Monday, March 26, 2018

Argument that science, like religion, requires faith

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne attacks a video saying this:
For the second half of the 20th century, the best philosophers of science, philosophers like Sir Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend, attempted to explain what science consists in and how it differs from myths and religion. And no matter how hard they tried, eventually, the debate died out their realization that science, much like religion, requires faith. To choose one scientific theory over another, is simply a matter of aesthetics in the hope that this theory and all to the other is going to work out.

But there is no way to disprove or prove in theory. And since there is no way to prove it or disprove it, then there is no point where it becomes irrational for a scientist to stay with a failing theory.
Coyne is right to criticize this, but the video is essentially correct that modern philosophers have abandoned the idea that science discovers objective truths. Popper was one of the last to believe that theories could be disproved, even if they could not be proved true, but his ideas are rejected today.

I used to say that physicists are still believers in hard science, and had not succumbed to philosophers nonsense. But now too many physicists teach the multiverse and all sorts other ideas that have no scientific support at all.
So, the best example of this is the case of heliocentricism. Heliocentricism was first put forward about 2,000 years ago. And for about 1,600 years, it was a failing theory. However, at some point, Kepler and Galileo decided to take it up. And even though it was failing for 1,600 years, they managed to convert it in a very successful theory. The choice, however, to do so, was not because the theory was a good one — since obviously it was failing for a long time — but simply because they liked it and for some reason they had faith in it. So scientists choose to stay, we the few, simply because they have faith in it. So both science and religion seem to require faith, which means that it is not so easy to distinguish between creationism and evolutionary biology.
This example is what convinced Kuhn that scientific revolutions, aka paradigm shifts, are driven by scientists who had an irrational faith (Kuhn preferred the term arational), and other scientists jumping on the bandwagon like a big fad.

As ridiculous as this is, it is the dominant view among philosophers of science today. Even physicists echo this nonsense when it suits them getting papers published.

Coyne replies:
Kepler and Galileo “converted” heliocentrism to a good explanation because of OBSERVATIONS, you moron! It was not because they had “faith” that the Sun was the locus of the solar system.
That is only partially true. Kepler admitted that he could not prove that the Earth goes around the Sun.

Galileo made some excellent observations with his telescope, but his biggest argument for the motion of the Earth was with the daily tides. Galileo claimed that it caused one tide a day, which is nonsense because there are two tides a day, and they are caused by gravity, not motion.

Coyne blames religious influences for undermining views of what science is all about. I am sure that is true in many cases, but the overwhelming attacks on science in academia come from philosophers who hate religious almost as much as he does.

At least the religious folks are up-front about saying that their beliefs are based on faith.


  1. Science is based upon the required precondition that you believe the universe is humans.

    If you do not BELIEVE this, nothing else follows, as it is this axiomatic 'belief' or starting point of faith from which all else follows in scientific discovery.

    If you do not believe the universe is intelligible to humanity, you are a nihilist, and should remain silent, as it is meaningless for you to speculate, much less say or do anything to convince others of your position, other than to inflict pointless toxic existential pain on others like a cancer.

    Nihilism is the true self-consuming death of all intelligent reason and thought, the death of all understanding. Handle it carefully, and always with diligent disgust.

  2. I would say that you only have to believe that the universe is partially intelligible. Then you can pursue a scientific analysis of the part that is intelligible.

    1. But what defines intelligibility? What I find somewhat bizarre is how a great deal of evidence is simply ignored, such as we see with Rupert Sheldrake or Jacques Vallée. Science has to be defined, and, unfortunately, the most rigorous version requires controls. The problem is that most of the world cannot be approached in such a manner. Sometimes you get lucky, such as with twins, but science by this definition doesn't explain most things. Furthermore, there is a Platonic and inductive assumption behind so-called "laws" and they may not be laws at all, given time or scale. Science and invention were quite separate disciplines and the more the have merged, the slower the rate of innovation. Coincidence?

      "If you were to put an Italian peasant from 1300 in a time machine and drop him in 1870s Tuscany he wouldn’t notice much of a difference. Historians estimate that the average annual income in Italy around the year 1300 was roughly $1,600. Some 600 years later – after Columbus, Galileo, Newton, the scientific revolution, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, the invention of gunpowder, printing, and the steam engine – it was… still $1,600. Six hundred years of civilization, and the average Italian was pretty much where he’d always been. It was not until about 1880, right around the time Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, Thomas Edison patented his lightbulb, Carl Benz was tinkering with his first car, and Josephine Cochrane was ruminating on what may just be the most brilliant idea ever – the dishwasher – that our Italian peasant got swept up in the march of progress."

      See the figures presented by the historians Angus Maddison, J. Bolt, and J.L. van Zanden, “The First Update of the Maddison Project; Re-Estimating Growth Before 1820,” Maddison Project Working Paper 4 (2013)

  3. Roger,
    In either your case or mine, we still have to believe people have the capacity to understand the world and make up their own damn minds about what to think. Once you close the door on that capacity, science becomes just another esoteric dogma used for control by those who seek power.

  4. Just a counterpoint of linguistic analysis here since I'm not a historian of science, merely a guy who once read Kuhn.

    "Kepler admitted that he could not prove that the Earth goes around the Sun." That says nothing to me about Kepler's observations, except that he observed something which he decided he could not prove via other observations. Moreover, to say that it render's Coyne's statement "only partially true" seems a bit off. Ex ante, that sounds waffley because "partially" might by definition indeed be "mostly". I'm not sure how you get from the fact that Kepler saw one thing he couldn't explain, to a judgment that Kepler did not [largely; for the most part] develop heliocentrism from other observations which he presumably did understand.

    >> Kepler and Galileo “converted” heliocentrism to a good explanation because of OBSERVATIONS [...]

    If I missed something easily explained, thanks in advance.

  5. Motion is relative. Whether you prefer to say "the Earth goes around the Sun" or "the Sun goes around the Earth" is a matter of taste.

    There is no observation that resolves the matter, as our best theories say that either view is acceptable.