Inevitable and orderly? Hardly!

To some, the universe is a place that has been fine-tuned to be “‘just right’ for life,” a place where human beings (or at least organisms that are upright bipeds with binocular vision, large eyes, and grasping hands) are an inevitable consequence of evolution. I’ve never found such arguments (the anthropic principle and a teleological “march of progress” in evolution, respectively) to be compelling, but there are some who still advocate such arguments. Paul Davies is one such advocate, and he has just published an opinion article in the New York Times called “Taking Science on Faith” in which he tries to obfuscate the difference between “science” and “faith.”

Before I proceed further, I should probably mention that I am unfamiliar with any of the books Davies has published, although a quick look at the list of works he’s recently authored seem to fit in with the overall idea put forward in his opinion piece. His books The Fifth Miracle, The Mind of God, and most recently Cosmic Jackpot all appear to dabble in anthropic principles, implying that if the laws of chemistry or physics in the universe were only slightly different, life would not exist at all. Such ideas are reminiscent of Gottfried Leibniz’s attempt to reconcile the problem of evil by suggesting that this was the “best of all possible worlds” (a stance parodied by Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide), the general thrust of the idea being that since God is good and created the world, He would have created the best world possible for our existence. There could be no true pleasure, for instance, without pain, and so some pain would have to exist if pleasure (a good thing) to truly exist, Leibniz essentially working backwards for his theological assumptions in order to make sense of suffering in the world. Natural catastrophes, most notably the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, caused philosophers to largely abandon the idea that we are truly in the “best of all possible worlds,” but Davies’ ideas seem to be a spinoff of Leibniz’s earlier faulty reasoning.

Davies stumbles nearly as soon as he leaves the gate in his article. In the second paragraph, Davies writes;

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.

Perhaps it is because I am not a chemist, physicist, cosmologist, or mathematician, but I don’t see any reason to assume that the universe is “ordered in a rational and intelligible way” (tacitly implying that it’s organized in a way just so that we could detect the ordering of the universe). Don’t misunderstand me, the universe is not an eternal “anything can happen day” without laws and thus preventing us from making any predictions whatsoever, but ordering natural phenomena is simply the best way to make sense of it and not everything fits neatly. Taxonomy, for instance, is the way in which we organize extant and extinct life into branching hierarchies which reflect evolution (the goal is to create monophyletic groups). In On the Origin of Phyla James Valentine puts it this way (p. 20);

One reason that hierarchies have been so widely used by biologists to classify entities is that they are able to simply and systematize complexity, ordering complicated entities so that they are more tractable to study.

Indeed, part of the reason why the universe may seem to be “ordered and intelligible” is that we make it so to the best of our ability in order to properly understand it, and there are plenty of things that we do not yet understand. Indeed, science attempts to describe natural phenomena more accurately starting from observations of the natural world, and I can think of no concept in science that has never been modified or changed (many concepts ultimately being discarded in favor of more accurate hypotheses and theories). Davies’ mistake, then, is stating that scientists start with a “faith” that the universe is ordered when it reality scientists are actually asking “Is there order?”, Davies seemingly projecting his own anthropic leanings onto other researchers when many do not share them.

While it might not form a major part of the article, Davies also makes brief reference to “observers like ourselves,” which reminds me of an earlier post I wrote about teleology/orthogenesis in evolution and contingency. Life on earth is incredibly diverse, and there’s no reason to think that humans were “meant” to evolve or are an inevitable consequence of evolution. Briefly using our hypothetical “dinosauroid” as an example, the existence of extant corvids and parrots show that avian dinosaurs* survived the K/T extinction and evolved a high level of intelligence, looking nothing at all like scaly human beings. True, they are not our intellectual equals, but if we’re to suggest that human beings are inevitable then we need to narrowly define “human,” the more narrowly we define human and “intelligent life” the more unusual (and less inevitable) we seem to be. To bring this idea home through a bit of science fiction, evolution does not operate by the rules that worked in the b-movie Planet of Dinosaurs where marooned space travelers happen upon a planet that seems to be going through its own Mesozoic, complete with dinosaurs that are no different from forms that lived on earth. Our own species didn’t have to evolve, nor did many other of the animals that appear in the fossil record. While we cannot actually “replay the tape” to determine what would have happened if different stem lineages survived the Cambrian of if non-avian dinosaurs did not become extinct, if we look at the history of life on earth it is starkly apparent that their are different ways to solve similar evolutionary problems, changing conditions favoring different traits at different times and lacking an vitalistic or orthogenic drive towards “perfection.” Therefore I don’t think Davies can really extend his hypothesis of our universe being just right for life as we have nothing for comparison at the moment; it’s one hypothesis, but evolution does not proceed in an “intelligible and orderly” process (the Cambrian fauna directly refute such an idea). Who knows what might exist on a world where life can arise but the relative abundance of chemicals is starkly different from that on our planet. [I should note here that Davies recently published a Scientific American article about the origin of life, and this previous paragraph is an overall reaction to the idea that humans “must” evolve and not a direct refutation of the ideas of Davies as I do not know if he shares the determinism of Simon Conway Morris, for example.]

* “Dinosaurs” here means avian dinosaurs, as birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs even if some taxonomists still take the “grade” view and don’t reflect this in the Linnean system of classification.

Going back to the anthropic principle, the ideas Davies covers in his piece represent a bit of a tautology; life exists in this universe, so it must be just right for life.(Likewise, if the conditions for life are just right, life will arise.) ‘Round and ’round we go, but what Davies is proposing seems primarily to be an extension of the “rare earth” hypothesis, the hypothetical rarity of a universe that contains life requiring some overarching explanation (which makes no sense if the universe is all that there is). As others have already noted in various posts addressing this piece, it’s also difficult to put a finger on what Davies is asking scientists to do or to prove anyway.

Much of the hubbub over this piece is Davies’ use of the word “faith” as he applies it to “science,” but Davies neglects to define his terms. This sloppiness, as noted before, does little but obfuscate the argument, especially since saying that science requires faith is anathema to many scientists (and rightly so). “Science” has previously meant merely a “system of knowledge” that could be extended to almost any topic, only recently becoming more narrowly defined as a system of acquiring knowledge about the natural world by use of the scientific method. Assumptions are involved in this process, but the assumptions cannot simply be taken on faith, faith not requiring any reason or development of systematic knowledge. When I write about evolution, for instance, I work on the assumption that natural selection is one of its primary mechanisms as the importance of natural selection has been sufficiently proven over and over again, thus I don’t need to reinvent the intellectual wheel every time that I want to talk about evolution. This is not taking natural selection “on faith,” but working on an assumption that has proven to be sufficiently consistent in its utility to describe how evolution proceeds, even being known as the theory of natural selection. Davies makes no such distinction, however, and I can’t help but wonder if his intention was to inflame given that faith is one of at least two f-words (the other being “framing”) that has more to do with the culture war between science and religion than scientific discourse.

The reason why Davies seems intent on saying that the universe is ordered, intelligible, and just right for right is because such ideas seems to be consonant with his own philosophical and theological beliefs, but sharing such beliefs are not a requirement of science. Scientists don’t start with the assumption that the universe is ordered but instead ask “Is there order?” and attempt to make sense of natural phenomena, constantly retesting and revising to develop more accurate explanations. Mike Dunford sums things up more concisely than I can, stating that acknowledging that the statement that the sun will come up tomorrow morning is not a statement of faith (“of things not seen”) but a reasonable prediction based upon prior experience and established observations of the way nature operates. Having faith that this is the “best of all possible [universes],” however, is based upon nothing but preference, and it is as silly now as it was when Dr. Pangloss opined;

It is demonstrable that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles.


  1. #1 Christopher Taylor
    November 25, 2007

    Someday I should have another go at that “why is science based on parsimony?” explanation that I attempted at Palaeos. Basically, scientists don’t really on parsimonious principles because of an inherent belief that the universe is inherently simple (indeed, my general impression is that it is not), but because parsimony is a limiting factor and there is usually only one most parsimonious explanation that can then be tested to see if it holds up to reality. On the contrary, there is no limit to the number of non-parsimonious explanations we can come up with for something.

    A: “I have a unicorn in my back yard”
    B: “I don’t see a unicorn there”.
    A: “It must have left already”
    B: “But no-one saw it leave”
    A: “It must have left while everyone happened to blink simultaneously, so no-one saw it”
    B: “But a thorough search of the surrounding area reveals no sign of a unicorn”
    A: “Then the unicorn must be a perfect chameleon, able to change its colour to perfectly match its background and so become invisible”…

    Ad nauseam.

  2. #2 H. Humbert
    February 13, 2008

    Science is applied skepticism. Anyone who attempts to mix science with their own credulity is “doing it wrong.” In the words of the great Richard Feynman: “The first principle [of science] is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    Davies fails to understand that the true power of science is its ability to separate truth from what we merely believe to be true.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.