No Faith in Science

Kelly at RRS writes:

Response to Paul Davies’ “Taking Science on Faith
NY Times Op-Ed
11/24/07

I have faith (pun intended) that at some point in his studies, Paul Davies has held a dictionary in his hands, and possibly even opened it. These days, it’s even less cumbersome with the advent of online dictionaries and the added benefit of providing multiple sources from which one can gain a better understanding of a particular word. In order to correct the compilation of fallacies presented in this piece, we need to start at the beginning—definitions.

From the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, “faith” is defined as: complete trust or confidence, strong belief in a religion, or a system of religious belief. From Dictionary.com, it is defined as: confidence or trust in a person or thing; belief that is not based on proof; belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion; belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.; a system of religious belief; the obligation of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement, etc.; the observance of this obligation; fidelity to one’s promise, oath, allegiance, etc.

Looking at these definitions, one can see that every definition is antithetical to the foundational principles of science. A scientist who tests a hypothesis with “complete trust and confidence” in the outcome is doing a disservice to all of those who adhere to the principles of logical and rational inquiry, and who expect the scientific community to do so as well. Does Mr. Davies really believe that science is “belief not based on proof?” If so, perhaps a refresher course in the scientific method is the solution to that problem. Even the least innocuous definitions include words like “obligation”, “allegiance”, and “fidelity.” An honest rationalist would be made a hypocrite by maintaining any of the above qualities in their quest to discover the nature of reality.

Davies’ assertion that science assumes that nature is “ordered in a rational and intelligible way” is simply not accurate. Most scientists understand that while we can use inductive logic to predict with reasonable certainty that what has occurred with regularity in the past will continue to do so, such as the earth continuing to orbit the sun in 365 twenty-four hour days. Any scientist worth his salt would admit, though, that there is no absolute certainty—just reasonable expectations based on past observations. The fact that we have not seen any major variations in this supposed order is solely because our life spans are just not long enough. All of our anthropological history is not long enough to observe these kinds of massive changes. Davies’ statement that the scientists’ “faith has been justified” betrays his ignorance of the nature of this argument. “Justified faith” isn’t faith. It’s reason. Replace the word “faith” with “hypothesis.” Now we’re talking science.

Davies’ insistence that there must be a “why” for this is a reasonable question with no easy answers. From where do these laws come? What Davies is doing here is using the concept of “law” as a human invention imposed upon society and conflating that to mean something similar to what the “laws” of nature are. There is no intergalactic judicial system that hands these “laws” down and forces our planet to obey them. These laws are merely discovered by humans and arranged into a coherent explanation given the evidence available—not created.

His allusion to the dogmatic training he endured during college may very well be true, but more than likely he just resents the fact that in scientific studies, one makes the assumption that those theories that have been supported by numerous experiments and other evidences are true until proven otherwise. The alternative would be a type of mental paralysis. We must work with the information that is available to us, and even Descartes agrees with me there.

Davies further caricatures the standpoint of the scientific community with an allusion that these laws exist “reasonlessly”, and in a sense that is true because there is no external reason that governs them, but his intent with that statement was much more insidious. There are “reasons” for the laws of physics and their manifestation in the universe. Gravity exists because the centrifugal motion of the earth keeps us firmly rooted to the ground, or at least fighting against that force if we momentarily leave it. In one of his next statements, he tunes into the reason for the apparent logical order of these phenomena—perception.

We are a species heavily inclined, possibly even driven, to fit these things into a coherent framework. Before scientific inquiry of the type we have today was possible, people made up stories to attempt to explain that which could not be understood. These days, we no longer need the sun god Ra to drive his chariot of fire across the sky because we understand the reason why the sun appears to rise and set. Davies’ issue with this is that he wants to believe that this reason comes from something more than just the natural functions of the universe. The fact that he wishes that was the case does not make it so.

Life exists on this planet, and possibly more that we are incapable of reaching in this vast universe, not because of “laws” handed down by a supernatural being, but because of the mechanics and function of the universe. We are a product of that process, and any scientific laws are mere discoveries about the way the universe operates that we have observed, recorded, and tested over millennia. Nevertheless, the millennia in which our race has existed is but a speck on the timeline of the universe, and to suggest that any of these occurrences are immutable is extremely ignorant. He claims we selected this, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are here because earth happened to develop the right conditions to support carbon-based life forms.

I couldn’t imagine any reasonable scientist claiming that the physical laws of the universe come from some outside source as Davies claims they believe. This is a blatant attempt to disparage the work of credible researchers who realize that the laws of the universe are a result of an infinite number of unknown occurrences, not a cause. The laws exist only because we have labeled them so, much like the phylogenetic tree that labels and categorizes all living creatures. The fact that an accurate account detailing the reasons for this existence cannot be made is because we either can’t know how the universe operated before we were here to observe it, or because we just don’t know yet.

The attempt to equate physical laws with theological doctrine demonstrates Davies’ desperation to make this connection between physical laws and some “outside force”, because he is clearly grasping at straws with this one. Everybody before Isaac Newton thought that there was some kind of order and rational explanation for the operation of the universe, what little they knew of it, and resorted to gods as a result of the absolute penury of other explanations. Mental illnesses were attributed to demon possession and that made perfect sense to them. People still attribute natural disasters to an angry god, much like Jonathan Edwards in his infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” That does not give his theory (and I mean idea here, not scientific theory) any more credibility, and as far as I can see, it actually reduces it. It’s time that we start holding people accountable for their underhanded attempts to discredit science by equating it with religion. Davies should be embarrassed to feel the need to resort to such inane excuses for his own inability to say, “I don’t know.”

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~ by Jay on November 25, 2007.

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