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Paul Davies 2007: Taking Science on Faith

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I offer up this great 2007 op-ed by Paul Davies, in part because it remains very relevant and likely will remain so for a very long time. Submitted with minimal comment for now, though here is an excerpt:

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.

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.

Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.

15 Replies to “Paul Davies 2007: Taking Science on Faith

  1. 1
    Mung says:

    I would argue with you about this, but as an athiest, I lack any rational or reasonable basis for doing so (or not).

    But wait, that very bit of logic there assume things which I am not allowed to assume, therefore…

    Wait, I’m not allowed to come to any conclusion. But to come to that conclusion, I must have had some reason (or not).

    I guess that’s why we I can just say anything at all and believe it is true no matter how illogical nor how it’s stands in contradiction to something else I said.

    Ain’t atheism grand!

  2. 2
    Alex73 says:

    There are two more very closely related mysteries:

    1. The laws are not just logical but they can be discovered or unravelled. E.g. gravity is so much weaker than electricity that we van study one while the effects of the other can be ignored.

    2. There is a universal joy in scientific discovery. It is fun to do it, even if, apparently, there are absolutely no benefits in doing it.

    Yep, I agree with those who say that this world was made to be discovered and we are made to discover. Simply, this is where the evidence leads.

  3. 3
    Neil Rickert says:

    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.

    They must have forgotten to teach me that. It never seemed to me that any kind of faith was required.

  4. 4
    nullasalus says:

    They must have forgotten to teach me that. It never seemed to me that any kind of faith was required.

    Unmentioned or unreflective faith is still faith.

  5. 5
    Mung says:

    I’ve always enjoyed Paul Davies as an author.

  6. 6
    Neil Rickert says:

    nullasalus (#4)

    Unmentioned or unreflective faith is still faith.

    I most certainly was not unreflective about science. It still did not require faith.

  7. 7
    nullasalus says:

    I most certainly was not unreflective about science. It still did not require faith.

    I suggest you actually reflect on what Davies is talking about. It’s not particularly hard to get. Well, not for most people. Maybe you’ve got a particular difficulty.

  8. 8
    vjtorley says:

    Hi nullasalus

    There are some thought-provoking quotes on the second page of Davies’ article, as well. I liked this one:

    [U]ntil science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

    Hear, hear!

    Here’s another quote which illustrates Paul Davies’ fairness and intellectual honesty:

    [T]he 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.

    The following quote I partially disagreed with:

    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.

    I disagree with Davies’ assertion that both science and religion fail to explain physical existence. God is self-explanatory; the laws of Nature are incapable of being self-explanatory because they are inherently contingent. God has to be Who He is; but the laws of Nature don’t have to be the way they are.

    The last quote is very interesting:

    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.

    My comment: Laws may have an explanation from within the universe in terms of whom they are for (the intelligent beings and other organisms that would later evolve) but they still require an external explanation to account for how they continue to hold always and everywhere. Only a Deity Who made the cosmos according to a plan is capable of explaining this fact. We live in a cosmos governed by rules – and highly specific ones at that.

  9. 9
    Bruce David says:

    Davies is an interesting thinker. He has the intellectual honesty to recognize what science has and has not explained, yet he retains a kind of naive faith that scientific explanations are possible. Another example is that he clearly recognizes that the fundamental aspect of life that must be explained is information, yet still holds out hope for the possibility that science can discover some new type of law that can explain it.

    To vjtorley: you said, “I disagree with Davies’ assertion that both science and religion fail to explain physical existence. God is self-explanatory; the laws of Nature are incapable of being self-explanatory because they are inherently contingent.”

    I certainly believe that God exists, but I can’t decide if I buy the argument that God is self-explanatory. I know that that is basically one of the “proofs” of God’s existence (the ontological argument), but I have never found it quite compelling. And I find it interesting that deep thinkers who are atheist or agnostic don’t find it compelling at all. It seems to be one of those reason based arguments that are very convincing to people who already agree with the conclusion, and not so to those who don’t. But I am open to being persuaded otherwise.

  10. 10
    nullasalus says:

    Bruce David,

    It seems to be one of those reason based arguments that are very convincing to people who already agree with the conclusion, and not so to those who don’t.

    You want an argument that a person will both A) find compelling, yet B) they reject it anyway?

  11. 11
    StephenB says:

    Davies is very, very close to understanding that a physical law without a law giver is just as impossible and ridiculous as a Mona Lisa without a Leonardo Da Vinci.

  12. 12
    CannuckianYankee says:

    I think one of the most significant things Davies said was this:

    “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.”

  13. 13
    Bruce David says:

    nullasalus: “You want an argument that a person will both A) find compelling, yet B) they reject it anyway?”

    That is not quite what I said. I said that the argument is compelling to those who already accept its CONCLUSION. People who don’t already accept its conclusion generally aren’t convinced by the argument.

    There are arguments that are compelling enough that they actually change peoples’ minds. I changed my mind about the truth of Darwinism from reading Evolution, a Theory in Crisis and Darwin’s Black Box, for example.

  14. 14
    myname says:

    I have to admit that I don’t quite get Davies‘ problem. String theory is after all the attempt to explain the origin of the laws of nature as we know them. Sure this does not explain where string theory comes from but rather than being off limits the answer to these questions right now simply seem to not to be accessible by the scientific method. Thus it does not make an awful lot of sense to ask them in a scientific context.

    The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational.

    Seems to me a straw man since that is not what science says.

    As a side note I never understood why you have to take the existence or the immutability of the laws of nature on faith. To me both seem to be simply observations.

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