Friday, May 17, 2024

What Is Faith?

As a scientist, let me start off by saying what faith is not. It is not simply believing something that somebody else has told you.

Faith is something broad and deep that you believe. It is the most important thing in life. It is so important that you are willing to spend years, or the rest of your life, proving or disproving it. Faith is not, therefore, something you believe despite evidence, but because of it. As a result, scientists may have more faith than anyone else. Every scientist will agree that if you believe nothing, then you will never try to find out what is true and what is not.

In the previous essay, I wrote about my Ph.D. dissertation work in plant ecology. I believed that weedy fields had more environmental variability than the forest floor, and that prairies were intermediate between the two. I also believed that plants that live in weedy fields can adjust their growth to variable conditions better than forest floor plants can, and that prairie plants were intermediate between the two. Makes sense, but just because something makes sense doesn’t mean it is true.

I spent seven years in graduate school trying to even partly prove that my belief about weeds, forest floor plants, and prairie plants was true. It was like a vision that kept me going through hours of tedious work out in weedy fields and slapping mosquitoes in forests; afternoons of hot work in a humid greenhouse; hours of computer analysis and writing; and years of reading journal articles. I was Galahad and it was my grail.

I could have been wrong. But the results came out not just non-random but perfect. I still marvel that the results were so good. Hard work is no guarantee of success. It also takes luck.

Whenever you pursue a belief, and continually test and refine it into a faith, you should have a backup plan. What if you are wrong? But I had no backup plan. If my belief had proven wrong, I could still have published some results and made it into a Masters degree. I would not have been a failure in life, but I would not be Dr. Rice. There were a couple of years when things were, in fact, not looking very good.

I hate taking leaps of faith. But that is what I did. Maybe I had more faith in my scientific beliefs than I realized.

And it has left a residue of faith in my mind. Largely as a result of this experience, I am convinced that the natural world makes sense and we can understand it if we study it hard enough. And get lucky.