Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Stone Chapel, Proctor Academy, Andover, NH
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THE FAITH OF SCIENCE AND THE SCIENCE OF FAITH
Sermon given by Rev. Emily Burr on 4/20/08
at Kearsarge UU Fellowship

Despite what some proponents of creationism might have you believe, science and faith are not mutually exclusive.  In fact they are integral to each other.  People are often surprised that I majored in physics in college and am now a minister.  They think the two careers quite disparate.  My answer, when someone mentions this, is that they really are not that different.  I am still asking the same questions.  I’m just coming at them from a different angle.

Our responsive reading today was about doubt.  Doubt really is an asking of questions.  Robert Weston said, “doubt is the attendant of truth”.  He could have used the word “faith” instead of “truth”.  Without the freedom or ability to doubt, faith is only “blind faith” - faith base on what one is told one must believe – just because it is true.  Many people require a firmer basis for their beliefs than a blind acceptance of authority.  Perhaps, in fact, it is immoral to hold beliefs without a logical reason for those beliefs.  Philosophers Theodore Schick, Jr. and Lewis Vaughn write the following in their book, How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age:

“Everybody's entitled to their own opinion' goes the platitude, meaning that everybody has the right to believe whatever they want. But is that really true? Are there no limits on what is permissible to believe? Or, as in the case of actions, are some beliefs immoral? Surprisingly, perhaps, many have argued that just as we have a moral duty not to perform certain sorts of actions, so we have a moral duty not to have certain sorts of beliefs. No one has expressed this point of view more forcefully than the distinguished mathematician W. K. Clifford: 'It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.' "*

Could it be unethical for belief to be based on blind faith without evidence?  Our actions are guided by our beliefs, and if our beliefs are mistaken, our actions may be misguided.  Too much harm, some would say evil, has been done because of blind faith and a disregard for the rights of others to believe differently.

If our beliefs are not based on blind faith, then on what do we base them?  I contend that, if our beliefs are more than blind faith, we use the scientific method when we develop them.  One definition of the scientific method is:  a way to ask and answer scientific questions by making observations and doing experiments.

The steps of the scientific method are:

  • Observe the world around you
  • Ask a question about something you want to know more about or be more sure of.
  • Form a possible answer to your question, a hypothesis.
  • Test your hypothesis through further observation, experiments and experience
  • Draw conclusions and further questions from your observations.

If you think about it, isn’t that really how we come to accept the beliefs we have? Whether or not we believe in God or another creative force in the universe, most of us have come to those beliefs through a logical thought process.  We experienced the world around us.  We asked questions, in our minds and of others, the big theological questions: Is there a God?  How did the universe start?  Why are we here?  Is there a why?  We read. We listened to people and talked with others.  We formed possible answers to those questions.  Then we lived some more and observed some more.  We tested our beliefs, our hypotheses, against our experiences.  We drew conclusions and created a foundation for our belief system.

Even people who appear to base their beliefs on blind faith may have used logical reasoning to get there initially.  The experiences in their lives and the people they believed in and trusted told them there were those in the church with the authority to decide what was truth, and they were not to be questioned

I think some people fall off the logic track when they close the door to questions, doubt and new evidence.  The scientific method must be a continuous, ongoing process to be valid.  As we read this morning: “The truth stands boldly and unafraid; it is not shaken by the testing. For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure. Those that would silence doubt are filled with fear…”  We can never stop asking the questions that come up, or looking for evidence to uphold or refute our beliefs. That would be to stop using the intelligence that we were born with, the intelligence that some would say God created us with.

Galileo Galilei said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect had intended for us to forgo their use.”   There are many parallels between our system of religious beliefs and our scientific knowledge.

Many scientists throughout history have been people of traditional religious beliefs.  As a confirmed atheistic scientist, in my young adult years, I found it surprising that so many historical scientists were also known for their religious beliefs.  That no longer surprises me.  Even secular scientists have to have faith.  They may not have faith in God, a divine spirit, or even a beneficent bent to the universe, but they must have faith.  It may not be a conventional religious faith, but without faith in what we believe to be true, there would be no science.  We must trust what our eyes see, our ears hear, our bodies feel.  We must have faith in the “laws of the universe”.  We have to trust what experience has taught us.  Even those of us who do not consider ourselves scientists must have this kind of faith or we would have a hard time getting through the day.  When we put gas in our car and turn the key, we expect the principles of the internal combustion engine to hold true.  We assume that when we put our foot on solid ground, the atoms and molecules in the dirt will continue to follow those laws of nature and continue to support our weight.  We have faith that something hot will burn us, so we avoid it.  Scientists spend their lives testing and exploring the edges of human knowledge.  They cannot continue without faith in their senses.  They must also be able to trust in their ability to sort the data they collect into logical patterns of information to help explain their observations.  There would be no point in scientific research if we could not believe the results of our experiments and explorations into uncharted and unexplained phenomena.

There is one tool that scientists have used, that seems to demand a great deal of faith.  Ockam’s Razor is a principle of logic that has guided scientific theories and the building of scientific models since the fourteenth century.  This way of deciding does not seem logical on first encounter.  Yet it has proved to be a useful way of determining what is truth, over and over again.  William of Ockam, a Franciscan friar and philosopher, proposed that when evidence allows for a multitude of explanations, the simplest is the most likely.  He stated it in Latin: “entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem."  Which can be paraphrased as: "All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best."  When multiple competing theories are equal in other respects, the principle recommends selecting the theory that introduces the fewest assumptions.  There is no logical reason to believe that this principle is any more valid than the principle that “The most complex solution is the best.” Yet it seems to be so.  Scientists now use this principle when judging contrasting theories.  The only reason to do so is the faith that past experience, a vital part of the scientific method, has proven this principle to be true beyond logical explanation.

Ockam’s razor is an example of faith going beyond logic, or perhaps an example of experience leading to an unexplained faith. It is only logical to believe something that has proven to be true over and over again. 

I am an agnostic who wants to believe – believe that the universe is somehow bent toward the good.  I have read and listened to stories where prayer has been “proved” to be efficacious.  In many ways, it would comfort me to think that willing would make it so.  I am not ready to disbelieve, but neither am I ready to believe.  I wonder what evidence I would require to believe in such an intangible effect on what I consider to be a very tangible universe? 

What separates science from many religious belief systems, is the rigorous application of logical reasoning.  The scientific method of rational thought, given to us by God, or evolution, our ability to sort through what is true, allows us to combine our experience with our rational abilities to build both a scientific and spiritual understanding of the world in which we live.

What is the foundation of your faith?  Do you rely on what you have experienced in life?  Do you base your beliefs of truth on what you have been told by others?  Do you use the experiences you have had and the power of you intellect to decide what you will use to guide you as you make your way through the time you have to wonder at the universe?  These are questions to ponder as you sort through what you believe scientifically and theologically.

*"How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age (second edition)", p.102, Theodore Schick, Jr. and Lewis Vaughn, Mayfield Publishing Co., 1999

 

 

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