Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Faith of a different sort

So having finals upon us should be no excuse to stop the advancement of scientific and philosophical thought on here. So when I wandered into town today to do a favour for my dad (30 min walk for me, 3 hour drive for him) I saw a stall with a sign talking about truth. I still have no idea what a truth is so I thought I would have a look at what truths they were talking about. It was a stall full of Jehovah’s witnesses and I was very nice and polite before you say anything! I always am to there face. Being nasty and telling them, ‘you are probably was wrong as you can be’ doesn’t help win them over to your cause! Richard Dawkins QED. But over our chat I mentioned I supported evolution and was an atheist. But they suggested trusting some of the gaps in evolution had an explanation needed faith. This is an interesting one. It doesn’t but it requires something. I know very little physics and geology. If someone was to question the age of the earth in front of me I would have to turn around I say ‘I don’t know how they worked it out and don’t understand the sciences behind it’ so is it faith in these people I have in other scientists? Probably. But is it bad or wrong for me. I think it is a different sort of faith. First of all it is not blind absolute trust. I know I can easily be wrong about many things (it doesn’t happen often enough though) and I know other can be.

We all need to have this kind of faith to get through life. We cannot know everything so we need to trust others or ‘the system’. Imagine a friend offers you a life in there car but you have never seen them drive before in your life. You don’t know if they are good or bad or will get you killed or not. But you get in anyway. Perhaps because you are so lazy you don’t care if you could die as long as it gets you there faster like me. Or because you have faith that having passed a driving test and having belief in there abilities means you can trust them. It is like knowing peer reviewing produces mostly good knowledge and the author is confident in the results even if you don’t understand the experiments or the maths used to analyse it. This evidence based faith is not a bad thing but needs use to take the results with a large pinch of results. It is not perfect. Sometimes someone who you think would be a good driver turns out not to be while taking a ‘fact’ at face value because you trust the scientist you get it from could mean you are wrong but sometimes we need to take these ‘leaps of faith’. Just know that is what you are doing when you do.

Agree or not?


Catarina Vicente said...

yay, and a post finally! Can leave developmental biology for a minute then!

Very interesting topic... I do think it is a different sort of faith, because you may not know everything about how they got to the conclusion, you know the 'mechanisms' of science pretty well: you know they had an hypothesis, they tested it with controls, that the article must have been peer reviewed and that all the competitors will be around to point out any flaws. So I would call it an 'educated' faith. If Jesus published a paper in Nature methods on how to multiply fish and bread, I would probably believe it. Because I knew that the same methods I use for my experiments must have been used for his.

But of course we can't accept everything blindly, and that is part of our science education to learn that and to learn were the flaws may be. And at York at least they seem to like us to criticize other people's work. I'll never forget that brilliant tutorial with Simon when he basically tore apart a Nature paper. It was incredibly mind-opening. It teaches you about the limitation of your fait in other scientists. If there's something that religion never says is that there are limits to your faith, and that makes all the difference

Menelaos Symeonides said...

This is mostly a semantics issue. Faith junkies love to hear scientists admit they have faith, and proceed to parade the fact around with the aim to present evolution as something unscientific and unsupported. You say that you have "evidence-based faith" and they just turn around and say that you have faith in evolution HENCE there is no evidence for it. It's not an argument you could ever go up against because it's so ridiculous, so I prefer to avoid fueling it.

As with most words, the word "faith" carries a fair amount of meaning and history that inevitably affect the meaning of what you're trying to say. Faith is generally thought to refer to a special sort of exaggerated trust where the entire point is the exaggeration, and the trust is a secondary bonus. This is fundamentally opposed to everything I believe ("believe", there's another landmine word) about what a scientist should be thinking about their discipline. A lot of scientists do in fact have faith in their own results, and that is to some extent a good thing, but only as long as there is someone on the other side as fervently opposed to them as they are proponents of themselves. This really links in directly with my post a while back on the importance of the "arch nemesis", so I would refer you to that.

However, the faith that you guys are talking about is not a faith at all, at least not how I defined it, i.e. "exaggerated trust". There is no exaggeration in my espousing of the big bang theory despite the fact that I have performed none of the experiments required to arrive at that theory. I believe that the theory is true and I have a gentle, reasoned and evidence-enforced trust that the thousands of physicists out there working on it are really on to something. This is not faith.

Catarina Vicente said...

ouch, now no one else can comment on this.

James Lloyd said...

i can. cheers. i wrote this to get my car analogy out there for others to see. i did avoid the words faith, believe etc but she still mentioned it when i was talking about not like the 'god of the holes approach'. but i agree it is not your definition of faith and isnt really mine. justified trust i think. i agree with you Mel, just wanted your input on this, mixed with wanting someone to post and not wanting to read about studies on bacterial RNAP (my god writing those notes just kept going and going).

Catarina Vicente said...

Basically, you wanted Mel opinion, not mine. Fair enough, don't complain in the future that I leave no comments and/or don't read the posts. FINE!

James Lloyd said...

....if you want to think that i am not going to argue with you. i have had enough of speaking to people who want to believe whatever they want and reject what i tell them so why should i bother.