Science as a Belief System
by Aaron Davidson
[Reproduced from Aaron Davidson's website (see biodata at foot of page) with the author's permission]
As humans we are born into this world without any pre-existing knowledge about our universe. In order to cope and survive, we must make observations and draw conclusions from them. Without making observations and generalizations we cannot make sense of our surroundings. From birth, formulating a belief system is essential to our survival, and perhaps even to our consciousness. Although all that exists for the individual is one’s subjective experiences, an external objective reality must be assumed in order to function on a level beyond your average garden vegetable.
Obviously there is an infinite set of beliefs one can believe in, but most would be nearly as useless as having no belief system at all. As belief systems grow in complexity, beyond simple common sense generalizations, these systems attempt to also explain and understand. Belief systems can be classified into two basic flavours: science and religion.
What are the distinctions between a science and a religion? At first glance one might be inclined to state that a science is a system where beliefs are derived from objective methodologies and that a religion is a system of beliefs based on faith. However, a conscious entity practicing science can only draw on its subjective experiences to form beliefs. This means that no matter how objective science appears to be, there are generally two assumptions which musty be taken entirely on faith.
1) There exists an external objective reality
2) There exists some sort of uniformity through time
a) the universe has structure
b) predictions and generalizations are possible.
Even though these assumptions exist in science it should be noted that as stated before, there is no way around them if we are to attempt to function without difficulty in this universe. Marvin Minsky (1985) has an interesting view of this problem. The limits to human knowledge are created when the questions being asked are circular. For example, asking what caused the universe is asking what causes a cause. This circularity indicates that the question is unanswerable by its very nature.
Other than those assumptions which are absolutely necessary, science rejects assumptions of faith. Science is a belief system which aims to minimize faith. Religion, on the other hand, is a belief system based completely on faith. This is a satisfactory distinction, but I feel we can make the difference much clearer.
One of the greatest features of science is that it works as an algorithmic process of belief revision. No scientific belief being held can be said to be absolutely true, no matter how convincing it is. This is how science compensates for the small amount of faith it requires. All scientific beliefs are wrapped in a protective condition: A scientific belief can only be true if the basic assumptions of science are true, and absolute certainty cannot be obtained due to the problems inherited from subjectivity. All scientific statements have a built in emergency exit! Beliefs are able to change in light of new evidence or ideas.
Religion in this regard, is a polar opposite. Beliefs are dictated and taken on faith. Belief revision is not encouraged. Indeed, religion has difficulty changing its dogma when pressured. Take for example, Christianity’s recent struggles to keep up with the rapidly changing times. Changes in the Christian belief system have had to been made with regards to the equality of women, homosexuality, and other social changes in our modern cultures. Belief systems which are based around faith change painfully and slowly.
Another potential distinction to make between science and religion is explanatory power. Both science and religion attempt to explain things. Religion, however, has less explanatory power than science does. Religions typically explain things by inventing a supernatural entity as the cause, which explains nothing since the supernatural entities require an even more complicated explanation of their own existence. Science, on the other hand often breaks problems up into sub problems, which are easier to explain (a process known as reduction) and explanations are only accepted when there is evidence to support them, and that the explanations are explainable themselves.
When suggesting that science has more explanatory power over a religion, one must be careful. Science may often seem to be ‘making up’ new entities and constructs in order to explain things. If an entity such as an electron, which is not directly observable, is hypothesized to explain some occurrence, how does it have more explanatory power than hypothesizing supernatural beings such as little invisible demons? There are several reasons why an electron would be chosen over an invisible demon.
1. Simplicity. Occam’s razor. Science seeks for an explanation with the least resistance. Invisible demons would require vast amounts of new theories and complex explanations to support them.
2. Broad explanatory power. Electrons, as simple a concept as they are can be used to explain a wide repertoire of phenomena.
3. Evidence. Although direct observations of electrons are not possible, indirect observations provide plenty of evidence that electrons are real things, and not just a fancy idea. Invisible Demons and other supernatural entities are unobservable by definition.
An entity which is neither observable nor fulfills any explanatory function can have no interest for us. — A.J. Ayer
Historically religion has explained the things that science could not. We are all familiar with religious concepts such as the soul which ‘explain’ consciousness, and creationism which ‘explains’ the beginning of time and the origin of the earth and life.
Typically, religion avoids the ‘hard’ sciences where verification of theories is easier and proof is evident in technologies developed from scientific theories. No church questions the periodic table of the elements, or the theories behind how a jumbo jet stays in the air. But when it comes to scientific theories which attempt to explain occurrences such as the human mind, or events of the distant past — inherently difficult to observe phenomena, religion and science butt heads.
The theory of evolution by natural selection is a wonderful example of how science is able to combat teleological explanations of the origin of natural complexity. It can explain how we can have the diversity of complex life forms we see today in terms of existing scientific beliefs. Religious accounts of creation may explain how the earth and life began, but this always relies on creating some new entity whose existence remains unexplained.
showcase the explanatory power of science, I will give a scientific explanation
of religion My explanation will focus around the concept of a meme, an idea
proposed by Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins. Memes are analogous to
genes, but rather than based on the hereditary chemical structures of DNA in
cells, a meme is an idea which propagates from mind to mind. To quote Dawkins
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.
should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but
technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize
my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way
that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't
just a way of talking -- the meme for, say, 'belief in life after death' is
actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the
nervous systems of people all over the world.
The various popular religious memes are highly prevalent in the minds of the human population, and for very good reasons. Memes such as religious faith are very powerful. Faith is the notion of accepting a belief without adequate proof. The faith meme sneakily disables the critical thinking needed to refute it just as HIV disables the immune system — a body’s defense against a virus. The meme is generally introduced into minds starting at a young age, when critical belief systems are still being formed and the mind is particularly vulnerable to faith's attack. Its third advantage is of wide establishment. The faith meme has been around for thousands of years, long before any competitors such as science arrived. Faith is also often psychologically comforting when compared to the often harsh scientific world view.
A basic rule of thumb in science is that bold predictions are unlikely to come true unless there is some element of truth behind a theory. One of the most often used arguments for defending a non-scientific world view is that of prophecies and coincidences. Whether it is the predictions of Nostradamus or the prophecies of the Bible, it is often asserted that these bold claims show that something beyond science’s explanation is going on. Spiritualists often appeal to our everyday experiences of ‘strange’ coincidences. They say that coincidences occur too often and are too unlikely to occur simply by chance. Something must be going on, or that some hidden plan is at work.
This problem easily vanishes under careful examination. Our brains are incredibly adept at pattern recognition. We can recognize a person’s face from any angle and we can identify who that person is. We can recognize a two dimensional picture of that person, and we can still recognize them if they have aged or had a face lift. We can read typefaces in thousands of different fonts, and handwriting of all sorts. We draw analogies between thoughts and ideas which have similar features we can recognize.
For example, I recall my father excitedly telling me about a coincidence which he had encountered. A business which had caused him great suffering was being shut down by the government on his birthday. This seemed for him, to demonstrate karma in action, and indeed it does seem like a strange coincidence. Doing the math however, tells a different story. The chances of the business being shut down on the same day as his birthday is roughly 1 in 365, which is still in the realm of general possibility. Since his birthday is the last day in September and it is more likely by human conventions a business would be shut down on the last day of a month, this brings the probability of it happening closer to 1 in 12.
Imagine how many thousands, or perhaps even millions of distinct events happen in your life each and every day. The vast majority of these events will have little interest and go unnoticed. The moment an event occurs with some sort of recognizable, but unordinary pattern to it, your brain brings it to your attention as something special. It is inevitable that two unrelated events will coincide with some sort of interesting ‘sameness’ to them. The moment this happens, we take notice.
As is the case with coincidence, is the case with prophecies and predictions. The vast majority of predictions never turn out to be true, but despite this they are ignored. On the rare occasion that a psychic prediction comes true, they are celebrated as positive instances and confirmation of psychic abilities. Non-scientific belief models are not held accountable for their failures, only their successes. Often, non-scientific belief models must be defended to absurd lengths:
. . . ESP often seems to manifest itself outside of the laboratory, but when brought into the laboratory, it vanishes mysteriously. The standard scientific explanation for this is that ESP is a non-real phenomenon which cannot stand up to rigorous scrutiny . . . believers in ESP have a peculiar way of fighting back, however. They say, “No, ESP is real; it simply goes away when one tries to observe it scientifically—it is contrary to the nature of a scientific worldview.” This is an amazingly brazen technique, which we might call “kicking the problem upstairs”. What that means is, instead of questioning the matter at hand, you call into doubt theories belonging to a higher level of credibility. (Hofstadter 1979)
I have demonstrated that a scientific belief system is differentiable from a religious one because it minimizes faith, has a greater explanatory power, and is open to belief revision. It seems strange to me that people are still attempting to unify science and religion. These two types of belief systems are entirely incompatible. Someone holding both religious and scientific beliefs cannot be thinking scientifically, as it is inconsistent (However, someone thinking religiously may hold scientific beliefs without conflict).
Despite all the measures science takes to seek the truth and explain the universe, it is still easy to skeptical of its claims. However, it is far easier to be skeptical of religious claims. Since no better alternative belief systems exist for explaining the universe, the choice between those we have is easy.
Hofstadter, D.R. 1979. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Vintage Books
Dawkins, R. 1976 The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press
Minksy, Marvin. 1985. The Society of Mind. New York: Simon & Shuster
Aaron Davidson was an MSc student in computing science at the University of Alberta. His thesis was on Opponent Modeling in Computer Poker. He is currently working as a software developer for a small company specializing in producing tools for genomics and proteomics research.
Amongst his many academic interests he lists projects in medical genetics and bioinformatics, computer poker research, artificial life, and distributed computing over the internet.
In his leisure time he loves to "juggle, ski, hike, watch low-brow sketch comedy, surf the net, develop software, work on useless web pages, and compose cheesy electronic music. I like cats. I am interested in Extropian/Transhumanist philosophy. I am an INTP. I've been developing my web page since 1994, so there's a stink of things to look at. You'd be surprised at some of the strange things you can find at http://spaz.ca/aaron/SiteMap.html."