On Faith and Science

In an Op-Ed dated November 24th, 2007, physicist Paul Davies expatiates on modern science’s dependence upon faith.[1] Throughout, he confuses observation with explanation. The one belongs to science. The other belongs to religion and philosophy.

He says firstly that ‘All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way.’ This assertion overlooks modern science’s empirical foundation. Newtonian and Keplerian physics did proceed on the Neoplatonic assumption that the universe obeys mathematical laws imposed by some first mover. This view was first articulated in Plato’s Timaeus and has a long history in Western science. Much more influential to the development of the modern scientific method, however, was the work of the British Empiricists. Baconian science, placing a premium on observation, has become synonymous with the discipline itself. Davies errs when he supposes that ‘to be a student of science, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin.’ Rather, modern science concerns itself with the elimination of implausible explanations for physical phenomena through observation. It can substitute more plausible explanations, but makes no categorical statements about causes. In science, as in life, the only certainty rests in varying degrees of uncertainty. Davies should have read his Hume:

 

When one particular species of event has always, in all instances, been conjoined with another, we make no longer any scruple of foretelling one upon the appearance of another, and of employing that reasoning, which can alone assure us of any matter of fact or existence. We then call the one object, Cause: the other, Effect.[2]

 

Davies mistakes a lack of positive assertions about first causes for a faith in them.

During the latter half of his piece, Davies engages unknowingly in some theological speculation of his own: ‘Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity?[3] If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.’ With this quote he means to ridicule his colleagues’ ‘reasonlessness’ when it comes to explaining the behavior of physical phenomena. In so doing he exceeds the brief of science.

Davies takes science’s basis in faith as axiomatic: ‘Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith-namely, on a belief in the existence of something outside the universe.’ Here he attacks theoretical physics’ (manufactured) reliance upon meta-laws that imbue our inhabitable universe’s bylaws with validity. Such an axiom gainsays Aristotle, the undisputed father of Western science. He believed that philosophical access to universals lay through the examination of particulars (cf. his juxtaposition with Plato in Raphael’s The School of Athens). Modern science has adapted this approach by excising the Aristotelian faith in universals. Davies’ analysis overlooks this nuance: ‘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.’ Fixation on the ‘bylaws’ derived from Davies’ ‘meta-laws’ is sufficient for the progress of modern science, concerned as it is with the negative enterprise of eliminating hypotheses that deviate from experimental observation. When he says that ‘the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency,’ he obscures the fact that any such appeal exists more in his own mind than in actual scientific practice.

As we might expect, Davies’ piece elicited a host of editorial letters.[4] Ronald Giere, a professor of scientific philosophy, comes much nearer the mark when he says, ‘Science is founded not on principles that must be taken on faith, but on sound methodology based on an indisputable historical record of success.’ Modern science is precisely that: a methodology. It pertains to the rigorous application of procedures and the observation of phenomena. It does not address itself to anything beyond that.

Judith Lorber, professor of sociology, rightly observes that the rigid mathematical laws Davies contests are more probabilistic constructions than objectively valid truths. ‘Scientists,’ she says, ‘know that nature is messy and blurry and haphazard and random.’ The ‘elegant patterns’ and ‘neat categories’ that find their way into physics textbooks represent changeable attempts at manipulating the physical world in order to facilitate human understanding.

Jim Austin almost quotes Hume’s philosophy of causation in his insistence that science derives its validity from the fact that it ‘works’: ‘Tomorrow’s sunrise hasn’t happened yet, but it’s reasonable to assume that it will.’ It is a mistake to assume that scientists’ inability to investigate the origin of their mathematical laws reflects a lack of thought. It merely reflects a suitable level of pragmatism.

Michael L. Brown, professor of mathematics, recognizes the proper boundaries of the Scientific Method. If a physical law cannot be explained, Brown tells us, ‘the correct response to this is awe, not shame.’ Such a mindset allows for a complementary relationship between science and religion, one that promotes a fuller understanding of our universe.

Chance Reschke distills the foregoing thoughts into a pithy description of the Scientific Method, including a reference to Immanuel Kant (who, one must assume coincidentally given the nature of Reschke’s allusion, credited Hume with awakening him from his ‘dogmatic slumber’). It bears quoting at length:

 

Science seeks explanations of phenomena through observable events. These explanations are good to the extent that they jibe with past observation and are able to predict future events. As better explanations are offered, they replace earlier efforts. Condemning science for its failure to explain the divine makes as much sense as condemning Kant for failing to explain the aerodynamic properties of the Concorde or Moses for failing to predict Google.

Assertions that multiverse theories or the anthropic principle herald an overdue and welcome change in the scope of scientific inquiry are manifestly bogus. In the 17th century Newton proposed his laws of motion, while others were busy burning witches at the stake. One has little to do with the other.

The yearning for purpose-the why-is as valid as curiosity about the process-the how. But they are separate. Insisting that science attempt the former undermines its ability to pursue the latter.

 

Davies confutes the religious question ‘why’ with the scientific question ‘how.’ The cause of science gains as little as the cause of religion from this confusion of duties.

Tim Wood cuts to the heart of Davies’ argument immediately: ‘Paul Davies sets up a flimsy straw man and proceeds to flog it mercilessly.’ He distinguishes between the layman’s understanding of civil law-which cannot be broken-and scientific law, which pertains to the observation of phenomena that occur so consistently that their probability of not occurring becomes ‘vanishingly small.’ We stick with science for the eminently practical reason that it works.

As soon as science attempts to expand beyond the observation and recording of natural phenomena, it transgresses upon the office of the clergyman. The great virtue of modern science is its reluctance to do so. The great shortcoming of modern religion is its unwillingness to reciprocate. Thus I can attend a Physics class that examines the refraction of light on Thursday afternoon and profess my faith in the Nicene Creed on Sunday morning. Any belief concerning the ‘why’ of existence is valid only insofar as its consequences allow one to live a meaningful life. The Church is Episcopalian, and therefore believes in ‘One God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,’ in ‘one Lord, Jesus Christ,’ and in ‘the Holy Ghost, the Lord, the Giver of life.’ It further believes in the dignity of the individual, the immorality of American slavery, the rectification of social injustice, the maintenance of necessary social inequalities, and the traditions of the Anglican Communion, the British monarchy, and Protestant Christianity. I can believe all this and still apply Snell’s Law without contradiction. For ‘what has Athens to do with Jerusalem’?


[2] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Excerpts appear in Human Knowledge: Classical and Contemporary Approaches, ed. Paul K. Moser and Arnold Vander Nat, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press (New York and Oxford), 2003. p. 181.

[3] n.b. The mathematical phenomenon of fractals, or ordered portraits of the physical world derived from random algorithms of composition, suggests that it can.

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One thought on “On Faith and Science

  1. Pingback: Some Questions about the Scientific World-View | The Leather Library

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