SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. 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.
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?
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.
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.
Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.
Although scientists have long had an inclination to shrug aside such questions concerning the source of the laws of physics, the mood has now shifted considerably. Part of the reason is the growing acceptance that the emergence of life in the universe, and hence the existence of observers like ourselves, depends rather sensitively on the form of the laws. If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.
A second reason that the laws of physics have now been brought within the scope of scientific inquiry is the realization that what we long regarded as absolute and universal laws might not be truly fundamental at all, but more like local bylaws. They could vary from place to place on a mega-cosmic scale. A God’s-eye view might reveal a vast patchwork quilt of universes, each with its own distinctive set of bylaws. In this “multiverse,” life will arise only in those patches with bio-friendly bylaws, so it is no surprise that we find ourselves in a Goldilocks universe — one that is just right for life. We have selected it by our very existence.
The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.
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.
This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.
And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.
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.
Paul Davies is the director of Beyond, a research center at
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re: an amateur astronomer responding to your new york times article
re: an amateur astronomer responding to your new york times article
Taking Science on Faith – a star is born…
as an amateur astronomer, I may not enjoy the powerful scientific intellect that you are renowned for. I'm not even a scientist, but I am an interested reader, and I take issue with your Op-Ed piece in the New York Times: Taking Science on Faith.
You begin by formulating an argument conveniently omitting any reference to quantum mechanics (science’s single most successful scientific theory). Why so?, because the very nature of quantum mechanics appears at direct odds with any “immutable laws” argument i.e. probabilistic as opposed to deterministic. In any case, where in the literature does it state that scientific laws are immutable? Find me a document that has prevented Paul Davies from improving upon or overturning any of
I think the use of such language here is highly questionable. Do you care to answer what NASA’s Gravity B Probe is doing in space if it is not testing Einstein’s “immutable laws”? Didn’t Einstein himself give the world a new way of thinking about space and time? Last time I checked, we still haven’t ‘abandoned’
You take the word ‘faith’ and apply it equally to both science and religion, disregarding the fact that science is based on observation and methodology, and the historical record is available for anyone to examine. Where is the faith you speak of in these records?
While I agree that in principle the laws of physics can be seen to be taken on ‘faith’, do you not lessen the impact of the argument by reducing the power of science as if faith in it were of somehow equal value, that faith in science’s laws itself merited the same intellectual discipline that theology deserves from faith in its origins.
This is very sweeping, safely typing away on your computer operating on the principles of quantum mechanics. Less than a thousand years ago, the world of mathematics was viewed as the work of the devil, faith then meant religious struggle, protestants strived to create ‘pure’ Christianity, and rebelled against the Catholic church with its papal doctrines. Men and women sought after god, one way or another. They believed. Oh yes, they also had the torturous (sic) inquisition… if you wish to hold up ‘faith’ in science’s laws to those of religion in both hands and pretend they are the same, that’s up to you. I personally give one a lot more intellectual weight than the other. I find it strange that this view is written in an Op-Ed article. Exactly who is this written for?
“Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity?”
While it may be without ‘reason’ to suggest that it is absurd is mystifying. What exactly is so absurd about the physical laws that are the key to understanding Doppler shift for instance? Are they any more absurd than the fundamental tools you would use to learn a new language? The motive for learning the language is ours, of course.
Interestingly, while I agree that both religion and science were indeed founded on faith, you discuss the hypothetical possibility that we might live in a “multiverse”. I’m curious as to why take the reader from immutable laws to hypothetical possibilities in an argument supposedly dealing with what’s wrong with science adopting the faith-based strategy?
“physical law is a theological one in the first place” sorry Mr. Davies, but if new physical processes are discovered, and if by some 'miraculous' means a new physical laws can be written when the Large Hadron Collider begins operating, I doubt very much that that those laws will be theological, even if the so-called God Particle (Higgs boson) is discovered.
“until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.” Why so? If we have arrived at a modern limit to our present understanding because of limits to available technology, I’d like to know what is so wrong. I think it wrong to write scientists off so incredibly early given the fact that we’ve only had pocket calculators available for some 30 years…
Faith. The crux of your argument. Take the story of Jesus, and the Star of Bethlehem. Told to us by the unknown author of the Gospel of Matthew. It recounts wise men coming from the east to
The problems then are overwhelming. The Gospel narratives of Jesus’ infancy contradict each other, no account of the star exists elsewhere, the tale was written a lifetime or more later by an apologist familiar with the miracle-birth stories at the time. As such, a believer can simply bury their heads in biblical sand and view the Star as a local miracle that the magi alone could see. A historian can only regard the tale as fictional or at least not investigable, and to astronomers – it is a star we’re talking about, astronomy is irrelevant. We are completely unable to match any such event with the records.
And THIS, Mr Davies, is what you are comparing science to? Keep this in mind as you enter the stores playing their endless (how many times must I hear this) christmas music from now on until after December 25th. Perhaps a different word might have triggered a less heated response.
Children (especially in the United States) are systematically taught (from a very early, impressionable age) that there is somehow a higher kind of knowledge which comes from faith, which comes from revelation, which comes from scripture, which comes from tradition, and that it is the equal if not the superior of knowledge that comes from real (scientific) evidence.
I was reminded of this at a thanksgiving dinner. As a newly-wed atheist, I sat there, listening to a mother prompt her child, among others: “is there anyone who wants to give thanks to god?” she asked at the dinner table. I resisted my deepest urge to respond with an arsenal of ‘reason’. After all, I was the odd one out; the new addition to the family. Sometimes diplomacy is the best policy if not the best intellectual device.