Monday, September 26, 2011

The scientific method versus faith

I have no personal use for religion. While I believe that one valid use of religion is to propagate values from one generation to the next, I have managed to become a moral person without the approbation (or reprobation) of religion and argue that the non-aggression principle championed by libertarians is at least as complete and consistent as any religious system of values. Another valid use is to provide spiritual guidance, to provide direction where none is evident or where a choice seems otherwise arbitrary: this also seems fine to me, as long as an informed choice cannot be made. In this too I have no interest: in the exceedingly rare event in which a choice can be made only arbitrarily, I literally roll the dice.

The other popularly-held role for religion, however, is to provide authoritative answers to questions of fact currently unanswered by science. I absolutely reject this role: I believe it better to say "I don't know" than to assert an answer for which I have no evidence. It is my theory that, however unfortunately, Christianity seems to have become so popular precisely because of how its tenets fit this role.

The scientific method is fundamentally the way I learn about and attempt to understand all phenomena: I generate the simplest hypothesis consistent with the observable facts and use it to inform my choices and my understanding of the world until evidence to the contrary appears that requires me to reconsider the original thesis. The scientific method is a valid system for understanding phenomena precisely because it provides a way to falsify hypotheses: when a statement is said to be falsifiable, the scientific method says that this is equivalent to the existence of an experiment or argument that can disprove the statement if it is in fact false.

Dogma has no place in my philosophy. By employing the scientific method—that is, by rejecting dogma and requiring supporting evidence and a chain of inference rules from evidence to conclusion for any claims—I can avoid asserting obviously false statements and, even more importantly, statements that are not falsifiable. Strictly speaking, avoiding false statements about nature is likely to be impossible—Newton was observably "right", after all, until Einstein came along and showed how unearthly conditions conflicted with Newton's theories—but obviously false ones can be avoided by always questioning one's assumptions in the light of developing evidence.

Avoiding non-falsifiable statements, however, is ridiculously easy: I simply don't make statements that have no credible basis in existing evidence and/or experiment. For instance, while it's certainly possible that the universe was created by a flying spaghetti monster and that I can trivially construct a fascinating narrative consistent both with this theory and with physical reality, doing so involves asserting a lot of unknowns that are completely unsupported by physical evidence. To quote Carl Sagan:
If God created the universe, we must then ask the next logical question: what created God? We might say God came from nothing, or that God always existed. If we say that God came from nothing, why not skip a step and say the universe came from nothing? If we say that God always existed, why not skip a step and say the universe always existed?
This is directly contrary to the Christian notion of "faith", in which a narrative lacking any physical evidence is employed as the basis for an entire belief system. That the resulting system may be consistent with itself (and at 2,000 years exceptionally long lived) is not in any sense evidence of the degree to which it reflects reality: the extent to which fundamentalist believers will go to support their worldview and in doing so reject the scientific method involves, for example, asserting that fossils exist because God put them there and that this is a test of our faith. Attempting to argue with such people about their faith is pointless because there is simply no logic one can employ to convince them otherwise once they have made the assumption that there is an omnipotent God. The omnipotent God is not a falsifiable hypothesis, and so is simply not within the purview of the scientific method. I suspect Christianity has remained so popular for so long precisely because its very structure rejects any possible scientific review of its foundation: it is logically immune to the one attack vector that science uses to obliterate dogma.

[The purpose of this blog entry is not to attack the belief systems of individuals. I happen to be atheist (or agnostic, depending on how you define the terms: I don't assert that God doesn't exist because of the aforementioned property of an omnipotent God, for example), but in my day-to-day life this philosophy manifests itself not as hostility toward religion but complete indifference toward it: I simply don't care. It doesn't come up. Rather than rejecting religious explanations for phenomena, I never consider them in the first place because they don't fit with the scientific method. For the record, I know many intelligent and educated people who are deeply religious, but in general these people use religion to propagate culture and values and to provide spiritual direction rather than to provide answers to questions of fact for which science currently provides no answers.]