Saturday, November 24, 2007

Is science rooted in faith?

There is an interesting and provocative op-ed piece in Saturday's New York Times titled, Taking Science on Faith. Its written by Paul Davies, who is a cosmologist and an astrobiologist and is the Director of an intriguing/fascinating institute called Beyond, located at Arizona State University. Paul Davies has a regular habit of coming up with interesting questions and is known to think outside of the box. He wrote one of my favorite op-ed piece in NYT after President Bush announced his vision for Moon-Mars exploration. In the Mars article Davies suggested (in all seriousness) that the biggest cost for a mission to Mars is bringing people back to Earth. So we should have a one-way trip! The first batch of astronauts should build a colony up there and spend the rest of their lives on the Red planet. Sign me up!! Its not going to happen - but please read this fantastic article, Life (and Death) on Mars, at least for its out-of-the-box thinking. on to Saturday's article. The main point of the article is that science is rooted in faith - faith that there is an underlying order to the universe.
All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.
No argument here. And this is seen in the light of natural laws:
The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?
These are tough questions. For Davies, if there is no reason for the laws to be ordered, then this is "deeply anti-rational".
After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.
Thus, scientist's reliance on order is based ultimately on faith. Then he goes on to include religion in the equation (ha ha):

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.

Sure, but isn't the idea of a rational universe with an underlying mathematical reality traceable to Pythagoreans and Plato, and the notion of an ordered universe tracing back to the pre-Socratics? A lot of this was borrowed by Christianity and yes, Newton and many other scientists of his day, did get the inspiration of their ideas from religion. In fact, they did not have really separate spheres of science and religion - all of their work was to uncover the workings of God. I think Davies is preparing us for his final point:

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.

Woa?? I'm not sure about his final conclusion. Again we go to the beginning of his article. If by faith, he only means a belief in an underlying order, then I don't think scientists would disagree with that statement. Furthermore, this faith may be quite justified as it (order in nature) has been tested (i.e. there is order on all scales) over and over again and we have no reason to believe that this is not the case.

But if by faith he means something about the particular origin of these laws, then this is parallel to the question of origin of the universe. We can always keep on pushing the origins questions back and back. What was before the Big Bang? If it was Multiverse before the our Universe, then where did the Multiverse come from? Can we come up with a testable theory for answering this question? Does the fact that we do not have an answers to these questions lead to the view that science is not independent of faith? I think Paul Davies has shifted focus from the origin of the universe to the origin of universal laws and he is playing fast and loose with the word "faith", conflating religious usage with everyday use of the word. However, this is not to say that science has (or ever will) answers to these questions. But what does it mean not to have these answers - and this is where Davies' article comes in.

It is a good read, and you can find the full article here.


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Anonymous said...

At the very least, science is rooted in the philosophical inquiry. It was understood to be as much 'philosophy' territory as was ethics and ontology. Over the years, because science was more 'empirical' a perception has been created that the other philosophies are all "unprovable" word games. But in fact, the science of today is deeply connected with the other more classic subject of philosophy. Religion's role for science is not to dictate the conclusion of research. But religion does have a role. It can be put this way:

1.) it is science's job to figure out how to conduct stem-cell research.

2.) it is religion's job to let the scientists know that they must conduct their research in ways that do not kill embryos

In this way, scientists can conduct ethical research and their work can provide the maximum benefit for humanity. It would be a pity of a scientist worked on great stem cell research that could help mankind, but that he achieved that research by unethically killing embryos which is an action that damaged mankind.

Working together, if religious people stop trying to find scientific conclusions in the Bible, and if scientists stopped appointing themselves experts in morality, then science and religion could work together and the world would benefit immensely.