zondag 2 december 2007

Paul Davies on science and faith

Physicist Paul Davies published an interesting piece in the NYT about science and faith (HT: Telic Thoughts). Paul Davies points out 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.

Claims like these have the tendency to have atheists reach for their guns, and this one does not disappoint in that regard. And they do have something of a point. Because the "faith" ascribed to scientists, or atheists in general, often comes down to believing in the existence of an external reality, the existence of other minds, etc. - both prerequisites for the scientific methods that cannot be proven within the domain of science itself. There's a host of subsidiary, tacit knowledge we rely on to make our way in the world but scarcely reflect on, and which would leave us lost for words when challenged to furnish them with rational argument.

However, this kind of "faith" is very different from faith in the religious sense, which deals not so much with tacit, operational knowledge or prerequisite philosophical claims but with trust and hope in an omnipresent, transcendent You. My faith in some kind of ultimate redemption and reconciliation with God is mainly a matter of precisely hope - nothing close to the operational, practical near-certainty with which I deal with the existence of an external world, other minds, etc.

This said, the difference alluded to above does, in fact, shatter the popular conception of faith as "belief without evidence" on a par with fairies at the bottom of the garden, teapots around Saturn, etc.

And Paul Davies' claim is also more subtle and more interesting than the strawman I fought above. I'm not a natural scientist, I'm easily intimidated by mathematical formula, and for some reason the parts in Roger Penrose's books about imaginary and complex numbers and their importance in quantum mechanics disturbed me deeply. But many other mathematicians and natural scientists than Paul Davies have commented on the strange understandability of the physical world, the effectiveness of mathematics in describing it, and the remarkable beauty of those formula. Paul Davies writes:

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?

The issue here is the distance between having "faith" in the rational intelligibility of the cosmos, and faith in the cosmos as the expression of rational intelligence, and whether the first might not easily cross over in the second and then result to something much more akin to faith in the religious sense. A question which arises here is then whether the relationship between the scientist and the natural world can become a relationship between an "I" and a "You" without the scientist realizing that herself.

Paul Davies sharpens the point by referring to the anthropic coincidences - the notion that if the fundamental constants of nature differed just slightly from their actual values, life would become impossible. Theistic answers to that conundrum - the "fine-tuning argument" has been often answered with various kinds of multiverse proposals. Perhaps the laws of physics are vastly different in unobservable regions of the universe - it is hardly an interesting coincidence that we happened to evolve in a region of space where the local laws of nature allowed for our evolution. According to Paul Davies, this answer leaves the existence of physical laws itself unexplained:

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.

However, immediately afterward, Paul Davies makes a fascinating move problematizing the notion of disembodied laws of nature in the first place:

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.

One way to think about such a possibility, I assume, it to think of physical laws as emergent regularities in the behaviour of singular events. There is something sympathetically Peircean or Whiteheadian about such a proposal, and it does vitiate the need for a "hard" Platonic view on mathematics and physical laws, together with a deistic or classical theistic view to which it would obviously point.

Indeed, theologically I would strongly prefer "emergentist" viewpoints. Because I believe the notion of God as the designer and fine-tuner of transcendent physical laws is often accompanied by possibly misleading metaphors: God as the Divine watchmaker. Which may lead one often to some kind of Deism: God as wholly transcendent with regards to the universe, but not in any way immanent in the universe (I don't even want to start on how a view on God-as-divine-lawmaker can be reconciled with belief in at least that one infinitely important miraculous event).

Compare this with St. Paul's vision of the Son as transcendent and immanent in creation at the same time:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, in that in all things he himself might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross (through him), whether those on earth or those in heaven.
(Coloss. 1:15-20).

Here we have a notion of the Son as the agent in the creation, sustainment and redemption of the world. A watch, once assembled, will exist without the continuous presence of its specific assembler - but the world cannot continue to exist without the immanent presence of God. An alternative analogy to God and creation might be one between a poet and a poem (of course, the poem may be written down - but this is not when it is created. It is wholly created in the consciousness of the poet). Of course, there may be many flaws with this particular analogy as well, but as an alternative to mechanistic designer analogies, it may be nevertheless useful to ponder.

To a process philosopher like Peirce, laws of nature were regularities emerging from the behaviour of singular events (which did not necessarily obey these regularities in a precise and automatic matter). The laws of nature are habits. I think the same kind of notion could be applied to Whitehead's philosophy of process as well (in his notion of "societies" of events, those that exhibit regularities in the actualization of the same "eternal objects" or Platonic forms - and thus exhibit a certain continuity of existence not ascribable to atomic events themselves). And a similar notion on physical laws has been recently proposed by Sheldrake - which is why I don't believe Sheldrake is the crackpot he is made out to be. He stands in a very venerable and respectable philosophical tradition.

The infallibilist naturally thinks that everything always was substantially as it is now. Laws at any rate being absolute could not grow. They either always were, or they sprang instantaneously into being by a sudden fiat like the drill of a company of soldiers. This makes the laws of nature absolutely blind and inexplicable. Their why and wherefore can't be asked. This absolutely blocks the road of inquiry. The fallibilist won't do this. He asks may these forces of nature not be somehow amenable to reason? May they not have naturally grown up? After all, there is no reason to think they are absolute. If all things are continuous, the universe must be undergoing a continuous growth from non-existence to existence. There is no difficulty in conceiving existence as a matter of degree. The reality of things consists in their persistent forcing themselves upon our recognition. If a thing has no such persistence, it is a mere dream. Reality, then, is persistence, is regularity. In the original chaos, where there was no regularity, there was no existence. It was all a confused dream. This we may suppose was in the infinitely distant past. But as things are getting more regular, more persistent, they are getting less dreamy and more real.
Peirce, CP 1:175

Now, importantly, Peirce and Whitehead were both idealists and theists (as is, for that matter, Sheldrake). The ultimate stuff of the universe is in itself mental, experiential, and amenable to final causes, and their exhibitions of regularities perhaps comparable to the way that human beings obey or disobey the norms of language so that language as a normative, regular system emerges from the communicative behaviour of individual speakers.

Paul Davies' notion of physical laws in similar fashion draws the question away from the origin of Platonic, disembodied physical laws to the nature of events themselves. If we do not suppose that the concrete, the actual can be exhaustively described by quantitative and relational physical laws and mathematics, but that these rather may rest in some fashion upon regularities in the behaviour of the concrete and the actual, then the question is about the nature of the concrete and the actual.

And the basic question about the rational intelligibility of the universe remains. Where reformulating the question does indeed provide a possible answer to the fine-tuning argument, it may end up scaring away the Deist cat with the Panentheist dog.

EDIT: I just leafed through the responses to Paul Davies' post at edge.org. Most of them leap like terriers on the comparison Davies makes between scientific and religious faith without really getting his point about the status of scientific laws. Exceptions are responses by Scott Atran and especially Lee Smolin, who I'm glad to see quotes Peirce.

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