Yes, Science is a Belief System – and That’s OK

There is more I want to add to this piece, about the Problem of Induction and the role of faith in science. This really tends to make the New Atheists’ heads explode, at the same time it exposes their often abysmal grasp of both epistemology and philosophy of science. Unfortunately, space didn’t permit that in the original article: I’ll post it as an update soon.

First published on Whale Oil

Apparently attempting to jump on the “IFL Science” bandwagon, comedian John Cleese tweeted that “science is a method of investigation, and NOT a belief system”. Notwithstanding that the first part of his argument is only partly true, and the second completely false, Cleese’s tweet quickly spread, eagerly repeated by fans, science bloggers and heavyweights like Richard Dawkins.

The viral spread of such a poor argument shows the creeping scourge of scientism, the contemptuous and bullying attitude that science is the only intellectual game in town. Peddlers of arrogant scientism not only, wrongly, attempt to over-extend science beyond its proper uses, they also damage science itself.

It is broadly correct that science is, indeed, a process, a scientific method. But, science is also a body of knowledge. But essential to the scientific method are certain beliefs, such as critical enquiry, testing hypotheses, falsification, and changing and adapting concepts in the light of new knowledge.

So, what is a belief? Essentially, to have a belief is simply to regard something to be true, or take it to be the case. For instance, that Paris is the capital of France, that horses exist, and so on. Philosophers being philosophers, naturally can’t let it rest at that, and epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge and justified belief) is a vast and complex field. But the basic principle needn’t be more complicated than that: the mental state of having the attitude that a proposition is true.

A belief system is a set of mutually supporting beliefs. As we can see, science is predicated on many mutually supporting beliefs: not just that a great many facts are true, but also that the world can be explained in terms of fundamental natural laws, for instance, or that the same experiments, repeated by different experimenters operating under the same conditions, will yield the same results, and so on.

It would seem, then, that it should be uncontroversial that science is a belief system – so why do so many people resist the notion? At the heart of the matter is a semantic contest over the word belief.

Increasingly, today, many are choosing to conflate science and atheism. Indeed, some argue that a scientific worldview necessitates atheism. Religion, then, is the enemy of science. And so, the word belief is deliberately conflated with religious belief.

The falseness of this claim should be immediately obvious. Just because some beliefs are religious, clearly does not mean that all beliefs are religious beliefs. Yet, this is the implicit argument being made. Ironically, the same argument is made by those who wish to argue that “science is just another religion”. Those who think they are fighting some kind of ideological battle with religion are in fact conceding the high ground to their supposed enemies.

Another common semantic gambit is to argue that “I don’t believe in science, I trust science”. There is a modicum of soundness to this argument – it is, after all, now impossible for anyone to be fully conversant in even one of the major branches of science, so in one sense, it is true that non-experts have to have a superficial degree of trust in the expertise of others – but at heart, it is, in fact, a deeply anti-science argument. Science is organised scepticism. No-one should unquestioningly “trust” anyone in science. Hence the Royal Society’s motto: “On the word of no-one”.

Other common variants on the “trust” meme – such as, “I accept science”, and so on – can be similarly dismissed. Such semantic language-twisting is a destructive and crude power games.

Wielding science as a blunt weapon to tilt at religious windmills falls into the trap of scientism, which does far more damage to science than it does any religious bogey-men.

Scientism broadly describes the over-use of science in unwarranted situations, beyond the remit of the scientific method, be it politics, religion, or social policy. Broadly, it is the belief that science is the only branch of learning that matters, indeed that science is the only source of real knowledge, capable of solving all human problems.

As physicist Ian Hutchinson says, scientism is “arrogance and intellectual bullyism”, which damages science. Today, scientism is everywhere, especially among scientific media tarts like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or Richard Dawkins. When Bill Nye claims to “save the world”, that is scientism gone crazy.

Scientism is bad for policy and bad for science. Ivory-tower academics, immune to the real-world consequences of their theories, are lousy, irresponsible policy-makers. Unelected technocrats, arrogantly prescribing economy-crippling policies from the safety of the academies, and making purposely scary predictions to push their own ideological barrows, do nothing but damage their own cause.

Yes, science is a belief system – and that’s OK. Some scientists might be better served examining their own beliefs, rather than sneering at others’.



2 thoughts on “Yes, Science is a Belief System – and That’s OK

    1. No, I haven’t. I’ll have a look for it. I remember Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” argument, which was kinda-sorta on the right track, but Gould, I’m afraid, just botched the argument.

      Rather than “non-overlapping”, I would argue that science and religion are, to use a phrase coined by Kuhn, “incommensurable world-views”. That is, the conceptual world-view of each, and the cognitive and moral values each seeks to satisfy, are just so utterly at variance, that they simply cannot even communicate satisfactorily with each other.


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