Faithful to Science

I continue to enjoy Andrew Steane’s new book Faithful to Science: The Role of Science in Religion. Below is another part of his book that I found particularly insightful.

Faith is also central to science. This is not only in the obvious (and important) sense that scientists have to talk to and trust one another, but also in two further ways which are quite telling. First is the fact that one is never certain of what one is doing, but one forges ahead anyway. Second is the fact that scientific progress is guided not by pure reason but by a combination of reason and gut instincts.  

To illustrate the first point, I can say, for example that in my experience as a physicist, I have never published a single scientific paper in which I was absolutely sure I was not mistaken in my arguments. I simply honestly believed I had done a good job and was not mistaken. If I had not gone ahead and published, I would have been left silent and would have had nothing to contribute. But I did publish, and it subsequently became clearer as things developed further that my work had been good (though not perfect), and had made a positive contribution. 

The second point, that scientific progress is not guided by reason alone, is not to say that anything downright irrational is admitted. It is partly to recognize that one cannot always build by sheer logic on what is known. Something more inventive and exploratory is involved. This is what T. H. Huxley probably had in mind when he said, ‘In scientific work, those who refuse to go beyond fact rarely get as far as fact’. Furthermore, in order to determine the value of a set of rational ideas one needs to develop a form of aesthetic judgement, and sometimes this type of judgement can be more important than having ready answers to every difficulty. Admittedly, in science we try to question our own assumptions all the time, and ‘bend over backwards’ to make sure there is no mistake in our experiments or reasoning. This is true, but it is not the whole truth. In fact, scientists also revel in defending theories against contrary evidence (up to a point), and this is a positive engine for progress, not a defect in the scientific enterprise. What happens is that a scientist, after lengthy deliberation and investigation, may come to an inspired new way of looking at a variety of natural phenomena. The scientist experiences a deep joy and not a little awe at how elegant and somehow right his or her new theory seems to be. Features of the natural world which previously appeared to be arbitrary now seem to fit into place in a wonderfully neat way. However, it often happens that there are further pieces of evidence which do not agree with the new theory, or the theory appears to make some ridiculous predictions. What does a good scientist do in such a situation? He or she makes a choice: either to reject the theory or to become an advocate for it. In the latter case, the evidence that seems to go counter to the theory will not be ignored, but arguments will be given which suggest how that evidence may be mistaken or misleading, or a simple hope will be expressed that later work will reconcile the apparent contradiction. Science absolutely depends on people taking risks of this sort.

The truth about science is, then, that is flourishes when scientists show faith in their theories: they embrace them because they are beautiful, and they put up some resistance to abandoning them. They take seriously serious counter-evidence, but they require it to prove its credentials.  

It is not hard to make the case that faith is involved when scientists launch out on their voyage of discovery, whether in picking research directions, or intuiting concepts before investing in the effort to elaborate them, and when they publish and promote their ideas. I am not trying to imply that this simplifies the more subtle question of religious faith, only that one should not regard the idea of ‘faith’ itself as an unworthy part of human nature. Faith is not contrary to reason, nor is it an alternative to reason. Faith, in the sense of engagement and eagerness for the journey, is a partner to reason. . . . Faith is not irrational, but it does go beyond what can be proved by reason.

(Andrew Steane, Faithful to Science: The Role of Science in Religion [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014], 15–18.)

For those who have ears to hear, these comments also have application for Mormon apologetics. There are some who insist that Mormon apologists presuppose their conclusions as being true, and thus are different from “critical scholars.” Actually, in my experience interacting with such groups as FairMormon, Steane is more close at describing the mindset of many apologists than other voices on the Internet.