I have two blogs I maintain currently: Perspective and Navigating by Faith. Perspective and faith loosely characterize my journey over many years: trying to find perspective and understanding the value, the necessity, and the integrity of a faith grounded in reality, both observable and unseen.
Many people believe that faith is the opposite of fact and at odds with science and reason. I strongly disagree. I have come to believe that faith is inescapable for finite beings – both religious ones and non-religious ones alike – and faith lies at the core of everything we believe to be true.
I was listening to a podcast discussion recently when one of the participants said something like this: When we approach any evidence, we approach it with a perspective. This is a non-pejorative way of saying that we are all “biased”.
As finite beings we are all necessarily “biased” by our own perspective, our own experiences, our own knowledge, understanding and ability to grasp, synthesize and categorize what we know and understand. Our perspective is influenced and filtered through our location in the world, our place in the culture and society in which we live, the history that we remember, and too many other things to summarize them adequately in a short blog article.
The discussion in the podcast that prompts this writing focused briefly on the fact that we all bring assumptions to the table when we consider anything. Those assumptions, however intentionally or surreptitiously developed, are the bedrock of each of our worldviews. They are the foundations on which we stand. They are the filters through which we see the world.
Those assumptions are developed, to a greater or lesser degree, by some combination of our external influences, our internal leanings and reactions to those external influences, and our consciously or unconsciously chosen compass points we use to guide ourselves in sorting out the information we encounter.
At the most basic level, those assumptions are axiomatic. They are truths we take for granted. We cannot prove them, and we rarely question them without crisis. We are fortunate if they hold us in good stead, if they are well-enough grounded in reality and fact to be of benefit to us in our dealings with the circumstances of our lives.
If those basic assumptions are not well considered and well-grounded, we can be blown about by every wind. If they are not based in fact and an accurate grasp of the nuance of reality, they can prove little consolation or comfort in times of crisis. If they are not well-anchored in timeless truth, they can leave us adrift when we need to count on them most.
The unique perspectives in light of which finite beings approach any evidence is necessarily limited and biased because we are limited and finite beings. At best, we can only hope to orientate ourselves in the direction of truth. We don’t define truth. We don’t establish truth. We don’t’ generate truth.
This is necessarily the case with finite beings who can only approach reality from a particular location at a particular time in the context of a particular cultural, historical, and philosophical point of view.
If I was omniscient and all seeing, I could have ultimate confidence in my perspective. My perspective would be objective and factual. My perspective would be the measure of all reality.
But no human being can validly make that claim (though we may and often do think and act like we can). In all honesty and humility, we must each admit that we come at evidence from a perspective with bias born out of our own experience, cultural context, limited knowledge and limited understanding.
We don’t know what we don’t know.
As a necessary corollary to these things, which I believe with all the certainty that I can possibly ascribe to these things, we are creatures of faith. All of us. We have no choice put to adopt our fundamental principles on faith. We do not have the requisite perspective to have more certainty than that.
My conclusion in this regard is based on fact (that humans are finite beings) and “logic” or philosophy, which reasons from the fact that we are finite to conclude that our perspective is limited thereby. Because our perspective is limited, we must rely on faith in making our conclusions which, themselves, derive from the fundamental assumptions we also take on faith. We can’t escape these limitations because they are inherent in finite creatures such as ourselves.
Some people even in this modern age, however, have boldly claimed that science is the study of all the reality that exists. Further, they say, therefore, we no longer need philosophy or theology. (I have heard Neil deGrasse Tyson say this very thing.) I am going to push back on that idea in this blog post.
To begin with, we should measure the statement by the statement, itself, and ask: can science prove it? Can science prove that science is the study of all the reality that exists?
To answer that question, we should start with a definition of “science”. What is science? Here are a few definitions I found:
“Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.”Science Council
Science is knowledge about the natural world that is based on facts learned through experiments and observationMerriam-Webster
Science is the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the natural and physical world, or knowledge obtained about the world by watching it….Cambridge Dictionary
The common theme here is that science is the study of the natural, physical world. That is how science as we commonly understand it today is defined. These definitions are consistent with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s assertion that explicitly distinguishes science from philosophy and theology.
Closely associated with science, but not the same thing, is the scientific method. The scientific method as we commonly understand it today is the way we interact with and study the natural, physical world (as elaborated by the Science Council):
- Objective observation: Measurement and data (possibly although not necessarily using mathematics as a tool)
- Experiment and/or observation as benchmarks for testing hypotheses
- Induction: reasoning to establish general rules or conclusions drawn from facts or examples
- Critical analysis
- Verification and testing: critical exposure to scrutiny, peer review and assessment
The scientific method is adapted to and focused on the study of the natural, physical world. The scientific method is the gold standard in methodical study. It is well-adapted to its ends, and we are right to have a high degree of confidence in following the scientific method to lead us to knowledge and understanding of the natural, physical world.
As finite beings, however, we cannot say with any degree of certainty, and certainly not with scientific certainty, that the natural, physical world is all the reality that exists. We don’t know what we don’t know.
If we focus only on the natural, physical world, and assume nothing else exists, we might conclude that nothing else really does exist, but would we be right? Our perspective is finite. If we arbitrarily limit ourselves to consider only the natural, physical world, ignoring any other possibilities, we are not likely even to see the clues that reality is not constrained to the natural, physical world as we suppose.
Think about it. How much can science, which is limited to the study of the natural, physical world, be expected to reveal to us of reality that is not constrained by the natural, physical world? Can science, which focuses solely on the natural, physical world, prove that there is nothing beyond it?
Science, however, cannot prove the accuracy of the statement that science is the study of all there is. No observations, or measurements, or laboratory experiments or mathematical formulae can prove the accuracy of the statement. Science cannot prove that science is the study of all the reality that exists.
In fact, this statement is more of an assertion of faith than a statement of science. The statement is an assertion that we cannot prove, and it can only, therefore, be taken on faith.
Science also cannot prove that philosophy and theology are no longer needed to help us shed light on reality. In fact, the very statement (that science is the study of all reality) is not a scientific assertion, but a philosophical one. The statement, in that sense, undermines itself. It is internally inconsistent.
Some people who have given their entire lives to science and are brilliant scientists (such as Neil deGrasse Tyson), tend to display alarming ignorance of other things, such as philosophy and theology. They might even make a philosophical statement, assuming it to be science, and not know the difference.
For this reason, we must not shirk the “softer sciences” of philosophy and theology, lest we make radically fundamental errors in our thinking. Such a one-dimensional focus on science can even lead us to confuse philosophical statements for scientific ones!
Going further, I note the traditional definition of science is not so limited. Merriam-Webster, for example, identifies a broader, more traditional definition of science: “a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study” (referencing “the science of theology” as an example).
Merriam-Webster maintains a more traditional definition of science, while more “modern” sources like the Scientific Council and the Cambridge dictionary do not extend the definition of “science” beyond the natural, physical world and the scientific method adapted to the study of the natural, physical world.
I believe that evolution of the definition of science is unfortunate. As I have argued elsewhere, the proposition that science is the study of all the reality that exists (which essentially limits our focus on the natural, physical world), is “convenient”. It is like the person looking under a street light for keys lost in a dark area of the parking lot because searching is easier under the street light.
The limited focus is convenient because we have a good grasp on doing science and studying the natural world, but other areas of knowledge, such as philosophy and theology, are not as well-settled or as clear cut. If we focus only on the study of the natural world, we don’t need to bother with the messier business of philosophy or theology.
Ultimately however, the Neil deGrasse Tysons of the world are putting faith in their fundamental assertion to say that science is the study of all the reality that exists, and there is no reality other than what science (the study of the natural, physical world) reveals. The assertion is an article of faith. It cannot be proven.
I don’t desire to criticize people who have chosen to place their confidence in that conclusion, but I do criticize the myopathy and failure to acknowledge, or maybe even to understand, that they reach this conclusion on faith.
Confidence in our fundamental positions is the stuff of faith because we are finite beings who do not know what we don’t know. We are not able to test our fundamental positions adequately enough to have absolute certainty in them. Such certainty is simply beyond the abilities and capabilities of finite beings. Thus, we are resigned to a position of faith.
This is no less true of the person who’s faith is in science, alone, and the materialism that science can study, as it is for the person who’s faith is in the immaterial reality of philosophy, theology and the unseen, however one perceives and understands it.
The effort in trying to gain knowledge and understanding about reality that may be immaterial requires, at least, some openness to the possibility that immaterial reality exists. That openness doesn’t even require faith. It requires simply some willingness to entertain the possibilities.
The study of immaterial reality is, necessarily, less susceptible to methods of study that are adapted to the natural, material world. We cannot expect exactly the same methods used to study the natural, physical world to yield the same clarity of knowledge and understanding of immaterial things.
Not that such methods should be abandoned in the quest for knowledge and understanding of immaterial reality: it seems reasonable to assume some continuity, some integrity, some harmony between the natural, physical reality and immaterial reality. But methods of inquiry more adapted to an immaterial reality are also in order.
My aim here is not forge a path or even to follow a particular path of such study. My only goal is to touch on the necessity of faith in whatever fundamental positions we take that drive our ultimate conclusions and to encourage an openness to truth/reality in whatever form it takes (or no “form” at all).
If we are going to say that we follow the evidence wherever it leads, we need to be willing to follow it where the trail leaves off beyond the light of scientific inquiry. Though we may not tread as boldly and confidently beyond that light into the relative darkness and difficulty beyond, we should not shrink back from it, or worse: embrace our ignorance.
After all, even science is pointing beyond itself these days:
As Daniel Kabat, a physics professor at Lehman College in New York, explained recently, “We’re used to thinking that information about an object — say that a glass is half full — is somehow contained within the object.” Instead, he says, entanglement means objects “only exist in relation to other objects, and moreover these relationships are encoded in a wave function that stands outside the tangible physical universe.”
(See Nobel Prize in Physics Is Awarded to 3 Scientists for Work Exploring Quantum Weirdness, by Isabella Kwai, Cora Engelbrecht, and Dennis Overby, NY Times, October 4, 2022)