Scientific Faith?

Last November, The New York Times published a piece by Paul Davies in which he took on the attitude of superiority with which secular scientists (his model, apparently, was those like Richard Dawkins, whose recently published book advocating atheism was one of several that sparked a firestorm between believers and non-believers) treated matters of faith. Some of his criticism hit the mark but I thought he went over the top when he claimed that science, itself, is an edifice built on faith — a faith in the scientific method and a presupposition that there are, in fact, physical laws underlying and explaining the way things behave.

I wrote this to clarify that particular point. The Times — reasonably enough — chose to publish letters of response from working scientists with some eminence either in their accomplishments or their affiliations, so this was not published. But I liked my phrasing better than theirs….

24 November 2007

Paul Davies (“Taking Science on Faith”, 24 Nov 2007), in describing the roots of science as “faith”, gets his facts straight but misses their meaning entirely. Science does begin from an assumption that the universe is not random, that there are physical laws which govern the way things behave. And, yes, that assumption might be viewed, in some lights, as a postulate rather than as an established fact. But to characterize that assumption as a matter of “faith” is to confuse faith with experience.

Science begins with observation, and what observation has always revealed is patterns. The sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. The weather moves through seasons over the course of a year. Dropped things fall. Light reflects from polished surfaces in a certain way. Push on something and it pushes back. Further, if we carefully arrange to control the circumstances surrounding these observations, we see that the way in which these things happen is similarly controlled — that the patterns show not merely similarity but consistency, that the same cause dependably elicits the same effect.

It is true we cannot prove such patterns will always hold; and, therefore, assuming that they will hold is, to some extent, an extrapolation into the unknown. But assuming that things will continue to behave as they have always done — particularly after hundreds or thousands or millions of observations have failed to find an exception to that behavior — does not constitute or require a leap of faith. Faith is not belief despite the absence of proof but belief despite the absence of evidence.

Science presumes physical laws because consistent patterns of cause and effect imply consistent rules. As Mr. Davies himself noted, our most recent and most refined observations suggest that the consistency we have assumed may be either true only in the short-term or true only relatively locally — and science, rather than rejecting such possibilities out of hand, will attempt to accommodate those observations and that change in its paradigms if and when the observations are confirmed to be free of error. That willingness to accommodate new evidence is, at root, the very antithesis of faith.

(C) Copyright 2007, Augustus P. Lowell

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