Faith, science, and David Hume

Dr. Steven Novella today has a good post on the ‘faith’ involved in science. He takes on the common accusation that the assumption of a rational universe is an underlying, unjustified assumption of science1:

Let us conduct a thought experiment. If we do live in a naturalistic world that predictably follows its own laws, then empirical hypothesis testing should be able to, over time, work out those laws and how the universe works. There would be no theoretical reason why science could not eventually understand any natural process. So far all the evidence seems to be pointing to the conclusion that we live in this type of universe.

What if, however, we lived in a “paranormal” universe – meaning that there were phenomena that did not follow naturalistic laws. Or perhaps our universe is somehow embedded in a grander universe that lies outside out ability to examine scientifically, but can occasionally intrude into our world. In other words, perhaps our reality, the reality to which we have access, is only a tiny slice of ultimate reality. Therefore, while we can only examine the tiny slice in which we live, it is subject to phenomena outside of that slice but part of the grander reality.

In such a paranormal universe, we would still only have science as a way to examine the world. Science could still mostly work. However, we would encounter phenomena that would not yield to scientific examination – that could not be explained or understood no matter how hard we tried. Centuries, even millennia, of examination would not penetrate these mysteries. They would forever lie outside the methodology of science as enduring anomalies.

Either way, the scientific method is the only game in town. There’s no need to assume the naturalistic universe for science to work, and in either universe science would give us some indication of which we inhabit.

The only ‘faith’ that I know of in science was pointed out by David Hume, and that’s the broken nature of inductive reasoning. As Stephen Law puts it, why should we expect the sun to rise tomorrow? Inductive reasoning says that the laws of motion have been constant and there’s no reason to think they’ll change. But that’s begging the question – Hume says that arguments from experience will always produce a circular argument, and claims to anything other than experience always use inductive reasoning. It’s a supremely irritating bit of argument.

The above still applies, in a way – science doesn’t actually claim things will always be the same, and if things changed science would simply examine what was different, but in practice science is probably wedded to the idea that results are repeatable. Anything else is practically unmanageable. Of course religion – always the opposing side in this kind of argument – suffers from exactly the same problem, no matter how much it plays around with the definition of its deity.

I’ve only been reading about this recently, and I’m sure Hume’s views are more nuanced than I’ve suggested. I also don’t know the responses of modern philosophy, but it’s certainly a fun one to think about.

  1. I like that this argument apparently accepts the pejorative sense of ‘faith’ []