On Faith, Religion, and Science

This post is inspired by comments former GMU and current Chapman professor of economics Vernon Smith made on Facebook. Vernon writes:

Sasha Sagan, daughter of Carl Sagan, writes here about her much-loved father who believed, without evidence, that there could be no truth for which we have no evidence.

Scientists have no observational evidence that life exists anywhere except on earth. But they believe in that prospect strong enough to equip landing devices with instruments to look for life. Surely Sagan would approve. So his statement applies strictly to religious belief, but I do not think science can be demarcated from religion so easily, or indeed at all.

Vernon is absolutely correct. An unfortunate side effect of the Enlightenment period is widespread skepticism, and often outright rejection, of faith as a viable or desirable element of the human mind. Faith is sometimes as used as a pejorative, a way to dismiss something as unrealistic or naive: faith in God, faith in government, faith in free markets, etc. These people will hold up Science, with a capital S, as an alternative to faith, as something supposedly rational, evidence-based, and Absolute in Truth and Knowledge the way faith cannot be. This Science is the pinnacle of knowledge and humanity. Thus, religion and other faith-based things are inherently inferior and can never truly be Scientific.

In extreme cases, these people practice substantial forms of self-deception and claim that they’re “evidence-based” and “require proof for everything.” Thus, they reject God because there is no “proof” of Him, or they reject freedom and liberalism (ironically products of the Enlightenment) because there is no “proof” this or that pro-liberty reform will work in this exact case.

But, as Vernon states here, the scientific process is as much faith-based as evidence-based. If we were to rely solely upon evidence, not a single penny would be spent trying to find life of Mars or elsewhere in the Universe because, after all, there is no evidence to state there is life out there. And yet the faith of these scientists and their enthusiastic admirers is so powerful as to spend billions of dollars (and, indeed, through government programs, force others to spend money as well) as to search for life. Whether or not such programs are useful or beneficial is beside the point here. The point is that they are, at least initially, faith-based.

The argument for searching for life on other planets is reasonable. (Very) simply put, it is akin to this: “There is life on Earth. Surely these conditions are repeatable. Therefore, we look for life elsewhere.” Notice this follows a similar pattern to an argument for God (again, very simply put): “This life is highly complex but seems ordered in a certain way. Surely these conditions did not happen by random chance [ignoring the fact that “random chance” is not a cause”]. Therefore, there is likely some higher being.” Again, the point here is not to judge one way or the other, but rather to show the relationship between faith and science.

I am a Christian. I proudly recite the Nicene Creed. I take Holy Communion. I believe that God is the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Ghost is the Spirit. I read the Church Fathers and theologians. I listen to the sermons. I meditate on the Nature of God.

I am a scientist. I proudly recite the Hippocratic Oath in my research. I attend the conferences. I believe that data analysis, solid theory, and careful reading can gain knowledge. I read the classical and modern economists. I listen to the lectures. I meditate on the nature of human action and exchange.

And, above all, I have faith that my actions are not in vain. That, like all of us, we are striving the best we can toward a better world.

Science and religion are not at odds. Like Vernon said, it’s not that obvious there is even a line between the two. We will never truly have all the evidence or “proof” we need. Part of advancing knowledge, whether temporal or spiritual, is the faith that there is more to learn out there.

This post is dedicated to Vernon Smith, who inspired it, and to my religious teachers over the course of my life: Reverend Sandy and Reverend Bob (First Congregational Church, Wareham), Val Bailey-Fisher (Chaplan, Framingham State Protestants), and Pastor Emilia Halstead (First Congregational Church, Concord NH)

Jon Murphy