The most enduring challenge to science has come not from religion, but philosophy. David Hume, an 18th-century Scottish philosopher, articulated what we now call “the problem of induction,” and it has wreaked epistemological havoc on the foundation of science for centuries.
Induction, for the purposes of this post, is a form of reasoning that makes inferences about what will happen from what has happened. Science relies heavily on induction in making generalizations and predictions. But Hume believes that we can reason absolutely nothing about the future from the past. To do so presupposes the uniformity of nature—that the future will resemble the past.
There is a temptation to respond that we know that the future will resemble the past, because past futures have resembled past pasts. This begs the question, however. It assumes the very thing it attempts to prove, and is thus circular.
Atheists need to understand the implications of Hume’s argument. Hume is not saying that we cannot know with a certainty that, for example, the sun will rise tomorrow. He instead says something far more radical: that we have no reason whatsoever to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow. The fact that the sun has risen every day of recorded human history is immaterial; again, the future need not resemble the past.
So are we atheists who trust science guilty of the same faith that we accuse religious people of having? In a later post, I’ll introduce a few possible solutions to the problem of induction. But I’d first like to hear your thoughts.