“Faith” In Science: Jerry Coyne Is Right and Wrong

I don’t often agree with New Atheists on the subject of faith, but I do this time—up to a point. In his objections to the idea of faith in science, Jerry Coyne is right, and he’s wrong. I used to speak of faith in science, but I’ve changed my mind. I think he’s right when he says that faith in science is nothing at all like religious faith; in fact there’s a good case for saying it’s so unlike religious faith that it isn’t faith at all.

Oh the other hand, he’s certainly wrong when he goes on to say that religious faith is pretending to know things you don’t know. Yes, faith in science is very different from religious faith—so different, in fact, that faith usually isn’t the right word for it at all. The difference, however, isn’t where Coyne thinks it is.

(As always, when I speak of faith I’m concerned only with Christian faith, even though Coyne and others habitually and thoughtlessly lump all faith into one amorphous, religious mass.)

“Faith” In Science

If there is such a thing as faith in science, it is a simple and obvious belief in natural regularity.

I’m writing this before sunrise today. I have faith the sun will come up this morning. That might be a true statement by a certain definition of faith, but I wouldn’t press the point; it would be silly. Similarly, when people try to claim it’s a matter of faith to trust in the predictability of a familiar reaction, the accuracy of our instruments, or the efficacy of mathematics, that’s really stretching the meaning of faith.

We have confidence in these things. With the relevant experience, it becomes almost impossible not to have that confidence, because the regularities are too strong. Nature is too predictable to doubt.

Series of Synonyms

It’s possible to line up a string of synonyms in a row such that even though each word means nearly the same as the one next to it, the words on either end of the string have rather different meanings. I used a thesaurus to come up with this series:

first, initial, earliest, original, introductory

Every word there is listed as a synonym with the ones next to it, and I chose close synonyms (I didn’t jump from “initial” to “monogram.” Still there’s a clear difference between “first” and “introductory.” They might be interchangeable in some settings, but their meanings really do differ.

Likewise, confidence is closely related to trust, and trust is a near-synonym of faith, but in ordinary usage there are differences of connotation, so that confidence and faith aren’t completely interchangeable; and in scientific contexts, confidence is a better word to use.*

Faith in God

Christian faith, in contrast to confidence in science, isn’t about regularities that can’t be doubted, it’s about a Person and his character. God doesn’t like the unchangingly rotating earth; he relates as a person who freely does what he will do.

The Bible is (among other things) a revelation of God’s character. He has made his character known. He has done so through his actions on the human stage in real history. This is how we come to know any person’s character: by observing what they do.

We can never know exactly what anyone will do next, but if we know something about their character, we know there’s a limit to what they might possibly do. My son isn’t going to run off and join the circus. My wife isn’t going to go look for a job as a computer programmer. Both of them, though, will greet me warmly when they get up this morning.

Faith in God is confidence (the synonyms work in this context) in the consistency of his character. God has shown himself to be a God of justice, of mercy, and of love. He reveals himself consistently through his Word and through nature (see below). We can experience him through prayer. Less frequently he shows himself through answered prayer, and sometimes miracles.

He has promised good to those who trust him and follow his ways. We experience a strong taste of that good now, but we believe it’s nothing compared to what is to come. We trust in that because of his promise, and because he has revealed himself—he has shown his character—as one who keeps his promises.

So Christian faith is a matter of trusting in God’s known character and living accordingly.

Evidence For Faith

We know persons’ character by their actions. God’s actions as revealed in the Bible are known. For reasons I do not have time to go into here, Christians are convinced we have good reason to believe that record is trustworthy. Again without going deeper into it, many thinkers would say that even if it takes no real “faith” to believe the sun is going to rise, the very fact that we live in a universe ruled by regularities—ones that we can comprehend—is evidence for the reality and character of God; and I think they’re right.

So although we don’t know exactly what God will do next, we do know God’s character; and therefore Coyne and Boghossian are wrong when they say faith is pretending to know things you don’t know.

The evidence for faith in God is evidence relating to his past actions as those actions reveal his character. The evidence for science is of a completely different sort. One has to do with an historical record and persons’ direct but unrepeated experience. The other has to do with present repeatable phenomena and extrapolations from there to unrepeatable phenomena, either in the past or future, or at some unreachable distance in space.

The evidence for God’s actions is different from scientifically repeatable sorts of evidence. That does not, however, make it any less evidence. It’s less provable, but it’s still evidence. Therefore Boghossian, Coyne, and dozens of other atheists are wrong to say that faith is belief without evidence. In the case of Christian faith, it’s an evidence-based belief in the consistency of God’s known character.

Related: Hebrews 11:1 and Faith: Atheists Pretending To Know What They Don’t Know.

 *The scientific process also involves trust in scientists’ competence and their honesty, without which the whole enterprise would grind to a halt, or worse yet, move onward while yielding a raftload of “false facts.” (There are signs of that happening, especially in the social sciences.) This form of trust, being person- and character-related, is more closely related to faith. All I want to do with that for now, though, is to mention it parenthetically and move on.

16 thoughts on ““Faith” In Science: Jerry Coyne Is Right and Wrong

  1. More scientists should study the history and philosophy of science (an actual academic discipline, by the way) in addition to science itself.

    If you haven’t already, I’d highly suggest Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a landmark work that popularized the term “paradigm shift”. It talks about how science takes place within a shared paradigm or overall meta-theory of how the world works, that these meta-theories have anomalies, that they are subject to change due to anomaly accretion, that the switch from one paradigm to another involves the loss of some information or explanatory power (Kuhnian loss), and that scientific progression is like biological evolution – it is non-teleological and does not progress from lower to higher states, but merely from one state to another. Highly recommended.

    Kuhn also wrote a paper that’s pretty well known called “The Function of Dogma in Scientific Research”. I haven’t read this one but did find it online and just downloaded it. It might make a nice introduction to his work:


  2. The scientific process also involves trust in scientists’ competence and their honesty, without which the whole enterprise would grind to a halt, or worse yet, move onward while yielding a raftload of “false facts.” (There are signs of that happening, especially in the social sciences.)

    Doesn’t have to be dishonesty or incompetence, necessarily. It could just be insufficiently-precise standards. “[Johnson] advocates for scientists to use more stringent P values of 0.005 or less to support their findings, and thinks that the use of the 0.05 standard might account for most of the problem of non-reproducibility in science — even more than other issues, such as biases and scientific misconduct.”

    (This, too, is intended parenthetically, and I’m not trying to start a separate discussion. It’s just a very recent result that has bearing on that sub-point.)

  3. that the switch from one paradigm to another involves the loss of some information or explanatory power (Kuhnian loss),

    The switch doesn’t necessarily involve “the loss of some information or explanatory power”, and even when it does it’s only in some areas or dimensions, and is compensated for by an increase in explanatory power in other areas – that’s what drives the shift, after all.

    and that scientific progression is like biological evolution – it is non-teleological and does not progress from lower to higher states, but merely from one state to another.

    That’s rather a stronger conclusion than Kuhn ever reached.

  4. I won’t pretend to understand all that p-value talk, but reading Briggs I was reminded of the time when Doctor Logic insisted (right here on this blog) that it was more rational to believe what the statistical analysis of an experience told you rather than what your perceived first-hand experience told you.

    So, if your senses perceived a heavenly vision that seemed very real, you should disbelieve that experience was actually real because, statistically speaking, it was extremely unlikely to be actually real.

  5. You’ve made an important point — scientific evidence isn’t the only type of evidence. If it was, we wouldn’t be able to make any meaningful decision. We couldn’t use history or abstract reasoning. Also, there’s a fundamental confusion between truth and reality (which I write about here: The Vital Difference Between Truth and Reality). Truth is the realm of meaning and purpose, which science can’t have any say in. Yet, many so-called “scientists” and “atheists” who only believe in “science” constantly profess their faith in values, morality, beautify, and meaning, which have no place in proper science. So we must ask, which is it?

  6. Do you really mean science can’t have any say in truth? I can’t go that far with you. Before I say why, I’d like to give you a chance to clarify what you mean.

  7. I think it’s important to note the distinction between reality and truth. Reality is that which can be measured. Truth is that which cannot — those things which are “self-evident.” How can science have any say in truth? It may enrich truth, but it cannot prove truth. Science can only verify that which we see, hear, feel, and touch. For example, science might be able to shed some light on how we love, but it can never explain why. Moreover, the creation itself cannot prove God. Only those with faith through grace are able to see and hear the spiritual message proclaimed by the mountains, trees, or a beautiful sunrise. Science can reveal facts, but facts do not provide meaning. I am a human, yes. I am composed of billions of cells, yes. But what does that mean? Meaning is the realm of truth. Yet, just because truth doesn’t always have a material reality doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist or, as you’ve argued, that it doesn’t provide a reason for faith. Words powerfully affect our world. For more on this idea, I recommend reading Jacques Ellul’s book, “The Humiliation of the Word.”

  8. You have an idiosyncratic view of truth, Jared. Is it or is it not true that a properly doped silicon chip in the right electronic context can act as a semiconductor?

    I agree that there is a large and significant realm of truth that science cannot touch, and that the realm it cannot touch is ultimately more important than what it can. I just wouldn’t follow you all the way to excluding science from truth, or distinguishing truth from reality.

    You might think that you’re giving high honor to truth this way, but if you divorce truth from reality you allow anyone to float it freely wherever they might will it to go. The result is to degrade truth to relativism, or otherwise to make it into a kind of second-story (in Schaeffer’s and Pearcey’s language) “value” that has little relation to fact, and eventually little importance in the hard world of fact.

    Truth is correspondence with reality. Reality is real. It’s bigger than nature, so it’s bigger than science; but where science gives us a true picture of some aspect of nature, that’s truth concerning that aspect of nature. It’s not the only truth, but it’s a piece of it.

  9. Somehow I think what I’m interpreting you to say might not be what you really meant to say. (My roommate in college had a poster that said, “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard isn’t what I meant.” I could be guilty of that here.) That’s why I wanted to give you a chance to clarify first. I would welcome your continuing clarifications.

  10. Conversation is like weaving a tapestry: I weave one line, you weave another, until a mutual understanding is established (though not always an agreement).

    If my view on truth is idiosyncratic is it because, as the dominate philosophy, scientism has influenced all forms of thought, including Christian thought. We are on the defense, seeking to defend faith in terms of science. The irony is that Christian truth made science possible. Christianity exposed the lies of pagan spirituality, allowing the exploration of the material world and the development of science. but as science advanced we forgot that we are and will aways be spiritual beings. When I refer to truth, it is the spiritual realm that I’m talking about, which is also the realm of the spoken word. And that which is spiritual cannot be proven by science. Or do you disagree?

    I think what I’m referring to as “truth” the Bible refers to as Word. In a supernatural act, Jesus became the embodiment of truth, “the Word made flesh” when he came to earth. I think truth, the spiritual realm, does sometimes manifest in a tangible reality — this is what we experience whenever we see glimpses of the will of God “on earth as it is in heaven” but even these instance cannot be proven by science.

    Truth is not relative, but it is subjective. The subject being God. Also Truth is open to interpretation and faith, that is why, in my opinion God speaks to us with words. He doesn’t force his existence on us. The gentle nature of truth is also why we are having this conversation, and why there is even a debate about faith and science or the existence of God.

    Using the definition of truth I’ve supplied, I would argue that your statement about the semi-conductor is accurate not “truthful.” It has nothing to do with being a “truth” or a “lie.” If I said that silicon cannot act as semi-conductor, it would most likely be because I was in error, not because I was lying.

    Personally, I think a differentiation between “truth” and “fact” helps resolve the confusion between faith and science. They exist simultaneously without any contradiction and sometime overlap, but they are different.

    Also, I’m not convinced that nature somehow reveals God’s character. I think the only way we know about God’s character is through supernatural interventions, rare occasions like miracles, but most especially through Jesus Christ, the perfect reflection of the Father. Once we know Jesus, he becomes the lens through which we look at history and creation.

  11. Jared,

    These are insightful and, in many ways, refreshing comments. Much of what you say is reflective of a mediaeval mindset or worldview. I think much of these thoughts are a progress toward clarity and an approach toward truth. I think C.S. Lewis would agree.

    I especially like what you said about the desperate need for modern science to include history and philosophy. As a research scientist and physician, it’s incredible how impoverished, how political and biased the modern research/ grant procuring process has become. It’s imposed massive limitations on itself. At base it’s all in an effort to deny a wider circle of truth that might encompass aspects of supernature and God. That’s the one place that the modern academy just cannot go – folks lose tenure and grants get cut off, and the shunning can be quite severe.

    Again, the older concept of natural philosophy would be a welcome “paradigm shift” and would open science back up to a far wider realm of knowledge.

  12. “Also, I’m not convinced that nature somehow reveals God’s character.”


    I’m not sure anyone has said it does. The relevant verse, I believe, is Romans 1:20 where it says:

    For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

    The details of his character are revealed in His acts and His word. I think some aspects of his character can be inferred from nature but maybe not from nature alone.

  13. I think some aspects of his character can be inferred from nature but maybe not from nature alone.

    The inference is philosophical, but very rational. Aquinas’ First Way is but one example.

  14. Personally, I think a differentiation between “truth” and “fact” helps resolve the confusion between faith and science

    Or compounds it, as facts are a form of truth. You know, by definition. Redefining words doesn’t help the conversation or help you present your point. While I’m specifically thinking of Christianese here (e.g. the meaning of the word “religious”!), you could draw examples from other subcultures as well. Buff, fresh, sweet, down, lame, or even “deuces”, as I heard a youth pastor say recently (Apparently it’s the new form of “peace out”).

    When I refer to truth, it is the spiritual realm that I’m talking about, which is also the realm of the spoken word.

    No. Words are not “spiritual” in nature. We can measure and quanitfy physical qualities to them (phenomes, formants, amplitude, spectral composition, etc), which is something we cannot do with “spiritual” things. Maybe you are mixing the meanings of “spiritual” and “abstract”?

    Secondly, if you have meant “spiritual truth” this whole time, why not just say that instead of attempting to assign a whole new meaning to the word “truth”?

    Anyways, cheers to all. I can’t stop by very often, but I appreciate the post, Tom. Just as I said above, atheists have their own tendencies to assign specific meanings to words, and when in relation to the existence of God, the word “evidence” takes on a much more narrow and stringent meaning than I think it does in other contexts. I think it’s taken for granted that everyone knows this, and I don’t think it always helps the dialogue. At worst, it leads fellow atheists to think that evidence can *only* mean that narrow and more restrictive “objective, physical, etc” form, and that doesn’t do anyone a bit of good. Sure got me for a while.

    Umm, deuces. Or should I drop the mic?

    *Sigh* I’m too old for this. 😉

  15. Truth is truth. I, too, have little agreement with separating categories of knowledge and allowing some if them to have truths and others not to have truth.

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