Science on Faith?

Paul Davies has a piece on the op ed page of today’s NYT that seems to me to be rather confused. In the piece, Davies argues that science and religion are not at odds in the way that they are often thought to be since “science has its own faith-based belief system.” And how is this? Well, according to Davies, “All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way.” This is an assumption that cannot itself be proven and, in fact, is exempt from the testability that is demanded of science more generally. It has to be accepted on faith in order for science to even get off the ground.

Davies goes on to get more specific about how he thinks science requires taking the rationality of the universe on faith.

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?

He concludes that there is not much difference between the belief in the existence of God and the belief in the existence of the laws of nature. In fact, he notes that the very idea of a law of nature is a theological notion (God’s laws).

Historically, he is correct about the source of the idea of natural law in theology, but he fails to recognize that the genesis of the idea need not determine the contemporary use of the term. There is another way of thinking about the assumptions of rationality and about “laws” of nature so that does not commit us to thinking of science as resting on faith.

Bas van Fraassen in his Laws and Symmetry (1990) reviews the metaphorical use “law” and opts for an understanding of the notion that does not require a commitment to the existence of laws of nature. I offer the following in a similar vein.

It is not that science requires the assumption that the universe is rational and governed by laws. What it requires is the belief that we will be able to construct useful theories if we make these sorts of assumptions. It is very much worth noting that this belief is not based on faith. If we take it as a given that there is order in the universe, then we can build theories about it. If those theories work, that is evidence that we are justified in our assumptions. If we were to make these assumptions and were unable construct successful theories, then we would not be justified in them and we would have to abandon them.

But there is another point to make here as well. That we are able to build theories that are successful using these assumptions does not show that the universe is rational and governed by laws. It only shows that we are able to successfully navigate the universe with theories that describe it in that way.

So my point is that this “faith” seems to be of a very different sort than theological faith and so ultimately Davies’ claims that they are both based on faith is at least misleading, if not simply false.

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,… . For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

Contrary to Davies’ claim, the assumption that we can explain and understand key elements of the universe by modeling it as a rational universe with laws does not commit us to the existence of anything outside of the universe. He assumes that science requires a realism about laws and rationality which it does not. He does finish the article asking for science to explain the laws of the universe without appeal to something external to the universe, but isn’t that the task of philosophy of science rather than science? And shouldn’t that explanation be something like the one that I have offered?

Some additional posts on Davies’ op ed piece can be found at: Adventures in Ethics and Science, The Bad Idea Blog, and The Reality Club. I’ve also posted at Knowledge and Experience.

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2 Responses to Science on Faith?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Although I have used Davies to establish some basic issues concerning ‘the laws of physics'(vide – “Superforce”) in a project-length paper on evolution, I agree that his employment of the [necessarily] ‘realistic’ form of the Phil. of Science (PoS), is somewhat fallacious. This would seem to ostracize those on the ‘Anti-realism’ side of the PoS.P.S. I’ve been ‘on the walk’ for nearly a decade…”the sojourn” replenishes the soul.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I think that realism might be appropriate at some times and inappropriate at others and so don’t think that a prima facie exclusion of anti-realism is warranted, so, yes, the “necessarily” is exactly what I disagree with.

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