This article only begins the subject; it does not end it. Atheists, beware the So’s-Your-Old-Man Fallacy.
Belief in the absence of evidence is irrational. There is no evidence for believing in science; yet many do believe in science. Therefore, belief in science is irrational and many people ought to find new hobbies.
The form of this argument is valid. The adornment to it with the true observation that many do believe in science, and the appendage of the moral judgement that it is better not to be irrational if one can help it are unnecessary to the central point and can be removed, though they do no harm. The argument passes the test for logical correctness: people should not have a slavish devotion to science. Is the argument sound? That depends on the premises.
Let’s agree, as atheists would, that the first premise is true: belief without evidence is irrational. There are niceties here, but let them pass for the moment. The conclusion surely follows from the two premises: it is irrational to believe in science given that belief in the absence of evidence is irrational and that there is no evidence for believing in science. So we only have to examine the minor premise: is it true? Yes, absolutely: but it depends on what we mean by evidence and science. (All arguments are conditional on the definitions of the terms they use, so it is no surprise that this should be so here.)
Science, everybody agrees, uses math: 1 + 1 = 2, and all that. Only there is no evidence that 1 + 1 = 2 or for any mathematical statement. Science, since it relies on mathematics, is therefore irrational. The belief that 1 + 1 = 2 starts with the belief, in the absence of evidence, that 0 is a natural number. It proceeds to the belief that for every natural number x, x = x; and from there to the belief that for all natural numbers x and y, if x = y, then y = x; and from there to the idea that for all natural numbers x, y and z, if x = y and y = z, then x = z; and from there to belief that the successor of every natural number is itself a natural number. None of these beliefs have evidence to support them. This list is only an introductory set which, taken with their unstated cousins, eventually lead us to the proposition 1 + 1 = 2. But there is much more to it: We also have to admit the belief that our process of reasoning from these axioms—for that is what these beliefs are called—to the proposition, and this belief in our powers is also sans evidence. What do I mean by this?
This article started with a logical argument in a familiar form. There is no evidence here that our powers of recognizing this form and applying it have been done correctly. We just have to believe that we’re doing it right, or we have to believe the form itself always leads to validity, but even that belief is unfounded. The same powers of reasoning in which we place our trust are also in use as you read these words, of course, so we’d better hope they work here, too.
I’ve been dancing around the word evidence. Time to make it concrete. Now in real life if you take one banana, you notice that because you have one banana, you conclude you really do indeed have one banana. If you had two, you’d reason you have two. And so on. From that humble observation, and many similar ones, arises the belief that for every natural number x, x = x. This is impossible to check for all numbers. You must take it on faith. Or if you don’t like putting it that way, you must believe based on the evidence of your bananas and the reasoning provided to you by induction. The induction moves from the specific instances of bananas and other objects to the general idea that numbers (and not necessarily objects) have certain properties. There is empirical observation, sense data, to start the idea going, but it is induction that carries us to the goal; there is no complete empirical observation that will ever prove our belief. And this applies to all the axioms of mathematics and logic.
Incidentally, although we use objects to form our ideas of numbers, that numbers are not objects should be obvious because objects do not always behave like numbers. Adding one electron with one positron does not result in two objects but in a burst of light, just as one man uniting in holy matrimony with one woman does not produce two persons but one flesh. Nevertheless, and no matter what, 1 + 1 = 2.
Since mathematics and logic and the other powers of our reasoning are based on induction, which provide statements of universal generality that can never be checked and will therefore never have complete empirical evidence for their belief, our belief in science, which uses all these things, is irrational. Unless we’re willing to say evidence is not merely empirical, error-free observation, and that instead evidence is partly measurement and partly the sorts of thing that takes place in our intellects. via induction. Now this is not to say how these inductions swim into our view, and it says nothing about the nature and types of the different kinds of induction (there are at least five). That topic is huge and beyond this short article. The only point relevant here is that empiricism as a basis for science, must be wrong—though, again, we have to be careful to define empiricism.
One definition is that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience. This isn’t incompatible with the canvas I painted above if we’re liberal about the word derived, so that it includes induction. But strict empiricists are dogmatic and say only observation (or measurement) counts. That view is clearly false, unless we’re willing to toss out all mathematics and logic.
I haven’t said much about science itself. And won’t—not here. But induction comes to play even here. Gravitational attraction is determined, we say, by these certain equations to any reasonable degree of measurement fineness. Very well. We try out these determinative equations and find they work here, and that they work there. But do they work over there? I mean, way, way over there in outer-outer space, in the areas hidden from us by (say) dark matter? We can take no measurements, directly or indirectly, yet we suppose, since there is no reason to think otherwise, that gravity is the same everywhere. It’s not necessarily the same everywhen, as aficionados of inflation theory will tell you. We believe, with no direct empirical evidence, that things work the same everywhere. There are plenty of indirect measurements; namely, that gravity works in all the spots we’ve so far examined. However, just like with the math example, we can’t check everywhere.
Anyway, it’s not only gravity, and it’s not only widely separated places in time and space. Right here on Gaia herself, we take it for granted that trees make a noise when they fall and when a government-grant wielding scientist isn’t there with his microphones to document it (indeed, under the sway of scientism, we’re unlikely to believe anything that wasn’t peer reviewed). This is a kind of faith—or another kind of induction. It is, by definition, not based on any direct observation or measurement. Though it could, if we’re careful, be based on indirect measurement. The absence, say, of the operation of the electroweak force in some remote patch of the Brazilian jungle (that’s right: jungle) might become apparent if we knew to look out for it and have deduced the consequences of its absence. But suppose instead, in the ranges of the Sahara where no man or beast roams, an extra neutrino or two appears behind some small dune, in direct opposition to every theory and explanation we have about particle physics. We take for granted that such things do not happen. Induction again. Of course, if it did happen and it was noticed and written about, the discoverer would find himself…in a heap of trouble—if the theory he contested was beloved by the powers that be. That’s only because science is run by scientists, which is to say, people, and, we say under the sway of induction, all people behave like people.