Faithful to Science

blog on science and religion

Humpty Dumpty

Here is a letter that was published in New Scientist magazine about two months ago.

“I was intrigued by your claim that science is not a belief system (4 April, p.5). Surely what it is not is a faith system. Science is belief based on evidence: faith, on the other hand, is belief irrespective of evidence.

“Science gives rise to beliefs that fit the existing evidence, allowing for them to change should new evidence make that sensible.

“Faith takes beliefs and puts them on an untouchable pedestal where they remain, no matter what contradictory evidence there is.

“Most of us frequently employ a fairly scientific belief system. Take the simple example of the day of the week. When I woke up this morning, I believed it to be Thursday, based on the evidence of my memory. Had I then looked at my computer, my phone and a newspaper and seen that day given as Friday, I would have changed my belief, trusting the evidence of the computer, phone and newspaper over my memory. However, if I applied a faith-based belief system, I would have refused to take note of the contrary evidence and insisted that the day was Thursday, no matter what.

“It is lack of faith, not lack of belief, that makes science so special and so wonderful.”

Kate Szell, London, UK

Now plenty of people have written confused letters at one time or another, but the reason that I have singled out this one is that it was not just any letter in that week’s magazine. It was the editor’s pick letter. The editor’s pick, no less. The “best” letter. The editor of New Scientist apparently thinks that this is what faith means. What “faith” means, according to this, is, basically, a sort of bizarre behaviour involving superstition, rejecting the evidence of your senses, and a degree of delusion verging on insanity.

Before I go on, I have to ask myself who I am writing this blog for. I think I am writing for two groups of people. Both groups are interested in and engaged with science. One group is working out that engagement while consciously acknowledging the fact that what is real and important cannot be completely captured in the type of analysis that science offers. They have been willing to receive the invitation that the natural world (and artistic response) holds out—the invitation to find oneself addressed and encouraged, challenged to learn and grow, by a reality that is not completely contained in the elements of the physical world. This is the absolute unbreakable reality that says, in mathematics, that one plus one equals two, and that also says, in human life, that person plus person equals opportunity for generous mutuality.

The second group of people who I hope might read this blog are those who have been taught by their experience of life, and by their upbringing, to be doubtful of anything presenting itself as religious, but who remain just unsettled enough to try out a blog like this one.

Now let’s come back to the letter with which I started. The trouble with it is, it has redefined a word. It has taken a perfectly good word, “faith”, which is to do with trust and eagerness for life, and then defined it to mean something else. The something else here is delusion and superstition: “Faith is belief irrespective of evidence.” But if that is what the word “faith” actually meant, then it would not have survived in the way it has, as a marker for something so much more positive, creative and intellectually grown up. Of course if you re-define words then you can say anything you like. But you end up in the position of Humpty Dumpty in the famous passage from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, (chapter VI):

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t- till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less.”

If you use a word to mean just what you choose it to mean, rather than going some way to find out what other people think it means, then you can say all sorts of things but you will be simply going round in circles.

For example, suppose someone said that “vaccination” means “slow poisoning”. They could then write a nice pithy letter setting out the horrors of slow poisoning, and they might feel that they had an argument against vaccination. But of course they would have no such thing. They would have proved precisely nothing except their own ignorance of what vaccination really is.

Now I realise that that last statement risks being uncharitable, so let me immediately admit that the word “faith” is widely abused by religious people, whenever someone uses it as some sort of excuse not to think. However, I think it is also fair to say that any adult who wants to contribute to the discussion of faith has a duty to invest some effort to find out what the word means in its better manifestations. Imagine sending the letter at the top of this post to a great scientist and Christian such as James Clerk Maxwell. It would amount to an insult to his intelligence. Imagine publishing it in a scientific magazine. It would amount to an insult to all our intelligence. But clearly it didn’t seem that way to the editor.

What should we do with this word “faith”? It is like a jewel that is only beautiful when it is humble and lights up a dark place. As soon as it becomes strong and assertive it becomes garish and ugly. But it has brought hope and courage to many a dark place in the history of the world.

What is this “faith”? Is it adherence to a set of doctrines? No, but the attempt has often been made to squeeze it into that. Is it belief in some proposition without any evidence to go on? Of course not. But the evidence to trust someone is never compelling. Because compulsion is precisely what love is not.

But now we have these three, faith, hope and love, and in the present era loud voices from all sides are twisting and abusing the first. Whatever we call it, let’s at least find out what faith can be, when it is thoughtful and creative. Let’s examine what it was when it worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of the poorest, and when it has empowered citizens to resist coercion from an imperialist state, and when it has established massive literacy programmes throughout the world, and when it continues to try to eradicate poverty, and when it keeps alive the thought that, yes, the blackbird is singing for more than just its supper.






1 Comment

  1. Graeme Ritchie

    June 16, 2015 at 6:11 am

    Well said. For those of us who do not accept the caricature of “faith” as resolutely holding onto beliefs in the face of all contrary evidence the challenge is to live out what faith means. The eagerness for life, the glimpses of potential, the sense of purpose and responsibility – how are these realised in our contexts? Faith is often portrayed as opting out of action. The opposite is surely nearer the truth.

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