I listened to a great discussion between James Croft and Calum Miller recently on the highly recommended “Unbelievable” Podcast. The topic of the discussion was, “Does theism or atheism best explain the universe?”. You can find and listen to their episode of the podcast here… http://tinyurl.com/nxbqoxm
During the discussion, an interesting quote from Cosmologist Paul Davies was mentioned:
“People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature – the Laws of Physics – is simply accepted as given … as brute fact. Nobody asks where the Laws come from. However – even the most atheistic Scientist accepts as a point of faith the existence of a law like order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us. So Science can proceed only if the Scientist adopts an essentially Theological world view.” – Paul Davies
James Croft, who describes himself as a Humanist community leader (and he’s a jolly nice chap to boot!) responded to this quote with a fascinating rebuttal to it. He said…
“Interesting arguments. But I think they rely on some false premises. The person said that Scientists accept as an act of faith the law like regularity of nature without which they couldn’t do their work. I think this is flatly false. I think our ability to construct models which bring order to our experience…we do not discover order in the universe…we construct models to bring order to our experience. That does not speak to a faith in the inherent intelligibility and ordered-ness of the universe. Scientists can proceed in their work without assuming at any point that the Universe is ordered or inherently intelligible.”
If I rephrase what I think James is saying here – he is proposing that Natural Laws and order in our Universe is the last thing on the mind of a Scientist. Rather – Science is all about OBSERVATION of phenomena and CREATION OF A MODEL which helps Scientists understand that phenomena. This is a completely human centric perspective.
Well – this is very interesting to me and I’ve got some thoughts on the subject.
I think that – in a very real and practical sense, James is absolutely right. But – in my humble opinion – I also think he is proposing a form of circular reasoning that takes us back to an assumption that our Universe is ordered. Let me explain.
As James says, an important and creative task for Science is first to observe something in Nature (a phenomena). And second, the construction of abstract models to help Scientists understand and make future predictions on that observed phenomena.
I think a great example of this is – weather forecasts. In the UK, the Met Office has constructed complex models to help them interpret weather patterns today for the purpose of predicting what the climate might do next Wednesday (and every day). They also use these techniques to better understand our planet’s unfolding climate change. The models help them understand what is happening now, and help them predict future outcomes. So that they can warn us what might be coming. Of course this all depends on how good the model is and how well they are interpreting the model. (I’m not going to mention Michael Fish…woops, sorry…I did!)
All this is true and necessary. And – frankly – the Met Office’s practice assumes the order and predictability of the planet’s climate. For the Met Office model to be useful in predicting outcomes (the weather next Wednesday), the climate IS assumed to be ordered and predictable. If the planet’s weather patterns were truly random (and British weather so often gives a convincing impression of this) then there would be no need for a model at all. Because you cannot predict random. That’s the nature of random. If weather is random then we are all just at the mercy of what it decides to do next.
I think James is right – we do construct models that bring order to our experience. And the models we construct are complex ones.
But I think James might be missing an important point. Surely the underlying reason for thinking in terms of models…not to mention the reason for people’s sheer hard graft of programming them…points to an underlying assumption of the order and predictability of nature?
Moving on from the weather – Science is discovering all the time that its models are simplistic at best and only apply in certain conditions. As James and Calum mentioned during their discussion – the Newtonian Laws of Physics might apply when we are driving a car, but not when we are watching the behavior of sub-atomic particles; like Mesons and their Quarks which are hard to understand. Yet we are able to build models and principles. For example, Schrodinger’s Cat points to problems we face when understanding Quantum reality. And Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle describes the effect of wave particle duality at the subatomic level.
I imagine both Mr Schrodinger and Mr Heisenberg came to nature just as they observed it…and I imagine they decided that, “I’m going to give my life to understand the Quantum reality whether or not it is understandable”. But I’m pretty sure they bet their life on an assumption that the Universe IS actually and truly ordered and understandable; not random. Why? Because if Quantum Mechanics turns out to be ultimately unpredictable then the end of their life’s work will simply be a confused shrug of the shoulders! I suspect they and many Scientists working today are betting on their ability to discover some order amidst observable and apparent Quantum chaos. And some will be driven by the hope that they will be recognized for discovering that order.
So – what I am saying is – I agree with James that Science builds models to bring order to our observations and experience. But for those models to hold up in the real world – and for the models to be ultimately useful to us – surely there must be a natural order in our Universe to begin with?
So we are back where we started… “Science can proceed only if the Scientist adopts an essentially Theological world view.”