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Faith and the Scientific Method

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Posted September 4th 2013 at 10:48 AM by Mahray

Darth Vader: Donít be too proud of this technological terror youíve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.
Admiral Motti: Donít try to frighten us with your sorcerous ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the rebelsí hidden fortressÖ
[Vader makes a pinching motion and Motti starts choking]
Darth Vader: I find your lack of faith disturbing.

Another question that I have been asked, and one that does lie close to my own heart (which I now know is in awesome condition, thanks to an awesome team of doctors), surrounds the interaction of faith and the scientific method. This essay once again will be looking at this particular issue from my own, peculiar and unique viewpoint, purely because it's the one that I am most familiar with. Of course, this shouldn't make it any less valid than anyone else's (more valid? a discussion for another time). Before it causes too many disagreements though, consider carefully if you are arguing with points because they are logical fallacies, based on improper information, or because they do not reflect your personal values and beliefs.
So what is the scientific method? While it is a method, a series of steps or actions that can be taken, it is also a concept, an epistemological framework. So the basic steps in the scientific method are:
  • Make an observation
  • Ask a question
  • Do some research (to find out more about your question, the history, the background, other research etc)
  • Construct a hypothesis (which is simply a prediction of what you think will happen)
  • Test your hypothesis with an experiment or observation
  • Analyse your data and draw a conclusion (at this point it is perfectly acceptable to say that your hypothesis was wrong and start again)
  • Communicate your results
There are a couple of really important points in that list. Firstly, the scientific method is about asking (and eventually, perhaps, answering) questions. If you don't ask questions, about the world around you, about people, about everything... then there isn't much point, really. Sometimes you ask a question, do the research, and the answer is there. That's the tricky bit then, do you accept the answers already out there. Now sometimes, the answers are completely wrong (hello Copernicus!) but the difficulty is in determining those cases, when you may not have a strong background in a particular field. (I'm carefully avoiding the controversy over climate science here).
Constructing a hypothesis is easy in the general sense, it's your prediction of what is going to happen. It gets much harder if you want to test your hypothesis, because a strict interpretation of the scientific method asks you to construct a hypothesis that can be tested by changing one variable. Testing it via observation or experiment is also a task that can be extremely simple or extraordinarily complex. For example, if I make a hypothesis that leaving an ice cube on the kitchen floor tonight will lead to it melting, it is simple to test. If the hypothesis was that sufficient amounts of electricity passing through a dead snake will turn it into a pumpkin, harder to test for me. In practical terms, that's an experiment that could be conducted, and we would expect that the results would disprove the hypothesis.
To conclude that the results of a particular experiment prove or disprove the hypothesis, the results must be analysed. Again, this can be simple or complex. There is a puddle of water on the floor where the icecube was. Across a range of voltages and currents the following results were seen. Harder analysis. LHC results. Really really hard analysis.
Then comes the really hard bit, and the part that is so often left out or forgotten. Communicating your results. It's not science if you do it in your back yard and don't tell anyone else (so it can be science in your backyard if you share your results). Sharing results serves a number of purposes. It allows people to conduct research, and find out information. It also means that your results are subject to scrutiny, available to be tested and tried by other people. Only the ideas and information that stands the test of time and multiple experiments will survive (think Hunger Games for scientific information).
That's the other key to the scientific method, ideas are constantly being tested and if there is sufficient evidence then ideas will change.
Let's move on to faith, an area in which I will admit to much less expertise.

Faith: Noun
* Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
* Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

In this instance, we'll go with the second part of the definition. The important bit is that it's a strong belief, generally in a deity or set of deities, based on spiritual apprehension. For me, I lack any faith in a higher being. I'm not sure why. Sometimes I am envious of those with faith, especially those with the true faith that comes from a spiritual connection. Perhaps I am missing a sensitivity, some extra sense. Perhaps my brain is wired differently, or my childhood was different. However, my own lack of faith is not an issue in this discussion.
So the great question is can you have faith and be a proponent of the scientific method (even if you are not a scientist). The short answers is, simply, yes. Faith and the scientific method go together as much as any other two non-overlapping ideologies. Science and the scientific method is strongly embedded in the domain of the physical, faith is in the domain of spirituality. The two domains, in most areas, do not intersect. Where they do intersect are areas of either cutting edge research into spirituality and metaphysics, or the frankly painful areas where people try to use faith as an excuse not to think.
Faith, in the appropriate domain, is perfectly reasonable and I have no complaints with anyone who has faith. In the domain of the physical, it can cause problems if people rely on faith to provide answers instead of thinking. There are a number of examples that come to mind. The obvious is Creationism, and its bastard cousin Intelligent Design. Both of these, concepts (I refuse to use the word theory) rely not on observations and evidence but faith and a particular reading of a particular holy text. Without falsifiability of the ideas, then they are not legitimate in the domain of the physical. It is not so much a problem in itself as it is a problem when people believe these ideas over the falsifiable scientific ideas.
Faith and the scientific method. Both perfectly valid sources of epistemology in their domains. Both cause problems when applied outside of their proper domains. The two can coexist peacefully, there are any number of scientists who hold strong religious beliefs and people of faith who hold to the scientific method. For myself, I do not have any particular faith, yet if I did then it would lie in the domain of the spiritual and have no impact on my reliance and understanding of the scientific method.
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