Monday, January 11, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Part Two (I)

Part Two: Faith in Science or Faith in God?

The author includes an unattributed quote before each chapter, and I have reproduced the one that begins part two of the book in full. It reads:

“If you were an intelligent, rational person living in the twentieth century then you believed in evolution. But as science continues to probe the secrets of the universe, it becomes clearer that believing in God is the more rational option.”

Judging by part two’s title and the quote with which it starts, the author is trying to do a number of things here. In no particular order:
1. He is implying that both science and God equally require faith.
2. He is implying that science is not reliable because scientific opinion changes over time.
3. He is implying that at some point in the future science will discover that God does exist (and presumably that Judaism is the One True Faith.)
4. He is mistakenly assuming that either evolution is correct or God did it. This is a false dichotomy, as it is entirely possible that some third, as-yet-unimagined explanation for biodiversity is in fact correct. Thus, if evolution was shown to be incorrect, the answer to the question, "How did biodiversity arise?" is, "We don't know," not, "God did it."

Each of the first three points deserves a lengthy discussion which is beyond the scope of this critique. Instead I will try to (relatively) briefly show why each one is wrong.

Let’s begin with 1, the implication that both science and God require equal faith. Before we can discuss this premise, we must first define “faith.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines faith as:

1 a : allegiance to duty or a person : LOYALTY b (1) : fidelity to one's promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
2 a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
3 : something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs

Definition 1 is not relevant to our discussion. Definition 2a is not useful to us because if faith is by definition belief in God we cannot speak of faith in science. Definition 2b cannot be what is meant here by faith, both because science is the attempt to build up a system of proven rules about the way the world functions and because the book is an attempt to prove the existence of God and various precepts of Judaism. This leaves us with definition 3, “something that is believed especially with strong conviction.”

Using this definition, it is reasonable to speak of faith in science or God; that is, the strong conviction that science is the best way we have to accurately explain the world or the strong conviction that God exists.
(I would like to note that this is not necessarily an either/or, and I frame it as such only to paraphrase the author's question.)

Unfortunately, when we speak of faith we usually think of definition 2b, “firm belief in something for which there is no [or inconclusive] proof.” The way the question is worded, “Faith in Science or Faith in God?” together with our usual interpretation of the word faith misleadingly implies that it is equally reasonable to trust that science accurately explains the world and to trust that religion accurately explains the world.

Even using definition 3, we must remember that a “conviction” is not proof of accuracy. That someone firmly believes in God does not show that God exists, any more than someone’s firm belief in the truth of a scientific principle means that principle is correct. Our beliefs must be justified. A detailed discussion of epistemology is beyond the scope of this critique, but let us briefly look at how science and religion each derive their principles.

Science begins by assuming we know nothing and our speculative hypotheses are considered incorrect until proven otherwise (the null hypothesis). We then painstakingly prove each premise through experimentation, observation, induction, and inference. Proven hypotheses that collectively explain observed phenomena form theories, which are then tested for accuracy by further experimentation and observation to see if the world actually behaves in the way the theory predicts that it will. Science is done by fallible human beings who may design flawed experiments, misinterpret results, and even come up with theories that seem to be accurate but are later shown to be false. A high demand for independent verification and the prestige that comes with new discoveries, especially paradigm-changing discoveries, ensures that experiments are repeated by many people, many of whom are often trying to prove the original experimenter wrong. This verification process assures that mistakes will eventually be caught and corrected.

In short, science moves from premise to proof to conclusion, and the proofs and conclusions of any given scientist are scrutinized by others looking for mistakes and are reinterpreted or discarded in light of new evidence.

Religion knows what is true not through the careful establishment of premises, but through revealed wisdom. Religion begins with the conclusions, does not require independent corroboration of those conclusions, and marginalizes or ignores all evidence against those conclusions. After all, there can be no greater Authority on how the world functions than its omniscient Creator. If God tells us something is true, it must be so, and any evidence to the contrary must be wrong.

Religion assumes its conclusions are true and immutable because they were handed down by the ultimate Authority, God.

The question is which is more justified? One of the problems with the religious approach is that it is essentially an argument from authority – the authority (God) said it, so we assume it’s true without bothering to examine the authority’s reasoning. Yet we can reasonably argue that an omniscient God is different than a human authority. We must examine a human authority’s justification for his statement because people can make mistakes, regardless of their stature. God is infallible and all-knowing.

This argument still leaves us with a problem. How do we know that God in fact exists, is omniscient, infallible, etc., and that a given book is indeed His revealed wisdom? That the Torah makes these claims is not by itself evidence that these claims are true. The only way to conclusively prove these premises is through experimentation, observation, induction, and inference. And now we’re back to science.


  1. Thank you for your interesting posts in general and the book review(s) in particular. I think that the following quote from Spinoza's "Tractatus Theologico-Politicus" neatly sums up the difference between religious deductions and scientific deductions. (I believe that he's talking about Rabbis in general and the Rambam in particular.)

    "It is not enough for them to share the delusions of the Greeks: they sought to represent the prophets as sharing in these same delusions.. And this is further evident from the fact that most of these assume as a basic principle for the understanding of Scripture and for extracting its true meaning that it is throughout truthful and divine-a conclusion which ought to be the end result of study and strict examination, and which they lay down at the outset as a principle of interpretation..."

    (Quote taken from "Betraying Spinoza" by Rebecca Goldstein.)

    It's amazing to me that Spinoza wrote this 340 years ago and understood that religious debate is all about the postulates.


  2. I'm glad you find my posts interesting. It's encouraging to know that people read and like what I write.

    It's fascinating how the debate between beleivers and skeptics remains essentially the same across time and culture (and religions). It seems that humans are wired to intuit the divine, yet with enough knowledge we are able (though not forced) to see these tendecies for what they really are. And so the debater continues.