Monday, November 26, 2007

It's just a different way of interpreting gravity 'n' stuff...

Ah, the relativists come out of the woodwork again. There's a lot of twaddle peddled in the so-called culture wars these days, but this idea that science is just another faith is one of the most insipid. Further contributing to the mix of pity and despair felt when reading these sorts of articles is when they come from the mouth, pen or word processor of someone who's smart enough to know better.
Take for instance:
Taking Science on Faith - New York Times
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.
So far, all true. We are told that science is the most reliable (note: not completely reliable given it's rather tentative nature) way of discovering and adding to the storehouse of human knowledge. Do you want to know why? Because it is. 'Faith' (watch this space for shifting sands under this word) is it's opposite and isn't reliable. Indeed, it's the anchor that will keep people from actually trying to acquire new knowledge.
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. [emphasis added]

Boom! It's just another way of having faith! Note the bit I've highlighted. He's right, you couldn't be a scientist, (or in my university training, a historian) if you thought the world was just random and nothing was connected. You could however, still have faith. It is interesting to see Davies point out that "so far this faith has been justified." Well, of course. That's why the basic laws don't change every few weeks.
It's here that we see a bit of bait and switch on the word faith. Faith that the sun will come up in the morning or a released pencil will drop is a forward extrapolation of experience not a matter of belief without evidence. It's not the faith of Faith. It's not looking at the Bible saying that you should have faith. Keep this straight. Also keep it in mind because I have faith that this will be a recurring theme.
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.

Boy, there's a lot there isn't there? Did you notice the play on the word law? In science a law is a regular pattern, and is always considered as separate from the explanation for it's mechanisms; that would be the theory. The law of gravity is basically this: stuff falls at a rate of acceleration that we can measure, a bit over 9 m/s squared. Now, here we have Davies switching in law, as in the law of the land, a create, codified body of legislation governing conduct. It's clever; if there's a law, there's a law giver. On the other hand for his point if there's a discernible pattern of behaviours, it's really hard to plug a discernible pattern of behaviours giver. So he conflates a legal and a scientific notion of laws.
With a little handwaving he says that the reason there are laws is untouchable in science by some fiat of the higher ups. I find that not convincing, as every scientist that I've ever read and the few I know don't seem to like the idea of any sort of sacred cow. And although there's some debate forming about the utility and scientific nature of string theory, isn't that part of what they look at?
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.

Um, dunno. Don't think the world is even close to having an answer to this. We might one day, or we might never get there.
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.

And the anthropic principle rears its head. People leave it alone. It's not a muscle; playing with it doesn't make it stronger. Besides, have you looked around you. This planet is stunningly unsuited to life in lots of places, let alone the whole of the universe. Seriously. If you're not an extremaphile bacteria, you're not going to like a staggering percentage of everywhere.
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.

I remember a quote by Einstein wherein he said that as far as he knew relativity could just be a local phenomenon. Or I could have been on drugs. Maybe I was. I mean have you ever really looked at your hand, man? It's so cool.
Where was I? Oh, yeah, Einstein. He may be right, but the further afield we look in the universe, all the discoveries we make seem to follow what he said. We're pretty sure the universe is pretty regular. But anyone who can show it's not can start writing out his Nobel acceptance speech now.
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.

The multiverse theory is a bit weak, but there is some math behind it. And if it's theoretical it can be tested, at least better than "Magic man done it."

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.

If I've gotten this far into making fun of you, clearly you haven't established that faith is the foundation of more than one of those. And I don't think your unstated goal of moving religion towards science is going to be successful until you start coming up with tests for God.

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

What? Seriously, what? Math is the expression we use to transcribe relationships. It's not where the laws come from.

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.
Again, what?

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.

Meta-laws. As if just making stuff up and saying that's what people believe makes it so. Oh, what, that's faith.

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

Laws should have an explanation of the universe. No. That's not what laws are. That's a theory. This is directly analogous to creationists saying that if the theory of evolution doesn't encompass abiogenesis then it doesn't explain anything. If your trying to tell me that religion gives us a clearer understanding of anything then you'll have to do better than the odd straw man, a bit of conflation and the anthropic principle.


The Frontal Cortex : The Faith of Scientists
onegoodmove: Faith

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