Tuesday, December 19, 2006

My respect for faith and doubt

(Originally posted on NOM, Dec 12, 2006)

As many of you know, I am an atheist and value doubt and skepticism. But, what you may not know is that I still recognize some value and utility in faith.

I am a social scientist and clinician in training. I see that the scientific endeavor has two stages: the first is generative and creative in which hypotheses are formed, the second is critical and formulaic in which the hypotheses are tested and tried with the express purpose of causing false hypotheses to fail. These are related to brainstorming and then later rejecting the ideas that are not as good.

The critical phase demands skepticism, detachment, and actively setting up experiments that will make your hypothesis fail if it cannot meet certain criteria. This phase utilizes doubt and no scientist is justified in holding onto her hypothesis for long if her hypothesis has not gone through this rigorous testing phase.

However, doubt and skepticism can only rule out bad hypotheses. If all scientists ever did was rule out hypotheses that already existed, we would never know about relativity, DNA, or cognitive dissonance. Scientists must also generate new hypotheses (to eventually test) and doubt is not suited for that task. I am open to changing my opinion on this if you can show me how doubt can generate new hypotheses. Doubt can only take us back to what we cannot doubt, and then we have to start building new hypotheses from that point, and to do that we need faith. Perhaps you have never looked at faith like this before.

Perhaps we need to agree on a definition of faith. There are many definitions of faith, even in the scriptures. But, I'll try to be conservative and offer this one that came from an online dictionary: Faith is "belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact" (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/faith).

When a scientist begins to consider possible explanations for his observations, he begins to venture past that which is known and supported by evidence into the unknown, concepts that do not yet have much or any evidential support. One potential hypothesis catches his imagination and he begins to run with it considering all of the different implications if this hypothesis is true. To me, when he entertains the possibility of this idea being true even though there is not yet sufficient evidence to support it, that is faith. If he were to entertain the possibility of it not being true, even though there is insufficient evidence to justify that conclusion, he is doubting (i.e., the opposite of faith).

This entertaining of the possibility of something being true is generative and creative and exciting. We begin to believe that this hypothesis might be the solution we are looking for. However, every good scientist exercises caution and waits to fully commit to the belief until after some experiments and scrutiny by peers have been conducted. But once those tests are done, it can no longer be faith, for we begin to have sufficient evidence to justify the belief. (We can't have faith in something we know is true).

Every scientist I can think of has exercised this kind of faith. Einstein believed in relativity before all the experiments had been run that showed it was true. Darwin believed in evolution by natural selection before all the evidence was in. This is not a bad thing. Faith and doubt need to work together in every endeavor that aims to discover truth, IMO.

Now, the scientists did not begin to have faith in their hypotheses until there were at least some observations that supported the possibility that the hypotheses might be true. But, I think the same goes for people who put their faith in God. Religious people have a little evidence that supports their beliefs: answered prayers, the fact that others believe it, dreams or impressions that come true, feelings of love and purpose, etc. I think that evidence is enough to at least consider the possibility that the God hypothesis might be true and thereby exercise faith.

I have a problem when people become certain that their beliefs are right before they have been rigorously tested. (In some cases, it can never be tested because God is not available for testing; and in that case I believe it is best that they should never fully commit to their beliefs in Him, but hold it as a possibility). But, as you and I know, much of the religious experience and claims can be tested (i.e., the historicity of scriptures including the Bible, the accuracy of spiritual impressions, how often we get what we want when we pray for it versus when we don't, etc). When I subjected my religious beliefs to the critical phase, I found that much of what I believed was false. I am now a doubting atheist.

I have nothing against faith, even religious faith. I think it is justified in the beginning. My only problem is when people stop there, and think they know something is true when all they have is faith and have never subjected their beliefs to be tested for validity. I was guilty of that as a believer; I have tried to avoid being like that as an unbeliever. Now, to be fair some believe they have investigated the validity of their beliefs. But, the danger in conducting the critical phase by oneself is that one might be too easy on your hypothesis or just be unaware of some of the challenges. One way to ensure that the tests were conducted correctly and completely is to let skeptical peers investigate your hypothesis and point out any things you might have missed. Science would be in a world of hurt if peers were not able to review the investigations of their fellow scientists.

I know that the great majority of religious people will never let skeptics point out the evidence against their beliefs. It bothers me as well that doubt is often looked down on in the scriptures and by religious leaders. That is a shame because it is only through doubting that we can guard against being deceived, taken advantage of, and being led away from truth. So, I try to live in the real world with patience, understanding, and tolerance for those who have no desire to critically examine their beliefs.

It is my position that there is enough challenging evidence of religious claims that one would be wise to be very suspicious of them. And I think that there are naturalistic explanations for all out-of-the-ordinary experiences like near-death-experiences, intuitions that proved to be helpful, dreams that appear to be fulfilled, prayers that appear to be answered, etc. But, I respect that others come to different conclusions. Hey, I don't agree with every scientist's theory, or their criticisms of my work. I think the most important thing if we are all interested in finding truth and not just defending our positions is that we use both faith and doubt in our quest and let others in to what we are thinking and invite criticism and collaboration.

Now, in the spirit of practicing what I preach I invite you to either show where I am in error or collaborate with me in expanding these ideas.


Enochville said...

I tried to define faith in my first post in such a way that it did not include dogmatism, or believing against all odds. The scientific method does not promote such thinking.

When I was a TBM, I spent a lot of time studying faith, hoping to be able to have great faith like Jesus wanted his apostles to have so that they could cast out devils and walk on water. I came to understand that the word faith is used in the scriptures to refer to many different qualitatively unique steps. I agree and acknowledge that some of those steps do not apply to the scientific method, neither does some of the everyday uses of the term apply to science. But, I do contend that the first couple of steps of faith do apply to hypothesis generation.

In my opinion, this is how faith is done. A necessary prerequisite before faith can begin is our participant must come along an idea (i.e., message, hypothesis, etc.) In the case of an hypothesis, the scientist is often applying a phenomenon known from some other model and applying it to a new observation. For example, Einstein applied principles from riding a train to riding a wave of light. Watson and Crick applied the known structure of a ladder to the unknown structure of DNA. Anyway, once the idea occurs to the participant, the first step of faith is to consider, "Might this be true?" Immediately with that thought comes a new perspective that is open and receptive and there comes an enthusiasm and energy to run with this idea and think it through. This is not the stagnant faith some people refer to that is solidified belief, this is active and inquisitive and has an exact counterpart in doubting. The first step of doubting is to consider, "Might this be false?" Immediately with that thought comes a new perspective that is critical and skeptical, and yet there is often a motivation to run with it and think it through. (Note: that motivational component of doubting is only there if the participant is more interested in the truth than in holding on to their cherished belief).

Returning to faith, the next step is to begin to actively gather evidence in one's mind in support of the hypothesis that this idea in question is true. So, in effect, one starts by asking oneself, "Might this be true?" and then asks oneself, "Is there any reason to suspect that it might be true?" One starts to see that this idea has value and it makes sense; it helps to make a meaningful picture out of the puzzle pieces. That increases one's confidence that this idea might be true. Your belief in the idea grows. Is not this faith? We have no proof that the idea is true, but we do have belief in it.

Whether we are talking about religion or science the pattern has been the same up to this point. Faith is used in both religion and science. Now the idea is ready for the doubting phase, the critical analysis phase in which we consider whether this idea might be false.

beenthere said...

Isn't being atheist based on faith? Can atheism become a proven hypothesis?