that the European trust in the scrutability of nature was logically justified even by its own theology. My only point is to understand how it arose. My explanation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative of medieval theology.”
(Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, p. 18-19.)
Christian beliefs provide the conceptual framework for science to flourish.
Philosopher William Lane Craig elaborates on the specific philosophical assumptions, derived from Christianity, which serve as an underlying conceptual framework necessary for science:
Christianity furnishes the conceptual framework in which science can flourish. Science is not something that is natural to mankind. …Although glimmerings of science appeared among the ancient Greeks and Chinese, modern science is the child of European civilization. Why is this so? It is due to the unique contribution of the Christian faith to Western culture. As [science writer] Eiseley states, “it is the Christian world which finally gave birth in a clear, articulate fashion to the experimental method of science itself.” In contrast to pantheistic or animistic religions, Christianity does not view the world as divine or as indwelt by spirits, but rather as the natural product of a transcendent Creator who designed and brought it into being. Thus, the world is a rational place which is open to exploration and discovery.
Furthermore, the whole scientific enterprise is based on certain assumptions which cannot be proved scientifically, but which are guaranteed by the Christian world view; for example: the laws of logic, the orderly nature of the external world, the reliability of our cognitive faculties in knowing the world, and the objectivity of the moral values used in science. I want to emphasize that science could not even exist without these assumptions, and yet these assumptions cannot be proved scientifically. They are philosophical assumptions which, interestingly, are part and parcel of a Christian world view. Thus, religion is relevant to science in that it can furnish a conceptual framework in which science can exist. More than that, the Christian religion historically did furnish the conceptual framework in which modern science was born and nurtured.
(, William Lane Craig)