Monday, November 26, 2007

Paul Davies does not know what science is

Paul Davies, best known for exploiting anthropic arguments in the service of religious apologetica and presenting the results to the unsuspecting public as popular "science" books, is at it again: a November 24th Op-Ed piece in the NYT that trots out the old canard that science is based on faith in the same way religion is.

When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance. The laws were treated as “given” — imprinted on the universe like a maker’s mark at the moment of cosmic birth — and fixed forevermore. Therefore, 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.
Of course, almost none of this is true, as almost any scientist at any type will quickly tell you.

First of all, the "laws of science" are observed regularities of the way the Universe works, convenient descriptions for human consumption. Indeed, if there were no such regularities then everything we know, including life, could not exist. But that does not mean that a Universe that works differently could not exist.

That nature is ordered such that laws can be ascertained is not an untested assumption (or "faith" as Davies misleadingly but deliberately words it), but a hypothesis that is effectively tested. Even quantum mechanics, with predictions and behaviour that are extremely unusual by everyday standards, is rational and intelligible. Davies statement that "you have to believe that those laws won't fail" is an extremely unusual thing to say - physicists I known don't go around reciting "f=ma" for fear that Newton's Laws will stop working. Imagine if physics on the scale of everyday objects (houses, planets, etc) were not ordered and the so-called laws did fail - you'd work out that was happening pretty quickly.

Why would Davies even make such poorly reasoned claims, why use the word faith for something that is nothing like religious faith (belief without evidence)? Nor is this the only attempt to tie science to religion, specifically Christianity, in the article. The wikipedia article on Paul Davies (as seen at the time of writing on Nov 26th 2007 at 5:30pm EST) is blunt in one (quite probable) interpretation:

Davies recently made his commitment to deism clear in his New York Times Op-Ed, Science on Faith, 24 November, 2007 going so far as to write:

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, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

While coyly refusing to name or identify a particular candidate monotheistic religion, equating faith in the supernatural with a faith that the universe is itself real, testable and knowable is essentially a reductio ad absurdum where science can be faulted for not knowing anything if it can't explain absolutely everything. The only motive for making such an absurd argument is to open a crack where the wedge of deism can be inserted into scientific reason, to divide and dominate it. It is essentially a political, not scientific argument, one that advocates deism in exactly the same way as the "intelligent design" religious movement.

Sadly it is unlikely that the hordes of NYT readers who made this article one of the top emailed articles in the last 48 hours will learn just how wrong Davies is.

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