Arguing for Good Faith
by Michael Burns
We live in an increasingly polarized society. This is not a natural trajectory. Rather, it is one driven by a global communication network that has, at its heart, artificial intelligence (AI) systems trained to maximize user engagement in pursuit of ad revenue. The pursuit of this goal often comes at the expense of truth, well-being, and societal stability. The polarization we are seeing, moreover, isn’t just an “in-group/out-group” segregation. There is a deeper discordance arising from this system. How do we reconcile the labels applied by algorithms and the larger culture around us with who we are genuinely as unique individuals? Are we defined by the terms that get applied to us - RadTrad, Socialist, etc. - or is there some other way to be?
As a biologist, my default response to questions about who we are is a scientific one - we are all Homo sapiens, literally “wise humans.” Were I in a particularly philosophical mood, I might question the hubris of this nomenclature - how wise actually are we? I believe, in fact, that the name we have given to our species belies a larger challenge we face in our search for purpose and belonging. There is comfort in certitude. We know. But perhaps a more useful heuristic would be to think of ourselves as contingently knowing. That is, to think of ourselves as demonstrating intellectual humility where we hold our beliefs, but reserve at least some small cognitive flexibility to accept that we may
There is genuine good embedded in this way of being. This is the power that science has brought to our search for the mechanisms underpinning the way the universe functions - an acceptance that our knowledge is perpetually limited in its scope. We are not omniscient. Once that simple fact is taken on board as a deeply held truth, it becomes OK to be wrong. Being wrong is not a moral failing, because we are all wrong about some things. We are all “fallen” in that sense. Blind spots in our views of the world are inevitable, and if we are lucky, our lived experiences and our interactions with each other will help correct our individual and collective mistakes.
The potential for these kinds of interactions is a hallmark of modern life: we have an unprecedented ability to form communities with nearly every other person on the planet. Yet this potential is often actualized as a tragedy, as the systems in place have been used to build enormous silos - vast echo chambers into which we are each binned, cataloged, targeted, and monetized. How often are we provided the opportunity to sincerely challenge our own beliefs? To earnestly grapple with the uncomfortable? To say to ourselves, “what if I’m wrong?”
When I teach biology courses, I usually cover epistemology - the study of how we know what we know. This is somewhat unusual, and I suspect that, for most science educators, simply learning the scientific method is sufficient. Most of my students, however, are planning on going into healthcare of some sort and I want to drive home to them some important lessons about scientific knowledge. For example, traditional medicines, alternative therapies, and the like are often (and sometimes rightly so!) dismissed as pseudoscientific. This response is only partly justified. If traditional medical practices all worked, it would be evident in the cultures that use them. While modern medicine is far from perfect, it works. Health outcomes for people in the 21st century are phenomenally better than those of any other historical timeframe. Pre-scientific traditional practices miss the mark on overall efficacy, but it’s entirely possible that some practices actually do work! Researchers applying a type of medical prospecting of traditional interventions, applying the rigorous practice of testing for efficacy have been able to sort these practices into appropriate categories: interventions that are truly efficacious, those that are placebo, and those that are simply done out of deference to cultural precedent. Rather than simply dismissing traditional practices out of hand, the wise approach is to have some humility and accept that some of our ancestors or people from other cultures have figured some things out that we haven’t. This approach can be expanded to encompass more than just medicine. Indeed, a method of truth seeking based around a framework of humility can be valuable. All it means is that we should accept that what we believe to be true might be disproven as false, and be happy that we are now less-wrong in our beliefs. On the other hand, if we are open to testing our closely held beliefs, and it appears that they hold up to scrutiny, then we can feel even more justified in holding them. Either way, it’s a positive outcome.
While the societal polarization we see is artificially constructed, the challenges we face as a global civilization are not. The climate is changing. There will be future pandemics both natural and as the result of bioweapons. AI systems control nearly all aspects of our modern socio-economic and large-scale communication systems. We have genetically altered ourselves and the organisms in our environment. Our ability to alter ourselves and our planet are phenomenal and we need to be able to deal with these existential threats and do so soon. This means rejecting the artificial definitions of who we are, when they get in the way of working together.
I am a scientist and a non-believer. One view of these identity-defining terms would be that I need to speak out only on scientific issues, and either ignore religion entirely, or dismiss it as archaic superstition. I reject these boundaries. The processes of science as a means of knowing transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries and can inform, in part, other fields in an interdisciplinary manner. Scientists can and should search for truths wherever they can be found. Religions, including Roman Catholicism itself, are made up of diverse believers who each see the world in specific ways. All are likely wrong about some things and right about others. I’m sure that I am no different. Something that I’ve found refreshing in my interactions with the lay Catholics as well as the Jesuits at my home institution, Loyola University Chicago, is their willingness to carry-on good-faith arguments. My work here is a demonstration of a good-faith effort on both my part and on the part of this publication to unabashedly seek truth - to look for alignment between claims and evidence and to find out where we are getting things wrong and where things still hold up to rigorous scrutiny.
This willingness to engage on all sides - by both non-believers like myself and by Catholics I continue to work with here -- demonstrates a beneficial level of intellectual humility that benefits everyone. The world is a rapidly changing place and we’ll need each other and open lines of communication to face the future and deal with the challenges we are all facing together.
1 Bak-Coleman, et al., “Stewardship of Global Collective Behavior,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 118, 27 (2021), e2025764118. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2025764118
Dr. Michael Burns is an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Loyola University Chicago. He regularly publishes peer-reviewed articles on the interactions between host bacteria and cancer tissues, using next generation sequencing and computational approaches. He also works extensively on interdisciplinary projects that promote science outreach within faith communities.