Demarcation of Faith

December 24th, 2012

Faith is a necessary component when talking about any sort of belief that is unprovable. However, there is an important distinction to be made between the usage of the word “faith” in a religious or scientific context.

Unprovable assumptions about the way the world works must be made in order to give any sort of intelligible account of reality. A few ideas about how the world works have remained consistent throughout history. We hold to these assumptions not only because they are necessary in order to say anything about nature, but also because they have remained reliable in their results over millennia and countless trials. These are known in Science as the first principles:

  • Nature is orderly and consistent
  • Natural events are the result of natural causes
  • Natural events can be understood and used to explain other events

Using these principles, we arrive at conclusions that are freed from subjective bias and can be used to form an objective account of reality. We form postulations about how the world might work, which are then scrutinized based on their repeatability, accuracy, testability, simplicity, and explanatory power. After much testing and observation, if a postulation still accords extremely well with the information we have gathered it is elevated to the status of scientific theory. Because of these assumptions about reality, we are able to form theories which in turn allow for even more discovery into how the world works.

However, we must remain honest in remembering that these first principles and theories are assumptions and nothing more. These assumptions should only be taken as a method for understanding the world. If evidence were given to put into doubt one of the scientific first principles, then our method for understanding the world around us would change. Some might say this is what makes Science weak, but this self-correcting nature is actually what makes it strong. Put simply, the scientific first principles and theories derived from them reflect our current and best understanding of how the world works, but they in no way should be asserted as truths about the fundamental nature of reality.

Scientific faith

Now, one might be quick to categorize these first principles of science as faith beliefs. However, a distinction must be made when using the word “faith” in different contexts. Scientific faith is that of the first principles and conclusions made from them which are held as methods for understanding the world. From these first principles we can extrapolate things such as the laws of nature (like those of thermodynamics), or produce expectations about the world (“I believe the Sun will rise tomorrow”). It is crucially important to remember that, while one may rationally live their life as if these assumptions are true, one shouldn’t hold them as anything more. In other words, while the universe may very well always and everywhere adhere to the law of electromagnetism, one can’t be certain about that being the case. Some assumptions about reality must be made, but we should remain honest about how these assumptions are held.

Religious faith

On the surface, a belief like “God exists” might seem equivalent to saying something like “The Sun will rise tomorrow.” However, there exists a subtle but sharp difference between scientific faith and religious faith. While a scientific faith is treated as a method for understanding the world, a religious faith deals with the fundamental nature of reality, and more often than not posits the metaphysical existence of god(s) with certainty. Even though both types of faith are taken on as assumptions, religious faith goes a step further and is assumed to be a literally true description of reality, one which asserts that the assumption made is an objectively true fact. This is the distinguishing feature between scientific and religious faiths.

Another way of explaining the difference between the definitions of faith is by looking at how one refers to a faith belief in context. For example, an honest scientist would say they live their life as if gravity were a fundamental truth about nature. On the other hand, a religious believer would say they live their life according to God because he exists. Scientific faith leads to expectations about reality while religious faith asserts its fundamental nature.

Lastly, almost all religious belief systems allow for (and even require) God to create, modify, or break the scientific first principles stated at the beginning. A believer would therefore at minimum hold to the following assumptions about reality:

  • God exists.
  • Nature is orderly and consistent, unless God chooses otherwise.
  • Natural events are the result of natural causes, unless done by God.
  • Natural events can be understood and used to explain other events, unless God intervenes.

A believer who holds to this second set must, at all times, be aware that everything around them may or may not be coherently understood through purely natural explanations. Gravity might be completely explainable by the theory of gravity at one time, but in another instance be explainable by divine intervention which brought about intelligent falling. By adding the assumption that God exists into the set of unprovable assumptions about the nature of reality, the believer seems to have made the first three propositions incoherent, or at the very least open to doubt and reassertion at any point in time. Even when holding God’s existence as a method for explaining the world, certain precautions must be made to ensure that God’s actions do not conflict with the other assumptions made about the world.

In conclusion

A religious faith is demanded by almost all religions. In Christianity, it’s impossible to please God without believing and knowing that he actually exists. Believing in God’s existence as anything but literally true is insufficient. In contrast, a scientific faith is a belief that is held as a method for understanding the world. While the word “faith” can be used to describe both scientific and religious beliefs, the meaning of the word when used within these contexts is quite different.

Posted under Notebook with tags , , .