Monday, October 12, 2015

Faith as a scientist; Faith as a Catholic

Est autem fides credere  quod nondum vides;
cujus fidei merces est videre quod credis
St. Augustine, Sermones 4.1.1
Illustration from Brainy Quotes.
"Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: 'Ye must have faith.' It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with." Max Planck, Where is Science Going? p.24
  "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."   Hebrews 11:1

"Science and religion are two windows through which we can look out at the world around us." Freeman Dyson, Infinity in All Directions


My recent post about Intelligent Design prescribed what science should and should not be.   To extend this discussion, I would argue that faith is required to do serious science (as the quote from Max Planck suggests); thus, contrary to what evangelical atheists say, faith is an attitude not restricted to the religious.

A useful preliminary to such a proposal would be a discussion about ways of knowing, what philosophers term epistemology.   We'll only do this briefly since this post is not a philosophy text.  For a more extensive coverage, please use the references listed below and the links.

One way of knowing is deduction, drawing conclusions from premises we believe to be true,  using logical procedures first set up by Aristotle--going from the general to the specific.  Here's an example (with apologies to Gelett Burgess), a "syllogism":
  • Major premise:   All cows are purple.
    From Seth Godin's web site.
  • Minor premise:   This animal is a cow.
  • Conclusion:         This animal is purple.
If you know the premises to be true, then the conclusion is true.    If the premises aren't true (as in this example), then the conclusion may or may not be true.   For example, you could paint a cow purple, or it could be a mutation.

Note the difference between the above and the following:
  • Major Premise:   All cows are purple.
  • Minor Premise:   This animal is purple.
  • Conclusion:         This animal is a cow.
The conclusion clearly need not follow; there might be purple animals other than cows (unless the premise were stated "Only cows are purple").   This type of false logic (fallacy), would be "affirming the consequent".

Induction is generally regarded as proceeding from particular instances or events to a general conclusion.   (I'm not referring in this context to the mathematical method of proof.)   Here's an example.   A bee-keeper notices that bees move up and down in a special way--"dance"--after they have been gathering nectar from a certain group of flowers.  The dance is the same for a given group of flowers.   The bee-keeper concludes that this bee-dancing is a communication to other bees about the location of the flowers and receives a Nobel Prize.  (We'll see below that science is generally more than collecting data and making inferences.)

Abduction is reasoning from a set of present facts to a possible explanation--events in the past that would account for the facts.   I've discussed this in my post on Intelligent Design, so I'll refer the readers to that discussion


Ask a scientist "what  is the scientific method?", and you're likely to get a blank stare or, "Am I on Candid Camera?" as a response.  If you ask a philosopher, you're may get any one of a number of answers, depending on whether the philosopher belongs to the "realist" or "anti-realist" camp.    There are philosophers who argue that there are no "laws of nature", but that scientific theories are models proposed only "to save the phenomena".  (See my post, Tipping the Sacred Cow of Science--Confessions of a Science Agnostic.)

I'm not going to expound on all the various philosophical schemes for how science works, but focus on one that I believe most closely corresponds to science as it's practiced.    I'll use a tree as a representation of how science proceeds, and do so with  a word diagram, rather than a picture since I'm not an artist:
  • SOIL:     The universe is orderly and intelligible.
  • ROOTS (specific assumptions about scientific principles):   Symmetry /  Conservation Principles; Uniformity (Cosmological) Principles;  The Second Law of Thermodynamics;  Microscopic Reversibility; replicability and predictability of observations.
  • TRUNK (The sap carried is methodology: measurement, observation, mathematics).
  • MAIN BRANCHES (divided into basic theories):  Quantum Mechanics; General and Special Relativity; "Classical" Electromagnetism; Classical Mechanics; Thermodynamics; Super-String Theory; etc.
  • SUBSIDIARY BRANCHES (e.g. for Quantum Mechanics): Quantum Electrodynamics; Laser Optics; Magnetic Resonance; The Standard Model; Molecular Structure; Solid State Theory; Super-conductivity;  etc...

As you'll note, sciences other than physics are neglected in this scheme--I could add chemistry, but I don't know enough about biology, geology, etc. to include them, so add on dear reader, if you're knowledgeable.

A few explanatory remarks are in order.   First, it is not a novel idea that faith in an orderly and intelligible universe is the soil in which the tree of science grows. A justification for this notion is that the enterprise of science grew in a Medieval Civilization, and only in this milieu; and that this civilization held the Judaeo-Christian premise that God ordered the universe to be meaningful--"The Heavens declare the glory of God" (Psalm 19a).   Pierre Duhem, Fr. Stanley Jaki and Dr. Stacy Trasancos have written about how science was born of Christianity, and not in other civilizations.    Although the works of science confirm the notion that the universe is orderly and intelligible, they do not prove it to be so;  that a scientist does believe it to be so is a matter of faith, and if he/she did not have that faith, why should he/she continue the exhausting effort of probing the mysteries of the universe?  Can anyone point out a great or even good scientist who did not believe this?

Second, the roots of the tree of science, its basic principles, are again matters of  faith.    They seem to be reasonable and confirmed empirically, but there is not logical justification for them--they are premises, not conclusions.    There is an equivalence between symmetry restrictions and physical laws, shown by Emmy Noether in the early 20th century:  for example, spherical symmetry yields conservation of angular momentum; symmetry under time reversal (t --> -t ) yields conservation of energy.    It's interesting that a symmetry thought before 1954 to hold universally, parity (mirror-image symmetry), was shown not to stand by itself, but to be incorporated into CPT symmetry (charge conjugation, parity and time reversal).

There are also esthetic judgments made about theories, judgments that are not considered here.   Such judgments are also articles of faith--that a theory that is "elegant" is to be preferred to one which is long and involved.    See my post God, Symmetry and Beauty in Science II for non-elegant thoughts on this.


The picture I'll give as the structure of my Catholic belief, a tree analog, will be unorthodox but, I hope, not heretical.   It will reflect my faith as it has developed during and since my conversion.**
  • SOIL:        The Trinity--God, the Father, above us; God, the Son, beside us; God, the Holy Spirit, within us.
  • ROOTS:    Dogma and Doctrine: The Incarnation, The Passion and Resurrection, the Immaculate Conception, The Eucharist & Transubstantiation, Apostolic Succession, the Primacy of Peter as Bishop of Rome; the Seven Sacraments, Scripture.
  • TRUNK:   The Church
  • BRANCHES:  Liturgy, Theology, Sacred Orders--religious and lay, the Sacraments in Parish Life, Missionary Life, Prayer and Devotion.
I'll admit that this representation is, perhaps, forced in order to make a comparison with the enterprise of science.    Nevertheless, there is a bedrock of faith, a soil--a belief in the Trinity Godhead--that nourishes my religious beliefs, and it is true that dogma and doctrine are the roots of my Catholic faith.    I invite the reader to draw his/her own tree of belief.

*Additional material on Deduction:

Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll, author of the Alice books), an Oxford academic, gave us many amusing and complicated puzzles that mixed his love of nonsense and logic.   Some of Carroll's logical puzzles were exceedingly complicated, involving many statements and logical variables.   Notable among these is the "Pork Chop Problem", which has 15 statements and 11 logical variables.   The solution to such is not easy, and computer methods are helpful.   It may be difficult to make sure that none of the statements are contradictory, so that no paradoxes will occur.   To this end, there is a discipline,"satisfiability theory", in mathematical logic.

Can deductive logic always yield a unambiguous true or false set of  propositions?   In his very fine book, Labyrinths of Reason,  William Poundstone gives examples of logical paradoxes,  for which it is difficult to make a truth judgment.  Perhaps the most famous of these is the Cretan Liar paradox (see Star Trek, Fooling the Androids Episode):
"Epimenides the Cretan says, 'that all the Cretans are liars,' " Thomas Fowler, Elements of Deductive Logic.  Question: Is this statement true or false?
There is also the barber paradox, 
 "The barber is a man in town who shaves all those, and only those, men in town who do not shave themselves." Google search on Barber Paradox ... Question: Who shaves the barber?
Both paradoxes invoke self-reference, whence the paradox.    Bertrand Russell attempted to deal with the problem of self-reference by his "Theory of Types", which sets up a hierarchy of statements, i.e. statements about statements, statements about (statements about statements), etc.

**Other Posts on my Catholic faith.

The Pearl of Great Price--Pascal's Wager Revisited , Top-down to Jesus--On Bypassing the Road to Damascus, Are We Hard-Wired for Faith, God's Gift to Man--The Transforming Power of Music, Suffering: A Catholic| Jewish Perspective, among many others

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About Me

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Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.