Paul Davies dares to utter the f-word in the context of science:
The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.
And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe…Until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.
If you look at this argument outside the context of the culture wars, where the mere suggestion of faith in science seems synonymous with creationism, it’s actually not such a controversial idea. In fact, the great philosopher V.W.O. Quine pretty much said the same thing more than fifty years ago, when he was busy deconstructing logical positivism. In his seminal paper, “The Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1952), Quine showed that reality only confirms or disconfirms collections of sentences, and not individual words, statements or axioms, as the logical positivists assumed. (For scientists, this means that when you test a specific scientific hypothesis, what you are really testing is a whole theory.) For example, the empirical sentence “The kinase enzyme opens an ion channel” actually conceals a raft of other assumptions. Before we can test this statement, we have to know what electricity is, and what a neuron is, and how the neuronal membrane lets ions shuttle back and forth. (This involves potassium pumps, G-proteins and a long list of complicated accomplices.) We have to learn all of molecular neuroscience before we can begin to test this very elementary fact. When Quine famously wrote that “the unit of empirical significance is the whole of science” he was pointing out that without the web of related knowledge, all scientific statements are pretty meaningless. The truth cannot be isolated into its logical or empirical parts because its very existence depends on the existence of other statements which we also hold to be true. If our knowledge doesn’t hang together, then it all falls apart.
There is one last interesting consequence of Quine’s critique of logical positivism. When Quine came up with his holistic version of knowledge, he also demonstrated that our most necessary scientific principles are actually the least provable. For example, most scientists, when asked what constitutes the starting principles of reality, will probably say something about one of nature’s fundamental laws, like gravity or the theory of natural selection. But these are precisely the same things that we will never see directly. (As Gertrude Stein once wrote, “The laws of science are paper laws, they make believe that they do something.” ) It has been four centuries since Newton discovered the force of gravity, and yet we still don’t know what gravity is made of. Natural selection is not in anything. It can’t be weighed, poked or prodded. The point is not that gravity doesn’t exist, or that natural selection is a myth, but rather that we believe in their existence because they help us explain other things, things that we actually know exist. Gravity explains the orbits of planets, and natural selection elucidates the evolution of life. But if we didn’t have the planets, if we didn’t need to explain the suave motions of stars or the origin of species, then we would have no need to believe in the force of gravity or the theory of natural selection. As Quine says, “The edge of the system [of science] must be kept squared with experience; the rest, with all its elaborate myths or fictions, has as its objective the simplicity of laws.” We accept our starting premises on faith (the invisible yet inviolable laws of science) simply because they help us make sense of totally separate layers of experience.
Whew. You deserve a prize if you’ve made it this far in the post. Basically, that was a long-winded way of saying that a little faith in science isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, one might even say that faith is an essential part of the scientific process.