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The point of science

To round off English week, I would like to comment on an article in The New York Times. It is written by Paul Davies, according to wikipedia a physicist specialising in quantum field theory, cosmology and astrobilology, whatever that is. He has also written a host of books with philosophically sounding titles like How to Build a Time Machine, Are We Alone? and The Accidental Universe. The point of the article seems to be that science, which is generally thought to be something different than religious belief because it is based on testable hypotheses, is actually just as based on faith. I unleash my fearsome blogger skills, and cut and paste, like I normally do:

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.

Indeed, this is what we expect, because order of a kind is what we have seen so far. Our expectations, however, are not science, and if the universe could be shown not to behave according to the laws of physics, we would certainly have to abandon our laws. It is reasonable and practical to belive that the universe will behave in a similar fashion tomorrow, as it did today, but this belief has nothing to do with science. Our laws are still testable, even if we expect them to hold in the future, and if they failed the test, we would have to find new ones.

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.


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.

In my opinion, this is manifestly bullshit. First of all, I would argue that the laws of physics are certainly not off limits. They are to be tested, and if they do not hold up, they must be replaced or revised. Also, in order to be a scientist, you do not need to hold any particular beliefs as to the origin of the laws of physics. It is sufficient that you know how to apply and test them. Perhaps some day physics will be able to explain why the universe is the way it is, but until then we simply say that we do not know. This has nothing to do with faith.

-Tor Nordam
Camilla likes this


Camilla,  25.11.07 22:40

I though the Flying Spaghetti Monster hypothesis had settled all this...

Are,  25.11.07 23:25

Good post. Your reasoning makes sense to me.

Matteus,  01.12.07 07:17

Interesting, you claim that simply admitting to not knowing removes the issue of faith altogether. I cut and paste from your own article.

"It is reasonable and practical to believe that the universe will behave in a similar fashion tomorrow, as it did today, but this belief has nothing to do with science."

A few centuries ago "everyone" knew that the world was flat. It behaved as though it was flat today, and people expected it to do the same tomorrow. That was the science of the day. Then it changed.

What you're really saying is that you have faith in the possibility that we'll be able to understand the universe completely at one point (I believe so as well, but I'm not sure), and that removes the essence of faith from science. Bit of a contradiction.

Kristian,  01.12.07 11:24

I think we will never, ever, understand the universe completely. Why? Well first, what is understanding, it has to defined. What physicist typically speak of when they mean understand everything is that we know the basic laws. This is a very flawed definition. We do not for example understand life and society, even though we know the basic laws governing life (schrödinger equation and elecromagnetism).

If we found the theory of everything and tried to falsify it (something we probably can not do properly), and found this theory to be the THEORY. We would have to have faith to believe that this is the only theory, because it will not explain everything.

It is a common misconception to believe that knowing the laws of physics is the same as understanding Nature. (although it increases your understanding).

I have faith in that every time we look thoroughly at some piece of Nature, under our measurable conditions, we would find that the individual constituents behaved according to the laws of physics. By experience I know that we have the ability to understand parts of some larger parts of Nature with use of the laws of physics.

By the way, do not misinterpret my lack of fanaticism. There are still only two sciences: Stamp collection and physics!

Tor,  01.12.07 15:49

For det første, det er ikke lenger Engelsk uke.
(Men for all del, skriv gjerne på engelsk likevel.)

For det andre, Matteus, du snakker bull.

Hva jeg personlig tror vitenskapen kan komme til å forklare i fremtiden, har ingen ting med vitenskap å gjøre. Og likeledes, at jeg gjetter på at fysikken kommer til å være den samme morgen har heller ingen ting med vitenskap å gjøre.

Det vitenskapen sier, er at vi har en haug med lover som later til å beskrive verden ganske greit på mange områder. Vi vet imidlertid at vi ikke sitter på den ultimate sannheten.

Jeg ser hverken tro eller selvmotsigelser i det jeg sier.

Matteus,  02.12.07 02:56

I'll keep going in English, 'cause a friend of mine was interested in this article.

Kristian: I like your point of view.

Tor: Are you talking about a pure science removed from the people using it? Although the laws of physics and their description of the universe may be objectively truth or fact, any scientist's encounter with these laws will ultimately be subjective, and have some element of faith.

I'm sure you remember a lecture in electromagnetism about the wave-particle nature of light, where it was likened to a fruit tasting like banana and orange, but in actuality being neither; the end claim being that light, although possessing the qualities of waves and particles, were neither. At this point there was a spontaneous eruption of applause. No element of faith in science? Perhaps, but there certainly is one in scientists.

How many scientists throughout history have not done their experiments for the glory of God, in some form or other? Agreed, this would not have affected the laws of nature, but it certainly affected science. Einxtein rejected the uncertainty in quantum mechanics because it offended his established view of the world. Does this have nothing to do with faith?

No offense Tor, but if you think your thoughts about what physics might explain in the future are completely removed from science, how will you discover something new? Several discoveries have come from some intuitive leap not simply based on testing and proving/disproving existing theories. That step sometimes comes later. This element of faith, which have made scientists pursue some notion that may appear to contradict common sense, is in my opinion essential to the advancement of science, not a hindrance to it. Remove the human element of faith (probably) won't affect the laws of nature in any way, but it will certainly affect science.

Now, on a completely different note, I've got a toga party to attend.