June 02, 2008

The end of god-22: Playing with words

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post, I said that some scientists (like Einstein) used to use god as a metaphor even though they were not believers, and that this caused some confusion as to what they truly believed.

There are, of course, some scientists who really do believe in god and try to find ways to reconcile their beliefs. Biologist Francis Collins, recently retired head of the National Human Genome Research Institute and an evangelical Christian, has written a book The Language of God where he apparently argues that the structure of DNA reveals god at work. (I plan to read his book in the very near future and will report on what his argument is.) Biologist Kenneth Miller, a Catholic, wrote a book Finding Darwin's God that argues against god's involvement in the evolutionary process (he is an opponent of intelligent design creationism) but tries to use the uncertainty principle as a gateway for god to act in the world without violating the laws of science. John Polkinghorne, a physicist who later became an Anglican clergyman, argues in his book Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship that both science and religion use similar truth-seeking strategies.

Quantum physics has been a real boon to those people trying to find some room for god in science. Such people have exploited some of the admittedly strange properties of quantum physics to make some fairly strong metaphysical claims. while ignoring the fact that it is a materialistic theory that can be used to make precise predictions without requiring any mystical elements. Yves Gingras takes to task those scientists who have exploited this longing for mysticism among the general public, calling, for example, Fritjof Capra's very popular book in this vein The Tao of Physics a 'monumental joke'.

As Gingras says:

What these books do is try to wrap modern scientific discoveries in an allusory shroud that insinuates a link between cutting-edge science and solutions to the mysteries of life, the origins of the universe and spirituality. They depend on cultivating ambiguity and a sense of the exotic, flirtatiously oscillating between science and the paranormal. This is X-Files science - and The X-Files is science-fiction.
. . .
It seems to me that scientists involved in popularisation have an obligation to present science as the naturalistic enterprise it is, instead of attempting (cynically or naively) to stimulate interest in science by associating it with vague spiritual or religious notions. This eye-catching genre can only generate bitter disappointment among those motivated by it to pursue the study of science; for they will quickly learn that they will never meet God in a particle accelerator or in a DNA sequence.

The essence of science is a naturalist vision of the world that makes it understandable without any appeal to transcendental intelligence, be it Zeus, Poseidon or any other God.

Physicist Paul Davies is one of the scientists most guilty of creating the kind of ambiguity that Gingras deplores. Davies is a 'Templeton scientist', 1995 winner of their award for attempts to reconcile science and religion, and author of numerous books liberally sprinkled with the words god, spirit, miracle, etc in the titles and the text. Recently Davies wrote an op-ed suggesting that scientists have faith too and that this makes science and religion somehow equivalent.

[S]cience has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. . . And so far this faith has been justified.

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.
. . .
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.

Davies argues that because we don't know why the laws of science have the form they do, science is inadequate. He says "until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus."

Davies' claim that science falsely purports to be 'free of faith' is itself a bogus argument. What he is doing is conflating two different meanings of the word 'faith', the way I warned against doing for the word 'believe' in my own An Atheist's Creed. Physicist Bob Park gives the appropriate rejoinder.

It's time we had a little talk. The New York Times on Saturday published an op-ed by Paul Davies that addresses the question: "Is embracing the laws of nature so different from religious belief?" Davies concludes that, "until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus." Davies has confused two meanings of the word "faith." The Oxford Concise English Dictionary on my desk gives the two distinct meanings for faith as: "1) complete trust or confidence, and 2) strong belief in a religion based on spiritual conviction rather than proof." A scientist's "faith" is built on experimental proof. The two meanings of the word "faith," therefore, are not only different, they are exact opposites.

When I or any other scientist says that we have faith in the law of gravity or the conservation of energy or the laws of thermodynamics, we may invoke the same word as religious believers when they say they have faith in god, but we use it in a completely different sense. We have faith because the laws have been tested over and over in very carefully controlled conditions and have never let us down. They have always worked as advertised and thus we have 'complete trust and confidence' that they will continue to do so. Does this mean they always will? We cannot say. There is always the possibility that there is a subtlety in those laws that we are not aware of that may reveal itself under unusual circumstances as a seeming failure. That is why we say that we have 'faith' in those laws instead of absolute certainty. But that tiny residual uncertainty is a concession that scientists make in acknowledgment of the fact that we never know anything for certain.

This is a far cry from religious people having faith in god when they have absolutely no reason for doing so apart from some vague yearnings that are largely the residue of childhood indoctrination. To conflate the evidence-rich use of the word 'faith' by scientists to the evidence-free use by religious people is to be naïve or to willfully mislead.

Even though scientists and religious believers use the same words 'faith', 'belief', and even 'god', they view those words and the world in quite different ways. Scientists should consistently point out this difference so that merely verbal manipulation can be removed from the discussion.

POST SCRIPT: Rewriting history

The publication of a self-serving book by former White House Press Secretary and Bush confidante Scott McClennan that castigates the behavior of everyone in the White House (except Bush and McClennan) and the media (for its gullibility about its unquestioning acceptance of propaganda and its cheerleading for war with Iraq) has produced a flurry of historical revisionism on the part of the media. McClennan seems to see no irony in charging the media with not asking hard questions when he did nothing but stonewall and lie to the same media.

Much of the media defense has taken the form that everyone at that time believed that Iraq had WMDs.

Not so fast, say Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of McClatchy (formerly Knight-Ridder) news syndicate. That news group was one of the very few in the mainstream American media who expressed some skepticism and backed it up with solid reporting.

Of course, many of us outside the American media Village bubble never bought the case for war either, seeing the whole enterprise as an illegal and immoral fraud from the beginning.


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Fine article; but as to your post script, the name is Scott McClellan.

Posted by mikespeir on June 2, 2008 05:50 PM

Thanks! I have corrected it.

Posted by Mano on June 3, 2008 08:17 AM