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Scientific Faith

February 28, 2016     Time: 24:36
Scientific Faith


What kind of faith does science require?

Transcript Scientific Faith


KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, we are looking at an article from The Atlantic: “Scientific Faith is Different from Religious Faith.”[1] Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale and is a contributor for The Atlantic. He starts this article out:

If you want to annoy a scientist, say that science isn’t so different from religion. When Ben Carson was challenged about his claim that Darwin was encouraged by the devil, he replied, “I’m not going to denigrate you because of your faith, and you shouldn’t denigrate me for mine.” When the literary theorist Stanley Fish chastised atheists such as Richard Dawkins, he wrote, “Science requires faith too before it can have reasons,” and described those who don't accept evolution as belonging to “a different faith community.”

Scientists are annoyed by these statements because they suggest that science and religion share a certain epistemological status. And, indeed, many humanists and theologians insist that there are multiple ways of knowing, and that religious narratives exist alongside scientific ones, and can even supersede them.

DR. CRAIG: I wonder if he would disagree with that last statement that there are multiple ways of knowing, and that religious narratives can exist alongside scientific ones. That seems to me to be almost a truism. In addition to science and scientific truths, I think there are ways of knowing mathematical truths, aesthetic truths, metaphysical truths, ethical truths, and that there is no reason to think that the only way of knowing things is through science. Of course there are multiple ways of knowing. It seems to me that religious narratives can exist comfortably alongside scientific ones as long as they are not contradictory to each other. So what's the problem?


It is true that scientists take certain things on faith. It is also true that religious narratives might speak to human needs that scientific theories can’t hope to satisfy.

DR. CRAIG: Let's unpack that a little bit because this is a significant admission. He says “scientists take certain things on faith.” What he means by that is there are certain truths that science accepts that cannot be themselves scientifically proven. These would include things like the validity of the laws of logic, mathematical truth, the fact that the external world exists, the fact that the past is real and not an illusion of human consciousness, the fact that the world is so structured that science can describe and predict the way the physical world will unfold. None of these things can be scientifically proven. They are presuppositions or assumptions that scientists make. I don't like the language of saying “they are on faith.” I would prefer to say that these things are properly basic for the scientific endeavor. He admits that – not everything can be scientifically proven and so the scientist has to simply accept certain foundational truths as it were.

Then he also admits that religious narratives might speak to human needs that scientific theories can't hope to satisfy. What might some of these issues be? Well, things like (I would say) the meaning of life, the foundation for good and evil, right and wrong, how to find forgiveness of sins, how to find eternal life, how to know God. These would be questions that religious narratives would address that science couldn't possibly hope to speak to.


And yet, scientific practices—observation and experiment; the development of falsifiable hypotheses; the relentless questioning of established views—have proven uniquely powerful in revealing the surprising, underlying structure of the world we live in, including subatomic particles, the role of germs in the spread of disease, and the neural basis of mental life.

Religion has no equivalent record of discovering hidden truths.

DR. CRAIG: Why should we think that is true that religion doesn't have a successful record of discovering hidden truths? I think that in Christianity we discover the meaning of life, the foundation for good and evil, right and wrong, how to find forgiveness of sins and eternal life, how to know God. It seems to me that Christianity successfully addresses all of those issues that I just identified as issues that religion would seek to address and that science could not hope to address.

The problem here is he is saying religion doesn't have any equivalent record of discovering hidden truths about nature or about physics, but that is not what religion intends to address[2] So he is mixing apples and oranges here. I think that religion has a very good record of finding truths about those things which are uniquely religious and which science couldn't hope to address.

KEVIN HARRIS: But he is couching this in terms that seem to say, See how superior science is to religion?

DR. CRAIG: Right. Because he is expecting religion to compete with science in providing scientific knowledge of the physical world. But as we've already seen, that is not what these religions are meant to address.

KEVIN HARRIS: In a way that kind of eradicates even looking at this next paragraph: “So why do so many people believe otherwise?” But going to the next one he brings up an issue here. This next paragraph he says,

In the first article that I ever published for The Atlantic, I argued that many religious beliefs arise from universal modes of thought that have evolved for reasoning about the social world. We are sensitive to signs of agency, which explains the animism that grounds the original religions of the world. We are naturally prone to infer intelligent design when we see complex structure, which makes creationism more appealing that natural selection. We are intuitive dualists, and so the idea of an immaterial soul just makes sense—or at least more sense than the notion that our minds are the products of our physical brains.

DR. CRAIG: Bloom is a psychologist and has done experiments with children and others claiming to detect that belief in agency is somehow hardwired into the human brain. We have what's called a hyperactive agency detection device according to these theorists.

KEVIN HARRIS: I think mine needs batteries. [laughter]

DR. CRAIG: The idea is that we have a tendency to detect agency everywhere. The theory is that this gets projected onto reality to explain why we believe intuitively in God. I think this is both challengeable on the psychological level as well as on a philosophical level. Psychologically it doesn't seem to me that this is a done-deal, that it has been demonstrated that this kind of belief in agency is hardwired into the human brain. In many cases it is just causality that is involved, but not personal agency. I would think that certainly people have a kind of innate capacity to inquire after causes and to ask what caused, say, the thunder and the lightning and they can posit causal agents that would suffice to explain these things. But that is just reasoning by inference. That is not having something hardwired into the brain. That is just good causal inductive reasoning. I think more work needs to be done in this whole area. It is an area of real interest and dispute. Justin Barrett is a Christian psychologist who has done work in this same area and written on it and whose work might be consulted.

Perhaps a more fundamental point is the philosophical one. That is, how do you know that God has not so constructed human beings that we have an intuitive belief in his existence? That he hasn't hardwired us so that we sense that God exists? This would be right in line with Alvin Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology which says that God has given us cognitive faculties which, when functioning properly in an environment appropriate to them, will instinctively and naturally form belief in the existence of God. The only reason we don't do that is because of the noetic effects of sin – we are fallen creatures and so suppress this natural knowledge of God that God has put into us.

So the theory is really neutral in terms of the truth of theism, otherwise it is committing the genetic fallacy. That fallacy, you will remember, is trying to invalidate a belief by showing how the person came to hold to it. You believe in this just because it is hardwired into your brain, therefore the belief is false or unjustified. That commits a genetic fallacy.

That can be very clearly seen by the fact that these same experiments with children demonstrate that it seems to be hardwired into the human brain to believe in objects independent of the perceiver.[3] When children see an object that goes behind a screen and then come out again on the other side, they expect it to be there. They are not surprised. But if the object just disappears, the child exhibits surprise. He expects the object to persist independent of his perceptions of it. Unless you are going to say that that is an illusion of the human brain that there are independent objects around us – that everything is a projection of human consciousness – I think you can see that it would be a genetic fallacy to say that because certain beliefs are hardwired into the human brain that therefore those beliefs are illusory or invalid.

KEVIN HARRIS: What I often hear is this used mostly against theism, using the terminology of something called pareidolia. That is, our tendency to impose patterns on things or to see patterns and structures like you see a face on the moon or see a stick and think it is a snake which would have a survival mechanism and things like that.

DR. CRAIG: That is different than this, but I can see it is similar, isn't it?

KEVIN HARRIS: They want to try to get around the genetic fallacy, I think, by saying, You see agency and you see things that aren't there – you see the devil in the woodwork – and things like this because of this natural tendency of pareidolia – imposing patterns. When I've often thought about this, there is kind of an undercutting self-contradiction in that you would have to see the pattern that we impose patterns in order to determine that we tend to see patterns. That might be an interesting feature of human beings.

DR. CRAIG: The question, though psychological fascinating, is ultimately philosophically uninteresting because the question would be, “Are these patterns really there in reality? Does the world really have a physical structure that exhibits certain patterns?” I think it does, and the question will be as well, “Are there real agents out there in the world who are causally responsible for things going on?” That surely is also true. It is not an illusion of human consciousness. The question will be ultimately, “What evidence do we have? What is the truth of these beliefs?” And not how they came to be formed.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says, “There are many religious views that are not the product of common-sense ways of seeing the world.”

DR. CRAIG: Right. This is an advance, isn't it? He says that there are lots of religious beliefs that you cannot write off as being just the result of hardwiring in the human brain. In fact, as I said, this hyperactive agency detection device that is hypothesized would just give you a vague belief in causal agency out there in the world. But it is not going to give you beliefs about the incarnation of Jesus or the giving of the Law to Moses or the existence of a loving God. Those are beliefs that go far beyond anything that could be explained as hardwired.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says these kinds of things – the things that you just mentioned – “are learned, and, more surprisingly, they are learned in a special way.” I think he is heading off the fact that OK, scientific truths are learned, too, but, no, religious things that we believe are learned in a special way. He says,

To come to accept such religious narratives is not like learning that grass is green or that stoves can be hot. . . . Instead, these narratives are acquired through the testimony of others, from parents or peers or religious authorities. Accepting them requires a leap of faith, but not a theological leap of faith. Rather, a leap in the mundane sense that you must trust the people who are testifying to their truth.

DR. CRAIG: This is a very interesting paragraph. Notice he says the leap of faith here is not theological. It is not religious. It is a matter of trusting people's testimony. When we hear testimony from other persons to various things we trust what they say unless we have some reason to be skeptical of their credibility or their truthfulness. That, of course, is not unique to religious belief at all. That is true of human intercourse in general! No one knows everything, so we have to rely upon testimony from others in order to get along in the world. In particular, the scientist is heavily dependent upon testimony.[4] He could never perform all the experiments himself or master every field of science. He is utterly dependent upon the testimonial evidence that is available in the peer-reviewed journals and the experiments of others for his own work. The scientist is in the same boat as the ordinary person and the religious believer – we accept a great deal (in fact probably most of what we believe) on the basis of testimony.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says, “Many religious narratives are believed without even being understood.”

DR. CRAIG: When I read that I thought, “That is exactly the same with science.” In fact there is this famous quotation from Richard Feynman about quantum mechanics that people like to quote where he says, If you think that you've understood quantum mechanics, that shows that you really haven't understood it. Many scientists simply know how to use the equations, solve the equations, get the results, but they wouldn't claim to have an understanding of the quantum physical world or relativity and things of that sort. Again, this is far from unique to religious narratives. There are some who understand those theories, and there are some who understand religious narratives as well. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander here.

KEVIN HARRIS: Whether or not you understand something doesn't have anything to do with whether it is true.

DR. CRAIG: Of course not. That's right. That is a reflection of your own time, intelligence, leisure, resources. It is about you, it is not about the truth of the belief.

KEVIN HARRIS: Here is what he says, though, about learning religious truths in a special way. Another thing that he puts in the mix here is that there is a moral component to religious beliefs that is not really in scientific beliefs.

People defer to authorities not just to the truth of the religious beliefs, but their meaning as well. In a recent article, the philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen calls these sorts of mental states “credences,” and he notes that they have a moral component. We believe that we should accept them, and that others—at least those who belong to our family and community—should accept them as well.

DR. CRAIG: I think that is probably true, but that is also true of science. We think that people should believe in Harvey's theory of blood circulation. You should believe that cigarette smoking will be conducive to lung cancer. You should believe that the Earth revolves around the sun and is the third planet from the sun. There are all sorts of scientific beliefs that we would say you should believe on the basis of scientific authorities. He goes on to say here, finally after seeming to poison the well against religion,

None of this is special to religion. . . . Many scientific views endorsed by non-specialists are credences as well.

Scientific beliefs are on a par with religious beliefs in this regard.

He also goes on to say, “there are people of faith who can justify their views with powerful arguments.” Well, thank you very much!

KEVIN HARRIS: So what's the problem?

DR. CRAIG: Right. We are still waiting to hear what the problem is.

KEVIN HARRIS: I thought this was interesting as a psychologist from Yale. He says,

But much of what’s in our heads are credences, not beliefs we can justify—and there’s nothing wrong with this. Life is too brief; there is too much to know and not enough time. We need epistemological shortcuts.

DR. CRAIG: That is absolutely correct. You can't prove everything yourself; you are going to need to rely upon testimony as we've seen, and authorities in areas that you don't have time to look into. So quite honestly, much of what we believe we believe in a properly basic way.

Alvin Plantinga has developed an epistemology in which he talks about our properly basic beliefs – beliefs in things that are not based on evidence. Among properly basic beliefs Plantinga would include things like beliefs based on testimony and memory beliefs. These are basic beliefs. The image one might have of Plantinga's epistemology is of a skyscraper where you have these basic beliefs and then erected on top of this foundation will be this skyscraper of beliefs founded on evidence and inference. But the philosopher George Mavrodes pointed out to me years ago that in fact that is a misunderstanding of Plantinga's epistemology.[5] He says Plantinga's epistemology is less like a skyscraper and more like a big vacant lot with rambling foundations all around the property and here or there a few bricks might be piled on the foundation. But for the most part, most of what we believe are just properly basic beliefs founded on things like testimony and memory and sense perception and things of that sort. He is absolutely right in saying there is nothing wrong with this – having these sort of credences and believing these beliefs in a kind of properly basic way.

KEVIN HARRIS: What he seems to go on to say from here (again, this is in The Atlantic, which has a big readership) is that you can defer to the scientist but you can't defer to religious authorities because scientists have a better track record so I am going to believe a scientist about something like vaccines rather than a celebrity, and I'm going to believe a scientist about how the universe came about rather than a religious authority. Because he says,

Some sorts of deference are better than others. It’s better to get a cancer diagnosis from a radiologist than from a Ouija Board. It’s better to learn about the age of the universe from an astrophysicist than from a Rabbi.

DR. CRAIG: Right. And I think that he is right in saying that if you want to learn about physical truths about the natural world that science would be the way in which you would go about looking at those. But that is not what the purpose of religion is. Remember we already saw that religion investigates things that science couldn't possibly hope to speak to. What religion will tell you will be things like the meaning of life, how to find purpose for your life, the difference between good and evil and how you ought to live your life, how to find forgiveness for the sins that you have committed and to be free of your guilt, how to find eternal life, and to know God. Those are the things that Christianity offers. I would say we have good reason to trust people like Jesus of Nazareth when it comes to teaching us about those truths. There is plenty of good evidence that Jesus was who he claimed to be, and that God raised him from the dead in vindication of those radical claims to be the absolute revelation of God to us. I see nothing irrational or inappropriate about believing the truths that Jesus taught.

This author Bloom goes on to say, “the methods of science are demonstrably superior at getting at truths about the natural world.” Right! Nobody is disputing that. Science gets at truths about the natural world. It is a God-given tool to help us to understand this physical world God has put us in. But it is utterly incapable of giving us truths about those sorts of deeper existential issues that we've spoken of here today.

KEVIN HARRIS: I think we ought to get a bumper sticker that says, “Jesus: You Can Defer To Him.”

DR. CRAIG: Trust him.[6]