Saturday, November 24, 2007

Science and Faith

Paul Davies' essay in the NY Times is the kind of tiresome nitpicking that scientists ignore because there's just no return in talking about it. Of course scientists have "faith" in the laws of physics -- these laws have proven themselves handily over the last X hundred years (X=3 for gravity, 1.3 for electromagnetism, 0.6 for QED, 0.3 for QCD, 0.0 for string theory). "Faith" just means they use the laws until something better is established. So what--that's a pretty meaningless definition of "faith?" The moment one of these laws shows evidence of making a false prediction, physicists abandon it like a bad memory, and work like maniacs to find a better law. This is far, far different from religious people, who will tolerate no unapproved thoughts about their "deity" and who stand by their proclaimed "god" at all costs, without any physical proof whatsoever. You can't disprove the existence of a Christian god (say), because Christians are not amenable to the ways of reason. Scientists are.

Case closed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Davies has a cosmological program, kind of initiated by Wheeler, of explaining the whole universe inside, without assuming anything given. Platonic physical laws do not fit this picture - instead, physical laws must have developed with the universe.

I think this is a good point, regardless of how successful his program will be. We do not like to include gods or other information-rich entities in the initial state of the universe, but eternal physical laws, independent of other existence, do not seem to bother that much.

You are right in that a practicing physicist can treat the laws as tools, and then philosophical points about their origin are irrelevant if not absurd. A cosmologist may apply the same principle, and simply refuse to discuss the origin of the laws: The tools do not exist in the same sense as the universe does.

But doesn't the tool metaphor break down if one gets into really fundamental physics? Ultimately, most would like to have a theory which would explain everything. Almost all information would then be in the theory, and almost nothing in the system. Is such a theory just a tool, or do we have to admit its isomorphism with reality, if it really explains everything? If it is taken as real, we have made an odd distinction between explained reality and platonic reality that is not explained, not even discussed.

Wouldn't it then be more "scientific", objective, or efficient to include the laws as part of things that are explained? Now I don't know what this exactly means, and I don't know if Davies knows, but isn't there a point in there worth of more careful thought?