Nov 26 2007

Science and Faith

Paul Davies, a physicist and writer in the fields of cosmology, quantum field theory, and astrobiology, wrote an editorial in this Saturday’s New York Times (may require login) titled: Taking Science on Faith. In he writes:

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 disagree with Davies’s formulation of this issue. He is saying that scientists must have faith in an ordered universe, but this is not true. Science does not make any claims about, nor is it premised on, any particular ultimate nature of reality. Science depends only upon methodological naturalism. That means that science proceeds as if the universe operates in an orderly way, because it has no choice. That is the nature of scientific methodology. It does not require that the universe actually is naturalistic.

Further, Davies is assuming that science has faith in its own assumptions. Rather, science is agnostic toward anything that it cannot test empirically, including its own assumptions. This may seem paradoxical, but it isn’t once you understand that science is only about method, not truth.

In essence, the philosophical basis of science is the notion that the only way humans can accumulate reliable knowledge about the universe is to formulate testable models of how the universe works and then test those models against reality. So science proceeds by those methods that are the only only ones that work, even in theory. Science does not have to have faith that these methods actually do work, it just acknowledges that they are all we have.

However, as Davies acknowledges, historically, acting as if we can understand the world through science has worked out very well. This does not prove that the world is naturalistic, just as you cannot prove anything in science, but it is an empirical meta-experiment of its own, and so far the evidence is strongly in favor of the hypothesis that the world is knowable.

Let us conduct a thought experiment. If we do live in a naturalistic world that predictably follows its own laws, then empirical hypothesis testing should be able to, over time, work out those laws and how the universe works. There would be no theoretical reason why science could not eventually understand any natural process. So far all the evidence seems to be pointing to the conclusion that we live in this type of universe.

What if, however, we lived in a “paranormal” universe – meaning that there were phenomena that did not follow naturalistic laws. Or perhaps our universe is somehow embedded in a grander universe that lies outside out ability to examine scientifically, but can occasionally intrude into our world. In other words, perhaps our reality, the reality to which we have access, is only a tiny slice of ultimate reality. Therefore, while we can only examine the tiny slice in which we live, it is subject to phenomena outside of that slice but part of the grander reality.

In such a paranormal universe, we would still only have science as a way to examine the world. Science could still mostly work. However, we would encounter phenomena that would not yield to scientific examination – that could not be explained or understood no matter how hard we tried. Centuries, even millennia, of examination would not penetrate these mysteries. They would forever lie outside the methodology of science as enduring anomalies.

We may, in fact, live in such a world. Science can only be agnostic toward any such untestable notions. Science does not require faith that we do not live in such a world. Either way, the methods of science are still valid and are still the only methods that produce a system of knowledge about how nature works. We can say, however, that the meta-experiment of science is working well, and so far we are not accumulating enduring anomalies.

Davies also addresses the question of why the laws of the universe are what they are, noting, as others have, that the laws of this universe appear to be fine-tuned for life (the so-called anthropic principle). He writes:

Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.

He advocates that we do not appeal to anything outside the universe as a way to explain the laws of physics but rather examine the question from within the laws of the universe. He concludes:

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.
In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

I agree with Davies that we should approach the question of the “metalaws” of physics – or the laws that govern what the laws of the universe are, as just another scientific question – meaning that we need to devise testable hypotheses. However, I strongly disagree with his conclusion that until we do science cannot free itself from faith. As I stated above, science cannot, and certainly does not have to, adhere to any belief or faith about the unanswered or unanswerable questions of ultimate reality. Science will remain agnostic toward any questions it cannot test or about which it cannot formulate a testable hypothesis.

Further, if it turns out that we cannot figure out a way to scientifically examine the question of why the laws of the universe are what they are, that does not mean that the laws are “reasonless.” There is nothing in the methodological naturalism that underlies science that says that we should be able to answer all questions. Some questions about reality, even in a purely naturalistic universe, may simply be beyond our reach. To be clear, Davies is not saying that the laws are without reason. He is, rather, criticizing this position, but he is saying that until we can formulate a testable hypothesis than we must either conclude that they are without reason or have faith that there is a reason. This is a false dichotomy – the real choice is that we can simply remain agnostic toward the question. And this agnosticism toward anything that cannot be tested is consistent with the methodological naturalism upon which science is based.


Other blog responses to this editorial:

Evolving Thoughts: Physicists on Science

12 responses so far

12 thoughts on “Science and Faith”

  1. ellazimm says:

    I agree, I think that sustained agnosticism is a difficult position to hold and for some to live with. We all want to know how and why, that’s part of what drives scientists in the first place, and while we do speculate on the reasons we cannot accept unverified answers or no answers and expect to progress. We don’t have to have to whole picture to continue to inch along as best we can observing and thinking. We probably don’t even know the right questions yet in some realms. If there is a wall then you don’t have to know who built it or what it “means” to examine and record it and see if you can push it over.

    Perhaps it will happen that we will propose some property of matter the truth of which will be impossible to determine; kind of like Zorn’s lemma in mathematics. But mathematicians haven’t quite given up on Zorn’s lemma yet and when the physicists noticed that sometimes light behaved like a particle and sometimes it behaved like a wave they worked the problem until they came up with a model that explained those perceptions. I’d also like to remind those who are willing to give up and ascribe paranormal answers to current mysteries that we’ve only been doing this properly for a brief period of time. Who can not look back over the last 200 years and not be excited about what will be discovered in their lifetime.

  2. Nevar says:

    Hi Steven,

    This is really great. Just recently a friend and I were discussing this very issue. He stated that fundamentally science assumes things about reality and its nature and is therefore just as flawed as any other hypothesis that makes such assumptions (and/or that those hypotheses are equally valid alternatives). I almost dealt with it as well as you did here, but you have done so far more elegantly, so I will be pointing him to this blog entry.

    Thx 🙂

  3. DLC says:

    I have to have faith that the laws of physics will not change from one day to the next ? How utterly absurd. Have the laws of physics ever not been what they are ? I can not recall any such occurrence.
    If such a thing were to happen it would constitute a complete breakdown of physical laws. As such has not happened, I can safely assume — draw the logical conclusion — that the laws of physics will continue to operate in the future for as far ahead as I can project. This is no “act of faith” it is simply a logical conclusion drawn from known facts.

  4. Steve Page says:

    I hate to be a picky Pete, but it’s Davies, not Davis. That aside, it was a great post, Dr. N. I’m finding the urge by some within the scientific community to placate those with faith a little disconcerting; adopting a “Hey, can’t we all just get along?” attitude would be fine if the religious viewpoint did not fly in the face of the evidence.

  5. Bad says:

    I wrote my own long Davies debunking that I’m pretty proud of, and that I’m happy to find turned out to be in pretty solid agreement with a whole host of other people much more qualified and smarter than myself. 🙂

    As I wrote, Davies bizarre understanding of what science is and what it does makes me worry that many physicists are totally getting out of hand: all this plumbing the ultimate mathematical perfection of the cosmos stuff is getting a little too close to Timecube territory. Seriously guys, calm down a bit, cool off of the high-falutin’ poetic rhetoric, and get back to the lab. You ain’t plumbing ultimate reality (what does that even mean?)

  6. A somewhat tangential comment, re: “Some questions about reality, even in a purely naturalistic universe, may simply be beyond our reach.” Philosopher Colin McGinn defends a view he awkwardly calls “transcendental naturalism” in which he argues, persuasively in my view, that what Dr. N writes is true, that it is very unlikely there aren’t problems beyond our ken. That is, given that we have a certain cognitive architecture that has finite computational / reasoning abilities, it’s possible (and perhaps likely) that there are problems that are simply too difficult for us to solve.

    Although I disagree with some of McGinn’s specific examples (he thinks consciousness is an unsolvable problem – I’m not so sure) I think the main trust of his argument is correct. Dogs will never understand calculus, crows don’t get macroeconomics – and there is little reason to think there aren’t concepts higher up in this chain that is beyond OUR cognitive capacities.

    McGinn’s book on this thesis is called “The Problems of Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry” (book review from JSTOR here: There’s also a Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind entry on transcendental naturalism: Oh, and Steven Pinker discusses (and agrees with) McGinn’s view in the end of “How the Mind Works” (1997).

  7. gaz says:

    Anyone who claims science is based on faith is simply making a public declaration that they don’t understand enough about the scientific method to have a worthwhile opinion on it. I don’t know what Davies’ views on God and religion are, but I do find it amusing when religious types try to belittle science by claiming that it is undermined by the very thing that’s supposed to make their belief system so great in the first place.

  8. Ulpian says:

    I think it depends on your notion of what ‘faith’ is. I would interpret Davies’ use of the word in a religious sense: A belief in a supernatural power that is not supported by evidence. It is just an assumption you make about the world to deduce all the other religious ideas. So to say that we take on the belief that there is an orderly universe as a matter of faith is to posit a supernatural power that created this order. I agree with Dr. Novella that science does not make any such claim and it is instead agnostic about it. I wonder if Davies chooses this word deliberately in a way to appease the religious audience and comfort them with the findings of science. This I think is very dangerous, because it is an implicit endorsement of believing in the supernatural and a complete misrepresentation of science. However, if you take the word ‘faith’ and interpret it as an assumption that science must make in order to proceed, then he is correct. Science does need to make assumptions. I know that in physics one assumption is that the laws of physics hold for all the universe. We really cannot proceed in science without making this assumption, and all current evidence seems to support it. Faith has nothing to do with it.

  9. stats says:

    Davies was on Science Friday last week (a replay) talking about
    his book… “Cosmic Jackpot”. Did anyone hear it? He doesn’t
    do a good job explaining his position. Sounds like an IDiot
    when a caller starts questioning him.


  10. Ulpian says:

    I want to ammend my comment. I said that when you interpret ‘faith’ in the order of the natural world as to mean an assumption that science has to make in order to proceed, then Davies’ characterisation of science is correct. I have now realised that I have totally missed Dr. Novella’s point. Science does even make that claim. I had to think about a little because I was stuck with the concept that physics makes the assumption that all laws of physics are the same throughout the universe. The point is that when we say ‘science’ we mean a ‘scientific method’. It does not encapsulate any claim about whether the universe is ordered or not. However it is a reliable method in order to understand what is orderered in the universe. The fact that science has been so successful is because it seems that the universe is indeed ordered. But we don’t know that. If the universe is paranormal, supernatural, etc, the method of science would still work…just not very well. The method of science does not need to make the assumption of an ordered universe to be used. This is such an important point, I am so surprised that it has never been made explicit in school and even at undergraduate level. I thank Dr. Novella for teaching me something. Maybe I should be a student at Yale!

Leave a Reply