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Taking Science on Faith

SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses.

The problem 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, that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin.

The very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. 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. Until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

Condensed from New York Times by PAUL DAVIES November 24, 2007

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24 Responses to Taking Science on Faith

  1. Ouch.

    I like Paul Davies. He’s the very definition of a maverick. Poor guy, he must get grief from every side.

  2. Very well put.
    I think our side should also start to reexamine the terms that are bandied about by the Darwinists. Such as ‘science’. I learned in elementary school that science is the “search for truth”. How quickly many “scientists” are so quick to dismiss research done in a careful, scientific manner. I encourage everyone to look at the dictionary’s definitions of science once more. (mine says: “having knowledge”) In many cases, the “knowledge” offered is merely a long series of hypothesis’, with no real observations to support them, since the time elements are in the millions of years.

    The next term is ‘theory’. The dictionary defines it as: ” the analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another”
    Scientific theory sets rules for how someone assembles the facts, with detailed observations of the claims made. No one on Earth has been around millions of years to observe any of the outlandish claims of Darwin.

  3. I contend that it is impossible to practice the “scientific method” scientifically. Collection of data, formulation of hypotheses, and emprical tests are always motivated by very unscientific things – typically a strong belief in something that has not yet been demonstrated and/or a strong desire to win approval or a prize. In other words, science runs on faith and emotion. Take away whatever ulterior motives the scientist has secreted into the lab, and he will simply stand there inert in his lab coat, unable to see, think, or act.

  4. I agree with Paul Davies’ critique of the multiverse: it doesn’t explain the laws of nature; instead, it merely pushes the problem up one level.

    That said, it does look as if there is some testable experimental evidence of other universes outside our own. A recent article in “New Scientist” magazine (24 November 2007) begins as follows:

    “In August, radio astronomers announced that they had found an enormous hole in the universe. Nearly a billion light years across, the void lies in the constellation Eridanus and has far fewer stars, gas and galaxies than usual. It is bigger than anyone imagined possible and is beyond the present understanding of cosmology. What could cause such a gaping hole? One team of physicists has a breathtaking explanation: ‘It is the unmistakable imprint of another universe beyond the edge of our own,’ says Laura Mersini-Houghton of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.” The full text of the article can be viewed at the blog site http://www.dohiyimir.org/2007/.....argum.html . (The owner of the blog is opposed to theological arguments based on the anthropic principle.)

    The article sounds intriguing, as it makes some very definite predictions that could be experimentally tested within the next year or so. Here’s my question. Suppose we do find these other universes, outside our own. Does that shatter our world-view? What do other readers think?

    My own opinion is that so long as the number of universes is finite, there isn’t too much to worry about. On the minus side, it would mean that probabilistic arguments for design would have to be jettisoned. Eugene Koonin would then have a valid proposal for the origin of life.

    On the plus side, the modal cosmological argument would survive unscathed. One could still argue that the multiverse, within which these other universes exist, would still be subject to laws of its own, which are contingent: we can always ask why they are the way they are. One could then invoke a free creative act by a necessary Being in order to explain these laws.

    Indeed, there might even be a good theological reason why God would create a finite multiverse: perhaps He generously wanted to help us perform computations that could not be performed using the computational resources of this universe. We may at some future stage need to perform some such computations, so that we can understand the cosmos better, or solve some otherwise intractable problem (long-term climate modelling, for instance). Some philosophers (e.g. David Deutsch) have argued that if we ever succeeded in building a quantum computer (which does more simultaneous calculations than there are particles in the Universe), it would require the existence of other universes in order to do its calculations.

    If, however, the number of universes outside our own were shown to be infinite, then I would be very worried. That would at least suggest (but not necessarily imply) that anything is possible, somewhere in the cosmos. However, a cosmos where literally anything and everything happens is not a cosmos in which free agents can be trusted to think and act rationally. The discovery of an infinite multiverse would therefore undermine the foundations of science.

  5. My poor Gerry, can I ask what this contention is based on? I look at the breathtaking work of David Baltimore, Sydney Brenner, and Bert Vogelstein to name just a couple and all I see in their work is a simple, beautiful, unending quest for knowledge.
    I know that this is only anecdotal, but when I stand in my lab coat and look around at the fellow scientists, students, and techs in my institute I see people who are generally interested in how things work and in helping people. Without doubt there are some who are in it for less than noble reasons – as there are in any profession. However, I cannot think of a single person whom I have ever worked with that would hold up a model they knew was false.

    I think the real question is how you, Gerry Rzeppa, feel you can claim with authority what the thoughts, hopes, ambitions of millions of people are whom you do not know and then dismiss them all with a wave of your hand, with the slight exception of those who favour your own thoughts. How about, instead of hiding here behind your computer you go out into the real world and talk to actual scientists, perhaps volunteer your time in a lab. But no, that may open your eyes to how things actually work and it may challenge some of your perceptions, force you to put the pet theories cooked up on this website to real tests. It is much safer and simpler to rage against a concocted notion of what is than to understand what is.

  6. Speaking of concocted notions

    Dr. Ioannidis on Bad Science
    Wall Street Journal
    SCIENCE JOURNAL
    By ROBERT LEE HOTZ
    September 14, 2007

    We all make mistakes and, if you believe medical scholar John Ioannidis, scientists make more than their fair share. By his calculations, most published research findings are wrong.

    Dr. Ioannidis is an epidemiologist who studies research methods at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece and Tufts University in Medford, Mass. In a series of influential analytical reports, he has documented how, in thousands of peer-reviewed research papers published every year, there may be so much less than meets the eye.

    These flawed findings, for the most part, stem not from fraud or formal misconduct, but from more mundane misbehavior: miscalculation, poor study design or self-serving data analysis. “There is an increasing concern that “in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims,” Dr. Ioannidis said. “A new claim about a research finding is “more likely to be false than true.”

    “The hotter the field of research the more likely its published findings should be viewed skeptically, he determined.”

    Take the discovery that the risk of disease may vary between men and women, depending on their genes. Studies have prominently reported such sex differences for hypertension, schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis, as well as lung cancer and heart attacks. In research published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Ioannidis and his colleagues analyzed 432 published research claims concerning gender and genes.

    Upon closer scrutiny, almost none of them held up. Only one was replicated.

    Statistically speaking, science suffers from an “excess of significance. Overeager researchers often tinker too much with the statistical variables of their analysis to coax any meaningful insight from their data sets.” “People are messing around with the data to find anything that seems significant, to show they have found something that is new and unusual,” Dr. Ioannidis said.

    In the U. S., research is a $55-billion-a-year enterprise that stakes its credibility on the reliability of evidence and the work of Dr. Ioannidis strikes a raw nerve. In fact, his 2005 essay “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” remains the most downloaded technical paper that the journal PLoS Medicine has ever published.

    “He has done systematic looks at the published literature and empirically shown us what we know deep inside our hearts,” said Muin Khoury, director of the National Office of Public Health Genomics at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We need to pay more attention to the replication of published scientific results.”

    Every new fact discovered through experiment represents a foothold in the unknown.

    In a wilderness of knowledge, it can be difficult to distinguish error from fraud, sloppiness from deception, “eagerness from greed or, increasingly, scientific conviction from partisan passion.” As scientific findings become fodder for political policy wars over matters from stem-cell research to global warming, even trivial errors and corrections can have larger consequences.

    Still, other researchers warn not to fear all mistakes. Error is as much a part of science as discovery. It is the inevitable byproduct of a search for truth that must proceed by trial and error. “Where you have new areas of knowledge developing, then the science is going to be disputed, subject to errors arising from inadequate data or the failure to recognize new matters,” said Yale University science historian Daniel Kevles. Conflicting data and differences of interpretation are common.

    To root out mistakes, scientists rely on each other to be vigilant. Even so, “findings too rarely are checked by others or independently replicated. Retractions, while more common, are still relatively infrequent. Findings that have been refuted can linger in the scientific literature for years to be cited unwittingly by other researchers, compounding the errors.”

    Stung by “frauds in physics, biology and medicine,” research journals recently adopted more stringent safeguards to protect at least against deliberate fabrication of data. “But it is hard to admit even honest error.” Last month, the Chinese government proposed a new law to allow its scientists to admit failures without penalty. Next week, the first world conference on research integrity convenes in Lisbon.

    Overall, technical reviewers are hard-pressed to detect every anomaly. On average, researchers submit about 12,000 papers annually just to the weekly peer-reviewed journal Science. Last year, four papers in Science were retracted. A dozen others were corrected.

    “No one actually knows how many incorrect research reports remain unchallenged.”

    Earlier this year, informatics expert Murat Cokol and his colleagues at Columbia University sorted through 9.4 million research papers at the U.S. National Library of Medicine published from 1950 through 2004 in 4,000 journals. By raw count, just 596 had been formally retracted, Dr. Cokol reported.

    “The correction isn’t the ultimate truth either,” Prof. Kevles said.

  7. My dear Leo,

    It appears you’ve misread me. I’m not denigrating scientists or their work. I’m simply saying that whenever humans do anything (including science) they are motivated by forces that can’t be quantified in the usual scientific ways using the usual scientific methods. You speak of “beautiful quests” and “hopes” and “ambitions” and I agree that these are indeed the driving forces behind scientific pursuits. But such things are hardly cold and impersonal; quests are based on faith that the desired goal is attainable; and hopes and ambitions – however noble they may be – are woven throughout with emotions.

    I stand by my original claim. The entire scientific enterprise is movitated, not by objective logic, but by decidedly subjective, personal, limbic, yes, “unscientific” (but very human) things.

  8. Here’s a (PDF) link to the paper by Dr. Ioannidis referred to in Post 6:

    Why Most Published Research Findings Are False

  9. Gerry

    It’s not news that the work of science can be affected by the “‘unscientific’ (but very human) things” that you cite. What’s news is how poorly scientists are doing nowadays at policing up the errors those factors introduce into their work.

    Being of the “follow the money” school, I’d say that $55 billion on the table represents a massive disincentive for career scientists to get their heads out of the clouds of the alleged “simple, beautiful, unending quest for knowledge” that they are on, and own up to their ever-more-egregious errors.

    It might even be worth researching the history of science to see if my particular hypothesis bears out: namely, that scientists do their best work when they’re poor, persecuted, barefoot and in the laboratory (as opposed to, say, testifying before Congress on behalf of the “scientific consensus” arrived at by the IPCC).

    Arf…

  10. Gerry,

    The motivations of your original claim:

    Typically a strong belief in something that has not yet been demonstrated and/or a strong desire to win approval or a prize.

    and your ideas that:

    Take away whatever ulterior motives the scientist has secreted into the lab and he will simply stand there inert in his lab coat, unable to see, think, or act.

    …(Scientific) quests are based on faith that the desired goal is attainable

    reveal your true feelings on the work of scientists. Though there may be a hoped for outcome (i.e. to discover the cause of X or the reason for Y) that acts as the motivation of the scientist, the act of science can, and does, proceed in thoroughly logical, cold, and impersonal manner. There is no reason to believe that the hoped for outcome is attainable, yet we won’t know until we try. That in no way shaped the nature of the research that get done (I say, at least in the majority of cases of which I am aware. Certainly there are cases of fraud, however, they are a tiny minority and will, one day, be found out). I am willing to believe that every scientist, great and small, has published something that was not 100% correct, possibly completely wrong. That doesn’t indicate malice, indeed, it shows that the process is working well, that there are checks and rechecks, that people are continually looking.

    Paul Davies says:

    All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way, that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin.
    That’s bogus. That just seems to be what we have discovered up until this point. That is where the facts have lead. If the facts, at any point in the future lead to a different conclusion, than so be it.

  11. leo,

    “That’s bogus. That just seems to be what we have discovered up until this point. That is where the facts have lead. If the facts, at any point in the future lead to a different conclusion, than so be it.”

    If nature or an aspect of nature is unintelligible or irrational, then science fails. The facts aren’t going to lead in that direction, because there will be no facts TO lead. The scientists can only assume they have done something wrong or are missing a piece of information, but there will be no evidence (other than failed hypotheses) that leads them to conclude nature cannot be understood. And therein lies part of the faith.

    As for the scientists and motivations argument, I agree that scientists are like any other human beings in many ways – yes, their motivations are complicated, and rarely pure. The upside is that the data and experiments don’t refer to motivations – they are what they are. The downside is that interpretations of data can suffer from a sweeping variety of pitfalls, especially when one starts philosophizing. (The OoL seems to be extraordinarily rare event? Well then, it just proves our existence is due to meaningless chance!)

  12. Leo,

    You’re misreading me again. I’m not talking about fraud and malice here. And I’m not talking about the differences between the materialist and the design camps – on the contrary, I’m talking about what they have in common. I’m saying that both Dembski and Dawkins (and the rest of us) are motivated by our beliefs, and if those beliefs are taken away, none of us would ever perform another experiment or write another book. Or post on a forum. We probably wouldn’t bother to get out of bed.

  13. Dear jstanley01,

    I agree that $55 billion can have a big influence on the search for truth – positive and negative. And I suspect that your hypothesis is correct – scientists (and everyone else) do indeed do their best work when they’re poor and persecuted. But I contend that the reason for this is that those who persevere in their work under adverse conditions are those who believe most strongly in what they are doing. This is further evidence that all human pursuits (including scientific ones) rest, at bottom, on acts of faith. See Hebrews 11:1.

  14. nullasalus,

    If nature or an aspect of nature is unintelligible or irrational, the only way we will be able to find this out is through the study of nature (science). The facts would lead in that direction. The facts may make an unintelligible, irrational story, but the facts would still exist. Therefore, science doesn’t fail, the failure would be not attempting in the first place. I don’t dispute that there may be things we won’t ever or can’t ever know, but we define these things by science.

    Gerry,

    Your initial contention:
    I contend that it is impossible to practice the “scientific method” scientifically
    I still believe is wrong. I don’t doubt the motivations of scientists are emotional is some respects (not all, but some), however, I don’t see that as having a necessary bearing on how the act of science is practiced.

  15. leo,

    “If nature or an aspect of nature is unintelligible or irrational, the only way we will be able to find this out is through the study of nature (science). The facts would lead in that direction. The facts may make an unintelligible, irrational story, but the facts would still exist.”

    You don’t understand what I’m saying . Data that is irrational and/or unintelligible is not data that proves what we are studying is irrational or unintelligible, as far as science is concerned. Try to imagine how that would look like in a journal. “We’ve discovered a natural process that exists. However, we can’t reproduce the data because said process is irrational. We can’t describe it because it’s unintelligible. But we’re certain it exists.”

    In a case like that, all science can do is plead ignorance – “Well, we’ve hit a wall here. Maybe we’ll be able to make sense of this in time. Or maybe not, but perhaps it can still be rational and intelligible to someone in principle.” In other words, if something is beyond science, the only option for scientists is to keep on trying anyway. There is no ‘prove the process is irrational and unintelligible’ option.

  16. Leo,

    Describe for me a typical “act” of science, in brief detail, and I’ll name some of the most likely unscientific underpinnings of that act, without which the act would not take place.

    This is a simple demonstration that is frequently accomplished by small children. A little guy asks a grown-up why he or she is doing something, and before he gets two or three “whys” deep in the matter, the fundamental (and always unscientific) motivation of the thing is revealed. Excepting, of course, the case where the boy is curtly dismissed with the admonition that “children should be seen and not heard.”

  17. Gerry,

    You misunderstand me. I have no doubt that the motivation for a scientist can be emotional (I may argue that is not necessarily unscientific, but that is for another time). However, what I am saying is the act of (for example) running a Western, counting GFP expressing HeLas, doing a ChIP… and the interpretation of the result from these need not depend on what your motivation is. Scientists can and should put their motivation to one side while the act of doing science is occurring. I know of a certain student who has a son with physical disability and who himself works on methods for treating this and other types of disability. I have no doubt of his motivation, he has told me himself. I also have no doubt that he would not let that motivation colour his results or influence his objectivity as to he research. The practice of science is not influenced by the motivation. His

    Collection of data, formulation of hypotheses, and emprical tests
    can and are done scientifically.

    nullasalus,

    you write:
    In a case like that, all science can do is plead ignorance – “Well, we’ve hit a wall here. Maybe we’ll be able to make sense of this in time. Or maybe not, but perhaps it can still be rational and intelligible to someone in principle.” In other words, if something is beyond science, the only option for scientists is to keep on trying anyway. There is no ‘prove the process is irrational and unintelligible’ option.

    I agree with this completely and apologize if I misunderstood your contention the first time.

  18. Leo,

    We’re getting closer to understanding each other, but I don’t think we’re there yet. You say of a particular student that “he would not let [his] motivation colour his results or influence his objectivity”. I’m arguing – one level up, as it were – that his motivation has colored his results (since they probably wouldn’t exist without that motivation) and that his motivation has influenced his objectivity (since he may be devoting his time to something more or less important than something else, due to that motivation).

    My point is that there is always one more “Why?” that can be asked, and that the answer to that last question will always be some kind of limbic, “unscientific”, personal preference or belief. That’s just how people are. All of us.

  19. Paul Davies:
    “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 equations of scientism, “science = knowledge” and “religion = faith” are disputable.

    Religion is based on the fact that the set of causes must have a highest (or first) cause. As such its truth has the same certainty of mathematics. As an analogy, from set theory, a set of included sets has always the largest set (the top one).

    Besides, modern science is a patchwork of many fields, some of which are not at all “reliable” (e.g. evolutionary psychology) and others are even dead wrong (e.g. biological evolutionism).

    However Paul Davies is free to try falsifying religion providing us with an example in which a lower thing causes a higher thing. If he succeeds I am ready to become in the same time an atheist, an evolutionist and a supporter of scientism.

  20. Ellazimm: “First cause arguments tend to get extended to infinity. What kind of “example in which a lower thing causes a higher thing” were you thinking of? Bertrand Russell tried to build all of mathematics starting with the null set.”

    And in fact God is exactly that Infinity!

    Mathematics cannot be entirely developed from any finite set of axioms (a fortiori cannot arise from the null set). This is exactly the meaning of the fundamental Gödel’s incompleteness theorem in metamathematics.

    I was thinking of no “example in which a lower thing causes a higher thing” for the simple fact that such example cannot exist. So the attempt of atheists and evolutionists (to invert causality) is a … “mission impossible”.

  21. Davies’ op-ed is s preemptive strike against ID. All discussion of the laws of nature must come from “within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency.”

    The concession that science is based on “faith” is a rhetorical tactic. He wants to sound friendly to people of faith, when in fact the purpose of the article is to draw a bright line between faith in reason and religious faith–as if these were dialectical opposites.

    This raises an interesting question. What if those natural laws do in fact have a supernatural origin? Would that make modern science with its insistence on purely natural causes irrational?

  22. Gerry
    I agree with you completely that all human pursuits (including scientific ones) rest, at bottom, on acts of faith.

    Sometimes for me, just getting up in the morning is and act of faith. ;)

    From my observation of the ID debate as a Christian believer, it’s the truth of Hebrews 11:3 that the materialists are always banging their heads against.

  23. jstanley01,

    Hebrews 11:3 – no doubt about it. And Psalm 100:3. Not to mention Hebrews 3:4. (I’m working with the King James here.) I always find it striking how a concise summary of any philosophical debate can be easily located in scripture. “There is no new thing under the sun.”

    Having observed for some time the fruitless back-and-forth in this debate, I’m persuaded the real issues are more spiritual than scientific. 1 Cor 2:14 is a good description of the problem, and 2 Timothy 2:23-26 explains how we should go about addressing the other side.

  24. Time for a retraction. After looking more closely at Paul Davies’ work, it is clear that he can indeed be called a “pantheist,” if the meaning of this word is stretched a bit to indicate a pantheist of an entirely new type, as seen in Einstein.

    Einstein found himself in a bit of a muddle. He was opposed to Christianity and attracted by the Darwinism of modern science, which removes Newton’s creator God from the equation of being. But he was not a materialist in spirit. He was in love with the feeling of exaltation he experienced when he thought he had glimpsed the mind of a transcendent intelligence through his thought-experiments. Thus he was essentially a religious man, and in fact ranked himself among the “religious geniuses” of all ages.

    Einstein wanted to be known as a scientist-philosopher. He was not merely trying to understand how things work; he also wanted to have a say on the all-important question of how to obtain happiness, which is the subject of philosophy, not science per se. But it is impossible to find happiness in the accidental universe of modern science, the purely material universe that deprives humans of any sense of purpose or hope, particularly of the joy of feeling oneself to be in close contact with transcendent forces.

    These pulling forces caused Einstein to try to fudge the issue. He wanted to slam the door on Christianity while simultaneously leaving it open for some sort of vague, undefined transcendent Intelligence presumed to be lurking behind the laws of nature—a concept of God not unlike Plato’s. This conception of God facilitates mysticism through the force of resistance found in intellect to the limitations of existent values: transcendent resonance is restored to the science philosopher as he pursues knowledge of nature through the esoteric theory of relativity.

    Let it be noted, however, that the path chosen by Einstein was explored long ago and found wanting. As soon as transcendent being is equated with intellect, one’s concepts of being become divided by the nature of intellect itself between pure intellect (“thought experiments”) and synthetic concepts of value. Einstein’s theory of relativity cannot be tested directly in the realm of practical physics because it is impossible to accelerate the observer to the speed of light.

    This weakness is also evident in Davies’ Goldilocks hypothesis, or the notion that the fine-tuning evident in the universe reflects the existence of multiple universes of which ours just happens to be an ideal one for life. This is a radical gesture that provides release from the mundane realm of experimentation by annihilating the significance of what we actually know or even can know.

    Davies coyly intimates that it is possible to obtain happiness through his theory; that the Goldilocks hypothesis has the power to put us in touch with forces that transcend our unhappy existence. In reality, however, the theory negates knowledge of transcendent being, since those other hypothetical universes cannot be known—since they provide a permanent force of resistance even to our capacity for knowledge.

    In the end, we find ourselves back at the beginning. All attempts to obtain knowledge of transcendent value through intellect are divided by the nature of intellect itself, between the love of transcendence seen in Plato, Descartes, Einstein and now Davies, which results in pure negation and the freedom to make God in our own image, and attempts to define transcendent value according to the goodness of that which already exists—the synthetic method seen in Aristotle, Aquinas, Newton and Kant, which leads to determinism and slavery to the limitations of those same values.

    Davies dances exquisitely on the God theme in order to appear to be all things to all men and claim the mantle of philosopher. But he is profoundly antagonistic to Christianity and revealed religion, and his hypothesis leads to subjective concepts of value by negating the seeming significance of values that already exist. The “mind of God” becomes virtually the same thing as Paul Davies’ own mind and what he thinks about value and being.

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