Nov 282007
Initially, I didn’t want to make any comment on Paul Davies’ recent NYT column “Taking Science on Faith”. In fact, I didn’t even want to read it. News of its existence came to me through comments on scientific websites, and from these alone I knew that actually reading the damn thing would sadden and anger me. But, I was asked about it at work, and the internet clamor just kept rising, and I decided I might as well give it a read on the off chance that it would contain something interesting. This was a foolish gamble. Davies is a lesser man for having written such garbage, the New York Times is a lesser publication for having printed it, and I am less intelligent for having read it, because now that trash is in my brain. After the manner of Sherlock Holmes, I shall endeavor to forget it at once, but first I want to explain precisely why it is garbage so that you, at least, will have the benefit of the rebuttal.

In a strict sense, this is unnecessary: several blogs have already put up excellent posts knocking down Davies’ arguments. My own commentary is hardly fresh, then, but I don’t really write to impress the internet at large. All the same, there are a number of points that I feel haven’t been made, or haven’t been made clearly or forcefully enough. So I’ll try and handle those.

The foundation of Davies’ argument comes early on in the piece and, I’ll grant, does have a certain appeal. Davies writes “All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way.” This is almost true, and I think it bears some elaboration. It breaks down to three ideas, which I will take up out of order.

Idea 1: Nature is ordered.

More expansively, one could say that the universe is described by laws. This is an assumption of science, but it’s important to understand that this does not mean determinism is an assumption of science. The quantum universe is probabilistic, not absolute, and though this probabilism matters most on the microscale, events at that level can have profound effects at higher levels. The scientific acceptance of randomness matters later on.

Idea 2: The order of nature is intelligible.

This is also an assumption of science. Obviously, if there were no way to identify the order of nature then there would be no reason to perform experiments.

Idea 3: The order of nature is rational.

I saved this for last because it is where Davies fundamentally goes wrong. In the most limited sense, this may be accurate: scientists resist the idea that two contradictory laws are both true. But this does not seem to be what Davies means. In fact, he’s never very clear on what this means or why it’s important, but he does seem to feel that rationality is at odds with randomness. Yet, as I’ve already pointed out, science can be perfectly comfortable with randomness, even if Paul Davies can’t. He’s not exactly in bad company: Einstein famously felt a similar discomfort with the probabilistic descriptions emerging from quantum mechanics. But the personal predilections of particular researchers do not speak to the necessary assumptions for performing science. To assemble a scientific enterprise one needs not assume anything other than that there is something to learn (idea 1) and that there is a way to learn it (idea 2). Nothing about the nature of what is learned need be assumed. Thus, we can discard idea 3 as a necessary assumption. So that leaves us with with what I’ll call for convenience the ‘natural law assumption‘:

The universe can be described by natural laws, and there exists some method whereby those laws may be learned.

It’s important to remember that the natural laws here aren’t normative, as moral laws or political laws are. A natural law is a codification of empirical observation, not a prescription of outcome. Observation of a phenomenon that violates moral or political laws results in steps being taken to alter the phenomenon, while observation of a phenomenon that violates a natural law results in steps being taken to alter the law.

Davies goes on to say that making this assumption is an act of faith, which is at best misleading, and at worst outright dishonest. I can quite honestly say that I have faith in the natural law assumption, but what I mean by this is essentially the same thing I mean by saying I have faith that my car will start tomorrow, or that I have faith that the ‘pause’ button on my remote will cause the DVD to stop playing temporarily. This relates to a faith in something that is built on repeated success, not something that I preserve for its own sake. If my car fails to start tomorrow morning, I will not continue turning the key indefinitely, my faith in the inevitability of its starting intact. Rather, I will have it towed. Similarly for the remote. If natural laws failed to describe the universe, then I would give up on them, and why not? They’re not helping my goal, which is to understand the universe. In short, my “faith” in the natural law assumption is an empirical expectation that it will be fulfilled.

This attitude would be utterly alien to a believer in a religion. Indeed, almost every religion contains admonishments not to give up on belief in hard times. The power of Job and similar works derives from the strength of a person’s faith in the face of great troubles. The “Faith” of the religious is a metaphysical belief in the existence and intent of a supernatural entity.

Davies treats these meanings as equivalent, or at the very least expects his readers to conflate the two different meanings in this way. Yet Davies is clearly aware of the distinction, as the beginning of the column shows. If he has forgotten it by this point, then he is simply leading himself down the garden path with semantic sloppiness, and dragging us with him. If he remembers, then he’s being dishonest.

Davies then goes on to describe his dissatisfaction with the idea that natural laws arose randomly. I’ve already pointed out that this is a personal problem of his, not a problem generally for science. But Davies is insistent, and points out that we really should be concerned about this because it just so happens that the natural laws were perfectly tuned for life, and it seems unlikely that this would just happen by chance. This is amazing stupidity.

The natural laws of the universe are not tuned perfectly for life, and we should suspect this, if for no other reason, because there is so little life and so much universe that is utterly, relentlessly hostile to it. If some transcendental entity was sitting at the control panel at Creation, with a mission to create a universe in which life would have a really good chance of existing, then he certainly did a terrible job. Vast, cold voids of space, impossibly hot fusion engines, a universe permeated with gamma-ray bursts sufficiently strong to burn a planet’s atmosphere right off… these are not features hospitable to life. In fact, given the natural laws of our universe, life seems so cosmically unlikely that on that basis alone an entire cottage industry of science quacks makes a living arguing that life could only have arisen with the help of an omnipotent God.

“But but but,” Davies and his ilk will argue, “if you tweaked any of the constants just a tiny bit, then life couldn’t exist!” Such a statement is staggeringly unscientific—you couldn’t possibly have any direct evidence for it. I will grant that, as a thought experiment, one might effectively argue that lifeforms such as ourselves might not survive in a universe where the gravitational constant were a little higher, or the vacuum permittivity constant were lower. Yet, to conclude from this that life is impossible is just evidence that you ignored what I said above. The universe we have is incredibly inhospitable to life, and yet here we’ve got a whole damn planet covered in it. Life, even life of our kind, might make its way in even less hospitable environments. And even if it couldn’t, who knows what alternate kinds of life or intelligence might arise in vastly different universes? In such alternative existences, energy itself might be alive, and stars might recite poems to each other. We can say with confidence what existing structures of our universe would be abolished were a particular natural law to change, but how can we predict what new opportunities for life might emerge?

It’s no surprise that we would have a hard time were the physical constants and natural laws of the universe to change. It is, however, idiotic to conclude that this is because the universe was tuned for us. We were tuned for it, because it is within this universe that we came to exist.

Davies then concisely explains why the question of where natural laws come from is not a scientific question, without realizing it. Shoved in there with the multiverse mumbo-jumbo is a brief moment of clarity when he realizes that the problem is turtles all the way down. Any explanation of the origin of natural laws necessarily requires a description of the natural laws governing that origin. Which then necessitates a description of the origin of those natural laws, and the natural laws governing them, and so on and so forth through turtle after turtle until we realize there is no bottom, or we reach the layer of elephants.

Of course, this is not a necessary consequence of assuming the existence of natural laws. Rather, it is a consequence of assuming causality. But quantum mechanics appears to be quite at home with uncaused events, and there is no special reason to believe that natural laws must be caused. Davies seems to believe this, but at this point I hope you are at least a little skeptical of his judgment in the matter.

Davies then concludes that religion and science are both founded on faith. I’ve already pointed out that the truth of this statement relies on the conflation of two totally different meanings of ‘faith’. But even if Davies is correct, this is hardly a catastrophic failing. The world abounds in demonstrations that faith in a benevolent, all-powerful God is ill-placed—the faithful of all religions suffer death, disease, and horrible agony, even in their moments of worship. The wicked are everywhere rewarded, the virtuous everywhere trampled upon, and their prayers go unanswered. Oh sure, the jock on TV thanks God for the opportunity he was given, but what about those other 100 million kids who never made it to the NFL? Didn’t they pray, too? Did God love those boys less than he loved Pacman Jones, or did he just have nothing to do with it?

The natural law assumption, by contrast, has proved to be phenomenally successful. In fact, it may be the single most successful idea in the entire history of mankind. Virtually everything that surrounds you as you read this—the clothes you wear, the treated air you breathe, the chair you sit in, the materials in your building, the computer you are looking at—is the fruit of this amazing idea. Even if we are dealing with equivalent kinds of faith, then it certainly seems you have substantially more reason to place your faith in the existence of natural laws than in the existence of God.

Davies then goes on to make much of the fact that the concept of natural law emerged from the concept of a deity. While this is quite true, it doesn’t say anything essential about science. Science existed before the first codifications of “natural laws” and has advanced substantially since. The clockwork universe of the Enlightenment died with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and on the theological side, the watchmaker God has faded as well. So Davies is technically correct here, but he’s babbling on about irrelevancies.

Until, that is, he comes to the end of the paragraph and says:

physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

I certainly hope he does not believe what he is writing here. Natural laws cannot ‘inhabit’ any ‘realm’ because they do not exist. They are not things. The representations of natural laws exist, as patterns of ink on paper, patterns of electrons on magnetic media, patterns of neural connections in human brains. But there is no thing you can point to and say “That is a natural law” any more than there is a thing you can point to and say “That is a ‘That wall is brown'”. Natural laws as we discuss them are ideas without physical existence—they are nothing more than shared descriptions of observations. Natural laws as they appear in nature are just properties of the universe—they are not separate from the matter and energy we presume them to govern. John Wilkins has a really good explication of this reification fallacy.

Once you see the mistake that Davies is making, the next paragraph evaporates, leaving a faintly unpleasant smell. His analogy is not appropriate because whereas religion imparts reality to its God, science does no such thing for its laws. Certainly the laws have no reality apart from the universe (as God supposedly does), and to claim that there is something analogous between the theological relation of God to the universe and the scientific relation of natural laws to the universe is to either completely misunderstand what natural laws are, or to engage in a willful deception.

Davies’ closing to the article tumbles out of his assumptions, and follows them into the same black pit of shame. The whole article is an embarrassment—to Davies, to his “Beyond” institute, and to Arizona State University. What I find most infuriating about it is that I will now be forced to endure endless rehashes of this sloppy, misleading mess at the hands of creationists, flat-earthers, and alterna-quacks. “Science is faith!” they’ll cry, “A scientist said so!” and then I’ll have to remember the conflations and fallacies and patiently explain them, over and over again, until the day I die. So damn you, Paul Davies! Damn you to the abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships!

  One Response to “Damn you, Paul Davies!”

  1. Well, he has certainly proven himself worthy of the Templeton Prize. And then some…

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