(Note: I wrote this essay for a philosophy class and I thought I would publish it. The professor gave me props for it, so I thought I would share. It refers to the movie "Contact" with Jodie Foster, so it you don't understand what I'm talking about you should watch the movie. Its a great movie.)
A common debate in today’s society is whether or not one should use science or faith as a primary foundation on which we build paradigms. This debate is so strong that people have asked our government to consider teaching stories based on faith in the public school system. What we need to understand is that science and faith are not competing in a futile battle of “who’s right.” Instead, science and faith are striving to explain different unknowns, and are both doing this in the most reasonable manor possible. Reason is used in both faith and science and seems to be the way human beings have separated themselves from the other animals on this planet.
Science is reasonable. Everyday scientists observe their surroundings and try and figure out what is happening around them. They use these observations or evidence to make a hypothesis. Then they design a test that is designed to narrow down the possible reasons that cause that certain event of interest. After the test is completed multiple times they interpret the data in the most reasonable way possible. After interpretation they have added more evidence to the event and come that much closer to fully understanding what is truly happening.
Faith is also reasonable. Have you ever thought to yourself, “Do I believe in God?” If so you probably sat down and went over the reasons there might be a God and reasons that show that a God doesn’t exist. You weighed the consequences of not believing in God to the consequences of believing and decided what you now believe about the existence of God. You have in fact used reason to decide if you are to believe in God. Maybe you looked at all the evidence of God’s existence like sacred text, personal testimonies, the amount of people who in one form or another believe in one or many divine beings, and you made your decision. Even faith must use reason when choosing what to have faith in.
The difference between science and faith is the field in which they make claims. For science, only claims based on events in the tangible world are taken into consideration. The only evidence considered is the variety you can touch, taste, smell, see and hear. Faith on the other hand makes claims about the supernatural and many times the intangible. Faith deals with the existence and happenings of events and beings that cannot be studied with only the primary senses of the human body, but must also be studied with thought and beliefs.
In the movie Contact, Ellie Arroway is a very reasonable scientist. She and her father share the idea that if the universe doesn’t contain life besides that which is on earth then it “seems like an awfully big waste of space.” They have both decided that since the universe is unknowingly expansive, reason would have you believe that the possibility of life on other planets is possible. As a scientist she believes that “the most important thing is that you keep searching for your own answers.”
Rene Descartes has a similar stance on the ability of reason and questioning. He believes that reason “is naturally equal in all men, and that the diversity of our opinions does not arise from the fact that some people are reasonable than others, but solely from the fact that we lead our thoughts along a different paths and do not take the same things into consideration.” (Page 1) As different people take different things into consideration, different beliefs are formed and paradigms are created when the majority of people in a society are reasoning the same way.
In the same movie, a man by the name of Palmer Joss seems to take different things into consideration then Arroway. Arroway quotes Joss in the movie saying that in Joss’s book he wrote, “the thing that people are most hungry for, meaning, is the one thing that science hasn’t been able to give them.” Ironically, he is right. Science isn’t in the business of assigning meaning. Science is only in the business discovering what is happening at the base level.
In the book The Philosophy of Science, David Papineau quotes Bas van Fraassen saying that van Fraassen believes “Science aims to give us, in its theories, a literally true story of what the world is like.” (Page 167) The idea that science in is in the business of doing more than that is simply not true. If you were to ask a scientist the purpose of fatal viruses, they won’t even try to answer you. They would merely tell you that nature has no scientific purpose. Life just happens to continue itself through various forms, science itself cannot reason through any meanings.
Why is reason so important? What role does it play in day-to-day life? Can someone truly live a life based on unreasoned faith alone? Reason is what we use everyday when making decisions that affect our proximate and ultimate goals. One uses reason without thinking about it, without questioning it, and without wondering if their reason is identical to others. It’s just a step toward developing one’s way of life. Faith and Science cannot exist without the ability to reason. This is why, as far as we know, we are the only living thing on this planet that has fully developed the ability to have faith and use science to understand the world. One shouldn’t fear reason, but should embrace it for its wonderful ability to explain your surroundings.
Contact. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, 2 hr. 30min. Warner, 1997. DVD.
Descartes, Rene. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, Fourth ed. Translated by Donald A. Cress. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, Indiana/Cambridge, 1998.
Papineau, David. The Philosophy of Science. Oxford University Press, New York,1996.