Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Faith in an Orderly Universe

It's not only Catholic cardinals who manage to create a firestorm when they write NY Times op-eds about science and philosophy. Physicist Paul Davies landed quite a bit of attention last month with an editorial titled Taking Science on Faith. His point is one that has always struck me as deeply compelling: that science as a discipline relies on an implicit faith that the universe acts according to knowable laws.
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.
This view ruffled quite a few feathers. A follow up article (the one that actually caught my eye the other day) by Dennis Overbye describes some of the flack that Davies has caught from other scientists, science enthusiasts, and anyone else who felt like writing to the Time letters column:

His argument provoked an avalanche of blog commentary, articles on and letters to The Times, pointing out that the order we perceive in nature has been explored and tested for more than 2,000 years by observation and experimentation. That order is precisely the hypothesis that the scientific enterprise is engaged in testing.

David J. Gross, director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, Calif., and co-winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, told me in an e-mail message, “I have more confidence in the methods of science, based on the amazing record of science and its ability over the centuries to answer unanswerable questions, than I do in the methods of faith (what are they?).”
However, the attempts that Overbye quotes to explain science's reliance on an orderly universe without recourse to a leap of faith sound suspiciously like an attempt to do the same thing in different words:
Pressed, these scientists will describe the laws more pragmatically as a kind of shorthand for nature’s regularity. Sean Carroll, a cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology, put it this way: “A law of physics is a pattern that nature obeys without exception.”
That sounds very observational and pragmatic... except for the "without exception" part at the end there. True, we don't have to tune in every morning to the daily gravity report to see how fast things are falling that day, but saying that the laws of physics describe how the world behaves "without exception" based on a few hundred years of modern science (during most of which we interpreted our observations as pointing to laws other than our current understanding of physics) strikes me as taking something very like a leap of faith.

The issue, I think, is that some people who spend a lot of time and attention on science (I think this is actually more of an issue with science enthusiasts and low level science teachers as opposed to serious high level research scientists -- though one finds it at times there as well) have rather too much invested in the idea that scientific methodologies are The One Reliable Way of Finding Out How the Universe Really Works.

And yet, taken on their own, scientific methodologies are generally formulated to determine how things appear to work in a given set of situations and times. It's our faith that the universe works in a knowable, orderly, fairly universal fashion that allows us to turn five hundred years of modern science (or 2500 if you want to date science from the Greeks) into knowledge of how things work "without exception."

What's ironic, in a sense, is that Davies is not trying to advocate more respect for faith via his editorial. Rather, his last two paragraphs issue a call to seek a new, less universal way of understandings the "laws" of science:
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.
If science were to be a totally self-contained discipline, I see the importance of what he's advocating. Though at the same time, I'm not entirely clear what these explanations internal to the universe would look like. The strong nuclear force works because... why?

That's the funny thing about "laws" in physics. Contrary to how my third grade science book tried to explain it, a law is not simply a hypothesis that has been tested many times. A law is something which seems to be universally the case, and yet has to be taken just "as is". There's not necessarily a "why" involved.

This is just fine if you simply consider science a methodology for explaining how material systems behave. It's rather more problematic if you have hopes of science being the one true method of knowing things for sure. Which is what leaves those interested in science who are comfortable with having a metaphysics in a better spot than those who imagine that one is better off without one.


John Farrell said...

I enjoyed both those Times articles, and have always liked Davies and his books. Sheesh, the amount of $^%& he has taken on the skeptic blogs for that op-ed is beyond belief.

Kyle Cupp said...

Something to consider for those who put all their faith in science:

The laws of science are deconstructible. Like any human discipline, science is situated in time, place, history, culture, and language. Every scientific "fact" exists within the context of a scientific project, which is a project of interpretation. This is not to say that there is no scientific truth independent of human understanding, but that there is a subjective (and objective) aspect to everything we understand scientifically.

Deacon Bill Burns said...

Ignorant nonscientist here...

'That sounds very observational and pragmatic... except for the "without exception" part at the end there.'

Isn't part of the Big Bang Theory the idea that these physical laws weren't operational or that time and space didn't exists in any meaningful sense?