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Science, Proof and Faith

1. Modern times

There used to be a time when ideas about the material and the spiritual
worlds were not clearly divided. Isaac Newton was considered to be both the
greatest scientist and the greatest theologian of his time, and Euler was
employed at the Russian court to debate against atheist philosophers using
his mathematical research. Universities used to give the same training to
people to become either lawyers or priests, and cardinals found nothing
incongruous working as the chief ministers of kings. The Pope himself
used to have his own state like an earthly prince, and the great church-
state conflicts arose not because of any material versus spiritual separation,
but because the two were not separated: the Investiture Dispute was caused
by both the Emperor and the Pope wishing to have the power to appoint
prince-bishops that ruled parts of the Holy Roman Empire. In China,
ancester worship, state ceremonies, agricultural seasons and domestic life
used to be so closely linked that Confucius and his students were
government officials, temple priests and academic scholars combined.
The Dalai Lama is traditionally both the spiritual and political leader of

Copernicus is usually credited as the scientist who started the process of
definitive separation of material and spiritual ideas, by proposing a model
of the solar system incompatible with church teachings. To remain a good
son of the church, Galileo had to publicly renounce the theory, despite
contrary inner convictions based on his own research. Living in a
Protestant country, Newton had an easier time, but even he had to struggle
to maintain his orthodox reputation on the Continent. Since then,
materialistic ideas have become so dominant that religions are usually
relegated to being regarded as old fashioned superstitions unable to stand
up against science, and in a form of rearguard defence, religious and other
spiritually oriented people deliberately want to establish a border between
the two worlds, so that spiritual ideas would not be subject to scientific
analysis and proof. The need to form sanctuary enclaves only serves to
underline the extent of the retreat.

But even this does not guarantee permanent security, because ideas come
into collision in rather unexpected ways. Take the following three

(a) Reincarnation: Science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of
souls, nor whether a current living animal has the same soul that
previously existed in a now dead animal. But this does not make the idea
of reincarnation immune to scientific progress. Consider evolution and
dinosaurs. If you believe that dinosaurs once existed, and also believe in
reincarnation, then logically you must believe that some of today's humans
are reincarnated dinosaurs. No doubt some would find the idea quite
acceptable, but others might find it ridiculous. In the latter case, does one
reject reincarnation, dinosaurs, or simply reject the logical connection, by
dismissing the whole issue as a silly joke from an eccentric professor?

(b) Conception: This used to be viewed in an agricultural analogy - the
man plants his "seeds" in the woman to produce a fetus in her womb that
will grow like a plant in soil. From this analogy, an easy identification
of woman with earth arises producing various versions in mythology and
literature, and sex and human fertility get linked to agricultural
productivity in various cultures. Today we know that the fetus in fact
derives half its genes from the egg contributed by the woman, and half
from the man's sperm, so that the man does not provide the whole "seed"
and the woman does not play a purely passive, soil like role. How has this
affected our view of man-woman relations?

(c) Plato's theory of forms: Plato thought every object of a type, say a
horse, captures part of an abstract entity that exists in nature, such as
"horseness", that determines the features of the type. All horses share
"horseness" and therefore are similar, and good people have captured
more goodness than bad people. Today we know that "horseness" lies in
the DNA molecules that exist within every cell of every horse, and by
passing just one copy of its DNA to the offspring, the parent horse ensures
that the offspring would be a horse. It is unknown whether a goodness
gene exists, but at least we know now there is no goodness in nature for
us to capture.

In each of the three cases, a previously accepted spiritual idea has come
into collision with scientific knowledge, resulting in some obvious or
subtle shift in our thinking.

However, the proposition that scientific ideas are better accepted than
spiritual ideas because they can be "proved" is highly dubious. We believe
in atoms and dinosaurs, but has it really been "proved" to us that atoms
exist and dinosaurs existed? None of us have ever seen an atom or a
dinosaur, nor ever will. There are some very large skeletons that are on
display in museums, but how do we know these came from animals that
lived millions of years ago? Some of us use electricity generated from
nuclear reactors, but in what way does this prove the existence of atoms?
The connection may be clear to a nuclear scientist, but not to the human

For most of us, such beliefs are merely based on faith: there are
these books from the libraries that show pictures of atoms and dinosaurs,
and there are these wise looking men who tell us that such things exist(ed);
we accept their words because they command authority. Is this so very
different from believing in the bible and the priests? Even scientists
themselves have to base much of their beliefs upon faith once they move
out of their own specialized domain into areas in which they are not

In short, despite scientific progress, faith is still required as the basis
of beliefs. What has changed is merely the way faith is established and

2. Scientific logic

Like the existence of atoms and dinosaurs, most scientific beliefs are not
verified by direct observations, but are deduced from hypotheses using a
set of agreed rules. Some of these deductions that produce observable
propositions are then verified experimentally. This allows the hypotheses
and their deduced results to be tentatively accepted as the current theory.
A theory may be rejected later if additional deductions for previously
untested situations turn out to contradict experimental observations. Both
relativity and quantum mechanics came to be developed when the
deductions of classical physics for previously untested situations (one
involving high speed movement, and the other atomic particles) failed to
match observations. Science is always subject to doubts like "Other
hypotheses could be just as good or even better"  "Why these rules of
deduction and not some other" "If we do the same experiments tomorrow
the results could be different", but generally both scientists and the non-
scientific community agree that these are not useful arguments to make,
if you want to have science at all.

Nevertheless, the proposition that scientific ideas are believed because they
are logical is also a dubious one. Most of us are not able to follow the
chain of reasoning linking electricity generation to the existence of atoms,
nor see that the dinosaur bones dug up in Mongolia show that the specis
later became birds, because such logical deductions require considerable
knowledge and methodological training to carry out correctly, and because
the reasoning process involves numerous experimental observations which
we cannot make ourselves. In both methodology and facts, we accept the
words of authoritative figures certifying them to be correct; in other
words, by faith.

For the layman, even simple hypothesis and deductions involve ready
pitfalls. Consider:

hypothesis: Pigs can fly.

deduction: There will be things with wings that are good to eat.

observation: Pigeons, which are things with wings good to eat.

conclusion: Deduction has been verified by observation so...

For this one, it is relatively easy to see that many other deductions from
the same hypothesis would be incorrect and the "theory" is not acceptable,
but most of us would not be able to figure out what is wrong with the
above argument itself. Other wrong theories may be much harder to reject,
and right and wrong arguments hard to distinguish, e.g.

(a) Socrates is a human; a human can be male or female; Socrates can be
male or female.

(b) Socrates is a human; a human can be born male or female; Socrates
can be born male or female.

The first is correct, since if we know nothing about Socrates, then we
could be talking about a male or a female; the second is incorrect, because
the first clause refers to an already existing human, while the second
refers to a possibly unborn human, so that the two clauses cannot be
combined to produce the third clause as conclusion.

Even the idea "Science is consistent" is not a simple one. Earlier this
century, the Czech mathematician Godel proved that no mathematical
theory can be both complete and consistent. To take a simple example:
supposed we have words that describe things; to be complete, things
should include words; words can be selfdescribing ("short" is a short
word) or nonselfdescribing ("long" is not a long word); is
"nonselfdescribing" a nonselfdescribing word? If so, it describes itself and
so is a selfdescribing word; but if "nonselfdescribing" is selfdescribing, it
does not describe itself, and so must be nonselfdescribing... This is in fact
the same as the paradox of king and prisoners: "A cruel king ordered all
prisoners to be brought before the court to utter one sentence; if it is true,
the prisoner will be hanged; if it is false, he would be beheaded; so one
prisoner said 'I am going to be beheaded'..." which shows how easy it is
for paradoxes to arise, since the same underlying logic can appear in many
alternative disguises.  (Another version of the same parafox: can the almighty
God commit suicide? if not, then...)

Yet, even though we have not made any scientific experiments ourselves
and do not follow the logical deductions, we believe in science. What
accounts for our faith?

3. Living faith

Beliefs that are adopted by faith must in some way meet a psychological
need. For example, most humans are afraid of death, and the idea of
having a soul is psychologically comforting, by allowing us to think that
we do not simply disappear at death, but would live on in another way.
For Christians, the prospect of salvation is "truth" because they "feel it".
It is part of their "experience", even though it is something that cannot be
verified or disproved by empirical observation.

Science meets a human need to summarize our experience. 1+1=2 applies
to the situation when we place (+) an apple (1) next to another (1), and
find two apples side by side, also when we put a potato into a bag that
already has a potato, also... The formula has captured something in
nature, an objective truth, that appears in different forms, independently
of the cultural context in which the experience was gathered and
expressed; that is, whether a society has apples and potatoes or not, and
what notation its people use to express 1+1=2, are independent of the
truth of 1+1=2 itself.

A belief based on summarized experience is regularly confirmed, like we
see examples of 1+1=2 every day; hence, our belief is strengthened on
a daily basis. Faith in science is regularly affirmed by contact with
products of science - switch on the air conditioner and the room cools
down, and logging into the computer we email to our friends in New
York. Science delivers. What makes modern times different from the age
of Newton is the prevalent presence of science and the almost constant
affirmation of our scientific beliefs.

This however does not explain why we believe in atoms and dinosaurs,
which have only a tenuous connection to airconditioning and computers.
We could say that quantum mechanics explains the movement of electrons
in semiconductors, which are used in both airconditioner circuits and
computer processors; it also explains the structure of atoms and molecules,
which are related to DNA and genes, which are related to heredity and
natural selection, which are related to dinosaurs. But almost none of us
understand all these subject areas together with the links between them.
The question is still why we do not hesitate in accepting all of them by

The answer has to be socialization: the electronic engineers, computer
scientists, atomic physicists, molecular biologists and evolution zoologists
are part of the same scientific community. We have the same basic
education, and our individual fields share much of the scientific
methodology and tools. We have faith in each other, and ackowledge the
authority of specialists of other areas which we ourselves do not
understand. This collective faith is passed on to the community at large,
who are impressed by science's ability to deliver. Ultimately, this is not
so very different from the socialization process that supports religious
faith: worshipers, who get together on sundays in a dark hall with high
ceilings and stain glass windows to sing emotional hymns accompanied by
a grand organ, have their faith strengthened by expressing their common
views together, and leaders of a community professing a faith would
usually carry their people along.

This is why people who have not been socialized in the same way can
respond to the wonders of technology quite differently. The hill tribes of
New Guinea watching aeroplanes landing to deliver wonderful things to
white men, who pay for them with cheques and credit cards, were
convinced that goods being sent to themselves by their heavenly ancesters
had been intercepted by European witchcraft. Instead of starting to learn
aerodynamics and electronic commerce so that they could participate in
this high tech world culture, they built wood aeroplanes on hilltops and
waited for their ancesters to descend and bring them cargo...

In short, while objective truths like 1+1=2 do exist in nature and
determine both experimental observations and feasible applications of
science, our faith in science is a cultural phenomenon, as is our particular
expression of it. By demolishing certain old beliefs and co-existing with
others, and forming its own cultural expressions that are used and affirmed
daily, science is an integral, indeed the driving, part of the spiritual
world of the modern man.






















易经中记述,"无极生太极, 太极生两仪, 两仪生四象,