Saturday, November 24, 2007

Faith in Science

Paul Davies has an op-ed in today's New York Times on how today's science—cosmology in particular—involves a large dose of faith. He points out that the belief in ordered, rational laws governing the universe is a matter of faith. He rightly points out that this assumption originates in the Christian cultural matrix.

But from where do the laws themselves originate? The origin of physical law has a renewed salience because of the fine-tuning of the universe for life. The modern, secularist alternative to a Creator is a "multiverse" in which the laws of physics just happen to be suited to life in our part of the cosmos, but are different and inhospitable to life elsewhere. Davies rightly points out the problems in this "explanation":

The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.

This comment is spot-on, but unfortunately he stops making sense near the end of the piece.

And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

The breakdown of Davies's argument shows that he is unaware of an additional level of faith inherent to science. As I've written here before, scientific knowledge is based on specialized experience; the rest of us take on faith what scientists report to us as the results of their experiments. Even scientists' "knowledge" requires faith in a web of others' results that no one could reproduce in a single lifetime. Philosophy on the other hand—natural philosophy especially—is (properly) based on experiences common to all healthy adults. We can go through the reasoning process ourselves based on our own experiences; there is no faith involved.1 Philosophy is the "missing link" that should bridge the gap between science and religion.

Philosophy should provide the common language in the "science-religion" dialog, of which Davies is a noted participant. Until there is a common language, the only possible results are, on the one hand, shouting matches, such as Richard Dawkins inspires, and, on the other hand, religion servilely submitting to science's demonstrable domination of the sensible world. The latter is the form that this so-called dialog typically takes these days.

Were Davies philosophically educated, he would realize the nonsense of expecting physical laws to have an explanation within the universe. Nothing in the universe explains its own existence—this is a matter not of faith, but of philosophy; it requires no faith.

Furthermore he would realize that since the object of modern physics is the quantifiable aspect of natural, moving things, physics itself can never rise to the level of answering "why does anything exist?".2 This and like questions are metaphysical; metaphysics properly rests on natural philosophy but transcends it to speak of immaterial things, things that do not change.

We can all eagerly hope that Davies takes some time to learn a little philosophy. But until he does, we can at least applaud Davies's assault on the "faithless" pretensions of scientists.


1. Davies says in the opening paragraph, "In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue." Davies's piece rejects the notion that science requires no faith, but it is not clear that he sees any reason in religion, which would itself be a problem in his worldview. The idea that faith and reason stand in opposition is a caricature of the Protestant Christian conception of the relationship of revelation and reason.

2. Nothing becoming something is not a motion (motion involves already existing things), and is thus unquantifiable (not even zero or null captures "nothing", since those two concepts imply the possibility of something, and absolute "nothing" includes not even possibilities). Anything that exists necessarily is for that reason eternal and the eternal is outside the purview of modern science, as it cannot be experienced by finite beings like ourselves, either directly or with instruments.

Paul Davies, "Taking Science on Faith," New York Times (November 24, 2007).

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