Sunday, November 25, 2007


The moment I see someone who has won the Templeton Prize say something about science and religion, I raise my eyebrows. I have never really understood the point of the prize which has been awarded for "progress in science and religion". One of my all time favourite scientists and authors, Freeman Dyson, has received it and to this day I don't know exactly why. Maybe it's because Dyson has spoken in conciliatory terms about science and religion, although he like others has in my mind not managed to give a clear reason why and how the two can be reconciled. Richard Dawkins has perhaps rightly criticised the prize as "a large sum of money given to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion" (The God Delusion)

Now physicist Paul Davies has written an inconsequential piece in the NYT. Davies is a physicist who has written some very good books on popular physics. Like Dyson he has received the Templeton, and so when I saw an article about "faith" in science by him, my "skeptic antenna" started beeping. It turns out my doubts were not unjustified.

Davies seems to be trotting out a common argument used by scientists who want to reconcile science and faith. Their argument is that at at its core, even science is based on faith. In this particular case, Davies talks about the constants of the universe and the laws of physics, and the fact that scientists assume that these laws and nature itself are ordered in a rational and intellegible way. Scientists assume that the universe ultimately behaves in a particular way, and this should be taken as an indication of faith. Moreover, there is no current explanation for why the laws of physics are the way they are, why say the speed of light is what it is. Since scientists don't have an explanation for these facts, they too accept these laws on the basis of faith, without any explanation. But Davies goes so far as to compare this "faith" with religious faith when he says
"Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence...In other words, the (scientific) laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus."
Well, what can I say but that Davies simply does not seem to understand the difference between degrees of faith, something that I have talked about before. First of all, in one way everything is based on faith. Every single thought that we come up with or infer is ultimately based on some assumption. Even a complete lack of faith signifies a kind of faith. So to say that ultimately everything is based on faith is a meaningless statement which says nothing useful. Secondly, the kind of "faith" that scientists put in the ultimate laws of the universe and the kind of faith that religious people demonstrate in say, believing the virgin birth cannot remotely be compared. In one case, scientists are believing in something based on the consistency with which it applies to testable explanations of the universe. They have good reason to believe the laws of physics because these laws have helped them to discover so many facets of reality. In the second case, what religious people are believing is complete nonsense conjured up by a human being that has absolutely no connection to reality.

What I find appalling is that Davies is enunciating a half-truth without elaborating the very real and significant differences between scientific "faith" and religious blind faith. In addition, he does not seem to realise that in the end, everything is based on faith if you choose to define it so, but that significantly does not make all kinds of "faith" equivalent. But I find his piece especially disconcerting because he is giving an invitation to religious people to open fire on science once again and seethe with indignation at how in their mind, when everybody is criticising their blind faith, even science is based on faith. Davies is doing a disservice to the scientific community and should have known better than to pen this piece of naivete. I am disappointed.

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