Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Faith 'n' Science

I've been so busy with papers and exams lately that I really haven't had time to scan the news, which means that I've fallen behind the crest of reactions to new articles and items in the media that cause a buzz amongst the blogosphere, like Paul Davies article Taking Science on Faith in the NYtimes, which brings up the argument that scientists have the same faithy relationship with science that theists have towards their theology.

In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

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 personally think that Davies is pretty wrong headed in thinking that scientists base their claims on faith, but maybe Davies has a much looser definition of faith than I do. My defintion of faith is most accurately and eloquently described by Bertrand Russel who defines it as such:

"Faith" - the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.

This is the very antithesis of science. The scientific claim or theory with the most cred on the scientific street (yes im trying to make scientists sound cooler) is the one which stands on the highest mountain of empirical data or evidence. What makes a claim or theory attractive in theology is usually directly correlated with the rewards it offers if embraced, or worse, the justification it provides if you want to target and torture a minority group (thou shalt not suffer a witch to live was at one point, the John 3:16 of today's world--popularly recited and referred to).

Anyways Edge posted several reactions criticizing Davies' thesis which are worth reading. Most of the responses seem to align with me any my definition of faith:

1. Contrary to Davies' assertion, science is not based on "faith" that physical laws will apply forever, or in different places in the Universe. This is an observation—an observation that has not been contradicted by any other data. Davies is completely off base when claiming that "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. " This is not a matter of faith. It's a matter of experience. In contrast, the tenets of religion are truly based on faith, since there is no empirical data to support them.

2. Davies claims that the "faith" of science is based on something outside the universe, like "an unexplained set of physical laws. " The lack of a current explanation for why the laws are as they are, however, does not make physics a faith. It only means that we don't have the answer. Indeed, Davies thinks we might be able to come up with an answer, one that does not involve supernatural intervention. So what, exactly, are scientists taking on faith here? What do we believe to be true without any evidence? I don't get it. -
Jerry Coyne

1 comment:

Tatarize said...

"but maybe Davies has a much looser definition of faith than I do."

Davies used the more typical definition just above that. But, yeah, he wants a really broad on here. He wants to use faith to mean religious faith when talking about religion and for faith to mean belief that things which have never happened will probably continue not happening. He's equivocating, and there's no point to even suppose that "maybe" he's doing anything.

Please Science, make the speed of light remain constant.

Thank you, and bless the gravitational constant of the universe.