Or is a believer, operating on faith. If those words seem too sticky, let’s start by saying everyone “assumes.” Or, to create a neologism (new word) without baggage: Everyone is an “assumer.” Or, as we will show, everyone is religious, like it or not, acting upon general assumptions that feel right, but go beyond-often far beyond-what we know.
Scientists are no exception.
They are religious assumers who by faith act boldly, laying the ark of science upon the backs of many maxims that can be set down as a creed.
About thirty years ago the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (in a bulletin labeled “#161”) summarized eight of these assumptions that illustrate what I mean. I will start with their list and generously paraphrase and condense. As we practice science, we hope that these beliefs-assumptions, processes, behaviors-are true, reliable, dependable… The first four are about nature and our relation to it.
1. The world is real. It is assumed that the universe exists outside the minds of people. We are so brainwashed by this notion that we’d insist that philosophers and other eggheads who dare to suggest otherwise are insane. We and scientists assume the universe and all natural phenomena within it are “real.” We have to start somewhere, and this is it. Realize though that some philosophers hold a different view. The only reality, they say, is what exists in a person’s mind. A tree that falls in an isolated forest doesn’t make a sound unless someone there can hear it. Everything outside of a person is simply an illusion. Illusions, by the way, are not necessarily orderly and consistent.
How to disprove this? Pinch yourself and then pinch the person who disagrees even harder. Scientists will defend you. They believe that things outside their heads exist. They must to do their kind of work that brings home a-“real”-paycheck.
2. Nature is consistent. Nature is not capricious (changeable in pattern) and there is a corresponding regularity in things observed in nature (not, of course, ruling out mutation). For example, all oak trees shed their leaves once a year and all mammals use oxygen and produce carbon dioxide whether or not we’ve actually observed and tested every tree and mammal, which we haven’t and, of course, have no inclination to do.
A brief aside that won’t travel far: Dinesh D’Souza (in What’s So Great About Christianity, Tyndale, 2007) points out how a false generalization about consistency can derail thinking: “For thousands of years before Australia was discovered [by Northerners, obviously],” he reports, “the entire Western world took it for granted that all swans were white, and expressions like ‘white as a swan’ abound in Western literature. It was only when Europeans landed in Australia that they saw for the first time, a black swan. What was previously considered a scientifically inviolable truth had to be retired” (pp. 188-189).
[And, just hours after I first read this, my stumbling across a pair of black swans at the Brevard Zoo (in FL) fixed in me this observation forever!]
3. Effects have causes. What happens in nature has causes in nature. Things do not just happen willy-nilly, but are caused by something in the real world. The leaves move because they are blown by the wind. A baby is born because a sperm has united with an egg. The assumption of causality causes the most difficulty between science and (nonsecular) religion. Some say that God cannot exist because He cannot be observed and measured in “real” and “consistent,” and commonly agreed upon ways. Therefore God cannot be part of the “real world” that can be investigated. So it is meaningless to say “God created something” or “changed someone’s life.” There must be explanations in nature for things that appear or are changed. On the other hand, many-but not all-scientists who believe in God say that He is outside ordinary cause and effect, or beyond the realm of science.
Or, to say it another way, they say science is “limited” to dealing only with observable and measurable things in the real world, and may be blind and deaf to other things. If Jesus actually walked upon water, then something other than a natural cause must be at work.
Other things, yes, important things, say some, may exist in our world that are above or beyond, or as often said now, are “out of the box of” natural law. If God is to be understood, it must be by using ways or methods different from those of science.
4. Nature is comprehensible. The human mind is capable of understanding natural materials and forces and how they interact. Of course, this assumption (as the others-and I’ll spare you the present controversy over T.O.E., or the “Theory of Everything”) may be false. Perhaps the complexities of some aspects of nature are just too difficult. Humans do have their limitations, but scientists don’t like to admit this. Science (forgive my anthropomorphizing) is humble-usually, but not always-in admitting what it doesn’t presently know. But in the future, that’s a different matter…
Let me intrude with another personal comment. As a Christian and professionally trained science educator, I consider it unfortunate and simplistic to smugly imply that “God did it” when looking at puzzling observations and connections that science can’t explain. For example, we may eventually learn much more about the Cambrian Explosion and the transitions between certain life forms. Still, if important connections are presently beyond scientific explanation, let scientists be honest and admit it. The attempt to identify what science has “really” learned-and not learned-is one of the important and least recognized contributions of the Intelligent Design, or I.D., movement.)
The last four assumptions are less philosophical, and deal more with the nature of nature and how we measure it.
5. Results are repeatable. If an experiment is repeated in exactly the same way under exactly the same conditions, the same results will occur. This is related to the assumption of consistency and regularity of nature previously mentioned. For scientific results to be useful, they must be repeatable. If circumstances are the same, what happened at one time and place must happen elsewhere.
If we have faith that this is true, a set of carefully collected results can lay a foundation for future research.
6. Most results are considered probable. Since humans collect data, there’s almost always chance of some error in recording and inferring from measurements. This assumption recognizes this. Scientists (depending on the type of measurement) almost always realize there will be some kind of error in data collection. Books are written about how to deal with such error, but this is enough for here.
7. Results are tentative. It is assumed that the procedures and results of scientific investigation do not tell everything, but are acceptable until better procedures and more accurate results become available. (And how long will this process continue? Forever? If science “knows,” it’s not telling.)
So much for Science and Absolute Truth! The very nature of science may assume that we’ll get “close” to A. T., but as soon as some conclusion straps on armor bearing the coat of arms of A. T., the shining knight of S. M. (scientific method), who’s been shaking his head and smiling in the wings, sallies forth to make challenge.
New knowledge is always subject to being updated and modified.
The portal from theory to law is more shadowy than the scribes in white coats recording the rules and results often want to admit.
Here’s an example that bleeds from the seventh into the eighth assumption: The basic law, “Matter can neither be created nor destroyed,” had to be modified when scientists learned about nuclear energy. In nuclear reactions tiny bits of matter are changed into large amounts of energy. This led to a revision: “Matter can neither be created nor destroyed by ordinary means.“
We’re still learning what “ordinary means” means.
8. Results are contingent upon validity of their underlying assumptions. This rides on the heels of what’s already been said. If the underlying assumption is faulty, so is what rests on top of it. Here the fine tuning of measuring is not the issue, but recognition that other things had been overlooked.
These Articles of Faith have accommodated our change in understanding about matter and energy. Applying them may alter future conclusions and laws. But what about the assumptions themselves? Will future discoveries about what exists significantly change the creed itself? Even render it merely a historical artifact?
Perhaps rules hide behind these rules that most of us would simply call common sense in fancy language.
But about supporting these eight attitudes and processes-call them what you will-that we’ve listed as reality, consistency, causality, comprehensibility, repeatability, probability, tentativeness, and contingency, science now stands firm, about as fundamentalist as you can get.
Why? Because science has no other choice. And with what we know now, about many things, following these guidelines has worked well.
But if several billion years ago an explosion started everything off that led to the random series of accidents, as some say, to my typing these words that you’re reading…if everything developed and hung together following some unbelievable pattern…suggested by information learned through following these articles of faith…can science explain how and why this came about?
“No” to “why”; “Possibly (at least in part)” to “how.”
Does science cover everything that matters? The important stuff, if you want to think about that sort of thing?
Of course not.
And many (like me) who come to this website look to the Bible for answers, and for good reasons (not our subject here). Many not only appreciate and accept (nearly) the full package of modern science, but they hunger for God, to learn how things came about, and discover the right way to live. Such people are often called “people of faith.” Not a negative characterization, by the way.
But make no mistake, “people of science,” whether atheistic or religious, when they think and work just inside-or both inside and outside-of their area of expertise, are people of faith as well.
Everyone believes…in things that can’t be proven absolutely by science. It’s just a question of what people believe in and why.
How to do that? Test and accept true science. Then, cautiously, go further.
Author: John Knapp II
-John Knapp II, PhD, is a Christian, science educator, textbook writer, and former professor of English at State University of New York at Oswego. His recent novel, Earth Is Not Alone, may be inspected at Amazon.com or his website, johnknapp2.com.