Essay:Faith and Trust

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Have you ever been told you have "faith" in science? If so, read on...

The limits of Faith[edit]

Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.
Tim Minchin

Religious believers often consider themselves somewhat immune from criticism, being proved wrong, or having to justify their beliefs by merely citing "faith" as a reason. I realise this might be an unfair generalisation and doesn't apply to any learned theologian with more than a handful of brain cells to rub together, but when it comes down to proving beliefs, it all comes down to faith and faith alone. I believe because I believe. That's it. There is no such thing as objective and incontrovertible proof for any religious belief because not only would that mean there were no atheists and apostates, but the vast pantheon of religions that exist and have existed worldwide simply wouldn't exist. Faith is an integral part of the religious reasoning. From the Church's official message that faith is somehow important, to this strange meme that it's somehow a virtue, to the theological message of Kevin Smith's otherwise fantastic Dogma - that "it doesn't matter what you have faith in, just that you have faith". Indeed, the line uttered by Salma Hayek's muse seems to be one of the reasons that people of all faiths seem to be happily united in their distrust and hatred of those godless atheists; "those guys might be Muslims, but at least they're not atheists!", "it says freedom of religion, not freedom from religion!" and so on. You must have faith, what that faith is becomes a mere afterthought.

But what is faith, then? Put simply, it's an assertion. It's stating your belief, your view, your idea of how the world functions despite, and increasingly because of, a complete lack of evidence. Evidence is the mainstay of science and any system that tries to make statements of fact about the universe. When you remove evidence, all you have is "faith" that your assertion is correct. There is no way to prove, or even disprove, my idea that God has six legs and doesn't like it when we eat bacon on a Tuesday, but I'm going to assert that fact anyway, and have faith that I'm correct. This is what gives believers the bulletproof vest against criticism and dissent - one cannot prove or disprove the assertion, so faith remains strong and untouchable.

Faith in science[edit]

Faith is also a much maligned term when the tables are turned and we're told something as, frankly, silly as "science is faith". The reasoning behind this seems simple enough; taking a very pyrrhonian view of the world means that we can't really prove anything, making science very much a faith based initiative. In science we must put faith in instruments, that they don't lie and mislead us. We must put faith in individuals, that they don't fabricate and plagiarise. And we must put faith in peer review, that the system works and puts science through the tests it needs. Faith, as the anti-science apologists argue, must be key to science as much as it is key to religion. But there is probably a more ultimate reason for the accusation; not that the method actually requires faith, but that the faith accusation allows science to be dismissed as religion. All religious believers must, by definition, reject the faith of those of different religions - it doesn't matter how much you try the "just have faith" approach or say that all religions are facets of a "true" god of some kind, if you reject one particular religion, you reject the faith of others. Describing a method where evidence and reason is the be-all and end-all of gaining knowledge as a religion allows it to be dismissed as easily as the other religions. A Christian fundamentalist can brush off science as easily as they brush off Islam or Buddhism, they just don't have faith in those things.

Sweeping science away as a mere worldview powered on faith is a principal tactic of creationists. They argue that science is a worldview, you have faith in science or you have faith in God and so what science says about the age of the Earth can be rejected out of hand. Science must somehow have faith that its billion-year-old figure is correct and because the creationists doesn't posses that faith, much in the same way that they don't have faith in Odin and Zeus, they can not believe that religion and dismiss it easily and quickly. But this is just the motivation behind it. The entire argument still rests on that one shaky issue: does science actually revolve around faith?

Faith vs trust[edit]

Humans are quite capable of lying and fabricating. Instruments may lie to us or malfunction. The randomness of the universe can lead to many false positives and skew our working. Do we, as the above argument suggests, have faith that any of this won't happen? The short answer is no. We have a completely different relationship with science. It may appear to be "faith" if you want to phrase it like that, but it certainly isn't. We have another word for it instead; trust. Trust is often used synonymously with faith. Indeed, faith is defined frequently using the word trust and you could argue that it's actually a specific form of trust (a form without supporting evidence), but I want to show a few clear distinctions between these two concepts and why there is no faith required for science and that trust is far stronger.

Faith is an assertion with no supporting evidence. In fact, once you do have evidence it ceases to be faith. Recall Douglas Adam's final proof of the non-existence of God by actually proving his existence. It seems a strange thing to do, but God states that "without faith I am nothing". So when man proves God exists, it negates all faith and so, with a poof of logic, God becomes nothing. Evidence strangles faith quite nicely by removing the very reason it needs to be. Science deals in evidence and so we don't particularly need faith to believe things. We look at the evidence gathered for atomic theory, for quantum mechanics, for the germ theory of disease and so on. We do not require faith in these concepts, only an admission of how confident we are in the evidence - and in the case of the most established theories that is "pretty damn near 100% confident". We certainly don't put any faith in our theories precisely because we have evidence for them, so the accusation that evolution requires as much faith as intelligent design is complete hokum.

There are more specific places where evidence can come in. Our trust in other scientists, that their penchant for fabrication is limited, comes from the evidence that we replicate their work and find it to be correct. We meet them, see their labs, question their expertise and are impressed by what we see. The evidence mounts and our trust strengthens. When they are lying, they're frequently caught and dealt with. We have not just developed evidence to support the idea that scientists are trustworthy, but also have developed a system of open criticism whereby we can test it. This leads to a situation where we can trust them, rather than have faith in them. With instruments, we can verify what they say, refine their design, compare with others. Again, gathering evidence that these instruments work and report back to us correctly and corroboratively, building a good case where we can trust them, rather than have faith in them. If we wish to test our trust in theories we gather evidence. We design new experiments or improve on old ones, we reproduce results to verify their effect. We do not put any faith in theories regardless of what the religious apologists, the conspiracy theorists or the creationists may say. Science develops by testing, strengthening and breaking the trust we put into the system - and its constant successes reinforce the trust we have in the scientific method itself. These repeated successes and advancements mean that we no longer need any faith to treat the scientific method as valid, we just trust that it is because of the evidence that it just works so well.

But trust has one other big difference to faith; it can be broken. We are all aware of breaking someone's trust. It's that case where an otherwise loyal partner breaks our trust in their fidelity. It's that case where a careful and trustworthy friend breaks a treasured object loaned to them. Generally, it's that case when a new observation invalidates a previous theory. Sometimes it snaps like a dry twig and sometimes it survives, battered and bruised but it never has to be protected from the the ravages of reason the way faith-based beliefs needs to be. Trust can be broken and we often expect and prepare for it to be so. This is precisely what makes it so powerful compared to faith, which can never grow beyond a mere assertion.

When it comes to science we actively set out to break that trust we have in established relationships, be it with theories when we test them or individuals when we scrutinise them. Faith does not posses this quality of being able to break (though it can be lost, it's not considered desirable while you have it). No one gains faith expecting it to eventually be lost. You don't believe in God thinking that one day in the future you'll grow out of it and become an atheist any more than you would enter a marriage one day thinking you'll tire of your partner and divorce. Trust, on the other hand, we are more happy to lose and we want to find that situation where it breaks down. When we trust someone we want to know when they stop being trustworthy, it improves our knowledge about them. The same applies to trust in science.

The hammering we expose this trust to makes it strong. Apologists may argue that faith, as an unbreakable bond, is miraculously stronger but it is only stronger in the way that a fragile piece of fine china appears strong and indestructible if we buffer it against impacts and never allow it to be stressed. In reality, it can crack under even slight pressure. Trust - and particularly trust in science - on the other hand, is like a reinforced rod of steel being exposed to the rigours of attack. When it breaks it is reformed, redesigned and comes back stronger because of it. With something like this to use instead, science doesn't need faith and indeed is better off without it.

I have faith in nothing, and I trust I will stay that way.