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Scientific study, faith, not so far apart

By C.A. Bowers / March 15, 2005


The current debate over whether intelligent design should be taught alongside the theory of evolution in science class often includes the claim that what is grounded in faith should be kept separate from what is empirically based. While I agree with those who recommend that intelligent design should not be taught in a science class, the argument that knowledge based on faith is radically different from the knowledge gained from the scientist's mode of inquiry is based on a simplistic understanding of the many expressions of faith in the modern world.

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If we use one of the dictionary's definitions of faith as "a belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence," which is the definition often relied upon for making the sharp distinction between faith and science, it is possible to see that the scientist's mode of inquiry is driven by taken-for-granted cultural assumptions that are themselves not scientifically based. That is, even some of our most eminent scientists have pursued research and made claims that were based on the nonlogical and non-empirically based "truths" of their era.

In the early 1900s scientists claimed that they could scientifically measure human intelligence. This was followed by the embrace of another nonlogical and nonempirical assumption that led to the eugenics movement.

More recently, the claims of scientists (again based on the faith that is part of the modern mythos) now include the fact that we are entering the postbiological phase of evolution; that the human body should be understood as a "survival machine"; that the brain is a machine and that natural selection will determine which brains are better adapted for passing on their genes to future generations; and that scientists should try to genetically engineer a new "gene-rich" class of people who will govern the rest of us. And it is this nontraditional, religiously based faith that led Francis Crick to claim that science will shortly be able to explain the nature of intuition, creativity, and even why some people become great musicians and artists.

It also should be recognized that the creation and release into the environment of thousands of synthetic chemicals without prior understanding of their impact on the reproductive capacity of other forms of life was based on a form of faith - that is, taking for granted the Western assumption that equates innovations with a linear form of progress.

Both religious fundamentalists and many scientists are guilty of the same conceptual error - namely, the failure to recognize how the assumptions and values of previous generations within a culture are reproduced as they learn the language of their cultural group. In effect, religious fundamentalists and even scientists cannot know a reality that has not been influenced by the taken-for-granted assumptions of their culture (which is not to say that they always share the same assumptions).