Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cosmic Crackpot

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.

Paul Davies, the director of a something called "Beyond" (a research center?!) at Arizona State University and author of Cosmic Jackpot has written a depressingly witless editorial contribution in this morning's New York Times.

One of the things that especially irks me about the article is that it makes takes a number of propositions that I believe should be fundamental to a modern scientific understanding--for instance, that there are assumptions behind science that need consideration and examination on occasion--and puts them to wholly illegitimate (I'd say villainous) purposes: to equate science and religion.

As I read over my last blog entry, which was rather intemperate, I hesitate before writing what I really want to write next . . .

There are at least two reasons why Davies ought to be horsewhipped. First, this sort of article gives the forces of unreason comfort they in no way deserve. Religion has a very fraught relationship with reality, and no believer should for a second forget that. I know people who believe and I even respect a fair number of believers. But what I cannot respect or even tolerate is the idea that revelation can trump science when we speak of material reality. While Davies would not himself go so far as to say this, the position he stakes out is effectively a means of intellectually legitimizing the very worst forms of know-nothingism and unreason.

Second, Davies argument makes it all thee more difficult to overcome the sort of naive empiricism and plain arrogance one so often sees on the scientific side of this dispute. But when the alternative to that arrogance seems to be Davies and his cohorts, who can blame scientists for becoming even more entrenched and unyielding?

Well, I can, for one. It is NOT as Davies and Lewis Wolpert might have it. Our choices are NOT an equation between science and all other faiths on the one hand and blinkered materialistic hubris on the other.

Davies makes crucial errors here: one is the easy conflation of order--which scientists do tend to seek--and meaning, which is not necessary to the endeavor. The fact that scientists presume there is an underlying order to discover behind physical phenomena is not an act of faith--it is simply a well-reinforced presumption. In the past when order and rules were sought, they were found. This presumption by no means rules out the possibility that there may be no ultimate order (so far as we can perceive) in the universe. And that order (or lack thereof) has little to do with the sort of meaning that religion traditionally provides for people.