Have faith

Perhaps I should note that the letters to the editor regarding this op-ed by Paul Davies were universally negative. As many have pointed out here, the piece was far worse than my earlier post suggested. Indeed, we’re dealing with an almost D’Souzian (as in the Dartmouth-educated Dinesh) level of badness. One more comment on it, as people seem interested in it. Commenter Matt K writes:

>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.

That really gets at a lot of the problem, I think. “Faith” plays a lot of different roles in discussions of this sort; despite this, few seem aware of the implications of their view. Davies, for instance, writes:

>Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.

He’s really asking the wrong people. He probably ought to talk to philosophers of science. But the real crazy thing about this argument seems to be the notion that faith covers anything short of a complete explanation. While that’s certainly one way to understand the term “faith,” that’s not what most people mean by it. And that’s not really what Davies means by it anyway. For him, faith has a much more substantive character–he means specific claims that lack justification. That’s hardly the correlate of the scientific view. The correlate of the scientific view, on Davies’ argument, is “reasonless absurdity,” not Christian doctrine. The failure therefore of the scientific view to account for itself (something which no one could ever seriously claim), does not produce the specific, if unjustified doctrines of Christianity (whatever the hell that would mean in this case–Catholicism?)

4 thoughts on “Have faith”

  1. Now that I am coming close to finishing my first semester of grad. school, I feel that I am prepared to offer an inadequate argument about the foundations of science. Or, at least, to offer an inadequate account of what George Berkeley thinks about science and its relationship to God. In “De Motu” Berkeley argues (very briefly here) that physics has no business meddling in metaphysics, and that its proper role is in identifying and constructing general rules for the “laws of nature.” The realm of efficient causes, the only causes that really matter, are best left to those that are equipped to make claims about the absolute nature of the universe, namely properly religious philosophers and theologians. This,of course, is what we would call an instrumental view of science, and one that I tend to agree with.

    There are other views on the scope of science, to be sure, yet I can’t think of any contemporary scientists claiming that their theories prove anything more than the scope of their hypotheses allows them to prove. I don’t thinks its controversial to say that scientists typically construct hypotheses that are provable based on whatever standards of provability they operate under. I take this as a general constraint on the ability of scientists to ruminate and conjecture about things. Metaphysical concerns seem to fall outside of these constraints, and thus scientists are no better an authority on these matters as any well-informed laymen. They may in fact be worse authorities.

    And so it goes for physicists who try and find an ultimate reason for the existence of natural laws. It is a mistake, I think, as Davies does, to suppose that the natural laws discerned by physicists are at the “bedrock” of reality. That would be confusing subject matters. Physicists, I think, are interested in the rules that govern the movement and behavior of different aspects of our material world, and often discover surprising and useful things as a result of their investigations. Yet, they are still only dealing with rules and laws, not how and why such laws were made. That would be investigating what the efficient cause of them is, which is, uncontroversially I think, a metaphysical issue.

    Thus, on this view, its hard to see where the “faith” part could even get a foothold. Physicists, and many of us non-scientists, believe in the natural laws because they work, pretty much always, and not because they teach us about the bedrock of the universe.

  2. On the same point, science answers “how” not “why.” When Davies asks his colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are, his colleagues are right to say that isn’t a scientific question. If he were to ask, how is it that the laws of physics came to be what they are, there are plenty of hypothesis out there; string theory, multiverses, quantum singularities, etc. The problem is, these are not scientific theories, as we can’t test or falsify them (yet, assuming we ever can). Also, just because the universe is intelligible doesn’t mean that it came into existence intelligibly (or reasonably) or that cause and effect apply outside/before our universe. This isn’t “deeply anti-rational” it’s deeply logical and Davies is drowning.

  3. ‘Faith’ is a flexible term, just like ‘God’ has a changeable definition depending on who is talking to whom; there’s many an ardent, literalist Christian pastor who’ll switch into deist mode when debating with an atheist on the essence of God, and then claim that people like Dawkins are attacking a straw man.

  4. Does it bother anyone else besides me when people talk about “Science” (with a capital “S”) as if it’s an exclusive group of suspicious outsiders imposing their will on good, honest, common-sense folk while practicing bizarre, inscrutable rituals of questionable merit? Am I wrong to think of science (little “s”) not as a club you join, but as a set of practices you adopt? And if I think about it, those practices seem to boil down to:

    1. Develop expectations about how the world works, based on experience.
    2. Reason from these expectations in order to predict new experiences.
    3. Test the outcome of the predicted experiences and modify your original expectations accordingly.
    4. Repeat as needed.

    Am I way off, or is this a roughly accurate “capsule summary” of how scieance is done? And if so, doesn’t it mean that, in a sense, science (little “s”) is how all humans have been getting on in the world for thousands of years? In that case, isn’t…ahem…”Science” (big “S”) just a codification of mundane human reasoning, just a much more refined version of what “common-sense folk” do every day?

Comments are closed.