Sunday, November 25, 2007

Science vs. Faith

It is difficult to say which is more annoying: A Conservative arguing that there is no rational, secular basis for morality or a "scientist" arguing against consciousness and free will on the basis of "scientific" materialism. In a similar vein we have physicist Paul Davies argument in the November 24, New York Times that "science has its own faith-based belief system."

I've decided to address this op-ed in detail and see if I can't respond to it.
SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.
It's interesting that nowhere in the op-ed is the idea that religion is faith-based challenged, even though I know for a fact that some very religious people would object quite strongly to the claim that all religions require faith. But let's leave that aside since I don't really disagree with it. Is all science based on "testable hypotheses"? It seems to me that the basis of science is the law of causality. Testable hypotheses are the part of the scientific method but I wouldn't call them the basis of science.
The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. 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.
I essentially agree that "science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way" (although Davies is mixing elements of metaphysics and epistemology here) -- but is an assumption the same as a "faith-based belief system". Is this an arbitrary assumption? Davies writes that "so far this faith has been justified" -- what a Humean approach to the world! Like Hume, Davies seems to think that Causality as such does not exist. We just got used to entities behaving according to what we call natural laws but as far as Davies is concerned there's no real reason for it. Apparently we just got lucky.
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?
This is where one really must have a philosophy. Ayn Rand wrote in connection to science:
Science was born as a result and consequence of philosophy; it cannot survive without a philosophical (particularly epistemological) base. If philosophy perishes, science will be next to go.
I find it ironic that many people reading about Objectivist metaphysics find it obvious and yet highly intelligent scientists are unable to come to the same seemingly obvious conclusions. Let's briefly review -- the fundamental starting point is existence. If one accepts that something exists and that one is aware of it then one has in fact granted all three fundamental axioms: Existence, Consciousness and Identity. The important formulation of Ayn Rand is that "Existence is Identity." This applies to attributes of entities as well as actions and therefore causality. There is no possibility of an absence of laws -- all entities have a specific nature, and hence specific attributes and actions possible to them and no others. There are wide variety of things (including living and nonliving, conscious and vegetative) yet each one has a nature and follows it. A thing without a nature, without identity is nothing in particular and literally does not exist. It is therefore an invalid question to ask "where do these laws come from" -- to be is to be subject to laws.
When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance. The laws were treated as “given” — imprinted on the universe like a maker’s mark at the moment of cosmic birth — and fixed forevermore. Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.
Yes, scientists should "discover the laws and apply them" -- to go beyond that is the job of philosophy that has to validate the basis on which the scientist operates. Again, one can see the influence of Humean philosophy on Davies in his denial of Causality.
Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly 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.
The irony is that Davies's colleagues are mostly right (except for the "nobody knows") -- this isn't a scientific question and the laws ultimately just are. There cannot be an infinite regress. A proper philosophy would have told him that. This is hardly "anti-rational" -- none of this restricts scientific inquiry. Deeper and deeper causes can always be found but there cannot be a "reason for causality" which is what Davies is looking for. This is exactly the same as looking for reasons for existence. Existence exists. One must accept that (and not on faith but on the basis of every percept one has ever had) to get anywhere in this world. Rationality depends on causality and not the other way around. Reason is dependent on a proper metaphysics, especially identity but including causality -- otherwise it would just be game.

I'm going to skip a little now.
A second reason that the laws of physics have now been brought within the scope of scientific inquiry is the realization that what we long regarded as absolute and universal laws might not be truly fundamental at all, but more like local bylaws. They could vary from place to place on a mega-cosmic scale. A God’s-eye view might reveal a vast patchwork quilt of universes, each with its own distinctive set of bylaws. In this “multiverse,” life will arise only in those patches with bio-friendly bylaws, so it is no surprise that we find ourselves in a Goldilocks universe — one that is just right for life. We have selected it by our very existence.
I have to say I'm highly skeptical of the idea of multiple universes. It's really irrelevant to the Davies's questions on causality which Davies recognizes below.
The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.
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.
Nonsense. Properly, science if founded on a philosophy of reason, such as Ayn Rand's Objectivism, or at least some form of Aristotelianism, which starts with the proper fundamental axioms of philosophy including Existence, Identity and Consciousness and recognizes that the law of causality as a corollary of the law of identity. While individual scientists may mistakenly believe that science rests on faith, familiarity with a proper philosophy would soon persuade them otherwise.
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. And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe. 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.
The fundamental "reason" for the laws is clear -- causality, being a corollary of identity, is inherent in existence. The idea that science is faith-based rests on a mistaken Humean philosophy and denial of the Law of Causality that guarantees that because things are what they are, they will act accordingly. In the context of science, the implication is the regularity that Davies finds so mysterious. The scientist's job is to work out the specifics of the regularity.

2 comments:

aaronburgess said...

Science vs. Faith
This is a good post and similar to much of what Dinesh D'Souza talks about in his new book What's So Great About Christianity. I think D'Souza fails as do you to mention the real reason that science and faith/reason have been separated. This separation actually has a longer tradition than you mention here and goes well beyond Hume and the Enlightenment!

The separation of science from religion and ultimately from pure metaphysics (axiology) gets its surest foundation in the philosophies of G.E. Moore, C.S. Pierce and Karl Popper. G.E. Moore's naturalistic fallacy better known as the fact/value dichotomy created a line of demarcation between the two disciplines. Popper actually coined this phrase "line of demarcation" and further narrowed the view of what is scientific.

I feel that if you are going to post on this subject matter without mentioning or exposing your readers to the naturalistic fallacy of G.E. Moore and the falsification principle of Popper you are failing to provide a full picture to this issue and not giving Gould enough credit for his separation. There is a steep tradition in the philosophy of science that has worked diligently and effectively to separate metaphysics/faith from science.

Gideon said...

Sorry, I'm not very familiar with the ideas of the philosophers you mention. That's why I didn't include them in my post.