Is Science Just a Matter of Faith?
Look at these books:
If you don’t know who these authors are, you’d be forgiven for thinking these books came from the Bible Studies section of the bookstore. But in fact, these are science books, most of them written by the foremost thinkers in their respective fields, and many of them proud atheists. All of these books are about pure science. They are not about creationism, intelligent design, or even the relationship between science and religion generally. They do not attempt some religio-scientific synthesis. These books are not about the common ground. They are about science pure and simple, and specifically science’s answers to the great questions: what is the universe made of, where did the universe come from, where do we come from? They are some of the best-selling pop science books about physics, math, and evolution. And all of them inexplicably invoke God and the divine in their titles.
And this is just a sample of all of hte science books that do this. Walk through the science section of your local bookstore, or browse Amazon, and you’ll find many more science books with the same pseudo-religious titles. Why? Why do pop-sci book authors and publishers do this? Can’t they just sell the science book with science?
Teach the Controversy
To answer this question, I think it helps to look at the opposite situation. Why did creationists choose to cloak religion in the language of science when they invented Intelligent Design? I understand that the goal was to get creationism (and religion) into public schools. But why did they feel it was necessary to recast religious belief specifically as a scientific theory using all of the accompanying scientific language? Why try to get religion in to schools by wrapping it up as part of social studies, culture theory, or literature? Why did it have to be science? Why attempt create a scientific theory called Intelligent Design when they knew full well that the scientific community would never be fooled?
Because they were hoping to invest their particular Christianity with the certainty and authority of science. If creationism could pass as science, then schools could teach it–creationism according to fundamentalist Christianity–uncritically as a fact they way they teach science. And this would create an entire population of students receptive to the political and cultural narratives that are based on religion. This is also why creationists are comfortable with “teaching the controversy.” It implies there is a scientific controversy in which creationism/ID is the leading alternative theory to evolution. Teaching Intelligent Design, and teaching the “controversy”, expands the authority of religion in the secular domain that is traditionally the province of science
And that’s the key–authority. Creationists we’re trying to invest creationism with the authority of science so that creationists could speak with authority on matters of science, such as evolution and global warming. And that authority is substantial. Science speaks with unchallenged authority on most topics relating to the natural world.
With some notable exceptions.
Who Says What Science Says?
On the Big Questions of cosmology and biology, the questions of Life, the Universe, and Everything (as another famous atheist put it), religion has very simple, very comforting, and very accessible answers. God created the heavens and the Earth, He created us in his image and that’s we we’re so smart and animals are food, and one day He’ll come back and we’ll live together in paradise. For more details, inquire within.
Of course, science has answers to these Big Questions questions too. And that is precisely what these books and others are about. They are about science’s answers to the questions of the origins of the universe, the evolution of man, and the fundamental nature of the cosmos. And most non-scientists want to know these answers. Unfortunately, the actual scientific answers involve things like wave equations and quantum electrodynamics and molecular biology that very few non-scientists can ever hope to understand. “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Richard Feynman was including himself when he said that, which is disconcerting given how many books he wrote on that very subject.
Consider how science looks to the layperson, the average citizen who never progressed beyond high school math. These scientific theories–these scientific truths–are extremely dense and esoteric. To them, the theories are unknowable in their native scientific and mathematical forms. These theories are written in their own arcane language with their own unique symbology. For most people, this:
In both cases, the layperson needs an interpreter. The fact is that it takes years of dedicated study before scientific truth in its truest, mathematical and symbolic forms can be understood. The rest of us rely on experts to explain it, someone who has seen and understood the truth and can dumb it down for us in a language we can understand.
How Do We Know The Science We Know?
And therein lies the big problem for science and scientists. For most people, science is really a matter of trusting the expert who tells it to us and believing what they tell us. Trust and belief. Faith. Not understanding. How can we understand science, if we can’t understand the language of science? Feynman said, “Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.” He also said, “To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature.” That’s one of the great popularizers of science telling you that without a strong background in postgraduate horrific math and an active imagination, you’ll never really understand what science has to say about the deep truths of nature the way a scientist does. All we can get is the scientist’s interpretation of what the equations and the theory mean. There is simply no other way to apprehend the concepts. Without the math, you learn science by taking what scientists say on faith. You don’t know that Schroedinger’s equation is a scientific fact, you believe it is.
If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we accept the incredibly complex scientific phenomena in physics, astronomy, and biology through the process of belief, not through reason. We don’t practice the scientific method. We don’t rationally consider the evidence presented for a theory. We don’t learn science by doing science, we learn science by reading and memorizing. The same way we learn history. Do you really know what an atom is, or that a Higgs boson is a rather important thing, or did you simply accept they were what someone told you they were? (See also: The Decline Effect is Stupid.)
Can You Trust A Scientist?
There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. If this is what it takes for people to accept scientific truths as truths, then so be it. But ask yourself, if an economist or a drug company told you about certain facts about free markets or psychopharmacology, would you believe them? Or are physicists on physics more credible than economists on economics? Because if they are, you are admitting that the credibility of the speaker plays a role in what you will accept as scientific truth.
And on that basis, all the weirdness of science–the quantum entanglement, 11-dimensional string theory, the evolution of protozoa into dinosaurs and humans, etc., i.e. those things that contradict our experience of the world as perceived through our senses–appears less credible, and more incredible, than religion. Religion presents a very understandable, easy to learn story. There’s hardly any matrix algebra in Genesis. Furthermore, religion has a lot of people speaking on its behalf. A lot of people make a living explaining what religion says about life, the universe, and everything. Religion makes it easy.
Who is an Authority?
Science can’t speak for itself, it needs people to do that. Science speaks the same way philosophy, art, and religion speak. Through people. Science does not make statements. People make statements about science. Those statements can be false even if the science is true. There is no scientific truth about these difficult questions that laypeople can grasp, there are statements made by people about those scientific truths. But those statements can be false, because those statements are not themselves science, but rather are necessary interpretations of science and therefore are fraught with all of the problems that plague statements made by people on every other matter. The Schroedinger equation shown above is true. But Wikipedia’s statement about what the Schroedinger equation means may be may not be true. It may be a generalization, or an oversimplification, or it may have some of it wrong.
For most of the population to know science, someone has to explain it. And the person explaining has to be believed. Their success in explaining it turns on their credibility as an expert and an authority, which turns on techniques of rhetoric, argumentation, and persuasion. It also turns on structures of power and consent. Framing and context. Who decides who is an expert? Who decides which expert will tell us about science, and in what way? A cultural authority, not a scientific one. The publishing company, the TV network, the university, the school, the State. Entities who have a vested interest in what you learn about science, and what you don’t.
The authors of these books need to establish themselves in the eyes of the general public as authorities, as science experts rather than scientists, regardless of the fact that they are already regarded as such by their peers and the scientific community. The books are not sold to their peers or the scientific community. They are being sold to non-scientists to be accepted as the truth. To be believed.
But belief is religion’s turf. Religion has created, refined, and mastered the rhetoric of belief. And religion has historically spoken with exclusive authority on the questions of the origin of man and the universe for all but the last 100 years or so. Regardless of our religious beliefs as individuals, as a society we have accepted that the answer to these questions will have a religious dimension or they will come in a religious form. Because laypeople take in science through the same apparatus of faith and belief that they take in religion, when a scientist wants to speak credibly on these questions to a layperson, he is intentionally or unintentionally usurping the role of religion. Successful science books code via the title that the scientific truths described therein are of a religious order, as having the same mystical and divine importance that religious answers to these questions do. To be believed on the big questions, the science expert has to cloak his book in the semiotics of religion. More precisely, for these books to speak effectively and persuasively on the origins of the man and the universe they need to vest themselves with the authority that religion has on those very topics.
The titles are not about communicating science or religion. They are about claiming and signaling authority. For the book and for the author. “I can be trusted and believed on the question of the origin of the universe.” By invoking God and the divine in the title, the books are signalling that they have the authority to speak scientifically to the fundamental questions that formerly only religion had the authority to address. It is an attempt to elevate science to the order of the divine, so that scientists can speak with the authority of religion on matters that our culture has historically considered to be the sole province of religion.
For most of us, science isn’t truth. Science is the belief in the authority of scientists.
"Pastabagel writes that the actual scientific answers to the questions of the origins of the universe, the evolution of man, and the fundamental nature of the cosmos involve things like wave equations and quantum electrodynamics and molecular biology that very few non-scientists can ever hope to understand and that if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we accept the incredibly complex scientific phenomena in physics, astronomy, and biology through the process of belief, not through reason. When Richard Fenyman wrote, 'I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,' he was including himself which is disconcerting given how many books he wrote on that very subject. The fact is that it takes years of dedicated study before scientific truth in its truest, mathematical and symbolic forms can be understood. The rest of us rely on experts to explain it, someone who has seen and understood the truth and can dumb it down for us in a language we can understand. And therein lies the big problem for science and scientists. For most people, science is really a matter of trusting the expert who tells it to us and believing what they tell us. Trust and belief. Faith. Not understanding. How can we understand science, if we can't understand the language of science? 'We don't learn science by doing science, we learn science by reading and memorizing. The same way we learn history. Do you really know what an atom is, or that a Higgs boson is a rather important thing, or did you simply accept they were what someone told you they were?'"