If you haven’t watched James Burke’s fabulous series Connections, do yourself a favour and beg/borrow/steal a copy. As long as you can get past Burke’s wonderfully retro outfits (and the eerie opening shots of him at the World Trade Center in Episode 1), you’ll gain a tremendous insight into the process of knowledge; how it is that we came to know what we know, and how, through history, change has come about without the agents of change recognizing what they are doing. Moreover, Burke shows that the modern world is so complex (even in 1978, it appears), that no single person has the knowledge to understand more than a tiny portion of it. We all accept technology and progress, without really knowing what is going on behind the scenes. Moreover, if it all vanished tomorrow, not many of us would have the wherewithal to rebuild; could you fly a plane? Or plow a field? Or plant crops? Or defend yourself from intruders (human, bacterial, viral, or otherwise)?
The point is: each of us accepts the progress made possible through science (and manifested through technology). By extension, each of us accepts the validity of the scientific method, and that science is the best way that we know of to elucidate the physical, chemical, and biological truths about ourselves, our world, and our universe. We have, for want of a much better word, ‘faith’ in science; faith which has been earned through the demonstrable successes of science.
And yet, we now observe a rather curious response to the resurgence of strident atheism: the implication that atheism is “faith-based” and “fundamentalist” and that the scientific method cannot be used to justify the validity of science (otherwise known as the problem of induction). This so wholly misrepresents the issue that it is difficult to know where to begin.
First, I suppose, is the obvious retort that no one who actually proffers this response actually believes it to be true, which should tell you something about the veracity of their own claims to truth. If you do not believe that the scientific method provides real, tangible insights into the nature of the universe, then let me escort you to the nearest high cliff without a parachute; whether you accept Newtonian or Einsteinian gravitational theory, the fact is jumping off such a cliff will be, in all likelihood, particularly hazardous to your health. Those that doubt science, I am sure, will have no problem with this exercise since, the scientific method being fallible, we have no way of knowing whether gravity exists at all. The queue to test such thinking is, as you can imagine, currently vacant.
If you get on a plane, go to the hospital when you are seriously ill, take medication to cure what ails you, or do any number of other hum-drum things that owe their existence to science, and still claim that the scientific method is “faith-based” or unjustified, you are an unmitigated hypocrite.
All of this aside, one must recognize that the fundamental principle of science is falsifiability; science exists to disprove theories, not to prove them. Theories are formed to explain observable data and are refined (or even jettisoned altogether) if new data is contradictory. All scientists live by this creed (or at least pay lip service to it). Science is the very antithesis of faith and is only ‘fundamentalist’ if one accepts that deference to reason, logic, and falsifiability are shown to be inadequate to assess the literal nature of our existence.
I am not subject to any illusions; there may be questions that are profoundly beyond the reach of science. But in matters of physical reality, science has proven itself immensely qualified. Moreover, even if such “beyond science” domains exist, what reason do we have to surmise that religion can provide any answers at all?
EDIT: See my follow-up post here.