After posting my entry “Fundamentalist Science” a few days ago, I began to think about the problem more clearly, and a discussion on the forums at richarddawkins.net inspired me to write more, so here goes.
The argument is sometimes made that science is just as faith-based as religion, since it relies upon two key axioms, or assumptions:
1. There exists an objective reality
2. Past events are predictive of future events (or, put another way, the objective reality obeys laws)
Now, it is true that using the scientific method to defend the use of these axioms in science simply begs the question. But that does not imply that science is irrevocably bound to “faith”, nor does it imply that there is any real equality between scientific knowledge and religion. If we break down these axioms, and consider how they apply to science, we begin to see that the extent to which science relies on assumption is minimal, is accepted by nearly all of us (scientific or otherwise), is necessary for progress to occur, and is in no way related to religious definitions of “faith”.
Point 2, that nature obeys laws and thus that past events are predictive of future events, is a very minor axiom, and not an issue for science, since it is covered by the doctrine of falsifiability. As long as we accept that science is in the business of making statements about probabilities, rather than absolute facts, this axiom shouldn’t bother us. At 1 atm of pressure, pure water boils at 100C; we say that this statement has a very high probability of being literally true, since it has been true in every instance thus far. This may change the next time we boil pure water, in which case the probability will shrink (though not to zero, since we still have all of that prior evidence which we cannot simply discard).
The first axiom, that there exists an objective reality, is harder to deal with. But as others have discussed, it is an axiom that is accepted by nearly everyone. We have to assume that there is an objective reality, because we would get nothing done otherwise. Of course, simply because we all accept that there is an objective reality, doesn’t imply that there really is one. But it is a necessary axiom.
That having been said, it seems to me that we have good reason to believe that there is an objective reality, since different individuals can make their own measurements of “reality” and come up with the same results. If reality were subjective, we wouldn’t expect this to be so. I think we can safely state that reality if it exists (in the sense that cars, planes, footballs, and cheese sandwiches are real), it is not subjective; I don’t know whether you see red the same way I see red, but we can assume so. In any case, it makes no difference because when asked to pick out the red crayon, we both pick the same one.
The more pressing problem, it seems to me, is proving that reality, while objective, is not also illusory. Could it be that we are simply having a collective hallucination with regards to reality? We cannot dismiss this out of hand; how would we know the difference? In this case, we cannot exclude the possibility that there is something else outside of our illusory reality that cannot be detected by our science. But if we admit this, then we must accept that our science is concerned only with the illusion itself; it doesn’t matter what is outside of this illusion, since the illusion is all that affects us. Furthermore, we know of no tool that would allow us to measure things beyond the illusion of reality; we admit that current science would be powerless in this regard, but there is certainly no reason to think that religion or anything else is any better.
So, what are we left with?
First, the doctrine of falsifiability is paramount to science, and I believe that, so long as we define science as the study of probabilities of the truth, falsifiability successfully deals with the axiom that nature exists according to laws, and thus that past events are a good indicator of the future.
The second axiom, that there exists an objective reality, cannot be dealt with in this manner, and is an assumption without evidence. But it is an assumption that we are all required to make, and which we all believe to be true. Furthermore, even if we accept that no objective reality exists, it doesn’t concern us because whatever else is beyond our reality has no effect on us.
Thus, science is (a) concerned with the truth with respect to the shared objective reality, whether illusory or real and (b) concerned with probabilities of the truth of that reality.
If the religious person is willing to subject their faith to falsifiability, then it ceases to be faith, and becomes a statement of empirical reality, subject to falsifiability like any other such statement. On the other hand, if faith is not subject to falsifiability (which is virtually always the case), then it is not comparable to science. Furthermore, whether or not there is an objective reality becomes irrelevant with respect to religious faith; science has made statements about that reality which, at the very least, appear to be true; reality may be illusory, but science has done an excellent job of describing that illusion. If you don’t believe me, then feel free to jump from a plane without a parachute. Religion has done a very poor job of describing reality, real or otherwise.
Thus, scientific axioms and religious faith cannot be equated in any real way. Science must admit that its efforts are dependent upon the axioms, and scientists must be ready to jettison their beliefs should the axioms prove false. Religion doesn’t make the same claim; faith is not subject to falsifiability, nor is there any indication that it accurately describes the objective or illusory reality.