Taking Science on Faith?

Excuse my long absence from blogging. Law school keeps my retinas stapled to cinderblock-like, drivel-filled books of meanderings from senility-bound white men discussing legal theory. Just now, I was taking a break from the more obscure vicissitudes of copyrights when I nearly choked on my latte. Paul Davies, widely respected physicist and cosmologist, just wrote an article in the New York Times excoriating the notion that science is somehow less based on faith than theism. The guy at times makes it sound like the claims of David Koresh are just as valid as Einstein’s. There have been a couple of somewhat similar articles lately, notably by Dinesh D’Souza, the lunatic pseudo-intellectual who recently proved he neither understands Kant nor atheism in his editorial criticizing atheism on Kantian grounds (for another blog if I get the time). But this is different – Davies is respected by sane people! Here are a few of his gems:

“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… the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place.”

What bilge. First, scientists don’t necessarily think the laws exist “outside the universe.” They are part of the universe. Second, the notion of physical law is empirical, not faith-based. When you drop a rock ten thousand times and it falls each time, it starts to seem as if there is a rule that the rock will fall when dropped. It takes a modicum of “faith” that the rock will fall the next time dropped, but this is not the same as religious faith, which embraces beliefs despite absence of or in spite of evidence. If the laws were inconsistent in different places or different times, we would just develop multiple models and not think of the laws as universal. To call a belief based on rigorous induction “faith” badly abuses the colloquial meaning of the word. This is just fuel for Christian nut jobs, who I know Davies despises.

“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 idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational.”

The answer to Davies question might be purely anthropic: the laws are as they are because if there were no laws, or if they were different, life could not exist to ask the question. Physicists have tweaked many of the fundamental constants of the universe to see how an other-verse might behave: almost all variations result in oblivion. A similar idea is that there are multiple universes with different laws, ours just being one with laws suitable for life. He claims this is “dodging the issue.” Sort of, but this is not anti-rational. We accept that generally things have causes, but when you follow the chain of causation back to the start of materiality and its rules, you realize there must be something at the start that was without cause. If the rules necessarily needed an explanation, then the explanation needs an explanation, and so on ad infinitum. There must have been something causeless at the start. People have traditionally called this causeless thing God the creator, but God is totally superfluous: materiality itself may be the causeless thing. If the laws were there from the start, they may literally and inherently without explanation.

The other possibility is that there is a cause for the laws, but any theory about it is not testable, since this cause might somehow “pre-date” the universe. This would categorically mean that the cause is outside of science. But science is the only thing we have that isn’t pulling a belief out of our ass, so understanding the cause with any justification would be impossible.

Also, “nobody knows” is a plainly correct answer, since there is no hope to solve the problem in the absence of a unified theory of physics. Work on getting this theory first, Mr. Davies, then see whether your question makes any sense.

“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….”

Davies is faulting science for being humble about its own limits, basically the opposite criticism as from Christians and postmodernists. This seems inconsistent with earlier concerns in the same article that science had too much confidence in its claims.

There are presuppositions in science, Mr. Davies. Everybody knows that. But this is not the same thing as religious faith – it’s a difference in degree and in kind – and it empowers the enemies of reason to suggest otherwise.

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