The Arrogant Humility of Scientific Inquiry (Part 2 of 2)

Posted on 2012/02/26

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Feature Image - The Arrogant Humility of Scientific Inquiry (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second of two articles where I respond to the various accusations that, somehow, science is ‘arrogant’.

The first article can be found here. In it, I listed four common challenges to scientific arrogance, and responded to the first three.

The remaining challenge was:

(4) ‘It is arrogant to suppose that there are rules to the universe which extend throughout time and space.’

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(4) This is the objection most frequently used ‘sophisticated theologians’, motivated by the desire to prise open a philosophical crack large enough to wedge in the creator of the universe.

I choose my parade example of this view as Corey S. Powell’s absurd and confusing book ‘God in the Equation’.[4]

I say absurd, because it contains a great deal of high-fidelity history of cosmology, yet the author has some idea that he has identified a ‘new faith’, and gives it the clunky name ‘sci/religion‘.

If that isn’t off-putting enough, let me warn anyone thinking of reading the book that you should expect a rapid succession of head-on collisions between religious and scientific terminology. Here’s a mere glimpse of the carnage:

  • ‘Einstein preached the doctrines of unity, simplicity, and universality.’ [p3]
  • ‘In Einstein’s finite universe, there is no escaping the authority of science.’ [p13]
  • ‘In Einstein’s cosmology, we are unified with the spirit of the universe.’ [p29]
  • ‘[Alan] Guth added a major new spiritual element into cosmology – an early episode of rapid expansion called “inflation” – to introduce a necessary balance to the big bang.’ [p31]
  • ‘Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the discovery of the expanding universe elevated the scientific spiritualism to a whole new plane.’ [p34]
  • ‘What all the modern scientific thinkers have in common is a faith that scientific inquiry lives where religion once ruled, back to the moment of cration. They are all driven by a holy conviction that they are on the quest toward absolute cosmological truth…’ [p44]
  • Like Abraham, Einstein had heard the divine call, and now he was ready to proclaim his faith to the world. [p55]
  • A scientific prophet‘s claim becomes credible only when his predictions come true… [p67]
  • If Einstein was a prophet, Leavitt and her ilk were the quiet upholders of the faith who went out and witnessed science’s miraculous power to bring the distant galaxies within reach. They spread the gospel by systematically attaching numbers to the different parts of the universes. [pp102-103]
  • As the Temple of Einstein has grown steadily more powerful and compelling, its congregation has renounced much of the vibrant language it borrowed from old-time religion. [p242]
  • The Temple of Einstein has no holy ground; it operates on faith alone. [p244]

Poor old Einstein.

It is difficult to determine if these phrases have been chosen with care, or whether the first draft was plunged into a pot of glue mixed with clippings from an ecumenical thesaurus.  Either way, the oxymorons don’t stick, either on the page, or in the reader’s mind.

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Amongst all this nonsense, Powell frequently charges scientists (especially cosmologists) with (4), as outlined above. For example:

  • He write of ‘Newton’s faith in uniformity’ when inventing a description of gravitation that unified terrestrial and celestial phenomena. [p43]
  • Einstein’s attempt to describe the structure of the universe is presumptuous because, ‘[o]f course, any attempt to understand this world necessarily has a subjective human element – at the very least, an element of faith in the comprehensibility of the natural world.’ [p45]
  • Writing about Henrietta Leavitt‘s discovery of the period-luminosity relationship of Cepheid variable stars, he says, ‘Her research rested on the same kinds of optimistic assumptions as Einstein’s 1917 cosmology. She believed in the constancy of physical law across time and space. She believed in the ultimate knowability of the universe.’ [p102]
  • ‘The big bang implid that the universe evolves over time, which implied that natural laws might also evolve over time. Such evolution would undermine the repeatability of experiments and so undermine the cornerstone of scientific method.’ [p163]
  • ‘[The Supernova Cosmology Project and High-Z teams'] findings rely on a tremendous leap of faith in the knowability of the universe and in the reliability of their understanding of it.’ [p228]
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To being to describe what is wrong with this view of scientific inquiry, let me start by restating the conclusion of my previous article:
  • We can’t be certain if there are rules to the universe.
  • We can’t be certain if we have the correct rules (even if we did have them).
  • Therefore, we can’t sensibly claim to know when a rule has been broken, and any claim to a miracle can be no more than a guess.

If these are accepted, then it should be clear that we can’t know with certainty that there are ‘objective’ rules that extend through time and space. It is a guess.

Let me then rephrase Powell’s charge, which is linked to (4):

(4A) ‘It a matter of faith to accept that there are rules to the universe which extend throughout time and space.’

I think this is incorrect. I don’t think this is a matter of faith, equal in stature to a belief in the Christian God, or other religious matters.

Popper puts it by suggesting that although we can’t know the “uniformity of nature” with certainty, we might (and should) apply a, ”methodological rule [that]… natural laws… are to be invariant with respect to space and time.”[5]

By methodological rule, he means that it is useful to act as though it were true, even if we cannot be certain of this. Indeed, this is at the heart of everything we do when we try to formulate physical laws.

For example, when we find one of our theories to be incorrect – when it becomes falsified by experiments - what do we do about it? We try to figure out a new pattern that incorporates the new findings, as well as everything that has come before. We try to find patterns that are time invariant.

When we look into deep space and observe cosmological events that falsify a physical theory, we try to analyze what occurred and figure out which of our ideas it contradicts. If possible, we might experiment on Earth to try to see if we can identify which of our ideas are incorrect. If we find it, we might guess a new idea so terrestrial and celestial occurrences yield to the same pattern. We try to find patterns that are space invariant.

These aren’t arbitrary decisions.

The attempt to sort out the universe’s occurrences into patterns derives from a wish to predict and control our own environment. This is something we do to try to gain a better command of our well-being. It is an ethical consideration.

Of course, successful predictions of future events and untravelled locations is vital to this program. This is why Newton searched for a pattern that unified celestial and terrestrial gravitation, and Franklin did the same for electrical phenomena. It’s how we protect ourselves from lightning strikes. It’s how we got to the moon.

Thus, “[w]hat we should say is, rather, that it is part of our definition of natural laws if we postulate that they are to be invariant with respect to space and time; and also if we postulate that they are to have no exceptions.”[6]

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But is this faith? Well, we could never demonstrate the truth or falsity of this claim. Nor could we demonstrate the truth or falsity of the negation: ‘nature is not uniform’.

Yet, if you prefer to take the latter of these methodological rules, how would you know how to partition the universe? Where will you draw the boundary lines in time and space? At the edge of the galaxy? Every 1 million years?

How will you decide when an occurrence falsifies a present theory, or is just part of a different epoch or a separate realm?

Do these different magesteria operate under different rules? What would these rules be? How would we speculate about them so the ideas are open to falsification?

Hopefully you consider these questions to be absurd. Not because the ‘non-uniformity of nature’ is known to be false, but because it is a useless methodological rules. It turns physics into blind cartography.

Conjecturing that the universe is comprehensible, and we can predict future events with spatio-temporally invariant laws is a very bold and ambitious assertion. But ambition is not arrogance, when faced with no useful alternative.

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Conclusion

You might protest that although ‘uniformity of nature’ is a useful supposition, it is still unprovebale, and therefore a matter of faith.

I don’t wish to dispute the definition of words, yet think there is a distinction worth making between religious faith and scientific methodology. It is an ethical distinction.

Previously, I made a case, using the same scientific methodology, for the impossibility of knowing when a miracle has occurred. If you think I am correct about this, and I am correct in supposing the uniformity of nature, you agree because you share the same ethical values.

You share the same the ethics that suppose only we can better ourselves. That we are rising apes. And you share the same ethical view that it is irresponsible to suppose that outside help will intervene and fix our problems. That it is ethically irresponsible to speculate additional problems beyond our deaths, that require costly investment from our lifetimes.

Rephrased in this way, I hope you see that these methodological rules are not faith, but the rejection of any kind of faith that supposes solutions to our problems lie beyond human inquiry.

Scientific methodology is not faith – it usurps it.

References

[4] Powell, Corey S (2002) ‘God in the Equation’ New York: Free Press

[5] Popper, Karl R (1959) ‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery’ London: Hutchinson p 253

[6] Ibid.