I have a rule (Wilkins’ Law #35, I think) that if any scientist is going to draw unwarranted metaphysical conclusions, it will be a physicist, and in particular a cosmologist. Witness Paul Davies in the New York Times.
Davies wants to argue something like this:
Premise: there are laws of the universe and we cannot explain the existence of laws
Premise: the assumption that laws are to be found is the basis for doing science
Conclusion: Ergo, science rests on an act of faith
Can anyone spot the enthymeme? That’s very good, children. You spotted the easy mistake. Davies moves from “assume that there are laws” to “make an act of faith”, as a number of the advanced students in other classes did. Assumptions are not acts of faith, they are the starting point for an act of reasoning. Well done.
But did you spot the difficult mistake? Anyone? Bueller?
OK, let me take you through it.
Suppose I say something like this – “Fido is a black Labrador”. I describe and name Fido for you. Is it an assumption that names exist in the physical world? Descriptions? Does the act of naming Fido mean that we must now explain the essence of Fidoness? Or, for that matter Labradority? Of course not. To say that would be to confuse the name or description with the thing named or described. This is what Alfred North Whitehead once called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”, also known as the Fallacy of Reification (by me, anyway). Take words and declare them properties of the universe.
Now, what does Davies say? He says “there are laws of the universe” that rely on a belief in the rationality of the universe. But like Fido, the universe just is – it has a structure (which is what extreme physics tries to explain). We describe this structure in terms of laws. Sure, we assume that the universe has a structure, for without that assumption we cannot gather knowledge (imagine if the sun rose when it felt like it, or pigs flew), but the description of laws is just a provisional summary of what we now know. Just as there is no Fidoness other than the dog standing in front of you, there is no “lawfulness” out there in the universe, just a structured world. We find out that structure, but we no more need to make an act of faith to do this than we need to believe that 1 plus 1 will equal 2; it is a necessary presumption in order for the business of science to get going, but it is most definitely not a metaphysical foundation.
That’s not to say you couldn’t make it a metaphysical foundation if you liked, and clearly Davies likes, but it need not be. To say other wise is to confuse the knowledge with the thing known (or, in philosophese, epistemology for ontology).
It’s a common mistake made by scientists (and more than a few philosophers and others). I find it in taxonomy, where people argue over the “reality” of a taxon when they are in fact discussing the warrantability of a diagnosis of a taxon. But nullius in verba as the motto of the Royal Society has it. Nothing in words Take no one’s word. As Maynard Smith used to say to lunchers in his cafeteria, “Are you discussing words, or the world? If it is the world, I will stay, but if it is words, I will go”.
Let us go, and leave the confused physicist to his own meanderings.