Secular Faith and Testimony

Here’s an interesting article about a recent science scandal in Germany. (link courtesy of Volokh)

This article led to a few interesting thoughts (and, no, not about evolution…)

Part of the controversy concerns the dating of human skulls, which the scientist in question said were 10,000 years old, but turned out to be only a few hundred. The deception was able to continue for so long because other scientists saw no reason to doubt the previously announced results. Everyone knew Dr. Protsch was a scientist with the skills to accurately date human remains. He reported to others that he had used his skills to date the skulls in question, and that their age was over 10,000 years old. The other scientists were perfectly happy to accept his testimony (before the doubts arose) even though they hadn’t confirmed it themselves.

Science (and the secular world in general) doesn’t like to use words like ‘faith’ and ‘testimony’, but it’s amazing to think about how many instances of accepting things by faith and testimony we have in the non-religious universe.

In the 1990 movie Joe vs. The Volcano (with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan), Tom Hanks’s character is told by a doctor that he has a ‘brain cloud’–and a short time to live. (This leads directly into the main plot where he decides to throw himself into a volcano because of it)

Like most people, Hanks’s character accepts the testimony of the doctor, since he knows the doctor is more familiar with the particular field in question (the human body) than he is. Later, it turns out the doctor in the movie is a quack (“brain cloud”?), but in a way that’s the point: most of us, when visiting a doctor and hearing him/her tell us, “you have a condition called ‘monochloritekilopiosis’, and you need to start taking these pills once a day for the next month” are going to accept his/her testimony of our condition. After all, the doctor is supposed to know these things, we really don’t have the means of finding out ourselves.

Of course, when you get down to it, we’re taking the doctor’s word both on our condition and on the solution, not to mention accepting the testimony of the drug company on faith that those little green pills we’re given actually have the proper drug inside of them (it’s not like we can confirm that, of course…what if they’re just jelly beans?)

There are so many other instances of exercising ‘secular faith’ in our daily lives when you look at it, that they’re hard to count.

  • I’m accepting the testimony of scientists when they say there’s a planet “Neptune” out there (it’s not like I’ve been there…)
  • I’m accepting the testimony of the newscasters when they say there’s been an earthquake in Iran. (Was there really an earthquake? I didn’t feel it. Is there even really a country called “Iran”? I’ve never been there, either…)
  • I’m accepting the testimony of my history teachers when they say there was once a Civil War in the US. (I wasn’t there…how do I know?)
  • I’m even accepting the testimony of my parents that my brother is actually my brother (I wasn’t there when he was born, and it’s not like I’ve performed a DNA test or anything–and even then, I’d just be accepting the testimony of the lab technicians…)

This is interesting because the whole idea of ‘faith’ and ‘testimony’ is anathema to many in the secular world, who scoff at the notion of religious philosophy that depends on them for knowledge of the truth. And yet, everything in our daily lives comes down to faith and the testimony of others–spiritual or otherwise. While there is always the possibility of ‘false testimony’ (as numerous examples from any field of expertise can attest), the important part is this: accepting things by faith is not something ‘illogical’ that only backwards, close-minded people do. All of us do it every day. We have to, or else we wouldn’t learn anything. (There’s only so much you can personally experience and verify on your own).

This can lead to a new perspective towards matters of the Spirit: is there really a difference between accepting the testimony of a select number of people that there is a God, and accepting the testimony of others that there is a country in the world called “Djibouti” (I mean, seriously…”Djibouti”?), or that there are little things called ‘viruses’ which cause our body to become sick, and are too small to be seen (that’s convenient, isn’t it…?)

This isn’t an excuse to become ultra-paranoid and join the moon-landing-deniers (although…do you know?), only that faith and testimony are normal parts of our secular life and it’s not too big of a jump to apply them to the areas of the spirit as well…

12 thoughts on “Secular Faith and Testimony

  1. Kevin,

    I think you make an excellent point. One of the classic examples is, of course, the scientific community’s near unanimity that all American Indians came across the Bering Straits and spread south. There are numerous reasons to doubt this. Just a small one: it’s about 1,000 miles from Easter Island to the nearest inhabited island — in all directions. There was clearly a civilization on Easter Island 1,000 years ago. So, if somebody could get from island X to the tiny Easter Island he could certainly get from Eastern Island to the massive land mass called the Chilean coast. So, why can’t scientists accept that some of the Indians may be descendents of people who island-hopped across the South Pacific. And of course, this scenario makes Book of Mormon historicity more interesting.

    The more I learn the more I learn to doubt conventional wisdom about many things. Human beings have an amazing capacity to be wrong consistently, while God has the uncanny ability to always be right.

  2. The issue is not merely faith and testimony, but the whole attitude which goes along with such things in science and religion.

    Take for instance verifiablity. religious doctrines are notorious for avoiding this at all costs. Some even consider it a sort of blasphemy to want such.

    In science, however, if your claims are unverifiable or unreplicable they will largely go ignored. “You can believe it if you want (this is the faith scientists deride) but we are going to move on to more productive paths.”

    Or consider parsimony, summed up in Ockham’s razor. Religious claim typically tend to throw parsimony out the window with their faith claims. This does not make their claims false, just bad science.

    It is things like these that keep hard-core naturalists suspicious of supernatural explanations.

    P.S. This is ideally speaking. Of course there are bigoted scientists just as there are bigoted religionists.

  3. See here for some images of viruses. You can’t see them directly with the naked eye, but they can be seen.

    This reminds me of Elder Scott’s conference talk a year or two ago where the janitor accused he and fellow physicists of lying about what they were doing.

    Jeffery makes a good point about verifiability. Nobody seems to remember that it is usually scientists who uncover the fraud, which is why science is self-correcting. Religions, as is abundantly clear, are not.

  4. I’ve seen ‘images’ of Neptune as well–doesn’t mean someone couldn’t have just whipped them up in Photoshop, along with the virus images. Seeing images created by others is also a form of accepting ‘testimony’.

    If one scientist makes a scientific discovery, several others will try to verify it on their own. However, ALL scientists will not. This means for any one individual scientist, the large body of scientific knowledge he/she has, has come mostly from the testimony of other scientists–those that have made discoveries, and those others who verified it–and NOT from personal verification. (If every scientist had to personally verify each element of scientific discovery, science itself would grind to a halt)

    Yet, ask that scientist if principle X is ‘true’ despite not having personally verified it, he/she will probably still say ‘yes’–thereby showing their faith in the work and ‘testimony’ of the other scientists. Since science is so broad, 99% of the knowledge of scientific principles by any one scientist is obtained in this matter.

    Is this really different than believing in the testimony of a number of witnesses who said they saw the gold plates that created the Book of Mormon, even though you didn’t see them yourself?

  5. I only have a very basic knowledge of this argument, so I can’t give the nuances–but I’m sure that there’s someone out there who does. I forget who I’m stealing this thought from (so if someone could help me on this too), but I’ve heard the argument that the difference between “science” and “faith” is unfalsifiability–similar to verifiability, but a different…

    I don’t know if “Neptune” is really there, but an experiment can be constructed (even if it can’t actually be done) to that would falsify the claim of Neptune. (Of course, you are right: if I don’t do it myself, I don’t really know. I just have to play a game of probabilities.)

    On the other side, there’s no experiment that can be done–even in theory–to prove that religious claims are false. (i.e. how could you prove that the Resurrection didn’t happen?)

  6. Pris wrote:

    how could you prove that the Resurrection didn’t happen?

    Find Jesus’s skeleton?

  7. Great post Kevin. The way I see it human beings are hard-wired, after a fashion, to operate through faith.

    Even the scientists who have confirmed the claims of another for themselves had to put the testimony of their peers to the test. That seems to be similar to the principle of experiment that Alma 32 teaches.

    Our legal system also seems to work on faith. We look at the evidence of things that we have not seen–in this case crimes that have committed– and listen to the testimonies of witnesses. The jury and judge are expected to act (come to a verdict) only through weighing the evidence and testimonies of others. They are acting upon faith.

    God reveals himself to a few, who then have personal knowledge of his existence and attributes. These idividuals witness their knowledge to others who then act upon faith their testimony.

    Secular intellectuals have heretofore assumed that as information became more available “blind faith” would be replaced by reason and knowledge and that religion would be replaced by science. But the modern proliferation of information has underscored the ubiquity of faith because our incapability of sorting through the tremendous amounts of data forces us to place our faith in some person or group who we perceive to be able to discern truth from falsehood, whether it is by divine gift, intellectual ability, or because they have at least the time to sort through the subset of data about which they are supposed to be expert.

    My own father is fond of defining faith as “the ability to make correct choices with insufficient information.”

  8. “the ability to make correct choices with insufficient information.”

    That is a fantastic definition of faith.

    Traditional religion and science have been at odds with each other since before Galileo. Back then, it was the religious establishment that chose to ignore verifiable evidence. Now, in some cases the pendulum has swung to the other side, where it is often the “scientists” (a term that is very loosely defined) who pick and choose what evidence to accept.

    In other words, an atheist reserves the right to choose which forms of verification to accept. A bosom-burning confirmation is discarded by an atheist, while the results of an ambiguous and problematic experiment which costs millions of dollars and involves an unproven detection system in a mile-deep mine to confirm the existence of sub-atomic particles – which may not even exist – are proclaimed to be “fact”.

    This is because an atheist has determined what evidence is acceptable based on the previous assumption that there is no God. If there is no God, then it makes no sense to seek a subsequent confirmation from God of His existence, and the testimony of others to this effect can be disputed.

    I’ve always felt that Mormonism moves us past the old Galilean debate. Latter Day Saints enjoy the privilege of continuously receiving verification of the testimony of Prophets and Apostles – indeed, we are expected to continuously challenge our individual faith. This process of continuous verification is what causes our testimonies to grow stronger.

    Ultimately, no one in the Church should be accepting anything purely on faith, although as a matter of practice, most members of the Church do.

  9. What Jim said is true, though I would put it differently. The fact is that nobody knows everything and for those places that we don’t “know” in the strictest sense, we usually “believe” the most plausible explanation which we have heard of. This is very subjective for some people “know” more than others, some have been exposed to more plausible explanations of some things than others and some courageous few are willing to say, and to a certain extent live like, they do not know.

    Thus everybody must draw a line at one point or another. When are we going to “believe” an explanation that we do not “know” is true. Some people are willing to say God did it. Others think this is drawing the line too soon, for there can be, some would insist must be, another more plausible explanation which I have not yet been exposed to.

    This also includes which explanations we are simply unwilling to accept. Some say that “God did it” has failed so many times that they are simply unwilling to accept that any more.

    Thus we find ourselves among scientists, whose job it is to act as if God did none of it to explore the limits of this explanation, atheists would are not willing to accept “God did it” anymore, agnostics who haven’t quite drawn the line yet, and believers who are confident that God did do something and that we will never find a better explanation for somethings.

  10. Some might find this rebuttal to the story interesting. Apparently the news didn’t do a terribly good job reporting this particular story.

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