Physicist Paul Davies had an Op-Ed in the New York Times yesterday insisting that even science is taken on faith. His arguments fail to convince, but it sure makes me question whether Paul Davies understands science. If I read him correctly, Davies makes three core claims in his article:
1) That science ultimately and necessarily rests on faith, just like, er, faith
2) That multiverses are ultimately a scientific exercise… in faith
3) That the seeming fine tuning of natural laws is necessarily significant and… something or other about faith, science uses faith
You probably see something of a pattern to those points. I see bad ideas ripe for a riposte.
Science Taken on Faith?
Davies starts out with a trope you’d normally expect to hear out of the mouth of anyone from Ken Ham to Alvin Plantinga:
Davies: …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.
But as PZ Myers has pointed out, this poetic obsession with neatness is a vice of physics, not a real element of how science works. Now, to be fair, I suspect that what Davies is really targeting are the core philosophical assumptions that necessarily underlie empirical observation. But do even these actually require “faith” as he implies?
Davies: 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. (emphasis added)
Precisely wrong. Science is empirical: that is, it’s built from the bottom up from our testable observations of evidence to the best provisional conclusions we can draw. This practice is, of course, grounded on some core, unprovable assumptions. But to suggest that these assumptions must be taken on faith, or even believed to be fundamentally true at all, is errant nonsense. The core assumptions of empiricism are that we exist, that our shared experience of a physical world is reliable enough for us to confirm or disconfirm things about it, that some physical facts are predictably consistent over time, and so on. But these assumptions aren’t arbitrary whims, no better or worse than any random supernatural belief. They are the very things that are necessary and unavoidable if we ever want to have any coherent discussions about reality with each other, period: any hope at all of giving meaning to words like “true” or “false.” You are welcome to reject them, but if so, the alternative is simply incomprehensible uncommunicable madness, not some alternate way of knowing.
They also just so happen to be the exact same assumptions that are unavoidably necessary to operate in your daily life: you couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, or even recognize that you were in bed at all, without them. That means that you can’t even try to argue against these assumptions without first conceding them (every part of your action to form arguments and then convey them to me assumes everything you would be arguing against). I mean, just try disagreeing with me without provisionally conceding that I exist, that your fingers should type on computer keys in order to write back to me (instead of the rule of the moment being that you should randomly tweak people’s nipples… no wait, it’s changed: you must dance up and down to do it, except that you can’t assume that your muscles exist…), and so on.
So, for all the practical inevitability of these assumptions, doesn’t that mean we need have faith in them? No. These assumptions are provisional, made in full knowledge that that are pragmatic yet unprovable. No one is required to claim that they are “the Truth.” It’s Theory of Science 101 to acknowledge the untestable but undefeatable possibilities that we are all Platonic cavebrains in jars, hooked up to the Matrix. You can, if you like, implicitly premise every single scientific statement with “assuming for the sake of argument that existence is real, our common sense data is reasonably reliable…etc.” And most scientists wouldn’t blink an eye or take issue with that.
Now, if Davies can get the Pope to happily preface any statements he makes about the resurrection in the same provisional way, maybe then he’ll have a point (although the point would then be that the Pope is more like a scientist than scientists are more like the Pope). Until that time, however, he’s just making a posturing false equivalence.
Davies introduces the idea of multiverses (the idea that there may be many different “universes” or at least regions of our own universe, with different core characteristics) mainly to insist that they are ultimately unsatisfying in any final “why is anything the way it is” sense. Fair enough. But for someone who’s written entire books on multiverses, Davies’ presentation of the idea in his Op-Ed is dangerously trite. Creationists often push a conspiracy-theory narrative about how multiverse ideas arose amongst godless physicists explicitly as a way for their cabal to try and explain away God. The reality is far more nerdy and mundane: multiverse ideas primarily entered physics due to mindbogglingly confusing debates over quantum physics, astounding new evidence about the nature of space-time, and unexpected mathematical implications found in things like string theory. For Davies to basically play into the creationist narrative by introducing multiverses as some sort of fundamental scientific counterargument to design is pretty irresponsible.
Of course, multiverses indeed have certainly been offered in philosophical debates as a reason why design is not an inevitable conclusion. But Davies has never seemed to understand the point of raising multiverse theories in these sorts of debates. No one is suggesting that folks need have great faith in the almighty multiverse. The point is that when theists insist that design is the only logical conclusion, a multiverse is one obvious alternative, and logically, the mere existence of any alternative completely undercuts the necessity of the fine-tuned design argument. No, it cannot explain why multiverses themselves exist, or even prove that they do, but the mere possibility is all that is relevant in this context.
Davies splices this usage out of context and translates it to a faith in multiverses. But as folks like Robert Kuhn have tried to point out, multiverses aren’t even the only non-design possibility: there’s a whole taxonomy of philosophical possibilities. Scientists and non-believers aren’t wedded by faith to any of them: we just don’t see why it’s justified to jump immediately and exclusively to one unprovable possibility amongst many. Particularly when we’re skeptical of how “something we don’t understand but that we can imagine as capable of doing absolutely anything did it in a way we don’t understand” could even be called an “explanation.”
Davies also insists that the philosophical possibility that laws simply exist, without any further reason available, as “deeply anti-rational.” Why? Science does not promise, as he claims, that we must be able to trace anything down “to the bedrock.” It claims that we can trace things down only so far as the evidence allows us to. If the reality is that either we have no plausible way of ever determining why natural laws are the way they are, that’s simply a limitation of science, and honest people just have to stop and admit ignorance from there on out. If, on the other hand, those laws really are a particular way simply out of uncaused brute force fact, there’s nothing rational or irrational about it. That’s just the way things are. Davies offers no structural justification at all in the scientific method to support the idea that brute force facts are anti-reason. If he were attacking some sort of obsessive scienticism he might have a point. But since he claims to be talking about science, his arguments veer way off course.
This leads him to insist that science (just like religious belief, guys, no kidding!) is founded on the “faith” of there being unexplained answers beyond the universe.
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.
Wrong again. Science does not purport to offer “a complete account of physical existence” so it failing to do so is not a scientific license to believe any darn thing you please. Science offers an account of as much of existence as can be objectively verified, no more, no less. It works from the ground up, remember? That is its scope and limitation but, perhaps, also its strength. Davies seems to be trying to cram the role and arrogant explanatory aspirations of religion INTO science. It doesn’t fit. Science isn’t a mirror image of religion.
Frankly, Fine Tuning, I Don’t Give a Damn
Davies got into this mess in part by suggesting that fine tuning is an actual conundrum in the first place. We simply do not know that it is. When cosmologists talk about apparent fine tuning, they cannot, even if they want to, be legitimately talking in an ontological (i.e. fundamental, ground of existence) sense. Not if they want to justify their claims with scientific observations. And yet, that ontological sense is the only one that’s useful for the sort of “God’s eye” view Davies wants to talk about.
So forget multiverses: that’s a red herring. Let’s speak directly to what fine tuning arguments appeal to: probability. Davies and many other physicists that are over-awed by fine tuning frame the argument this way: isn’t is amazingly improbable that the particular way the universe is favorable to life, which we find amazing? As Davis says, “just any old ragbag of rules” won’t do. The problem is that, perhaps unwittingly, these claims quietly switch from making scientific statements (i.e. isn’t this occurrence remarkably unlikely given this situation) to making ontological ones (i.e. isn’t it amazing that we find ourselves in this situation?)
But when it comes to what situations we might possibly find ourselves in (i.e. what sort of universes), and how likely they are, Davies and others are vastly underestimating what we don’t know about what might be possible. Ironically, while claiming to open their minds and imagine all sorts of other possible universes wherein life is supposedly so unlikely, they show remarkably little imagination. For instance, a common tack is to vary the observed constants of the basic physical forces and observe that in lots of the resulting possible universes, stars don’t even form, much less heavier, more complex elements and structures. But exactly when did we get to assume that the very number or type of constants and forces was fixed? Or even that their relationships are always the same? Why assume that anything need be even close to what we expect given our universe?
The reality is that, for all we know, our universe could be so remarkably devoid of complexity and life (compared to the full range of what is possible and likely), that the only explanation is that there is an intelligent “ruiner” out to mess things up: the exact opposite conclusion that fine-tuners tend to draw. What, our pathetic cosmos only has the ONE periodic table of elements, instead of the far more likely multi-dimensional hypertable?? Out of all the possible universes, we turned out to get the only one without granfalloons? What are the odds!
And I’m only scratching the surface here. Once you leave the confines of what we can observe scientifically, the sky’s the limit. Or maybe even the paltry level of intelligence in our universe (compared to the real intelligence that we’d expect to be common) can’t even imagine what the limit is.
The point is that we have no possible way to judge what is likely or unlikely when it comes to a “universe.” Just as you cannot sensibly calculate the odds of drawing an ace of spades out of a deck that may contain UNO cards, bussiness cards, or even be all aces of spades, so too talking about the “odds” of life or complexity in any ultimate sense is profoundly meaningless. Any measure of “surprise” at the situation of our own universe has got to involve the science/ontology equivocation somewhere along the line. Fine tuning might make sense as an argument about our universe being incredibly hostile to life… and yet this one unlikely planet ended up with all the right conditions. I still don’t buy it, but at least it’s not a philosophical mess.
(As a side note, for someone who has written whole books surveying the thinking about natural law and fine tuning, an overly poetic equivocation between natural “laws” and legal restrictions (which imply someone putting them into effect) is disappointing. It does, however, play right into Davies’ false picture of what scientific laws actually are. What we call natural laws are, in fact, simply particular relationships and regularities that we observe as so far holding universally. But natural laws, like everything else in science, are provisional: they are only as good as long as the evidence continues to support them. Davies seems to understand this when he mentions the idea of “local bylaws.” But he seems to forget the implication again when it comes time to declare that they are accepted on faith, rather treated to endless experimental verification.)
Davies closes his article with his commonly confusing coda: the proposal that we should explain observed laws “from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency.” No one is particularly sure what this means, or even what sort of explanation that would be. Davies certainly doesn’t offer anything: it’s a job for “future research” to figure out what the heck he’s suggesting we research. But he’s sure as shootin’ that until we do whatever it is he can’t explain, science will rest on faith beliefs.
Color me unconvinced.
In closing, I found this sort of humorous:
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.
Holy Saint Anteater of Santeria, is that really what physicists have come to think that they’re doing? That’s really, really messed up. Sounds like the biology and chem departments need to head down the hall and beat the snot out of them until they stop being so full of themselves. :)
Update: A lot more people a lot smarter than I am have all weighed in on this. The consensus seems to be “uh, what the heck, man?”