Science is faith – the problem with the uniformity of nature argument


So, can science be deemed faith? A common and compelling argument that science is faith is that a scientist will never deductively prove all the physics they’ve learned, therefore an element of faith is present. This is a simple and rather facetious argument that dictates one must be unequivocally sure of something to avoid their belief in that thing being deemed faith. For example, this means that when I play snooker it’s faith that makes me hit the white ball harder in order to pot a ball that’s further away from the hole, not my knowledge of Newton’s 3rd law. This seems pedantic and is dismissed somewhat by David Hume’s concept of ‘the uniformity of nature (UN)’. He suggests that before any inductive inference (i.e me inferring that hitting a ball harder will make it go further) we presuppose UN. The UN assumes that objects which we have never examined, which share similar features to objects we have examined will act identically.

I believe UN stems from rationality but I propose the following problem with it. Imagine a 17th century physicist living in a scientific revolution headed by Newton. He believes in Newton’s findings on the basis that they’re generally accepted by the scientific community amongst other things. This, in my opinion is a completely rational belief. Anyway he dies, completely believing that one of Newton’s findings that mass doesn’t depend on velocity is a UN. Of course Einstein in one lifetime resigns all those before him irrational by ‘proving’ that mass does depend on velocity. Has the 17th century physicist lived a life of faith? That depends on how you view his decisions in time. Looking chronologically he’s rational, just wrong. However looking back from this moment in time it is easy to objectively state that he has placed faith in something that is not true, which he had no evidence of being a UN, after all he did not test this theory for all masses. Hence he lived a life of faith.

The example above exploits a time when the scientific community was evolving from a belief in Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics. This phenomenon has been explored by Kuhn, who characterised it as a ‘paradigm shift’, meaning a change in entire scientific outlook. Paradigm shifts give us an indication that science is faith, they indicate how fragile scientific belief can be and therefore how intrinsic faith is, whilst also setting new rules for the UN.

My gut says science is not faith, but I don’t think the UN argument is a plausible one for explaining why not. A theory or concept that explains science as faith would need to be constant in time and the UN argument certainly isn’t. As with the example above, our perception of the UN and thus the rationale behind why we ‘know’ things will happen is completely dependent on the exact time and knowledge we are exposed to. Within the confines of our lifetime we may consider ourselves to be independent of faith, we believe in things on the basis of experience and science but of course when all that changes via a paradigm shift it renders our beliefs completely baseless. Conclusively we must have believed via faith.





Science is faith – the problem with the uniformity of nature argument

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