Response to Creationist 19

19. “Can you believe in “the big bang” without “faith”?”

In other words, “I believe in something with absolute certainty, despite evidence against it, and none in favour. So I assume that’s what everyone else does too.”

There’s an old and discredited argument that says scientists have to take certain assumptions on faith, therefore they’re no more rational than religious people who simply choose different starting points for constructing their understanding of the world.

It’s true that even the most rigorous belief system has to have some foundations. The alternative is refusing to believe in anything at all. The scientific worldview makes the minimal assumptions necessary to function: that an external universe exists and we can perceive it with our senses (though our perceptions may be distorted and require corroboration), and that it follows fixed laws which haven’t and won’t change. That’s as far as you can say it takes anything on faith. Even then, it’s not quite the same. I think (and hope) the universe will continue to operate according to fixed natural laws, because it has done so far. That’s not the same as the burning inner certainty that theists cite as the sole justification for their belief in god.

Note that the theist advocate of the “faith in science” argument still has to make the same assumptions as the scientist. He also assumes that the universe exists, and will continue to follow fixed laws, since he attempts to exit rooms through doorways instead of walls, relying on visual evidence and notions of persistent solidity. But he diverges from prudent belief-making when he adds to those basic assumptions others based on youthful indoctrination, ancient scriptures, deep inner convictions, or whatever else he fancies.

The fact that you have to make some assumptions doesn’t mean you might as well make any assumption you like.

Think of money as an analogy for belief. We have to make decisions every day about how we use our money, and that means making certain assumptions, but also thinking critically to minimise the risk of error. In this analogy, the extreme sceptic is like a miser who refuses to trust any transaction at all, and hoards all his money under the mattress while living in squalor and foraging for food in bins. We don’t want to be like that, so we place a certain amount of tentative trust in the system: we hope that shops will sell us reasonably decent goods without trying to screw us over, and so on. We build up our trust and understanding of the world around us, enough to make decisions about things like savings accounts, mortgages, credit cards. We’ll still occasionally misplace that trust and get screwed over, but we’ll learn from it and make wiser decisions in future. The fact that we’re out there, making purchases instead of hoarding everything, doesn’t mean we’re being profligate. It’s not the same as handing over our credit card details to every fraudster who rings us up with a promise of riches. 19 is the Sylvia Kneller of this analogy.

Since 19 puts prominent scare quotes (or as my tutor used to call them, the ‘inverted commas of cowardice’) around the term, we can’t be sure exactly what he means by “faith”. But this is how I’d characterise it:

Minimal epistemological assumptions, and what follows from them: science.

Extra, fanciful assumptions, and what follows from them: theology.

Discovering that the beliefs derived from the fanciful assumptions contradict the beliefs derived from the minimal assumptions, and choosing to stick with the fanciful ones anyway: faith.

However, I suspect 19 himself isn’t asserting anything very sophisticated about the epistemological axioms of the scientific method. He just thinks that since no-one was around for the Big Bang, it’s a historical theory, a wild guess with no better evidence to support it than his own idea of divine creation. If you think that’s an unfair strawman characterisation, watch the start of the Ken Ham debate, in which he makes exactly that point, drawing a (false) distinction between “observational science” (using the scientific method to find out how the world works now) and “historical science” (groundless speculation on what happened before the present).

As I was writing this, Lawrence Krauss posted an article at the New Yorker, helpfully explaining much better than I could why this distinction between experimental and historical science is utter bullshit.

However, it seemed to be accepted by the creationist audience at the debate. Let’s hope none of them work as journalists, doctors, police officers, forensic investigators… any job where you have to work out what happened at some point before the present moment.

Suppose you’re walking through a city. Behind you, you hear a squeal of brakes, a scream and a thud. You turn around to see a body flying past you through the air. ‘Where did that body come from,’ you think, ‘and why was it flying like that?’ If you were a normal, rational person, you’d look back along the direction the body had flown from, notice the vehicle there, and form a hypothesis. You might even notice a few extra pieces of evidence, like the blood-spattered dent in the bonnet, to support that conclusion. Ken Ham and his followers wouldn’t make that leap of faith though. Even if 19 were an automotive crash test technician, studying the behaviour of bodies in high speed car impacts, that’s only observational science. He wouldn’t be able to apply what he’d learned in his day job, to the question of how this particular body had acquired its flight path. Instead, he’d accept the testimony of the vehicle driver – that he’d suddenly halted for no particular reason, and then a body had spontaneously appeared and flown past him – on trust. Because the driver was the only eye witness. Like god was for the start of the universe.

As long as people like Ken Ham and 19 refuse to look at physical evidence for the origins of life and the universe, they’re the best people in the world to burgle: they’d never press charges because they fundamentally refuse to recognise a process of deduction about the past.

What they fail to grasp, and what Krauss makes clear in his article, is that scientists use essentially the same process of evidence. Galaxies are flying apart? Hypothesis: they were once all together. Can we see any other tell-tale signs of this event? Oh yes, turns out we can.

It doesn’t require faith to believe this. If you think it does, you’re being deceived by a language game: the word “faith” is being used in different ways. “You have faith in the orderliness of the universe!” Well, yes, I have to accept it as an unproven assumption… “Aha! That’s the same as my faith in Christianity!” Er, is it? Could you describe your faith in a bit more detail? “Sure, I love talking about my deep personal relationship with Jesus! Faith is the glow in my heart which makes me absolutely sure the Lord loves me and is with me at all times, blah blah blah…” Erm, that’s really not how I feel about the orderliness of the universe at all, actually.

In 19’s case, as in many others, I don’t think it’s intentionally dishonest. Rather, it’s a genuine failure to empathise with the other side’s belief-formation process. It also works both ways: well-meaning liberal atheists have a tendency to blame all murderous religious fanaticism on purely socio-economic causes, and overlook the fact that suicide bombers really do believe that their sacrifice will earn them rewards in an afterlife. They discount that reason because they assume that the suicide bombers must think in basically the same way as themselves, and therefore can’t imagine having such passionate certainty in a groundless belief.

Conversely, 19 and his fellow faithheads are so used to passionate certainty in groundless beliefs, and are taught to accept it as the correct way of thinking, that they simply can’t comprehend a paradigm of tentative, evidence-based hypotheses.

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