Saturday, November 24, 2007

Is Science Based 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?


Khadimir said...

I have a few things to say on the "Is Science Based on Faith?" theme in contemporary discourse.

"Faith" is not belief--especially not "belief in the existence of something outside the universe." Faith is not even cognitive. Almost any science and faith journalism that I see renders faith in the most derogatory terms, which usually appear as such low possibilities in the protestantism of American culture. The atheistic "science-side" of the cultural debate (and it is a cultural debate for the most part) almost always gets its terms accepted--even by the "faithful."

Anonymous said...

"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."

Untrue. Science in fact proposed that much of the universe appears haphazardly juxtaposed. Heisenberg Principle anyone? And science proceeds not on the assumption that much of nature is ordered, it proceeds on observation that it is so. Experiments and results show that to be true. Well enough to bring you electricity, television, computers, to fly spacecraft beyond the solar system, to cure once believed incurable diseases and disorders, on and on.

What bothers me most about religionists, is that they 'project' their insecurity over lack of evidence onto science. Faith requires no evidence. That's the definition of faith-based. For if there were sufficient evidence, one wouldn't need faith. Just acceptance of fact.

Science is a method, not a way of thinking.

Anonymous said...

If it's true that the task of explaining itself is not the task of science, then it's true that science is self-justified. This implies that it must make assumptions (as your post seems to admit).

Let us distinguish, then, between "assumptions" and "faith." This leaves us with the conclusion that science's assumptions need not be "faith-based." So what are they based on?

Well, at the very least we can say the assumptions are beliefs. We can say further that the "beliefs" can be tested, but the very criteria by which the tests are measured are the things that are in question within science. So that leaves us with little by way of an epistemological foundation.

Evelyn Brister said...

In response to the anonymous comment just above, I'd like to hear more about what kind of foundations you think science needs. And what you think is throwing these foundations into question, since I have not heard that these criteria are in question.

I may be misreading Sharon Crasnow's post, but the picture that I get from her description of the logic of inquiry is that science is inductive.

Well, we philosophers like to emphasize that science is many things, and that its logic includes induction, deduction, and abduction. But when asked, in general, what justifies scientific theories, the short answer is: evidence and inductive reasoning.

I don't see that this is a liability, precisely because of the hefty weight of accumulated evidence. There are the necessary assumptions of rationality and consistency which Sharon mentions, and by making those assumptions (as well as some others), science has been successful in making predictions, giving explanations of phenomena, and providing the theory needed to make technologies.

Does this count as "faith"? If THIS counts as faith, then so does my assumption that the world will continue to exist tomorrow, an assumption I make in order to justify nearly all of my actions today (like preparing my courses, doing my grading, going grocery shopping, and writing a blog comment). But that kind of "faith" is certainly not the same thing as religious faith.

To conflate this sort of inductive assumption with religious faith is to trivialize that faith.

Ian said...

How do you know religious beliefs can't be tested? Because YOU don't know how to test them? We can test them by dying if nothing else. If the afterlife exists, you'll know. If you are sure God doesn't exist, kill yourself to prove it. I have heard of people who let themselves be injected with HIV to prove that it doesn't cause AIDS (Dr. Robert E. Willner, for one). Who here has the guts to put their non-beliefs on the line? One day you will find out. Meanwhile, Please explain the near-death experiences, esp people who were brain dead with no neural activity. Tell us why there is so much similarity between near-death experiences, seemingly independent of culture, beliefs, or knowledge. At the least it suggests there may be more to life than the body and brain, as most scientists say.