On Faith

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    Faith denotes a state of mind that anticipates the truth of something. Hope is the music of the future: faith dances to it today. Faith warms a proto-human burying seeds in the ground in the belief that they will grow into new plants and more food. Faith glows in a community of physicists believing in the existence of a bizarre little particle for a quarter century until experimental evidence is obtained for the particle’s actual existence. "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb 11:01).

    Whence come the assurance and the conviction? How do we obtain the trust that we express in faith?

    A book tells me that the ground on which I stand is part of a giant sphere (more or less), but if I can see far enough, the land looks flat (more or less). Direct observation should compel me to infer that the world is flat. Nonetheless, I accept what the book tells me because I have faith that what it tells me stands true to Reality. But that faith doesn’t come out of nowhere: there are reasons supporting it.

    The land looks flat to me because I am very much smaller than Earth’s radius of curvature. I stand 180 centimeters tall (5 feet + 11 inches) and Earth’s radius is 6378 kilometers (3963 miles), so if Earth were a perfectly smooth sphere the horizon, the line over which Earth’s surface is not visible to me, lies about 4.8 kilometers (a little less than 3 miles) away from me. If I see something go away from me on a smooth, gravitationally level surface (such as the ocean), I should see it sink below my horizon. People have reported seeing this phenomenon while watching ships at sea, so I have some evidence to support my faith in what the book has told me.

    Further, if I observe the stars, I may notice that when a star crosses a line drawn due north or due south of my position, a straight line drawn from the base of a vertical pole to the star will make a certain angle with the pole. If Earth is a sphere, a person further north or south of my position will measure a different angle between a line extending to the star and a vertical pole. Again, we know that people have actually observed this phenomenon, so we have more evidence to support our faith in what the book tells us.

    When I was a child that was essentially all the evidence we had for the hypothetical sphericity of Earth. No one had yet gone high enough to see Earth’s spherical nature clearly. In my teen years people sent cameras far enough above Earth’s surface that the curvature became obvious: the land at the edges of the visible disc appeared deformed in the same way as they appeared on the spherical globes in our classrooms. Faith was justified by actual observation and became certainty.

    A book tells me that a long time ago a man and his family built a giant boat, took pairs of animals onto it, and rode out a flood that killed all other land life in the world. Many people accept that story on faith as standing true to Reality, believing that a great flood wiped out all land life on Earth and that Noah and his family survived and reestablished life on Earth. But that faith is justified by desire, not by evidence; thus, it is a misleading faith.

    There is some evidence for an origin to the story, but not for the story as we understand it. The story of Noah’s Ark (Gen 6-8) looks like a modified version of an episode in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a story that appears to have been inspired by a disaster that hit southern Mesopotamia in 2807 BC. Geologists and archaeologists have inferred that in that year a comet hit the Indian Ocean 150 kilometers (about 93 miles) southeast of Madagascar, punched through two miles of water, and made a crater 21 kilometers (13 miles) wide. The resulting tsunami charged up the Persian Gulf and, with the steam from the explosion condensing as heavy rain, inundated the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. Only people in boats on the Gulf had any chance of surviving. If one of those boats was carrying a cargo of animals (goats and sheep being most likely), then the boatman would have been hailed as a hero and his experience would have been the seed from which the story of Utnapishtim grew. After all, it would have been clear to people at the time that the man had been favored by at least one of the Gods.

    We have evidence to support that story. Archaeologists have found a thick layer of silt entombing cities in southern Mesopotamia, clearly laid down by a tsunami. Further studies of Burckle Crater may pin down the date of the impact that produced the tsunami, which date may then be compared to a date obtained by radiocarbon studies of debris buried in Mesopotamia.

    But the story of a local disaster has grown into a story of a planet-wide catastrophe. It has grown from minor embellishment of a survival tale to arrant nonsense. The idea that a man and his family could build a boat capable of carrying and supporting a breeding pair of every species of animal in Mesopotamia has a certain plausibility to it: there are not that many species of animal in that desert. But extending that idea to encompass all of the species of land animal on Earth, never mind the question of how some of them got to Mesopotamia to board the boat, goes far into the realm of the absurd.

    That absurdity came about because the Bible has not been amended to reflect Humanity’s increasing knowledge of the world. As far as the Mesopotamians knew, the disaster did, in fact, wipe out the whole world, but their world was restricted to a small part of western Asia. When the Hebrews incorporated the story into their sacred scriptures nobody noticed that the story came into an expanded world. The world in which the story was told became even larger when the Jews met the Greeks and the Romans. Later the Jews and the Christians made the story encompass the entire planet. Properly, then, the story should be told for a restricted area; nonetheless, some people continue to accept the expanded version of the story, so much so that one group has spent one hundred million dollars to build an authentic, true-to-the-Bible replica of Noah’s Ark in northern Kentucky.

    Those people continue to believe in a hand-me-down story from the Bronze Age, not because they have evidence to support the belief, but because they have a desire to believe the story. They want the story to stand true to Reality, because they are required by a mistaken theology to believe that the world was created precisely as the story in Genesis tells them. Their reasoning tells them that the validity of the creation story depends upon the validity of the rest of the book. They want the creation story to stand true to Reality, so they want all of the others stories, such the story of Noah’s Ark, to be true as well. But faith based on wishful thinking is simply bad faith and it should be dismissed as such.

    We usually associate faith with religion. But we find faith in other human endeavors, such as science, as well.

    In the teens and twenties of the Twentieth Century physicists studied the decays of radioactive particles, using devices like the Wilson cloud chamber to track and measure the motions of the particles emerging from the decays. When they calculated the total energy carried by the two particles that appeared to emerge from the decay of an atom, they found that, instead of always having the same value, as they expected, the calculation produced a continuum of values when they carried it out for many radioactive atoms of the same isotopic species. All atoms of the same isotopic species have the same energy, so if the decays of those atoms yield different energies, then some energy must be going missing.

    Physicists believed firmly in the law of conservation of energy, the more so since Emmy Nöther had proven and verified the proposition that the conservation law was correlated with a fundamental symmetry in the elapse of time. They were not willing to give it up without a compelling reason, so in 1930 Wolfgang Pauli proposed that the missing energy was being carried away by a third particle which did not leave a track in the cloud chamber, a particle that Enrico Fermi called neutrino (Italian for "little neutral one").

    Alas, there was no real evidence that the neutrino exists. All physicists had was a bookkeeping device. There was no experiment at the time that could be unambiguously explained by the existence of neutrinos. Nonetheless, the concept was useful in theories of elementary particles, so physicists accepted a belief in the existence of the neutrino on faith, Paul’s "conviction of things not seen".

    In 1956 Clyde Cowan and Fred Raines published a paper that justified the faith. The paper described an experiment that they conducted at the Savannah River Nuclear Power Plant near Aiken, South Carolina. They had put a tank of water, in which they had dissolved cadmium chloride, close to a nuclear reactor and hoped thereby to detect clear signs of neutrinos (technically, anti-neutrinos) emanating from the reactor’s fuel rods. They had calculated that the flux of neutrinos was thick enough that a measurable number would interact with the hydrogen nuclei in the water.

    According to the theory behind the design of the experiment, when a proton absorbs an anti-neutrino it turns into a neutron and emits a positron. The positron undergoes mutual annihilation with an electron, resulting in the emission of two gamma photons. If and when the neutron gets absorbed by a cadmium nucleus it instigates the emission of another gamma photon, so the absorption of one anti-neutrino yields three gamma photons.

    Cowan and Reines detected triple-gamma emissions coming from their water tank, which implied that protons in the tank were absorbing anti-neutrinos. Further, they detected those events at such a rate that they noticed the rate decline when the operators of the power plant shut down the reactor. They had the evidence they needed: neutrinos are real.

    In that sequence of events we see the standard scientific method played out. In that method we (1) gather data from observations of some phenomenon and discern certain regularities in those data; (2) devise an hypothesis that explains the regularities and enables us to anticipate what we would detect in further observations; (3) make further observations, even if they must be contrived by way of controlled experiments, and gather fresh data; (4) compare the new data with the predictions drawn from the hypothesis; and (5a) if the data verify the hypothesis by conforming to its expectations, reclassify the hypothesis as a theory, or (5b) if the data falsify the hypothesis by differing from its expectations, start over with step 2.

    When we use that method we are acting on faith, the state of mind that anticipates the truth of something. Here we anticipate that our method will produce theories that conform to the Reality that we perceive around us. It has done so consistently in the past, so we expect that it will do so in the future. In that statement we discern faith and also hope. If we let it, hope will play for us the music of the future: faith makes us dance to it in the present.


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