Saturday, November 24, 2007

Science v. Faith?

Having just written on the problem of "first cause", I am surprised to find myself drawn right back into it by Paul Davies' op-ed in this past Saturday's New York Times. But having informally debated some number of people who told me that science and religion were both faith based endeavors, I was disappointed to read an article by a well known science guru seeming to argue the same point in the New York Times op-ed page.

Maybe I didn’t understand his article. I think I did. The link for the full Davies' article is: But, to make it easier, here’s my summary:

Religion rests on faith, but the scientific presumption that nature is rationally ordered is also based on faith, although so far, a justified one.

Scientists have to have faith in unchanging, absolute universal mathematical law and don’t seem to care where they come from. This is deeply irrational, even absurd.

Scientists are now coming to accept that laws may not be universal or absolute but that there may be a patch work of universes with their own natural by-laws.

Thus, both science and religion are faith based, one believing in an unexplained god, the other in unexplained laws. Both fail to come up with a “complete account of physical existence”. This is not a surprise as the idea of absolute and immutable laws is a doctrine that Newton borrowed from Christianity.

We will never explain the universe as it is unless we come up with “an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency.” Specifics will come from 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.”

Davies is an interesting science writer. I've read one book of his, The Matter Myth, where he tries to make physics understandable for us idiots. He concentrates on fundamental scientific ideas, physics and the relationship of God to the universe. He has the SETI (search for extraterrestrial life in the universe) chair at the Int’l Academy of Astronautics. I am sure he knows far more about science than I do (I’ve read him; he doesn’t read me). However, the approach he takes in this article, which is also a fair summary of his life’s work, is flawed in a number of ways, and common sense tells us so.

First, where are all these pigheaded scientists that he and many others seem to find who are so rigid in their beliefs? Because I never seem to read anything that remotely sounds like it came from one of these scientists. I’d like to see him present one of them who is as dogmatic as he claims. Although I do not mean to associate Mr. Davies with the conservative movement or assign him specific religious beliefs (I have no idea what his political or religious beliefs are), his article reminds me of the chapter on evolution in Ann Coulter’s liberal bashing Godless . It wasn’t her points about evolution that bothered me (she's absolutey correct that evolution is a theory, not a fact). It was her fashioning of a straw dog (liberal_ scientific community, forged from a few examples, which brooks no opposition, doesn’t understand what “theory” means, and thinks once an authority figure (e.g., Darwin) speaks, it becomes a matter of "faith" and there is no arguing with it.

I have no idea if Coulter knows anything about science, but Davies, a scientist and explainer of science, should know better, and not make the quantum leap from a few informal conversations he's had with other scientists, who possibly never gave a thought to the larger problems Davies cares about and may have given off-the-cuff answers, to a conclusion that there is some monolithic scientific community that cares not at all where natural laws come from.

Of course, Mr. Davies, science is based on assumptions, including that there is an order to the universe that can be uncovered. Each experiment or series of experiments cannot recreate the world. Without assumptions, there would be no way to propose theorems which scientists might then try to disprove with experimentation. Even basic geometry requires certain assumptions. Besides, if scientists were forced to only work on the mega-issues, like theories of everything, we would not have them working on the specific problems, usually highly defined and limited, from which slowly grows our body of knowledge.

On the other hand, the accomplishments of modern physics in a century and a half (in my subjective view starting with the Faraday/Kelvin/Maxwell era) have been extremely rapid, going from Faraday's field theories (1861) to an atomic bomb in just over 80 years (1945), and a rocket to the moon in a little over a hundred (1969). That's because the scientific method works.

While Davies' is certainly correct that science is based upon a presumption that there is a rational and ordered universe, this is not the same thing as beliefs as a matter of faith, such as “I believe that there is one God and Jesus or Jehovah or Allah is his name”. Presumptions underlying science need to be based on common sense and experience and must be reasonable. If they are not, the theory will fall apart and will not stand up to experimentation. Religious faith may have, but clearly does not require, those same elements. Many theologians and religious figures accept that, and even reject a rationale approach to theology or faith. To quote one of my favorite movie lines -- "Faith means believing when common sense tells you not to" (Miracle on 34th Street).

That’s why religious beliefs can inspire, but not build a space ship, or a television set, or an electronic grid, or find a polio prevention, and science can. It’s why oil companies use geologists and other scientists to locate oil fields and not ministers. It’s why weather forecasters and builders do the same. Because it is based, however imperfectly, on experimentation, reason and evidence, not religious belief. If we ever do understand how the universe was created, it will not be because we learn it from a religious tract.

As fellow blogger Bear commented upon my recent post(Turtles and other Puzzles – 11/13/07) there is no reason you can’t believe in science and God. I fully agree, even though I personally don’t believe in God. By "believe in science", I mean, and I think Bear means, believe that the scientific method is effective. My quarrel comes when religion is suggested as an equal method to obtain knowledge about the universe (for that matter, I feel the same way about political beliefs). Religion obviously has had and will continue to have a place in this world, but teaching us about the universe is not it.

It is also certainly true that the scientific method has not even begun to move towards an explanation of first cause or an explanation of where nature’s laws come from. It may be beyond the human mind to comprehend it (or not; we'll see). If we ever do approach such knowledge, it will likely be untestable and therefore, not scientific, in a certain sense of the world. It will be endlessly subject to attack as mere theory.

However, Davies article seems to go further, and “tends,” for lack of a perfect word, to indicate that religion and science are on the same playing field when it comes to obtaining knowledge of the universe - with both flawed - religion, because it looks to God to set the rules, and science, because it looks to external forces to do the same. If he doesn’t believe that, he should make it clearer, because once he says that they are faith based and nothing more, that conclusion will certainly be read into this article.

My thoughts on Coulter’s Godless was essentially this – she is both an educated and religious person who seems defensive that her many of her core beliefs are not based on evidence and wants to reduce science to the same level. Although Davies is definitively not advocating a religious solution, quite the contrary, his putting religion on the same level with science as a method to understand the universe is unrealistic.

Equally unrealistic, and almost unbelievable for a science writer, is his notion that there is an end game out there, where we will know everything, or substantially everything, if scientists only realized that knowing why the laws are the way they are is important too. That’s not happening. The more we learn about the universe through science the more we might realize what Socrates figured out without any science -- the only thing we can know for certain is that we know nothing. That might be an exaggeration of the truth, but certainly, we are on the bottom of a very tall barrel looking up.

We could go back only a couple hundred years to quote a guy who was no scientist or philosopher, but knew a thing or two. John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson late in their lives (after a discussion of the physics of the day as he understood it and human limitations in understanding the universe): “Oh delightful Ignorance! When I arrive at a certainty that I am Ignorant, and that I always must be ignorant, while I live I am happy, for I know I can no longer be responsible.”

One day scientists will find that one last elusive elemental particle (the Higgs boson), figure out how all four forces (weak-strong-electromagnetic-gravity) are related and square quantum physics with relativity. They might even stumble into this black matter and energy they talk about (and which I admit, purely from an intuitive perspective, I have trouble believing in). Of course, having accomplished all that, when all this is accomplished, we will all act surprised that they have opened up more doors than they closed. It doesn’t mean that much knowledge will not have been gained in doing so, just that we will be no closer to an “end”.

Allow me one of my favorite Woody Allen quotes here to illustrate the point: “Man can fly to the moon, but put a cocktail waitress in a room with an 80 year old man and nothing happens, because the real problems never change”.

If I wanted to be snarky, and I might, I’d suggest that Mr. Davies read (because I’m guessing he has) the eccentric scientific genius, Richard Feyman’s famous lectures, where he deals with these issues straight away. He, along with Socrates, John Adams, Woody Allen and many other thinking people, knew that we are never getting to the bottom of it. To tell the truth, I’m pretty sure Mr. Davies knows this too. But you can’t tell from his article, and I'm hoping he would have made this plain had he added a paragraph or so. To make sure that I do not unfairly make an unrealistic monolith of "people of faith" as I think Davies has of scientists, I'll add that I believe many (but far from all) people of faith would agree with most of my points here.

I’m pretty sure we will never really know anything for certain, but we can know things well enough to rely upon things that may have seemed impossible a few years ago (like flying safely in airplanes, or living surrounded by huge amounts of electricity). To continue to do so we must rely on rationale beliefs based on reasonable presumptions, and leave faith to its proper purposes, which are cultural and personal. Call that a presumption, if you will. It’s reasonable.


  1. Anonymous12:26 PM

    You quoted Ann Coulter! How could you. She is an ignorant piece of trash. Check out her cable show interview, available all over the web, I saw it on YouTube, where she spews her bigoted opinion about Jews. Got no problem with cable news talking wonks of all parties and stripes, except for bigotry and racism. Ann Coulter should be horse-whipped.

  2. I actually didn't quote her. I referred to a chapter in one her books and was even critical of her here. However, there are things she says that I do agree with (and so do you, although you wouldn't like it) and admire her communication abilities, her fearlessness and knack for saying what she means without the usual waffling.

    She is mean, though, and in my opinion, crosses a politeness line as often as she can. I haven't heard the recent comments but will check them out. In fairness to her (she isn't Hitler, after all), she strongly believes that abortion is "killing babies" and that Clinton raped a woman. In other words, she doesn't think she's that mean compared to the people she disagrees with, and that she is just telling the truth. I'll check out the u-tube video you are talking about, though.

    Although some of the things she says are not pretty bad (we should invade all these countries (Muslim) and convert them to Christianity -- for one over the top remark), I often think the media reaction to her is overstated. She is an entertainer, and (some) people find her entertaining. However, I have heard her whine that people should be discussing her points not her insults. Well, that's what brought them to the table and she can't complain.

    Over all, she is way, way too partisan for my tastes, and can only see one way on any issue, which means whenever I think she's right I usually end up disagreeing with much of it anyway. That doesn't mean she doesn't have an interesting opinion, or get a seat at the table.

    Besides, you should know that your reaction would absolutely delight her, and she makes no bones about the fact that she knows how to drive liberals crazy. She likes to say if you talk to a liberal and they don't walk away sputtering, you aren't doing your job. And she's good at that.

    She is laughing all the way to the bank.

  3. Okay, take two. I just read the entire transcript between Coulter and Deustch. I completely agree with her and that Deutsch is being unfair and trying to paint her out as an Ahmadinejad or anti-semite.

    Here's the interesting thing to me. Most everybody these days I know is for religious tolerance -- that is, everyone should believe what they want -- as long as they don't take it too seriously. Coulter is not suggesting at all that people should not be able to believe as they want. He asked her what the world would look like if Ann Coulter could have her way. Well, she actually believes in Christianity. Like Muslims think that Mohammad brought the people of the book (Jews and Christians)to their final form (perfected them), she believes that about Christianity. If you read the whole transcript or listen to the whole discussion she is trying to say that if she could have her way it would be a more tolerant world.

    My opinion is that when people say they believe in tolerance, they often don't want to be tolerant of people who really believe in their chosen religion. I have to tell you, that if I could have my way, everyone would be a very tolerant atheist and no one would think they were better or "saved" because of their religious beliefs. I think it would be a better world, but that doesn't mean I think Jews or Christians or Muslims are bad, should disappear, or that religion never provides anything good.

    Religious people very often think that their method of worship or life is best. While tolerance is supposedly required nowadays, no one is allowed to voice strong religious beliefs anymore. I was actually on Jerry Falwell side when he said that Jews couldn't go to heaven. Well, of course not, according to his religious views.

    This is why I have never been offended when kind hearted people (not angry idiots) want to convert me. They think they are saving me. As long as they are just talking, I've got no problem with it.

    I give this one to Ann. Besides, she will be on even more shows now, and is still laughing all the way to the bank.

  4. Anonymous10:36 PM

    OK, Bear is totally wrong about Ann....There are many of your assertions with which I disagree with you on this but the foremost is the assertion that Woddy allen is a thinking man.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .