Introduction: Opening Remarks on Faith, Simplicity, Justification and Facts
As a former scientist, I have been surprised to hear the occasional scientific researcher argue that ‘science is not a matter of belief’, as if he or she has personally reached a philosophically privileged position where they can conceive of some higher transcendental reality. On the contrary, scientific explanations, like any other system of thought, are based on justifications of personal and shared beliefs.
It is equally perplexing to hear the religious imply that they have a monopoly on faith. Indeed, I am inspired by the confession of a former minister of religion in this regard, who said, ‘I am ashamed to be an agnostic …. but I do not have the faith to be an atheist’. It is my contention that what is really important is the justification of your beliefs.
The failure to apply philosophical ideas to science could also be a severe impediment to progress. The most obvious philosophical concept, of which many scientists are aware, is the principle of parsimony also known as Occam’s Razor. This medieval idea tells us to seek the simplest possible explanations that provide satisfactory answers. When we start to ask what is the basis of the Occam’s Razor, i.e. why should we consider that the simplest explanations are often, but not always, the best, we have begun a serious philosophical enquiry. (For the mathematically educated, David MacKay has intriguingly suggested that we can calculate an ‘Occam Factor‘ when comparing different explanatory models.)
Many scientists appear to feel that the methods adopted by scientists are such that there is no need to ask deeper philosophical questions about their personal and communal pursuits. In a purely pragmatic sense, this is often seen as a valid way to think and act. However, when this way of thinking is adopted, we end up with the possibility of both time-wasting and the creation of an amoral vacuum within the practice of science. This dangerous situation has already led to the development of thermonuclear fusions bombs and the invention of chemical and biological weapons, which pose a very severe threat to us all.
A unifying theory of truth should sweep away romanticised nonsense about belief and faith. In any rigorous formal analysis, the word ‘belief’ can, in the first instance, be reduced to ‘idea’, ‘statement’ or ‘proposition’ and be stripped of derogatory or elevated connotations. In the rarefied atmosphere of modern philosophy, a valid distinction is nevertheless made between the ‘belief in’ (or acceptance of) a proposition by an individual or a community and the ‘proposition itself’.
Justification and Faith
When I use the word faith, I mean ‘reliance on a particular justification’ or if you prefer ‘trust in an idea’. A problem we often face in life is that the justification of our ideas is often more incomplete than we might like to imagine. As we are not all-seeing and all-knowing and do not have direct access to a disembodied ‘absolute truth’ we must all have faith(s) of one kind or another. The use of the word ‘faith’, in a widely construed sense, urgently needs to become more fashionable, because ‘Faith’ in the very deep and profound sense, of deciding to rely on particular justifications, is at the root of all intellectual insight. In addition, ‘faith’ makes it possible for us to deal with the practicalities of existence. When we make faith-based decisions in every sphere of life (using the sense in which I mean the word), we are opening up the possibility of testing that faith and so revising our beliefs. The practice of testing ideas is pre-eminently the case in science. In science, justification often relies on the consistency and logical coherence of a large number of ideas and observations. We need a degree of faith in the reports of individual scientists when it comes to our willingness to accept scientific ideas. This faith is what motivates us to inquire more or to take action in the world. If faith applies in science, then the same should be the case in politics and religion.
Consistency and Questioning
Surely it is more satisfactory if we have a theory or system of analysis that deals comprehensively and uniformly with ideas in the widest possible sense. It is a major role of analytical philosophy to seek consistency within any system of ideas.
If we wish to be consistent and feel that we are making intellectual progress, we should aim for an understanding of ‘Truth’ that handles religious, social, political, legal and scientific beliefs by the same exacting criteria. Sadly not everyone prizes consistency and coherence of ideas, especially when these conflict with social, political and religious dogmas.
Although science might survive analytical scrutiny more intact than other domains of thought, it is nevertheless foolish to dismiss, without detailed consideration, the possibility of insight from other contemplative traditions. The theologian and the mathematical cosmologist, for example, can arrive at related although not necessarily identical questions. The theologian, David Ferguson, author of ‘Faith and its critics: a conversation’ asked in his Gifford Lectures what was the ‘first cause’ of the universe? The cosmologist, like Roger Penrose, author of ‘Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe’ has asked the related question of what happened before the ‘Big Bang’? In other words, there are different routes by which we can come to reach penetrating questions. Clearly, the questions asked above are different in very important ways, one of which is the type of answer generated.
We arrive at the centre of things in epistemology when we try to compare methods of enquiry and the answers produced. However, the starting point for analysis is in knowing what questions to ask. The rewards are found in providing answers to those questions in a way that matters. It is partly the job of epistemology to produce an understanding of the merits and the constraints of the type of questions we can ask and the type of answers we can produce. However it is not a ‘one-way street’, our epistemology needs to be informed by methods of science, social analysis, and systematic studies of many kinds. It is also of fundamental importance to understand the methods, instincts and motivations we use to arrive at our beliefs, be they scientific, political, moral or religious.
If our methods are valid, they will continue to provide insight long after we are gone and our ideas have been forgotten. It makes no difference whether we are Nobel prize winners or nonentities we can productively examine our beliefs.
Early in the 20th century, the publicly well-known philosopher Bertrand Russell made a great play on the idea of simple irreducible ideas that he called ‘atomic facts’. These were supposedly “self evident” truths that were immediately obvious following “sensation” or available to the rational mind through logic. All one had to do was make reference to the ‘facts’, and everything would be clear. We can now be more considered in our approach, partly due to the developments in psychology and neuroscience. In the past 100 years, there has also been a great deal of philosophical scholarship to which we can make reference. We now can, for example, see the need to distinguish between the act of ‘seeing’ and the interpretative process of ‘observing’.
The philosopher and historian of science Alan Chalmers has correctly stated, even the simple act of looking at a specimen with a microscope involves interpretation. (I know this personally from many years experience in biological microscopy.) Similarly, the act of observing pathological abnormalities in a medical X-ray image requires a sophisticated interpretation of human anatomy in health and disease. The ability to interpret such images has required a very long period of investigation by scientists, engineers, manufacturers, anatomists, physicians, surgeons, pathologists and radiologists working together to produce a complex body of related observations.
We can take theses ideas from the practice of science and medicine and apply them to ordinary everyday affairs. When I observe a table or a tree either directly or in a photograph or an impressionist painting, I am interpreting the pattern of light that falls on my retina as one of those objects. I only do so because of learned experience.
Do you see a tree on the horizon within this impressionistic image?
Are you instead interpreting the image as showing a woody plant growing in a particular position?
Photo and image processing by Steve’
Claiming the existence of the ‘facts of a case’ might be valuable within a courtroom, however, in philosophical or scientific contemplation we should not be cavalier when using the term ‘fact’. In my opinion, it is more important to look for the justification of a particular belief rather than be obsessed with the notion of ‘fact’. For example, when I ‘see’ a rotting plum on the lawn beneath a particular tree in my garden, I feel justified in believing with a high degree of certainty first that it has fallen by natural process from the tree. I will also be sure that the fall was biologically facilitated by the process of abscission and that the fruit was then spoiled for human consumption by the growth of fungi. The degree of certainty which I feel is enough for me to call my explanation factual.
Fungus growing on a plum that had fallen from a tree in my garden.
The conidial heads are becoming dark as spores develop.
Image by Steve
There are many contemporary philosophers who might argue, in a counter-factual way, that I do not know for sure that someone has sneaked into my garden to steal a plum from the tree and in the process been startled and dropped this piece of fruit. My ‘knowledge’ about the reasons for the plum being on the grass might be true but for the wrong reason. This type of counterfactual explanation is known as a Gettier Case, after the American philosopher Edmund Gettier. I would argue that we should be more concerned with the probability of each type of explanation being true and also decide which is the simplest explanation that fits the observations. When I wish to explain to myself why abscission occurs, there are, of course, much more complex justifications on which I need to rely.
In the case of this particular falling plum, it is more important for me to think that I have justified beliefs rather than be absolutely confident that I have ‘justified true beliefs‘. Traditionally, Justified True Belief was taken to be the basis of knowledge. In this case, as in many others, I am personally happy to temporarily put aside the idea of ‘truth’ and ‘real knowledge’ and instead be concerned instead with the justification of my beliefs. In so doing I am happy to ignore Gettier cases. However, when I wish to formulate a more abstract and generalizable scientific statement, about why plums fall from trees when they become ripe, counterfactual thinking will become much more important, since complex explanations seem intuitively more likely to engender error.
Optical Illusions show us that observation is much more than ‘seeing’.
In addition, your possible amusement at the old directorial style of this film will result from the possibility
that you might superimpose a cultural as well as psychological interpretation on your ‘seeing’.
Justification of Beliefs in Science
Science now constitutes a large body of observations and explanations. Today students of science are limited to learning about very restricted sub-disciplines because of the sheer size of the body of knowledge. Researchers are necessarily even more restricted because of their need to develop a comprehensive understanding and knowledge of their chosen area of work. Nevertheless, there should in principle be extensive consistency and logical coherence that tie together the diverse specialisms. The coherence theories of truth and justification, which will be discussed later, stress the importance of the way in which ideas fit together in a logically compelling way.
When it comes down to particular assertions in science, the justification of belief can be very detailed and extremely complex. There is no overarching blueprint to tell us how all ideas and science can be justified. [In a later section, I have examined the justification for a particular scientific belief the existence of Gravitational Waves within the context of the developing history of Astronomy]. In addition to the complexity of the supporting activities and beliefs, we will see that it is possible to historicize the context of any particular scientific belief for a richer understanding of how we produce particulars claims in science.
What is this thing called science? 3rd edition by A.F. Chalmers (now in a 4th Edition)