Belief in Science

Neil de Grasse Tyson is the new public face of science. He is smart, charming, has a great back-story of achievement in the face of societal obstacles along with, let’s be honest here, one of the coolest names of all time. His popular television series Cosmos has introduced millions of viewers to the wonders of the scientific world, from the smallest to the unfathomably large and spanning billions of years. When he speaks about science, people listen.

So people are listening to a recent Facebook post that quotes him saying: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

There’s something very comforting about that statement, isn’t there? It feels a bit like someone telling you: “I promise you everything will turn out fine.” In fact it is exactly like that. Tyson’s quote is not a statement of scientific fact (nor could it be – what experiment could you do to determine whether or not it is true?). It is a promise, a statement of belief about science and truth that he shares with the community of scientists.

Public discourse about truth and belief has been largely centered on the dispute between science and religion – science knows, religion believes – which has led us to a muddled view that does justice to neither concept. Science has no room for belief, only evidence – or so they say. Descriptive Psychology has the conceptual power to sort this out, and has. Here’s how:

In developing Descriptive Psychology Peter G. Ossorio in the 1960’s found it necessary to deal with a number of “ways of talking” that could not bear the weight of being taken seriously as meaning what it said. Prominent among these was the very popular: “It’s all just belief. What you think you know is just your belief. I have my own beliefs; we all have our own beliefs, and nobody has any claim to have their beliefs taken more seriously than anyone else’s.” In other words of the ‘60’s: “Don’t lay your trip on me, man!”

This conceptual confounding of knowledge and belief hardly bears a second look; Ossorio just cleaned it up and built from there. Let’s revisit the conceptual clean-up Ossorio achieved. To do justice to persons and their actions we need both concepts, knowledge and belief. (For simplicity I will use the term “knowing” interchangeably here with knowledge; please be advised that they are distinct but related concepts in the Descriptive Psychology lexicon.)

For instance, I know that my coffee mug is sitting on my desk just to the right of my keyboard. I see it there; I recognize my own mug; I know I can reach out, pick it up and take a sip. None of this is a matter of belief because I have no actual doubt about it. That doesn’t mean I can’t be wrong: someone may have slipped in a mug that looks just like mine as a prank; I may suffer a bicep cramp that prevents me from picking it up; I might even be having a brief hallucination of a mug that’s not actually there. Unlikely as these might be, they are possible things that happen in the world I live in, but that does not mean I only believed my coffee mug was there. I knew it was, and in this instance I was wrong. This is perspicaciously expressed in the first maxim Ossorio articulated: “A person takes it that things are as they seem unless he has reason to believe otherwise.”

Back to that coffee: on the other hand, I believe that the sip I take will be hot, tasty coffee. I don’t know that with practical certainty because I haven’t tasted it yet. It might be cold, or yesterday’s leftovers or those cut-rate beans a friend gave me. I don’t know, and this sort of thing happens often enough that, were you to ask me if I know the coffee is good, I would have to say “Hold on a minute .. . (sip) … yeah, good coffee though not quite as hot as I like it.” I’m willing to act on my belief, just as I’m willing to act on my knowledge.

Notice that what I believe – that the cup is filled with hot tasty coffee – is in fact something my wife knows. As it turns out, on this occasion she has brewed the coffee with good beans, poured herself a small cup, filled my mug and kindly brought it to my office before she left for a meeting. For her there is no actual doubt about it. She knows; I believe; and the difference is not in the situation, it is in the person’s relationship to the situation.

And that difference matters. Perhaps I look at my coffee mug and see it is filled with an odd-smelling green liquid. My wife knows what it is; she brewed it, tasted it, filled my mug and brought it to me, knowing that I in fact like yerba mate. But I’m not sure what this stuff is, only that my wife brought it to me. I may believe I will like it, but I don’t know, and in this case I’m not willing to act on that belief. I take it back to the kitchen, pour it out and make myself a cup of coffee.

In short, the difference between knowledge and belief is, a person is willing to act on what they know (unless they have stronger reason not to – another maxim.) They may or may not be willing to act on what they believe. Since it is the paradigm case of intentional action, we have no special term for acting on what a person knows; acting on what a person believes is referred to as acting on faith. To put it succinctly: a person’s action is an act of faith when they believe, but do not know, how their behavior will turn out. (Again, “know” implies a pragmatic guarantee of success rather than some impossible absolute certainty.)

One more clarification: While it is tempting to distinguish “know” from “believe” on the basis of evidence or direct experience, this is not in fact where the difference lies. What a person knows about the world is largely determined by what trusted sources have told them about it. As Ossorio once pointed out, if a child at age 5 is told by her father that polar bears are dangerous, that becomes part of what she knows about the world, so much so that, with no intervening history of encountering polar bears, should she write down at age 30 everything she knows about polar bears, we can be sure that “dangerous” will be high on the list. To say she knows it rather than believes it is to say it requires no faith on her part to act on it.

With these distinctions in hand, we revisit the worlds of science.

Belief and Faith in Science

Belief and faith are obviously important in spiritual communities. Indeed, that fact is often used by science advocates as a degradation: “Our scientific world is based strictly on knowledge and evidence, with no room for faith and belief; their spiritual world is based in faith and belief for which there is no evidence.” I suggest that such statements are simply wrong on both counts, reflecting the fact that, while physics does a great job of understanding the physical universe, it is woefully ill-equipped to make sense of what people – including scientist people – do.

Let’s sort this out.

Belief and faith are central to a spiritual community. Perhaps less obviously, knowledge is also central. For example, knowing what meditation is, how it’s done, where and when is a requirement for participating in many spiritual communities. There is no doubt about any of these; they are known by members, not believed. That meditation leads to a state of bliss is, for most members, a belief; they meditate as an act of faith. But for adepts in the community, meditation leading to bliss is a known fact; they’ve seen it, they routinely experience it and there is no actual doubt that it works that way. For them meditation requires no beliefs nor faith; it’s just the done thing among us.

In sum: participation in a spiritual community requires knowledge, belief and faith. But as we shall see, participation in a scientific community requires exactly the same: knowledge, belief and faith. The content of the beliefs and the acts that require faith differ between the two; the central requirements are the same.

Two examples of belief and faith in science readily come to mind: the Higgs boson, and string theory.

Not long ago the media reported big news in the world of science: at long last, data from the CERN labs had confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson! This was reported as the final, crucial piece in confirming the “standard model” of elementary particles, which is a very big deal indeed in physics. Physicists can now say confidently that they know the Higgs boson is real, and the standard model works as intended. (Or so we are told. I wager that nobody reading this paper is in fact competent to participate in the practices required to conclude for themselves that the data in fact confirms the Higgs, nor for that matter knowledgeable enough to say what the Higgs actually is and does. But that’s OK; reliable sources tell us this is real, and important, and we have no reason not to take their word for it.)

A small question: before the data was in, did physicists know the Higgs was real? Of course they didn’t. They believed it was real. Their belief was strong enough, and the issue important enough, that they were willing to invest literally billions of dollars and thousands of years of professional effort to find out if what they believed is true. Did they know with pragmatic certainty how the research would turn out? Of course not; that’s why they call it research. Clearly, then, the CERN research program was an act of faith, and as it turned out, the faith seems to have been fully justified.

Please note that this is not meant as a jibe at scientists, nor is it intended to embarrass or degrade scientists in any way. Pointing out that the practices of the scientific community require belief and faith is nothing more than stating the obvious: Science is a community of persons, who share a world and a set of practices. All communities of persons require knowledge, belief and faith whether they are comfortable admitting it or not.

But what of the scientists who say: “What we do is rooted in solid evidence; what they do is based on blind faith.” I would first suggest that a scientist interact for a while with someone who lives constantly in the world of satchitananda before concluding that the spiritual world’s faith is “blind” and based on no evidence. But more cogently, I would point to the remarkable and embarrassing history of string theory in physics and ask the scientist to explain what evidence it is rooted in.

As explained at length by the eminent physicist Lee Smolin in his book The Trouble With Physics (Smolin, 2006), string theory has captivated an enormous amount of attention and effort in theoretical physics over the past 25 years, but it has yielded no new predictions that can be tested in research. None. Not one. Perhaps worse, string theory has not converged into a single coherent model; in fact over time it has diverged into a number (perhaps even an infinite number) of different versions. By ordinary standards of science this is a colossal failure, and would lead to abandoning the whole enterprise as a dead end. But in fact, practitioners of string theory charge on, saying that the theory is too beautiful to not be true, it’s so … elegant! Some of its defenders have actually said that string theory is a true theory of the universe(s), but humans are not yet intelligent enough to comprehend it; we can only catch glimpses of its majesty.

If that’s not blind faith, I’m not sure what is.

So when Neil deGrasee Tyson says: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it” we can see it for what it is: a statement of faith by a scientist, speaking for science. No more, and no less.


5 thoughts on “Belief in Science

  1. I guess I have to disagree with most of your key points.

    First, I don’t see the difference between knowing you have a coffee cup in front of you and “believing” it has hot tasty coffee. The key issue is what you said: “no practical doubt.” I know your wife; if she brings you a cup and says, “Tony, here’s the coffee you asked for,” I’d have no practical doubt it was hot, tasty coffee — and neither would you 🙂 In both cases — the mug and what’s in it — you’re prepared to act on something being the case. I don’t see any difference to justify calling one “knowing” and the other “believing.”

    Second, you’re mis-characterizing what scientists say about science vs. religion. Scientists are making a much less grandiose claim than you make it sound. But, scientists are not necessarily good at talking about science, and they often say things that, if taken literally, are problematical. When a scientist says, “Science is based on evidence; what they do is based on blind faith,” they’re talking about claims religious people make about what is true of things in the world, notions like the Earth is a few thousand years old, that humans sprang into existence in the current form about 10,000 years ago, and so on. When asked for justification for their statements, adherents say, “The Bible said so, no other evidence is necessry.” And that’s what why scientists call it blind faith — it rejects the necessity for empirical evidence.

    You talk about faith and blind faith as though they were synonymous, but they’re not. No scientist would fuss about the necessity of faith as you are talking about it here (if they understood it), but that is **not** what a scientist means when he accuses a religious person of blind faith. Blind faith is taking something as true and verified with no evidence at all, or in direct contradiction of the observed facts. That’s what scientists deride.

    Finally, you characterization of string theorists is unfair and, actually, inaccurate in its portrayal. As a friend of mine put it, scientists sometimes speak poetically, and that’s what’s going on here. “It must be true because it’s so elegant” is a poetic expression of appreciation, not language to be taken literally. It’s not blind faith at all; any string theorist (and any scientist) knows full well that being beautiful in no way implies being true. They’re prepared to act on it, in the senses of extending it and looking for empirical justifications for it, but that’s no different than any scientist doing anything to work on a theory. And it’s unfair because it doesn’t acknowledge that in fact fundamental physics is in what Kuhn called a state of crisis: they have no single account of all the facts of the physical world. What goes on as people try to solve that problem gives little or no evidence about the nature of science in general.

    In physics, there’s quantum mechanics and there’s general relativity, they give conflicting predictions, and there is currently no way to resolve the trouble. They have, in Kuhn’s word, no paradigm. And they know it. String theorists are perfectly aware that they have no empirical justification. What makes them scientists is they know they need it. Blind faith would be to say, “We have no need for empirical evidence, because this is so beautiful.” That is, emphatically, not what they say.

  2. Actually, Joe, the characterization of string theorists was not mine — it came directly from Lee Smolin’s book. You may think his account is “unfair and, actually, inaccurate in its portrayal” but I’m just passing on the assessment of someone who — unlike you or me — is in a position to have a valid first-hand opinion.

  3. Bohr and Feynman–at least–deny that anyone understands quantum mechanics, so it’s no surprise that physics is in crisis. Arguably, physicists have been operating on blind faith for over a century. But it seems that truth is truth whether or not you believe in it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a religious or scientific truth. Some communities seek the truth primarily via disputation, experimentation and observation. Other communities seek the truth primarily via authority, exegesis, and revelation. There are scientific and religious communities of both kinds.

  4. Since DP makes the distinction between what’s true and what’s real, it would probably be better to say, “Some communities seek the real primarily via disputation, experimentation and observation. Other communities seek the real primarily via authority, exegesis, and revelation.” In both cases, they are seeking something to act on, and it unifies our concepts of persons as actors rather than splitting us along an equivocation (truth). In both, to say X is a fact or true is a status assignment, essentially that X is to be treated as real. The social practices required to warrant that status assignment are distinctly different in the two communities. Given that scientists strictly limit themselves to one perspective, the prudential (and then the aesthetic [elegance]); and religionists strictly limit themselves to a different perspective, the ethical (and then your choice of prudential [damnation] or aesthetic [a good life]); then we can say: their performances are the same, but their significances are vastly different. So their behaviors are vastly different.

    And that’s how we feel about it. I mean that strictly: feel. We have a learned tendency to realize immediately that they are using the same words (similar performances), but they are doing/saying something very different, virtually orthogonal. That orthogonal relationship provokes strong feelings on both sides and in observers.

    1. Interesting post, CJ. In particular your emphasis on “how we feel about it” is getting at the core issue here — Actor’s appraisal is accompanied by (and in a sense known via) feeling.
      I wouldn’t use the “real/true” distinction here because that applies to a person and what they act on. Communities do not act, thus have no place for the distinction of their acting on the real vs, the true. I think the problem is partly the use of the word “truth” which is not simply equivalent to “true”. True is a status assignment regarding a statement; truth is … other than that. I intend to dig into this further in later posts.

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