Friday, October 29, 2010

Scientific Faith

All scientists are people of faith. A few are religious people, adhering to specific doctrines. Most are spiritual, with a reverence for the beauty of the universe, particularly of whatever part of it they are studying (in my case, trees and other plants). But all scientists make at least one assumption of faith. We believe that we can find the truth.

All of us scientists believe that the universe makes sense and that we at least have a chance to figure out how. We analyze light from distant galaxies, with a firm faith that light in those galaxies obeys the same laws of physics as does the light from our own sun, and that from that light we can determine the distance of the galaxy and how rapidly it is rushing away from its Big Bang point of origin. We believe in our own brains. We cannot see the Big Bang but we trust that our inference of it, from the correspondence between distance and velocity of the galaxies, is not a delusion. We believe that if there is a God, he has not created fake light to trick us into thinking that the universe is 13.2 billion years old, or fake DNA in our chromosomes to make it look like we had evolutionary ancestors when in fact we did not, and did not magically move plants and animals around during the Flood to make the resulting fossils appear to have an evolutionary order.

I have students who do believe that God made fake light, fake DNA, and a fake fossil record to trick us into rejecting creationism. Not surprisingly, these are the students who have little interest in science, even the science that should be compatible with their religion. These are the students who often plagiarize papers, since they are not interested in thinking for themselves. What is the point, if the physical world is an illusion?

But, I assert, it is the scientists, not the anti-scientists, who are people of faith. It is faith because we cannot prove that the universe is not a fake scenario created by God. I doubt that any of us scientists has ever stopped in the middle of our work and thought, “Geez! What if everything I am studying is just an illusion created by Zeus?” And we stake our entire lives on this faith. If a government were ever to threaten to kill us for accepting the evidence of evolution, most of us would probably end up being martyrs.

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