Sunday, November 25, 2007

Taking Science on Faith

Paul Davies is a Professor of Physics at Arizona State University. In 1995 he received the Templeton Prize, which is awarded "for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities." As you might have guessed, this prize goes to people who make up stories about the compatibility of science and religion.

Davies has written a number of books about science and religion, including Cosmic Jackpot.

His latest foray into the world of Christian apologetics is an op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times [Taking Science on Faith]. Quite a few bloggers have pointed out the major (and I do mean major) logical flaws in this piece. Here's PZ Myers' take on it [Faith is not a prerequisite for science]. PZ has links to the other sites.

Paul Davies is a scientist. I don't understand where he gets such stupid ideas about science. Maybe it's in church.


  1. Paul Davies submits to us, "Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life."

    He has a point. Similarly, I am perpetually amazed that, when I examine my legs, they are exactly the right length to reach from my hips to the ground, not an inch too short or an inch too long. And not just for me but, amazingly, for every single human being that has ever lived.

    That cannot possibly be an accident.

  2. Paul Davies' silly mustache reminds me of Francis Collins.

  3. Paul Davies: "...both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence."

    Monotheistic religion doesprovides a complete account of physical existence.

    Science, for the most part, is trying to figure it out and has never claimed to provide a complete account of physical existence.

  4. Are you being serious Larry? I wasn’t aware that Davies was a Christian apologist. Is there any textual support for this?

    Davies’ point is mathematical: if we endeavor to mentally jump ahead and attempt extrapolate the project of physics to its hoped for conclusion, then it looks as though ultimately it can only deliver a set of contingent equations (likely to be in the form of weightings on probabilities and perhaps non-linear). Even if we assume that it finally gives us equations that succeed in covering all that we can ever hope to perceive or dream to exist in the universe (or multiverse) then we would have reached a logical impasse as further laws intended to ‘explain’ these equations will simply lead to a succession of contingent meta-laws and thus a regress. My interpretation of Davies is that he is using terms like ‘faith’ and ‘God’ as a metaphor for the ontological hiatus presented by this seeming prospect.

    Davies is troubled (and so am I) by the apparent dead end that seems to be looming on the mathematical horizon of physics. If you read his last two paragraphs and try not be ‘red ragged’ by his references to ‘faith’ & ‘God’ my understanding is that Davies is looking to get round this mathematical boundary by seeking logical self sufficiency (by whatever subtle logical convolutions remains to be seen) WITHIN the universe; that is WITHOUT appeal to what he calls ‘external agency’ - that looks like a reference to God to me. He goes onto suggest that a unitary system repeat, a unitary system (that is, NOT a DUALISTIC natural/supernatural system) of explanation is matter for future research.

    So, Larry, although poor Professor Davies may well fail your university exit exam, I am not sure that either you or PZ have fully grasped what Davies is getting at as he does his best to explain ‘edge of thought’ notions to the lay readership of the NY Times. If we start making noises about censoring articles from intelligent and fair-minded like Davies then we are surely on the road to fascism.

  5. Ok Larry, to be fair to you, you are only claiming that Davies is merely engaged in a foray into Christian apologetics and that he is not a Christian apologist as such. I was of the opinion that he swings toward an atheist position, although he is certainly not what I would call a ‘bigoted’ atheist.

    I personally find it less useful to divide the world into theists and atheists than it is to separate out bigoted people from those who are reasonable, and even then there is spectrum of temperaments. Bigotry is the real problem, not atheism or theism per se.

    However, my opinion of Davies is that he ‘errs’ on the side of being very reasonable. I don’t think he is the sort who would disqualify YECs from receiving a degree on the basis of their private beliefs alone, even though course work was completed to a satisfactory standard.

    Would you like me to e-mail Davies and attempt to find out if he is happy with linking his name to ‘Christian apologetics’?

  6. Davies’ point is mathematical: if we endeavor to mentally jump ahead and attempt extrapolate the project of physics to its hoped for conclusion...

    That seems to be the problem, Davies has a "hoped for conclusion" while other scientists are happy to reserve judgment about where "science"(=physics) will ultimately lead us, and Davies then lectures other scientists about their unfounded faith in something! Pot, kettle, black.

  7. Perhaps it was wrong of me, Windy, to link Davies name to the search for some final theory involving ‘killer equations’ but I have to say that my reading of the hope of physicists, especially the profusely sweating string theorists, is that some comprehensive theory (if such is possible) is being sought for in hope. In any case what’s wrong with traveling in hope? What is there to motivate a scientist (apart from his pay slip, if he professional) if he doesn’t have at least some vague hope that he will eventually make some ‘sense’ of what he studies? And what does ‘sense’ mean here? Doesn’t that mean more than a simple descriptive account but rather a ‘theory’ unifying our perceptions? And for a physicist this ‘sense’ usually means equations.

    I don’t want to put words in Davies mouth, but like myself I think he is interested in the ultimate ontological foundations of our universe. But extrapolating from our current physical mind set, the search for these foundations looks as though it will hit a logical dead end of the type I have referred to above. What that means is that whatever final theory we arrive at it will have the character of being a ‘brute given’, that is, it will not be finally logically self sufficient. This is where Davies comes in: if I read him right he is trying to think round this apparent logical dead end and make a reach for ‘Aseity’. See his excellent book ‘The Goldilocks Enigma’, which I thoroughly recommend (hope that isn’t a kiss of death Paul!)

    ‘Unfounded faith’? Perhaps - after all, theories have to be tested against our perceptions and perceptions are no final authority. If we succeed in formulating a theory of our perceptions that tells us they are reliable, we then have to use our perceptions to check this theory of perception. Ultimately we have to just have to assume this self-referencing circularity is self-affirming and that the cosmos is science friendly. I believe it is – that’s my hope. As Hume showed, the problem of induction/confirmation is not solved logically – for good or bad the motivating features of our given mental tool kit does that.

  8. Davies is not a christian apologist.

    This is just an ignorant ad hominem strawman.

    Davies is a rationalist. Davies view is clearly an agnostic one, and he seems to lean towards form of minimalistic deism of a pandeistic nature. Yet his writings and the theories he proposes are more agnostic in nature than anything.

    You clearly are just another STRONG Atheist looking to demonize, marginalize, and discredit anyhting or anyone not of your certainist and absolutist view.
    Or perhaps I'm making the same mistake in my assesment of you as you did of Davies. But I figured you needed a taste of your own medicine.

    In Reason:
    Bill Baker