Faith in science?

When we science-loving atheist types point out that faith-based epistemologies are unreliable at best and invalid to the point of being comedic at worst, it's often countered that science itself is based on certain axiomatic assumptions that can't actually be proved; they have to be taken... drumroll... on faith.

Physicist Paul Davies, writing for the New York Times, opines:
All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.
Coming from a scientist, this is pretty embarrassing. I've heard similar such arguments, including the notion that science assumes that an objective reality exists at all! See, you take science on faith, because maybe the universe doesn't actually exist!

Paul Davies: physicist, mustache enthusiast
Anyway, this is, of course, stupid. That nature is ordered is not an assumption, but an observation. We do indeed have to make a couple of provisional assumptions: that reality exists, and that our senses provide us with generally reliable information. We don't have to assume that reality's existence is an immutable truth or that our senses are infallible, but if we don't make at least those two provisional assumptions then we have nowhere to go.

But of course, these provisional assumptions are validated through our entire existence. When we are babies, we form a set of behaviors that cognitive psychologists call intuitive physics. We find, as we explore our new world, that solid objects cannot be passed through and that if we let go of something, it will fall. We intuitively follow the assumption that this holds true for all solid objects. Similarly, if we see a mammal giving birth to live babies, we assume that that species always gives birth to live babies; we don't have to observe every specimen on Earth to assume that they don't occasionally lay eggs.

These are all provisional assumptions, not immutable truths. Maybe somewhere out there, there's a region of space where the laws of physics are different and we could pass through solid objects. But we know that our provisional assumption is reliable, because it's been verified by pretty much everyone that's ever lived and throughout each of our entire lives. We have absolutely no reason to believe that there are solid objects that can be passed through or that there are regions of space with different laws of physics (some conjectural multiverse theories not withstanding).

Clearly, this is a vastly different sort of thing than religious faith. Faith means believing in something not because the evidence demonstrates it to be true, but because you feel it to be true and/or because you desire it to be true. The only reason anyone, like Paul Davies above, tries to draw this false equivalency between evidence-based knowledge and faith is because they don't want to feel like idiots for believing in religious fairy tales.


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