Faith in science

A grad school professor of mine once said: beware of scientists in a metaphysical mood. And lo. Yesterday’s New York Times op-ed section contains this, from Paul Davies, physicist:

>Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

>This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

>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.

By religion, Davies means his version of the Christian religion, and others that will fit those particular metaphysical presuppositions (this won’t include Mormonism, by the way). And while Physicists don’t have all of the answers about the nature of the objects of their study (which discipline does?), that’s hardly grounds to claim that it’s a lot like religion. The evidence for the basic elements of religious faith (not to mention the truth of various intricate Christian doctrines, among others) is completely like evidence for the physical laws that characterize matter. Just because physics doesn’t tell the whole story (why should it and who claims it does?) does not mean the whole thing is accepted without evidence. Others, I’m certain, can say more.

But the Times ought to be beyond these tales of faith found among microscopes: it’s so washingtonposty.

15 thoughts on “Faith in science”

  1. This post does a good job of pointing out Davies’ errors.

    His claims are simply nonsense. Some branches of science speculate as to what is “outside the universe” but the vast majority of science confines itself to the observable universe. Yet no science depends on things being such-and-such “outside the universe” (a sentence which may not even make sense).

    And for Christ’s sake, if you’re going to appeal to an authority, can you at least pick someone from the last 250 years? The fact that your loony metaphysical presuppositions were very popular hundreds of years ago does not exactly help your case.

    Finally, “laws” turn out to be not so hard and fast, such as within black holes. Does science fall apart? No, it’s thrilled! New stuff to study! Yeah! BTW, black holes are in the universe, black holes alter the function of universal “laws,” therefor universal laws are not impervious to what happens inside the universe.

    Logic 101, douchebag.

  2. The op-ed author mistakenly equates the endeavor of science (which makes generalizations based on observed events, which are never “true”) with some philosophical realist position.

    It’s quite consistent to be an anti-realist scientist, who regards electrons, or even the any physical world, as non-existent.

    Philosophically speaking, some people might be said to have “faith” in science, depending on how rational you regard the arguments contra skepticism, for realism, and various other foundational arguments in the philosophy of science. But the endeavor of science itself, as a field of study, neither requires faith nor asks for it.

  3. Against my better judgment, I finished reading the op-ed.

    It ends with a question:
    /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./

    About which I can only wonder, how does a disembodied process make a claim?

    Until logic or reason come up with an answer, Paul Davies’ op-ed is manifestly bogus.

  4. When I read the first line of Nevyn’s post I was about 90% sure the link would be to pharyngula. PZ Meyers is such a pitbull!

    Clearly this Davies guy is responsible for his own bad reasoning, but I always mentally shake my fist at Einstein when I read something like this…I feel like he made a huge mistake by spouting off about “god” all the time when he didn’t really mean it, not in the particular American Christian sense for sure. I can definitely hear a distorted echo if Einstein’s “god doesn’t play dice” here…

    Opinion pieces like this seem like straightforward reaction formations on the part of the author. I’d bet the author knows full well there’s scant similarity between doing whatever physicists do (math?) and accepting the list of propositions outlined in the Nicene Creed. Unless you can muster a clever metaphorical contemporary take on the Bible it will seem silly in light of all the stuff we now know thanks to science. Instead of arguing for the nobility and relevance of religion, Davies tries to drag science down to the same level: it’s all faith!
    It just seems like willful bad reasoning.

  5. The quality of Sunday editorials from non-regular contributors has really been slipping of late. I didn’t even make it half way through this morning.

    “You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed”

    And why not? Science neither requires, nor presupposes any information about the Universe. Personal notions of the cosmos are entirely irrelevant.

  6. So I read this the other day and I happened to notice that it was the number one most e-mailed and blogged story that the NY Times was running that day. I can just imagine millions of religious people sending this to each other saying, “See! We’ve been right this whole time!”

    Here’s something that I don’t think has been talked about yet:

    “If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.”

    Perhaps not life as we have experienced it, but to speak for all realms of the universe in all moments in time and say that this is the only acceptable set of laws for life to exist seems extreme.

    Also, I don’t know about other people, but when I read this, I kept thinking about how this is some kind of variation of the first cause argument. Instead of saying “Where did all this come from?” he’s asking “Why are things as they are?” Which makes me wonder: If scientists somehow manage to come up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, won’t that theory then require “faith” until scientists come up with another theory explaining why that theory works the way it does and not some other way? It seems never-ending…

    Science is forever bound to faith! Muhahahaha!

  7. Here’s another post that argues Davies’ position is at heart an enthymeme

    An excerpt:

    “Davies wants to argue something like this:

    Premise: there are laws of the universe and we cannot explain the existence of laws
    Premise: the assumption that laws are to be found is the basis for doing science
    Conclusion: Ergo, science rests on an act of faith

    Can anyone spot the enthymeme? . . . Davies moves from ‘assume that there are laws’ to ‘make an act of faith’. . . Assumptions are not acts of faith, they are the starting point for an act of reasoning.”

    Personally, I also smell the whiff of a false dichotomy in his uncompromising “laws” or helter-skelter anything goes lawlessness. Of course, anything’s hard to smell beyond all the horsehockey.

  8. Just two weeks ago, I mentioned to my class the trend of some physicists attempting to be arm-chair philosophers and how often they end up being very poor at it. I even used examples from Hawking and Penrose. I guess I can now add Davies to that list.

    Many of the counter-points against Davies have already been covered, so I wish to pursue a different angle. A couple of points:

    1) I believe that this debate continues to arise (and even influences scientists pretending to be bad philosophers) because no one really knows what “faith” is. There isn’t even a broad agreement about what faith is among theologians. Heck, science could be based on faith if all anyone means is something like “not fully supported presuppositions.” I doubt this is what most theologians have in mind when they speak of faith. I have argued elsewhere that the most common notions of faith conceive of it as being a type of justification for belief (or a sub-set of beliefs), and under this conception faith still fails to provide justification for religious belief (much less any other form of belief). I’m still not sure what faith is or what role it is really supposed to be playing in regards to our beliefs. So when I read an argument like Davies I am always left wondering what it is we are really talking about.

    2) I wonder if we were to dispense with the talk about science and instead replace it with the view that Davies seems to have in mind, namely physicalism, if that would be a more plausible thing to discuss. Not all scientists are physicalists and not all religious people are non-(anti-?)physicalists. The question then becomes: can a physicalist believe physicalism is true without faith? Obviously, we would need to flesh out the problem I raise in (1) but if we could do that I think this revised problem is far more interesting. I think it also illuminates the central error that Davies makes. Physicalism is a pure philosophical topic and while many scientists may implicitly hold this view it does not seem necessary for them to defend physicalism in order to hold justified beliefs in their respective fields. If we toss out Davies implied belief that science is the paradigm of good reasoning and anything outside of science is poor reasoning (I happen to think that philosophers are pretty good reasoners), then we can ask the interesting question about how does someone go about justifying a belief that physicalism is true. How does anyone justify their most basic beliefs about the nature of reality?

    Of course, if I am right about faith not being able to justify religious belief, then it probably will not help to justify foundational views in science either. If we were to follow Davies line of reasoning I guess that would pretty much leave us out on a metaphysical limb (no reason or faith). However, there may be some reasonable views in epistemology that may indicate how we can have basic beliefs that are justified. Perhaps if physicists stopped viewing themselves as grappling with the fundamental nature of reality and instead thought of themselves as attempting to explain the fundamental nature of the physical universe, then maybe we would have far fewer horrible excursions into philosophy. Car mechanics fix cars, physicists study matter and energy, and philosophers attempt to clean up the mess. There have been plenty of epistemologists and philosophers of science who have presented arguments describing how science can provide us with knowledge. Why Davies doesn’t bother to be a good scholar and look these up before presenting his own argument I don’t quite understand. He certainly wouldn’t attempt that with a sub-discipline in physics that he wasn’t very familiar with. Of course, some philosophers are guilty of the exact opposite (i.e. horrible excursions into science, when they really don’t know what they are talking about). Jerry Fodor may have just recently provided an example…
    Oh well, I guess that is to be expected when human knowledge is so limited that even our greatest minds have no better knowledge than most anyone else on almost every subject outside their own specialty.

  9. Faith=belief without or in-spite-of evidence. This doesn’t work for science. Science starts with the evidence and goes from there. “Look, this ball falls when I drop it.” Belief; unsupported things fall. Why do I have this belief? Evidence of things falling. I don’t have faith they’ll fall, I have logical conjecture based on previous experience (i.e. evidence). I don’t see it as being all that complicated.

  10. Nevyn,

    Your definition of faith does not capture what many theologians mean when they speak about faith. Revelation is often used as evidence to support religious belief, yet theologians call this faith. They also believe that their religious beliefs are justified. I think your over-using William James’ definition and explanation. Also, your view of science does not capture the way science actually works. See, for instance, Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” where Kuhn argues that science does not first proceed from observation. Science is theory-dependent. The issues are far more complex than you are willing to allow.

  11. Matt,

    I beg to differ. Revelation is not evidence unless you accept revelation as a valid source of truth about the world. This is not an evidence-based assumption. It is an initial assumption without, or in spite of, evidence. In other words, faith. As I understand Kuhn, what he fails to realize is that most new ideas fail not because they’re too radical to the established paradigm, but because they’re just plain wrong. For every Einstein there’s a million wrongheaded goofballs. How do you tell the difference? Evidence, testability, falsification . . . ya’ know, science. It is a fallacy to suggest that radical ideas have merit just because they’re radical and radical ideas have been right in the past. This is a problem for Kuhn and a reason why “paradigm shifts” are not part of the everyday usage of science while falsifiability is used all the time.

    Science is theory dependent, you’re right about that. But you don’t know what a scientific theory is if you think it has anything to do with Kuhn. Theory starts with evidence, provides an explanation, makes testable predictions, and is falsifiable.

    Finally, if you’re interested in how actually science works, ask a scientist, not a philosopher of science. The NCSE will give you a definition of science that pretty much lines up with what I’ve been saying all along. The issue is far less complex than you are making it out to be. We can have a philosophical dialog about what faith “really” is, but I don’t find it particularly relevant. Davies is wrong about science. He’s not a theologian making assertions about religion. If that’s what you’re looking for, ask Alvin Plantinga if he’ll let you sit in on one of his classes as Notre Dame.

  12. I haven’t had a chance to read through all of the comments, so forgive my intrusion.

    It strikes me that Davies should just limit himself to asserting a sociological thesis: “many scientists have (display) a ‘faith’ that comes extremely close to, or, perhaps, is coordinate with (aspects) of religious faith.”

    Seems plausible from the perspective of armchair sociology, though he might then have to do the hard work of doing some research to justify his assertion rather than indulge in what looks like poor armchair philosophy of science.

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