Physicist and astronomer Marcelo Gleiser offered some thoughts recently on faith and science, noting that the scientific revolution has hardly changed the picture of faith much: “the great scientific advances of the past four centuries have not radically diminished the number of believers” in transcendent realities:
If science is to help us, in the words of the late Carl Sagan, by providing a “candle in the dark,” it will have to be seen in a new light. The first step in this direction is to admit that science has fundamental limitations as a way of knowing, and that it is not the only method of approaching the unattainable truth about reality. Science should be seen as the practice of fallible humans, not demigods. We should confess our confusion and acknowledge our sense of being lost as we confront a Universe that seems to grow more mysterious the more we study it. We should be humble in our claims, knowing how often we must correct them. We should, of course, share the joy of discovery, the achievements of human inventiveness, and the importance of doubt.Marcelo Gleiser, “Faith-based beliefs are inescapable in science,” Big Think, June 28, 2023
As he implies, there’s no reason why it should. Science, for better or worse, is a faith-based enterprise. Along with many easier quests, scientists continue to pursue outliers like the origin of life, whether there is life in remote star systems, and the nature of consciousness. Many such topics border on metaphysics and may well involve imponderables. But then finding the right answer might not be as important in some cases as developing the right questions.
Why must scientists have faith that we can make progress in understanding our world? Political analyst M. Anthony Mills proposes at least three general ideas about what science does. What we expect science to do for us largely depends on which one of them we adhere to.
The first is what we might call the accumulationist model of scientific progress. According to this model, science progresses through the steady accumulation of data, facts, or information. The guiding metaphor here is the container: scientists go out and find bits of knowledge and add them to the container. Scientific progress is therefore a cumulative process, linear and gradual.M. Anthony Mills, “What Does ‘Scientific Progress’ Mean, Anyway?” The New Atlantis, Spring 2023
This model is popular but it can lead us astray. “Science will find the answer!” is only meaningful if the question is framed in a way that science can address. Science can’t tell us whether we are our brother’s keeper, whether it profits us to gain the whole world if we lose our souls, or whether some unfortunate person’s life is worth living. Unfortunately, science is sometimes misused to add apparent weight to a given answer, when the question is really one of ultimate spiritual values, not of science.
Another model is what Mills calls “Kuhnian,” after the famous philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996), who introduced the concept of paradigm shifts in science:
According to this account, progress is not linear and gradual; it is punctuated by moments of profound conceptual change and innovation. There are periods of relative calm — what Kuhn termed “normal” science — during which progress looks a lot like it does to the accumulationist. But these periods are interrupted by crises, when prevailing theories break down. Rivals emerge, challenge the consensus, ultimately overthrow a prevailing paradigm, and take its place, as when relativistic and quantum physics dethroned classical physics. These are the scientific revolutions that Kuhn called “paradigm shifts.”M. Anthony Mills, “What Does “Scientific Progress” Mean, Anyway?” The New Atlantis, Spring 2023
When we are contemplating a vast historical sweep, Kuhn’s theories are indeed helpful. But on the ground, we usually can’t know for sure whether we are living in a massive paradigm shift. Theories rise and fall all the time. Which of the changes matter? For example, findings from the James Webb Space Telescope upended a variety of assumptions but how much they will change the basic paradigm remains to be seen.
He calls the third model Baconian, after the early modern philosopher of science Francis Bacon (1561–1626):
According to the third model, however, science progresses not by extending existing scientific paradigms, nor by resolving problems or crises internal to science. Instead, science progresses by grappling with problems posed to it from outside by social, political, and economic needs. We recognize scientific progress not by advances or innovations in our theoretical knowledge but by whether and to what extent our theories help us solve practical problems. Does science generate technological breakthroughs, contribute to economic growth, or help us solve pressing social and political problems?M. Anthony Mills, “What Does “Scientific Progress” Mean, Anyway?” The New Atlantis, Spring 2023
Of course, if we rely entirely on the third model, we might reject science that isn’t telling us what we want to hear, even if what it is telling us is true and important.
Generally, as Mills acknowledges, we must try all three models to see how much each can contribute to our understanding. But each model requires an initial input of faith: Faith that a big picture will emerge from small contributions (Model 1), faith that we will recognize when theories must change (Model 2), and faith in a bigger picture of the universe that we don’t allow our current issues to completely obscure (Model 3).
No matter how scientists navigate between models, Gleiser thinks that, for creativity in science, faith is indispensable:
A scientist therefore must base their approach on an imponderable process that some call a hunch or an intuition. This is an intellectually guided expression of faith in how the scientist imagines the world to be. There is no way to venture into the unknown without this guiding light, and that light comes from a source that is not completely known. This is where science meets faith.Marcelo Gleiser, “Faith-based beliefs are inescapable in science,” Big Think, June 28, 2023
It’s hard to imagine creativity in science working any other way.
Cross-posted at Mind Matters News.