About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The latest silly stuff from Paul Davies

In a recent guest editorial in the New York Times, cosmologist Paul Davies has joined the small but vocal number of scientists who claim parity between science and religion because both are based “on faith.” This silly conclusion stems from a persistent and irritating misunderstanding of elementary philosophy of science, one of which self-styled intellectuals ought to be aware. As Wittgenstein aptly put it, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”...

Davies' extraordinary assertion arises from a series of elementary mistakes: first, scientists do not have “faith” in an orderly universe, as he claims; they reasonably assume that there are explanations for natural phenomena and go about testing that assumption. This is not at all dissimilar from what everyone -- including religious believers -- do under most circumstances in ordinary life. Your car breaks down? You assume a natural explanation and check the gas, the battery, etc.; you don’t pray to god (though you may curse a bit). Got a toothache? You assume a natural explanation and go to the dentist, not the preacher. And so on. This isn’t “faith,” it’s common sense, and it works.

Second, the idea that there are “laws” in the universe is actually very controversial in philosophy of science, not at all the given that Davies thinks it is. Moreover, it is misleading, as the very term suggests some sort of law-maker. In reality, there are simply patterns of regularities that make predictions somewhat possible. Therefore, and contrary to Davies, the best answer to the question of “why is there something instead of nothing?” still is “because that’s the way it is.” Anything beyond that immediately risks begging the question, a common fallacy of so-called religious “explanations.”

Lastly, it is high time that physicists – who are not trained in biology – stop pontificating about our universe being “just right for life.” It is not at all likely that the universe is teeming with life, since most star systems seem to be utterly inhospitable to it. It requires a very large ego indeed to think that billions of lifeless worlds have come into existence so that we could speculate on who did it. Science is not at all like religion: the latter provides no explanation and is based on blind faith, the former is a highly successful human endeavor that keeps delivering the goods. But I suspect that by restating this sort of sensible position I’m not positioning myself for the Templeton Prize. Oh well.


  1. Every time I see someone write that this universe is "just right" or "perfect" for life, usually meaning specifically Homo sapiens, I think "This person has a malfunctioning imagination."

    Really, how hard is it to imagine a universe, or just one feature of a universe, better than this one? How about not living on a planet whose gravitational field, surface temperature, surface area, and atmospheric composition are closely tied together and to characteristics of its primary star. I leave it to the vast literature of science fiction to supply imaginative ideals that break those trade-offs. But I'll just pick one: imagine a situation in which parasitisism is very difficult to evolve, and does not promote speciation. Is a world with vastly fewer parasites better than this one?

  2. We've touched on Davies' column over at The Church of Critical Thinking and Bob Park discusses it in his latest news letter. Basically Davies conflates the two meanings of 'faith' and tries to impose the religious meaning on the non-religious use. By putting together a bunch of intellectual-sounding but vague ideas he will convince a considerable number of the hoi polloi that science is something different from what it really is.

    MP, to assuage your concerns about never being eligible for the Templeton Prize, maybe I should start the DA Prize. I'm sure the nominating committee would look favorably on your contributions to rational thinking.

  3. "It requires a very large ego indeed to think that billions of lifeless worlds have come into existence so that we could speculate on who did it."

    Great point. Sounds like Davies should (re)read the part in Candide about the "best of all possible worlds."

    btw, what is Davies' angle here? Is he trying to show that belief in god is as (ir)rational as "faith" in science, and that therefore they are both acceptable?

  4. I'd like to understand - could someone explain the different meanings of faith?

    How about this:

    Anything that can be tested, but hasn't yet been, and we think is true is 'ASSUMPTION'

    Anything that can't be tested, but is thought to be true, is 'FAITH'?

    So, I assume my car will start despite the subzero temperatures, but I have Faith that the universe will exist after I die.

  5. I agree with "me", there aren't two meanings of faith. There are, however, two meanings of "belief," one synonymous with faith, the other indicating acceptance of a given conclusion in proportion to the available evidence. Guess which one I prefer...

  6. I think Davies is just trying to appeal to a broader segment of the population in order to sell more books.

  7. I guess that means faith (or belief?) in the almighty dollar.

    Though these days faith in the almighty euro might be better.

  8. My dictionary gives the following:
    faith: 1. A confident belief in the truth, value or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
    2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.
    In such a brief definition one has to make some assumptions about what is implied. It would seem that since the second definition specifically mentions lack of proof or evidence, that the 'confidence' mentioned in the first definition is backed by proof or evidence. Otherwise there would be no real distinction.
    To use me's car example, I have "faith" that my car will start because (a) it has started every morning for the last 6 months, and (b) I know the condition of the battery, ignition and starter. But that "faith" is tempered by the knowledge that things could go wrong. I wouldn't bet a million dollars, much less my life, on it starting.
    The other kind of faith is more like, "I have faith that there is a heaven and faith that God will reward me with a place there when I die."
    Two entirely different meanings but Davies tries to equate the two, and I believe he does it on purpose.

    As chris muir asked, "what is Davies' angle here?" It could be seen two ways. If one thinks Faith is good the religion is seen in a good light and science with it's supposedly similar faith is raised to the same level and the opposition to religion by scientists is seen as puzzling. If, on the other hand, one sees Faith as a bad thing, then Davies' argument seems to try to drag science down into the gutter with religion. I'm sure that's not where Davies meant to go but that's the way his argument strikes me.

  9. I have the impression that, when people start this "science is faith too" talk, they are engaging in an interesting, conflicting endeavor. It is clear to me that they do it to bring science to the same level as religion, since science is perceived to have the advantage, to be better (since it's based on, er... reality and facts). Doing that, they implicitly acknowledge that this is the case, and that science, after all, is not such hot stuff. It's just faith, like religion, therefore science has no advantage anymore. Or is it just my impression?

    Anyway, by coincidence today I read something about Brad Pitt's (of all people) faith, and it resounds with what some of you said above. So here goes a bit:

    By the time he entered college, Pitt had scuttled his fundamentalist beliefs. "When I got untethered from the comfort of religion, it wasn't a loss of faith for me, it was a discovery of self," he says. "I had faith that I'm capable enough to handle any situation. There's peace in understanding that I have only one life, here and now, and I'm responsible."
    "What's important to me is that I've defined my beliefs and lived according to them and not betrayed them," he says. "One of those is my belief in family. I still have faith in that."

    From here

  10. The following is from a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon dated 3/6/91.

    Calvin: You know, I don't think math is a science, I think it's a religion.

    Hobbes: A religion?

    Calvin: Yeah. All these equations are like miracles. You take two numbers and when you add them, they magically become one NEW number!
    No one can say how it happens. You either believe it or you don't.
    [Pointing at his math book] This whole book is full of things that have to be accepted on faith! It's a religion!

    Hobbes: And in the public schools no less. Call a lawyer.

    Calvin: [Looking at his homework] As a math athiest, I should be excused from this.

  11. Good one, me.

    I "googled" it and here is a copy.

  12. Well, since microbes can survive in extreme environments that humans cannot, therefore I argue that the universe is "fine-tuned" for microbes.

  13. The Brummen said:
    "Every time I see someone write that this universe is "just right" or "perfect" for life, usually meaning specifically Homo sapiens,...."

    And Tommmy said:
    "Well, since microbes can survive in extreme environments that humans cannot, therefore I argue that the universe is "fine-tuned" for microbes."

    In fairness, I think we should recognize that when they say the universe is fine-tuned for life, at least the more sophisticated intend to claim all life.

    However, doesn't this anthropic principle ignore the possibility that if the laws of physics in the universe were different, then perhaps other forms of life would evolve?

    But Tommy has an excellent point. Various forms of bacteria, insects, and other organisms are probably much more resilient in a variety of different environments.

  14. Hi Sheldon! Yes, you got the point I was trying to make in your last paragraph. Followers of the Abrahamic religions (can I just bundle them together and call it Chrislamicjudaism?) believe that god created the Earth and gave man dominion over it, but one could argue that microbes in fact have dominion over the Earth and if humans serve any purpose at all, it is to serve as hosts for them.

  15. It is the fallacy of equivocation to liken trust in science with blind faith.To agree with Sydney Hook, science is knowledge but faith begs the question in assuming it has knowledge.Faith is the I just say so of credulity.
    One begs the question in assuming God had us in mind when natural selection formed us dysteologicall.
    Dysteology and teleology contradict each other, so theistic evolution is an oxymoron.
    Theists beg questions.

  16. I recognize that my comment is late in the game. However, I read the original article by Davies the day it came out. That afternoon I had a meeting with my local Seular Humanist group and the question was raised "what is the next generation of ID"? I posed the notion that Davies supposition may be just that.

    He posits nothing but silliness as Massimo suggests. Those fellow members of the group who read the same article had the same notions.

  17. It amazes me how the words of the skeptic and faithful are interchangable and yet still point to the inexplicable and I think that's where Davies is going. For example, the statement by Massimo, "scientists do not have “faith” in an orderly universe, as he claims; they reasonably assume that there are explanations for natural phenomena and go about testing that assumption." is redundant. The "assumption" Massimo is talking about is tantamount to Davies' "faith"-it's the same thing. In either case the choice of words are made to support either world view but make no mistake, Massimo has slipped faith in through the back door.

    Davies is a brilliant man-truly brilliant, who is being hen pecked by small minds. His points of the remarkable unlikelihood of inaminate matter generating conscious beings that can retrospectively appreciate the universe that begat it is very thoughtful and should make us all appreciate these profound questions. To brush this off as "silly" is, well, silly.

  18. Jerry, you can re-interpret my words as you wish, but there is a huge distinction between empirically useful (and therefore revisable) assumptions and "faith." I don't doubt Davies is brilliant, but even brilliant people can write silly things.


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