Saturday, November 24, 2007

A relativistic con

I read, with some confusion, an op-ed in Saturday's New York Times which said, if I understood it right, that science and religion are both based on faith.  In the words of Scooby-Doo, gwuh?

Perhaps I misunderstood the terms.  Isn't religion, almost by definition, faith?  That is to say, the idea that even though one cannot see something, one nevertheless believes that it is there?  This is the antithesis of science.  Science is merely the "belief" that something one sees in front of one's face is there.

I put belief in quotation marks because it's such a silly word to use to describe the function of science.  I don't "believe" in the laptop I'm writing this on right now, nor do I "believe" in you or anybody else, good reader.  The laptop simply exists.  And unless nobody ever reads this, so do you.

Getting back to the op-ed, the author (Paul Davies, who is, confusingly, a noted physicist) bases his argument on the premise that science assumes a natural order to life and the universe.  At first glance, this is garbage; pure creationist prevarication: Science assumes nothing of the sort.

On closer inspection, however, one can see a subtle point in Davies' thesis.  As he correctly points out, it would be impossible to study the universe if one did not "believe" that there was
 a discernable order to it.

But there's that word again.  Though Davies might have me outgunned by several orders of intellectual magnitude (in addition to being a noted physicist, he's British), doesn't science, correctly understood, merely interpret the patterns in the evidence that are actually there?

In short, I think Davies badly mischaracterizes science when he equates it with faith, though he does raise some interesting points.  If a real scientist was confronted today with convincing evidence that, say, god is alive and well and residing somewhere in the 
constellation Orion, "belief" would not be involved.

3 comments:

Jeff said...

So you're agreeing to disagree by agreeing a little?

I think the point he was making is that science is just as blind a belief as religion, the only difference being certain empirical elements that are, by no means, cold facts.

The world was flat once,
The world was the center of the universe,
We're all made up of atoms, wait molecules, wait electrons, wait strings of energy, etc.

They are only considered to be true because at one point or another they were believed to be such.

Wes said...

I suggest you give this a listen: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10621231

Gives me details on what he is talking about, it still is pretty confusing.

Jon Gold said...

@Jeff:

The flat-earth and geocentric models of the universe are not products of modern science and are, therefore, irrelevant to this discussion. Also, we ARE made up of atoms, which in turn are made up of molecules, which in turn are made up of electrons AND protons AND neutrons, which in turn are made up of quarks, etc.

Describing science, as I said in the blog post, as having anything to do with belief is erroneous. Science merely describes and, to some extent, interprets what actually exists. Who needs to "believe" in a quark? The quark exists anyway, and doesn't -- as far as we know -- give a strange or a charm what we believe.