Science = Faith????

I woke up yesterday, made myself a cup of coffee and sat down with the New York Times, and a left over piece of corn bread from Thanksgiving.

It was a beautiful morning and I was at peace.

Then I read this (I will try to be polite) by Paul Davies.

Apparently scientists operate on faith. Faith that the world is rational and non-changing. Apparently scientists are no different than theists. Apparently science is distributed as theistic dogmas which are never to be questioned.

My morning went from a 10 to a 2. I've been grumbling for 2 days now. But I need to get this off my chest. And so ... I'm going to analyze this thing paragraph by paragraph for therapeutic reasons.

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.

What? Does this guy know the meaning of the word "faith" as it is commonly used in the English language? As the QP states in his post,

... I find rather unconvincing, and in portions downright deceitful in its use of the vagaries of language: certainly his use of the word "faith" differs markedly from my evangelical friends use of the word as does his use of the word "science" from that used by my scientific friends.

Faith is belief without proof. Scientists have oodles of proof that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. Take the last 500 years of experimentation! We can see that reductionism has done an amazing job of explaining how things work. With our current hypotheses and models, we can predict most physical phenomena (and we are working hard on the itty bit that we can't). Isn't that evidence? Sure it is not 100% full-proof, but as every scientist will tell you, it is possible that our current models will be supplanted by better models, but the ones we have are quite accurate. And this is similar to theistic faith??

Interestingly, Davies REFUTES his own point in the next few lines.

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 then he ends this paragraph with,

And so far this faith has been justified.

What? Faith = no proof. Davies makes it sound like one day we woke up and decided that the world was rational (because of our faith in God?), and then we happened to look at the world and incredibly it could be explained rationally! Here's something closer to the truth: Over many years, many people put forth theories on how the world operates. The most predictive theories won out. In other words, scientists made observations, came up with theories & hypotheses, tested these theories and after a few thousand iterations, came up with models that can predict the way the universe works. From all this work it would seems like we can use reductionism and rationalism to come up with pretty good models. But no, apparently all we have done is justified our faith?? So apparently we are still working with "faith", on equal par with religious dogma. Despite all that evidence, that's all Davies is going to give to scientists?

OK lets dive back into the muck.

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?

Lets back up a moment. This may be only peripheral to this discussion, but as you will see, gets to the core of the problem. The universe doesn't consult the laws of physics. Subatomic particles don't look up statutes on gravity. All of our scientific theories have been created by humans. These theories are the ones that best explain the universe and have the greatest predictive power. There may be undiscovered, superior theories, but our current crop are the best tools that we've come up with (so far). To start asking the question "where do these laws come from?" and "why do they have the form that they do?" supposes that our current crop of theories are the unassailable truth, as if they are written in stone somewhere. This line of thought supposes that our theories will never be supplanted. But how do we know that these are the absolute best theories? How could we even say that they are the unassailable truth? In fact, with all this "dark matter", "dark energy", and with the paradox of how to merge quantum mechanics and relativity, we are almost assured that there must be better theories out there. If not, I guess we should just fire all those physicists right now and instead ponder metaphysical questions.

All I'm saying is that we don't know if there are better theories, some that may even shed light on Davies' metaphysical ponderings. But we must not forget that our theories are tools that we use to predict how the world works, not reality itself.

When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance.

OK me nitpicking again. We make observations and we discover phenomena. We don't discover theories. We come up with theories and those theories are tools that help explain and predict those phenomena. You can question what ever you want. You can come up with any theory you like, no one is holding you back (we may not think that your theory is useful, but that is another issue).

The laws were treated as "given" -- imprinted on the universe like a maker's mark at the moment of cosmic birth -- and fixed forevermore. Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You've got to believe that these laws won't fail, that we won't wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.

Again Davies is using an antiquated view of science that turns your brain to mush. Just as a baseball player doesn't calculate parabolas to "know" how to throw a ball, we don't discover THE laws and apply them. We create models of the universe and test them. The best ones win. We then use these models to predict how the universe behaves. The universe is the way it is.

Is the universe "immutable"? According to our observations it is. Thus our theory that the universe is immutable is generally accepted. Is it the truth? Well, all that we can say FOR SURE is that this theory is a good predictor. We are just like that baseball player: if we throw the ball this way, we get the right result so we'll continue using what works best.

Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from "that's not a scientific question" to "nobody knows." The favorite reply is, "There is no reason they are what they are -- they just are." The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational.

OK, we have now entered the metaphysical realm by asking "why" questions. As I've stated before, biological questions fall into proximal and ultimate varieties. Proximal questions (or "how" questions) involve reductionistic explanations, such as, "A frog jumps because protein X converts ATP to ADP and inorganic phosphate and simultaneously changes conformation, forcing protein Y to move leftwards due to a Brownian ratchet type mechanism ... and the muscle contracts." Ultimate questions (or "why" questions) are due to evolutionary reasons: "The frog uses its muscle to jump because it wants to escape the predator. Frogs that display this behavior are selected for." Physics and chemistry don't have evolutionary-type forces (as far as we know) working on them. We have yet to construct a testable model by which an evolutionary force or some equivalent process can operate on how molecules behave. If Davies can construct a model -- a testable model -- then by all means go for it. Tell it to us, test it. See if it has predictive power. If not, if there is nothing testable, THEN THIS IS NOT A SCIENTIFIC ENDEAVOR. (And the question is not a scientific question.)

After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality -- the laws of physics -- only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.

Actually no, this does not describe the essence of science. Again, we build models that have predictive power. We attempt to describe what is. If all science is doing is "getting to the bottom," it is doomed. Find a theory that explains a phenomena, and you can always ask, "Why is reality based on this reason?" (note the use of "why" making this an ultimate question). You can dig deeper for a more profound reason, but again, you can go ahead and ask "Why is reality based on this deeper reason?" and this will go on with infinite regress. What does this gain you? Most scientists I know build models. They don't seek mystical truths (or fool themselves into thinking that there are universal mystical truths ... that are consulted by subatomic particles.)

OK the next paragraph is again about deeper truth - blah, blah, blah. Moving on.

A second reason that the laws of physics have now been brought within the scope of scientific inquiry is the realization that what we long regarded as absolute and universal laws might not be truly fundamental at all, but more like local bylaws. They could vary from place to place on a mega-cosmic scale. A God's-eye view might reveal a vast patchwork quilt of universes, each with its own distinctive set of bylaws. In this "multiverse," life will arise only in those patches with bio-friendly bylaws, so it is no surprise that we find ourselves in a Goldilocks universe -- one that is just right for life. We have selected it by our very existence.

Yes they could, she could, he could .... blah, blah, blah. This is just random speculation. No data, no proof. The universe could be an atom in some monster's tea cup. That's all very nice but so what? A scientific theory's worth is in its predictive power. If you want to spin magical stories don't call it science, call it scifi or something ....

(I know that I'm not only crapping on Davies by saying this, but it is the truth. And sometimes the truth hurts.)

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.

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.

Wot? He throws this hunk of speculative goop into his argument (multiverse theory), calls it science, then point out that it has no predictive power and is not testable. He then concludes that science is full of faith just like religion. That stinks. It really stinks. It gives all of us who are pursuing real science a rotten feeling.

This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm.

OK so some cosmologist postulates a multiverse theory, that is not strictly science, and now all of science is the equivalent to religious dogma? Where do you get off saying this??

Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. 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.

OK you are killing me. How about this story instead: Isaac Newton had an idea from ... WHO CARES ... built a model that predicts how the universe works. In his model he uses calculus, logic and reductionism and it is a success. With it you can predict all sorts of phenomena. We kept the model. We kept logic and reductionism. We can use these tools to explain stuff. We've made progress. And that's it.

And another thing, mathematics is not magical, it is not mystical - it is a formalization of logic. And yes it is a tool that has lots of predictive power. And it has been useful and so we kept it. I guess that if we all thought the way you did we would exclaim "Golly gee, the world seems to follow some sort of logic - millions of experiments have shown that logic can explain a lot, I guess it is magic and I believe it because of faith"???

Moving on...

And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.

Yes thanks for reiterating that we are just like the religious because apparently we all "believe" in the magical laws of the universes (or in multiverses) that were set in stone at the beginning of time and we all have "faith" in logic and reductionism. Moving on ...

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.

Yes laws are imposed on us. And the baseball player calculates the parabola with each throw. Moving on ...

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.

I see, you are going to save us from your own delusion of what science is all about. Why thank you.

In other words, the 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.

OK so you, or some guy will come along with a better theory. And??? That's science man! That is what we are all doing. Please don't insult us with all this misinformed misconstrued view of what science is, what faith is, what a real scientific theory is and what dogma is. Get your theory together, make predictions (and answer you metaphysical conundrums) but don't tell us that we practice witchcraft. It is just dishonest and/or misinformed.

I'm going to bed ...


More like this

Something I've been thinking for a while, and especially at moments like this when I am reading blogs instead of doing my work: the whole assault on science coming from all sorts of anti/pseudo scientifically minded idiots does only one thing - wastes the time of the people who actually do science. This is maybe the fifth several-thousand-word rebuttal of this article I see today, and probably many more exist; these people would take the time to do something more useful if this article did not exist, but since it is a direct attack on the fundamental principles on which we base out thinking, it is hard not to respond...

By Georgi Marinov (not verified) on 25 Nov 2007 #permalink

I suppose you always need to know where the earthquake came from before you deal with the consequences.


I hate bad science with a passion.


When I was growing up, I collected a passel of books on the topics of physics. I'd heard of Davies, but none of the thumb-throughs in the bookstore ever grabbed my attention. Gribbin was my go-to guy for these topics.

Ordinarily, I'd well allow Davies to go looking at the universe with deity-colored glasses and think nothing of it, but I have encountered this "science-as-faith" redefinition of science into meaninglessness far too often in the current struggles... to see it credulously enshrined in a book like this is to see much red. This isn't the heart of where "evolution is a religion" comes from, but it's certainly used as a rationalization for the accusation.

"And so far this faith has been justified"?! What manner of word game is this? With science, it's "justified" because we keep checking and keep what holds up most universally. If you use this same sentence for faith, the "justification" takes on a completely different tone and meaning: that of morals, feelings, or conquests.

The universe cares not whether we ascribe laws to it or not - it does what it does without effort. Three-body problem? Not the universe's worry. Some good approximations emerge from the bulk behavior of matter and energy, but even our "transcendent mathematical" descriptions of the universe are close approximations at best.

Photons from a point source are not coming from an actual point, nor are they aware of participating in an inverse-square law, nor is the bulk flow of photons mathematically perfect in its emanations from any of the sources we get light from - light pours out of hot tungsten unpredictably on an atom-by-atom basis.

If we knew enough about gravity, we would probably find similar caveats.

One last thought: in biology, we are constantly having to tell people that a Theory is not a Hypothesis. However, in physics, I swear they muddle it up. M-Theory is a Theory without the benefit of lab corroboration, and now Multiverse Theory is a Theory? Well, even given that there is no single Multiverse Theory, though Davies here uses the term, various types of it carry the Theory label, like Bubble Theory. Then there are the TOEs: Theories of Everything.

If they won't use Hypothesis, or something like Interpretation instead (as in the Copenhagen Interpretation), I swear we need a new term for Theory, however painful the transition, where Multiverse "Theory" does not qualify, but Atomic Theory and the Theory of Evolution, having met the criteria of evidence, do.

This has kept me at a low simmer all weekend. I'm working on a post about this and other recent travesties stemming from gross misinterpretations of what science and religion are - one is based in naturalistic method and one is based in normative moral principle. The misuse of words like faith/Faith and Theory/theory are insulting, yet dangerously effective.

As far as scientists having "faith" that the natural world can be explained through orderly models goes, that is comparable to an Iron Chef who "believes" that every food can be made into a palatable and enjoyable dish if it is prepared properly. Does that make cooking Religious? Absolutely not. That sort of "faith" has nothing to do with a Divine Being - it just has to do with professional inspiration and drive.

In 1995, Davies was awarded a Templeton Prize for spouting such gibberish. Simple behaviorism comes into play: Give a person a million dollars for spouting gibberish, and he will probably continue to spout gibberish.

By Bayesian Bouff… (not verified) on 26 Nov 2007 #permalink

The real question is this:

Who's the fucking bonehead editor on the New York Times who thought that this article warranted publication?

See, the problem isn't the Davieses in the world. You can't convince them. They've got their Templeton Prizes and they're going to spout gibberish.

The problem is that scientists and science writers need to engage the editors at our national publications and say "listen, your readers are intelligent, and hopefully well-informed and well-educated people. There should be an expectation of excellence in the New York Times when it comes to scientific and philosophical discussion, and this is nothing but equivocation and sophistry. It's a poor editorial choice.

This is where pressure should be applied. There are a million writers out there who could just as easily turned out such a shockingly poorly reasoned and article as this. An editorial staff shows its value by choosing articles that best reflect the reputation and standards of a publication. An editorial staff that lets this kind of garbage through their filter brings the New York Times's standard to a level no better than the blogosphere. Without an editorial staff that can tell shit from shinola, readers are better off getting their morning reading elsewhere. Let Davies write his gibberish for the Washington Times or the New York Post. Let the Times editors know that this is nothing but sophistry, and reflects very very poorly on the value of their editorial staff.

Thank you to Alex and the posters here which present prima facia evidence of the anti-religion, hate filled dogma of the "modern scientist". Of all the physical/mathmetical knowledge that exists in the Universe, how much does the modern scientist know? Less than one percent? Less than one-millionth of one percent? And yet, you speak as if you are smarter than God! Such arrogance in ignorance! Faith is NOT belief without proof. Faith is belief as you go through the process of gathering proof and coming to a knowledge of the truth. If I don't believe an answer can be found, why would I waste my time looking for one. Faith never has in the past, and still is not today, against science. That's why the scientific knowledge we use today was built by scientists of faith in the past. And yet the hate mongers here need to destroy this truth for some reason. Your ability to engage in intelligent debate is lost when you use words like muck, antiquated, mush, blah blah blah, spin magical stories, crapping, hunk of speculative goop, magical, mystical, delusion, misinformed, misconstrued, assault on science coming from all sorts of anti/pseudo scientifically minded idiots, gibberish, and of course, the highly intelligent "tell shit from shinola". Hey, right back at you with your elementary school-level bullying. As someone of science and faith, there's one thing you hate mongers always prove to me - NONE OF YOU ARE ANY SMARTER THAN I AM.

By Grant Wood (not verified) on 26 Nov 2007 #permalink

Oh my Zeus!! This cannot be for real. I mean a guy like Davies must have some grey matter between his ears. But then there is the little question of intellectual honesty and public integrity. I have "faith" that most godiots, while plenty intelligent, etc. lack those.

Good Jove, just have enough integrity to say "I cannot give up my deist blankee"... and most of us I suspect will understand and tolerate that at a human level. But don't wrap your insecurities in a veneer of vacuous BS masquerading as intellectually worthwhile discourse; don't slander to justify your unsubstantiated faith beliefs.

Holy Brahma did not create us to lie, cheat, and steal truth from the masses.

By ConcernedJoe (not verified) on 26 Nov 2007 #permalink

See what I mean? The Times could have just gotten Grant Wood to write that piece. It's as well-reasoned and as well argued as Davies' article.

Publications without discerning editors show themselves to be in no way superior to a random survey of internet posters.

It seems utterly insane that 374 years after Galileo was sentenced to life in prison we are still jacking around debating which camp -- theology or science -- holds the high ground in terms of ability to predict and explain the observable universe.

But, explanation/prediction = power. And, how, historically have institutions "of faith" gained power? By claiming unassailable secret, magical or otherwise "inside" knowledge about the workings of the universe. And that's why guys like Davies and/or Intelligent Design quacks keep trying to level the playing field on the basis of semantics, pseudo-science and circular argumentation. We've seen this dance over and over again. If you can't beat 'em, join them to the extent you clothe yourself in the trappings of rationality. And frankly, when you can't join them? Try to silence them.

On the one hand, it seems that the resurgence of this debate (Davies vs Palazzo as above, Dawkins vs Intelligent Design, and so on) is yet another way-station along the inexorable march of science over the last, oh, HUNDREDS of years. Seems like part of that march has always been about how leaps in scientific understanding have come to be assimilated into the conventional wisdom and moral inertia of societies (atomic bomb, genomics, cloning). I think conservative naysaying during such periods of accelerated scientific understanding are pretty predictable and ultimately destined to be inconsequential. The airing of these views might take our Sunday down from a 10 to a 2, but they certainly won't do the same thing for our year -- or career.

On the other hand, my fear is that what we are seeing right now has a different quality altogether. Could the resurgence of religious orthodoxy around the world as well as the state-sponsorship or quasi-state-sponsorship (er, the U.S. in the past 6 years?) of such "faith-based" regimes be part of a larger sociological backlash? Part of my understanding about the periods of time in which such orthodoxies have flourished is that they often have correlated to periods of great uncertainty and/or inability for the "common person" to comprehend the forces and attendant bodies of knowledge that are governing an ever larger slice of his/her world. In the face of this, simple, rote theories that specifically do NOT require testing and examination hold appeal.

And it is in this context that I think that the sort of project in which Davies in engaged -- and which the New York Times, of all publications, is abetting -- is highly insidious. For Davies and his other "faith-based" debaters aren't interested in anything resembling making their case beyond a reasonable doubt. They are interested only in raising A doubt -- hence the absolutely moronic retort by the Intelligent Design enthusiasts that, "Well Evolution is 'just' a theory too."

Which brings us back to Galileo. It is eerily reminiscent that in 1624, Pope Urban VIII assured Galileo he could write about Copernican theory so long as he treated it as merely a mathematical model -- in other words, insinuating that as such, it would be "'just' a theory." Frankly, when Davies paints math with his relativist, mystical brush, he's implying the same thing: You can "make" the numbers come out any way you wish; it won't "prove" anything.

And why do persons "of faith" want a world of "theories," and shun the world of data and experimentation? For the same, obvious reason they always have through the ages -- in the world of data and experimentation your theorized explanation/prediction can be right. Or it can be wrong.

By Cardinal Bellarmine (not verified) on 26 Nov 2007 #permalink


By Mobius911 (not verified) on 26 Nov 2007 #permalink

Before this gets out of hand let me point out 2 things about Davies' essay and my response.

1) Neither of us say anything controversial about religion. Davies is known as a theist, but in the OpEd he writes nothing novel about religion (except that certain ideas in science are derived from religious faith). We do not disagree about the nature of religious faith.

2) The topic of the essay is scientific knowledge. What is science based on? Davies asserts that it is based on faith. Scientists, he claims, have faith that the universe operates in a rational immutable manner. He then asserts that this faith is misplaced. I just challenge this interpretation of what science is. My view of science (and I believe most scientists would agree) is utilitarian. The fruits of scientific labor are models that have a certain degree of predictive power.

This is not a science vs religion argument.

Mobius wins rejoinder of the day.

My view of science (and I believe most scientists would agree) is utilitarian. The fruits of scientific labor are models that have a certain degree of predictive power.

... But presumably like me, you believe that if a model has had predictive power in the past, it will likely have such power in the future as well. It is hardly possible to prove the value of empiricism empirically without begging the question. But science having principles/axioms no more makes it a religion than a car having a roof makes it a house.

This is not a science vs religion argument.

Hear, hear! Gould's idea of "non-overlapping magisteria," doesn't impress me much; religions do tend to make fact-claims. However, there are sects out there that when conflict does occur, do alter their beliefs to accord with scientific evidence, and there are "believers" who understand and practise scientific methodology.

By Andrew Wade (not verified) on 26 Nov 2007 #permalink

Mr Alex, how can you say its not a science vs religion argument - anyone reading the 'hate' blog you have written will come to that conclusion. Some of the replies (for & against) point to that. You can choose to be blind to your actions and words - but I guess not everyone will be like that. I think Dr. Davies article makes a lot of sense.

Alex, you know as well as I do that this is just a class struggle. Nothing you've written is hateful or spiteful.

Science vs. Religion is just a proxy war.

I'd say that a true scientist understands that his work is pointless, a mere idle pursuit to kill the time before death... sure makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning! Which is why a bit of faith or belief is useful to a scientist (it just doesn't need to be in a God per se).

Why let the religious establishment take ownership of the words 'faith' and 'belief'. Why let them decide what the words mean? Is it really not faith to think that there is some usefulness to the knowledge we help accumulate? Okay, okay... the testable models we help accumulate?

OK -- this is not a science vs. Religion argument. Note I added a capital "R."

But it is a "science vs. the core of most religions or religion like movements" argument!

Religions (I include godless secular movements that act like religions) are normally based on the premise that dogma trumps all, and this dogma emanates from some "higher authority."

Davies is trying to cast science as a religion because he essentially claims scientists follow dogma given by some higher authority, and thus scientists are religious in nature.

This is a false argument at many levels but even taken in its best light it is wrong because he is really talking about ENGINEERS (not casting stones here), not SCIENTISTS. I think Alex sensed this (although I am not sure hed agree with me) when he gravitated toward his example of a baseball pitcher (pitcher to me is more analogous to an engineer).

Engineers normally rely on some principles, often blindly accepting them if tried and true. Most of the time understanding them at a deep conceptual level is not necessary to their projects. They use principles kind of well mechanically. Indeed they are not primarily interested in testing and falsifying the underlying concepts per se when applying them.

Scientists are not really engineers (but Davies maybe thinks they are) when they practice science, and engineers are not really scientists when they engineer. Nothing disparaging intended.

Scientists cannot accept any principle as cast in stone even if it has proven reliable a zillion times. A scientists job IS to destroy principles and concepts and discover new ones. Engineers are allowed to accept what works and use it without any obligation to falsify and then devise different underlying principles and concepts. Yup, there is overlap as people are not always one-dimensional and neither are projects. But basically that is the way it is. Davies is arguing (even here stupidly) that engineers act in a religious way because he is describing in my minds eye engineers not scientists as he essentially thinks he is.

By the way seems the engineering community is more prone toward woo-woo than the scientific one. Could it be the ingrained mindset I propose above that fosters this propensity?

By ConcernedJoe (not verified) on 26 Nov 2007 #permalink

Irritating, wasn't it.

By Ian Findlay (not verified) on 27 Nov 2007 #permalink


This is a science blog. Scientists are very critical people especially about science itself, please read the statements I make carefully and try to understand them. Also if you understood Davies' article you should be more upset by what he said. Why? He claims that scientists derive their knowledge from christianity and that this idea mislead them into multiverse theory. Please try to understand the substance of the argument (between two views of science!) before coming to any conclusion.


That was very freudian. OK I guess we all need a little delusion to get through our days, but does this apply only to scientists? ;)


Interesting take. I would agree with most of what you said except that I would characterize engineers as trusting scientific findings. We all need to trust our peers whose job it is to be knowledgeable in a certain area. When you go to the doctor you trust his judgement (to a certain degree). The same goes when you talk to a scientist who is not in your field - you trust their assessments because they are better situated to evaluate the ideas and models from their discipline. This is not really subscribing to a dogma - we all know that with new data medical practices changes over time (hopefully for the better). I guess in terms of engineering the underlying science hasn't changed for quite some time, but would the typical engineer claim that science itself is unchanging? I'll give you that they may claim that the scientific theories that they utilize are THE TRUTH and not the most predictive models.

Yup Alex - you and I are basically on same page (I say that humbly and with respect - not with arrogance)

Your points on trust are well taken -- I think many "people of faith" put our "trust" under their umbrella of "belief" for purposes of definition and their mental model.

Scientific Type of Trust: fire a 22 at my heart when 20 feet away I trust you'll kill me... I believe you'll kill me .. I'll act like you'll kill me. But I am not objectively speaking opposed to other possibilities -- deflection, near misses, etc. -- that make me not 100% certain. It is the old possibility times probability times consequences type of thing that dictates the action on belief, etc. All bases on tangible experiences or real world extrapolations.

Religuous Type of Trust: accept Jesus as your savior and spent eternity in heaven. All based on ... I need not say the obvious.

Boy - to me -- world of difference. How they don't see it is beyond me.

Thanks for opportunity to vent on these things.

By ConcernedJoe (not verified) on 27 Nov 2007 #permalink

You couldn't be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed.

I'll accept that challenge! Okay: I hypothesize that the universe is a meaningless jumble of odds and ends, etc. That means, if I throw this ball into the air 1000 times (imagine I am holding a ball; a red ball) it may or may not fall back down to earth with an acceleration of 9.8 m/s2.

I throw my ball 1000 times. I measure the acceleration as it falls. I note the direction of its fall. Guess what? Every single time I do it, it's pretty darn close to 9.8 m/s2.

Now, this might just be due to my lab being a special case, so I tell Alex about my finding. Alex is convinced that there are rules about how things move about in the universe. Alex gets on a plane and goes to Italy for a nice vacation. While he is there, he buys 1003 sfogliatelle. He drops 1000 of them off of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, measures their acceleration and notes the direction of their descent. (He saves 3 to eat, because he is a scientist, not a cretin!)

He comes up with 9.8 m/s2, and notes that the delicious pastries always fall downwards.

Then, all of our blog friends all around the world repeat this experiment and come up with similar results. From these, we infer that there is a general "law" about how objects fall to Earth. This disproves my initial hypothesis!

But maybe Earth is a special case. Alex, like Newton, speculated that there might be similar "law" at work elsewhere based on the mass of the body on which one is standing. I disagree. So Alex and I go to the moon (I to the light side, he to the dark side) and repeat our experiments with balls and pastry, falisfying my original hypothesis.

I'm still not convinced. What if there is another part of the universe where these "laws" do not hold true? We can measure the movement of distant objects in the sky ... but I'm still not convinced. The universe is a random jumble of lawlessness! I say. So, using the principles of physics that we have established work reasonably well in our own solar system, I put together a spacecraft to go test out my hypothesis on other planets light-years away. Alex says good-bye and eats all the pastries. I hop from planet to planet doing experiments, beaming back my data for review in PloS ONE for decades after Alex has moved on to other projects.

Are we not both scientists?

However, while I have been gallavanting about the known universe falsifying the same hypothesis over and over and over and over again, Alex - who reads my reports eagerly every ten years or so: "Gravity Not Disproven In Andromeda Galaxy" - has invented Calculus and formulated the theory of general relativity. He wonders if, while I'm out there, I might run a few experiments on quantum mechanics at near-light speeds and let him know the results. I say, Alex, this will never work!

Do I do the experiments anyway and share the credit as co-author, or do I refuse because I have not accepted Alex's basic premise that there is some order to the universe that can be tested, despite all my data to the contrary? At what point does one have to accept something might be not "proven conclusively" but "proven enough to move on for now"?

If I do Alex's experiment, I might be shown to be right; but if I refuse, I'll never know. I'll be guilty of taking it on faith that his paradigm is wrong. That's where I lose my street cred as a scientist, not before.

Changing one's mind is antithetical to Faith, which is whay Science is not like Religion at all.

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith -- namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe ...

No. Just, no. The whole point of physics, of E by NT, is that there's NOT an external actor acting on the system, but that the order arises from properties inherent to the system! Gah! Gah! Gah!

Thanks for dissecting this for the nonsense that it is.

The only real solution here is Voltairean laughter and lots and lots of it.It is the only appropriate tool of criticism in relation to the vapourings of the propagators of the talking snake .

This is exactly why I never talk about this sort of crap in public.

Maybe I should; I think it would increase the number of hits the Labrats gets. Now there's a hypothesis.

Okay, I believe you now, Alex. It took me six hundred years to finish my dissertation, but I've come around at last.

I sent this to Davies, and his reply follows:

"Come, come Professor Davies. You are taking unwarranted liberties with the language, and can be accused of intellectual dishonesty. One of the standard definitions of faith is 'Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence' (from

But you state:'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.'

What you should have said is that so far the hypotheses have been supported. It has nothing to do with faith as commonly understood."

Davies replied: "Can you think of a better word than faith to mean a belief that something is so without a logical explanation for why it should be so? I think faith is a pretty good word, except it is also used to mean adherence to a specific religion. I would be happy to use a different word if you can suggest one."

I think he knew what he was doing when he used the word in his op-ed piece, and I think it not much different from what the creationists do when they assert that evolution is just a theory, and ought to be given the same standing as creation. Total dishonesty.

What I find of great scientific interest is how people clearly of above average intelligence and academic preparation such can so thoroughly and persistently wall off their knowledge, and ability to generate knowledge, from what they want to believe, evidence or not.

Perhaps some neuroscientist on this blog can illuminate this puzzle.

I guess Davies wasn't trying very hard to come up with a different word than faith. His reply does make him sound like a guy with an agenda, to portray scientists as trusting the laws of physics "without a logical explanation" as he says, ignoring the history of experimentation that went into deducing those laws. Words more fitting than "faith": deduction, inference, principle, theory.

Damnit, a supposed science blogger (Suicyte Notes) has at least partly fallen for Davies' gibberish, as has a commenter there who's profile says he's a staff scientist working for Craig Venter.

His point:

Wellwe can *hope* that we are getting closer to the underlying truth of the universe, but I suspect the path of science, like that of civilization in general, isnt a nice cumulative progressive path, but one filled with backwards and sideways steps as well as forward ones.

This guy needs to go read some Kuhns and Popper, and then forget the gibberish that science has anything to do with finding the underlying truth of the universe. It's about finding out facts about the universe. He should know the damn difference if he's going to call himself a scientist.

Thanks for this kind introduction to my blog... I wonder why those scientific grailkeepers always have to be so gruff.
By the way, I did read a lot of Popper in my time, but as you can see, this didn't change my mind - why should it? I saw nothing that conflicts with my opinions. Even if I had, so what? Popper, as any other (scientific) authority, is not beyond questioning.
Ah, before I forget: I didn't fall for Davies gibberish, I didn't even read it.

There are a million writers out there who could just as easily turned out such a shockingly poorly reasoned and article as this. An editorial staff shows its value by choosing articles that best reflect the reputation and standards of a publication.