by TIVAN LEAK
SEBASTIAN UYS wrote in the previous edition of Die Matie to explain that atheism is also a belief – just as believing in a deity is a belief. There are some flaws along the road to reaching the conclusion of his argument that lead to misunderstandings. I am going to attempt to address some of these.
One of the greatest misunderstandings, I have noticed, at Stellenbosch University is a flawed understanding of the scientific process. Sebastian claims that “we can all agree that a fact is either a) something that is self-evident to everyone (e.g. there is a rock in the road) or b) something that is not self-evident to the senses, but can be proven scientifically. Any other position that is held that can’t be demonstrated in any of these two ways is one that includes some degree of faith”. This is a grave oversimplification of something that has been theorised extensively in the philosophic literature.
So, what does science do? Science tries to establish general rules from specific observations. This is done by setting up a hypothesis, which is then tested against specific empirical observations.
An example would be the hypothesis that “all metals expand when heated” – a classic example from prof. Smit’s philosophy of science class. This hypothesis, if it were a universal truth, would mean that all metal would expand at any time – past, present or future – when heated. Science cannot prove that the hypothesis is true because that would mean that every piece of metal in all of time would have to be tested to prove the hypothesis. What happens with every empirical observation that aligns with the hypothesis, is that the hypothesis becomes more likely to be true, however, if an empirical observation contradicts the hypothesis, the hypothesis is to be rejected.
A famous example that is regularly used is that of the black swan. The story goes that there was a point in history where the statement “all swans are white” was thought to be a universal truth. Then one day black swans were discovered – disproving the statement that “all swans are white.”
The power of science lies in its scepticism and its adaptability. The difference between science and the belief in a deity is that science sets out the conditions under which it would reject a hypothesis and religion doesn’t. Science can propose that if any metal is heated at any time and it doesn’t expand then the theory that “metal expands when heated” would be rejected. Religion doesn’t do the same – by, for example, stipulating that if a person prays and their prayer isn’t realised that the god they prayed to doesn’t exist. Instead, it is explained away by, for example, saying that it wasn’t God’s will.
To believe in gravity and to believe in a deity both rely on faith, but the reasoning behind the two beliefs are fundamentally different. When Sebastian states that “there is no fundamental difference in how either side makes their arguments” I cannot agree with him. It would seem that his argument relies on discrediting atheism by showing that it relies on faith – this is pretty ironic to me (using faith as a discrediting mechanism). After establishing that both rely on faith, he concludes that there is no fundamental difference in the way the sides make their arguments. This is simply not the case.
Believing that all metals expand when heated requires faith – it means that the person holding this belief has faith that all metals that can ever be heated, will expand. This belief is based, to a large extent, on empirical observations that are objective in the sense that anyone who conducts the experiment should come to the same conclusion when using the same method.
Believing that there is an entity that created the universe and that presides in another realm also requires faith, but it cannot be investigated as a scientific hypothesis. It is placed safely where no one could prove it false even if it was.
I believe that this piece has demonstrated that faith is not something that necessarily discredits someone’s position. Also, that there are different types of beliefs – those that are falsifiable and those that are unfalsifiable. Scientific hypotheses are falsifiable. Religious beliefs are unfalsifiable – even if they are false.