Science (and evolution) is not a matter of faith…

09/01/2005

You know what the real problem is with Intelligent Design? You know why it seems impossible to make it clear to people why it is such total bunk? It’s because the battle was conceded years ago in a parallel argument. Here’s my understanding of the philosophy of science – someone proposes a hypothesis, people test it. If the hypothesis is disproven it is thrown aside. Science is a process of throwing away hypotheses that do not work. It evolves and changes. It is as simple a process as working out that spilling hot things on yourself is something you don’t want to do twice, because the hypothesis, “it is nice to spill hot things on yourself” can be swiftly and easily determined to be untrue. Scientific rationality never claims things to be true beyond all doubt, unless they can be proven in self-contained conceptual systems like maths. In science, any theory is there to be disproven. People make careers out of challenging the work of their predecessors. Science is a process of self-critique.

But it’s not just about having hypotheses and testing them. Scientific rationality is also about understanding the nature of hypotheses themselves. Firstly, there may be an infinite number of hypotheses to test – even if they are only subtly different from one another. As such, with the sheer variety of options, it’s probable you will never achieve an answer that you can say is true beyond all doubt. But you can get pretty close. One step is to undergo testing of reasonable hypotheses. But the other is to pass over the infinite number of untestable hypotheses that also exist. These can be passed over because there is no logical basis for giving any one of those theories any credence over any other. Untestable concepts, untestable hypotheses must be treated with enormous scepticism in any rational attempt to understand the world.

Now we get to religion. I am an atheist of long-standing. Other people believe in a god of some kind. I think they’re wrong but it’s their right to make that error. What is interesting is when people try to move the terms of the debate to deny the existence of atheism itself. The argument bascially goes like this – given that you cannot prove that god doesn’t exist, then atheism is as much a matter of faith as religion. In fact, they argue, atheism is not even really a sustainable position – you can only really be agnostic.

This argument is founded on the assumption that one particular untestable hypothesis – no matter how fantastic – is different from all the others, and that we must give it more credence than equally provable ones about space aliens, pastafarian gods and the like. But it is the responsibility of the person promulgating a hypothesis to demonstrate that it is testable and that the results can be repeated. By allowing ourselves to lower that expectation, and to allow people to conflate a process of testing with a process of justifying, we’ve made it possible for people to argue that not believing any random theory that someone conjectures on the spot is a matter of faith – as good or as bad as any other theory.

We’re reaping Intelligent Design because we allowed the sowing of a view of ‘science’ and ‘religion’ as parallel activities. They are not parallel activities. They are precisely different activities. They are not two approaches on the same quest for truth, they are two different processes with two different ends. They may be compatible views for people prepared to accept faith as the answer to areas where hypotheses cannot be tested, but that compatibility is predicated on the two world views operating on different levels, in different territories. Intelligent Design and Evolution are not equivalents. They too operate on different levels, in different territories. We cannot be asked to believe Intelligent Design on the basis that it’s as good a theory as any other that hypotheses magic to fill gaps in logic. Nor should we accept the characterisation of the scientific approach as one based on faith. We have to fix that earlier mistake on first principles if we expect to move forward.