Saturday, November 24, 2007

Great Op-Ed from today's NYT

The New York Times
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November 24, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor

Taking Science on Faith

Tempe, Ariz.

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.

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?

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. 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.

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. 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.

Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.

Although scientists have long had an inclination to shrug aside such questions concerning the source of the laws of physics, the mood has now shifted considerably. Part of the reason is the growing acceptance that the emergence of life in the universe, and hence the existence of observers like ourselves, depends rather sensitively on the form of the laws. If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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. 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.

Paul Davies is the director of Beyond, a research center at Arizona State University, and the author of “Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life.”


  1. Great article! I don't agree with every line, but he makes a good point that I have made before.

    It is directly relavent in my opinion to the issue of evolution.

    I never understood why people (frum Jews) were so afraid of evolution.

    If someone belives the world was created 6000 years ago looking old, then evolution is part of that "looking old" and is to be ignored.

    If someone believes the world is billions of years old, and beleives there really were dinasours and trilobytes, then why should evolution be a problem?

    Even if the "laws" of "nature" dictate the evolution of life into humans (which is a large stretch considering the huge theoritical gaps in macroevolution theory), whats the problelm? Where do those laws come from to begin with? From Hashem! He set those patterns in motion, created those "laws" and knew what He was doing, in order to have those laws form humans, goats, etc.

    And, on top of that, that would be the case if the laws were completeley deterministic which we now are pretty sure they are not!

    Evolution relies (shakingly) on "random" mutations which when you get down to the particle level of why some protien moved here and not there, is goverened by quantum mechanical probabilities.

    Now, although the probabilities are known quantities, where a single particle will go is UNKNOWABLE. So, physists call it "random" (of course bounded by the probability function).

    However, for us Jews, we know that Hashem is constantly maintaining/creating the universe, and knows all, therefore there can be no such thing as "random".

    Unknowable and instrisic randomness in the laws of nature are a really good way for Hashem to activly change things in a subtle, hidden, and non-miraculous/free-will-depriving way. I don't know if He actually does use that method (maybe physics is too incomplete to say for sure), but as of now, it definitly can look that way.

    That being so, the evolutionary process (if, and a huge IF it is true) shoudn't cause a problem for anyone. It is simply Hashem's way of forming the world the way we know it.

    People who are scared of evolution because it "takes G-d out of the picture" in my opinion are far too influenced by scientism. We have to step outside of the bounds of "laws" and ask where they came from and Who keeps them going!

    So whether one is a 6000-yr-old-looks-old person or a 13.2-billion-yr-old person, evolution should not be a problem.

    (Of course one would still have to maintain that Adam Ha Reshon was formed miraculously (i.e. extreamly improbable quantum movements/teleportations of protons etc in dirt forming the right way into a human being) from dirt.

    Just my thoughts...

  2. It is unclear whether Einstein was a Deist, a Pantheist, or an atheist who spoke about G-d as a metaphor for the design one finds in the universe. I get the impression he wavered.

    However, Aristotle and Newton were staunch monotheists, and even Einstein was obviously a product of monotheistic culture. I think there is a solid reason for this -- polytheism doesn't promote the assumptions necessary to produce science.

    The problem with the multiverse is more than just that it shifts the question to the metalaws of the multiverse. Rather than positing a Creator, it posits a different non-testable infinity. There is no logical reason to prefer one assumption over the other; just the emotional one of being able to continue in one's atheism.


  3. Ron:
    The theory of evolution is contrary to the Torah HaKedoshah, which states clearly and unequivocally that HASHEM created the Universe in six days. Even if you refuse to believe the account of Creation -- in six days -- at the beginning of Bereishis, you cannot deny that at least twice in Sefer Shmos (in the Aseres HaDibros in Parshas Yisro, and again in "VeShamru" in Parshas Ki Sisa) the six days of Creation are clearly stated.

    In fact, by reciting these two references from Sefer Shmos in the Shabbos morning Kiddush, we attest that through our observance of Shabbos every seventh day we are emulating the actions of the Creator: a day of rest after six days of Creation!

  4. OR HAGNUZ:A light that lets you see from one end of the world to the other anyone seen a fiber optic wire lately

  5. 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.”
    Very Brisker lomdishe answers from the collegues!

  6. As my Rebbe, HaRav Aharon Soloveichik ZT"L said, those who have studied the laws of physics can proclaim with full Kavanah every morning in Tfilas Shacharis: "Mah Rabu Maasecha HASHEM, Kulam BeChachmah Asisa!"