Paul Davies has written a curious op-ed that has been blithely published by the New York Times. I’m not sure why the NYT saw fit to publish it, except that Davies does have a reputation as a popularizer of physics, and as something of an apologist for deism; they certainly couldn’t have chosen to print it on its merits. His argument is the tired and familiar claim that science has to be taken on faith, so it’s just like religion. I recall hearing variants on this back in the schoolyard, usually punctuated with “nyaa nyaas” and assertions about each others’ mothers, and while we may not have said much about science, the principle was the same. Citing a false equivalency is a cheap argument, but not very credible.
Davies lost my respect for his thesis early on, from the first sentence actually, but I’ll focus instead on this claim from his second paragraph: “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.” Perhaps this is where not being a physicist has the virtue of a different perspective, because I can say without reservation that he’s completely wrong — in a historical science like evolutionary biology, we have no problem when we encounter a phenomenon that isn’t orderly or rational, and that has all the appearance of haphazard meaninglessness. We’re accustomed to seeing simple chance as a strong thread running throughout biological history.
Pattern and order are important too, of course, but when looking at the appearance of some particular feature we have to be prepared for the possibility that it is not a consequence of some orderly progression — perhaps it just happened that way. I can’t imagine that my physicist colleagues* are any different, and that they would be horrified to discover that physical order was “rooted in reasonless absurdity”. That would be interesting. If that is the way the universe is, that is what science will try to grapple with (admittedly, we might have serious difficulties grappling with total chaos, but no one claims that science can have answers for everything). That Davies seems to believe that order must rule everywhere and at every level is a stronger presupposition than is warranted by a scientific approach, and sounds remarkably theological…and I don’t think Davies would object to the charge of theology, although he clearly thinks the only good science fits his theological model.
But then Davies does have this notion that that the concept of physical laws is derived from Christian doctrine — that science is rooted in attempts to define the actions of a supernatural lawgiver who imposes a kind of universal consistency on everything. As a historical argument, and as a psychological description of the way the minds of people like Newton worked, I can go along with that; but as an assumption that this expectation of a universal order must reflect a universal reality, I disagree. If the laws of physics were subtly different in Egypt than in Greece, we would have developed an empirical physics that took that into account; that certain laws are constant everywhere is just what is, as empirically determined by scientific observation. A geologist, a biologist, an anthropologist, and a historian will also be able to tell you that there are many things that are quite different between Egypt and Greece, and yet variation does not mean those sciences fail.
Alas, Davies also brings up the anthropic principle, that tiresome exercise in metaphysical masturbation that always flounders somewhere in the repellent ditch between narcissism and solipsism. When someone says that life would not exist if the laws of physics were just a little bit different, I have to wonder…how do they know? Just as there are many different combinations of amino acids that can make any particular enzyme, why can’t there be many different combinations of physical laws that can yield life? Do the experiment of testing different universes, then come talk to me. Until then, claiming that the anthropic principle, an undefined mish-mash of untested assumptions, supports your personal interpretation of how the universe exists and came to be is a self-delusional error.
I’m also always a bit disappointed with the statements of anthropic principle proponents for another reason. If these are the best and only laws that can give rise to intelligent life in the universe, why do they do such a lousy job of it? Life is found in one thin and delicate film on one planet in this mostly empty region of space, and even if there are other fertile planets out there, they will be nearly impossibly distant, and life will be just as fragile and prone to extinction there as here. Even on this world, all of the available environments favor bacteria over scientists or theologians, and said scientists and theologians have existed for only about 0.00001% of the lifetime of this universe, and are prone to wink out of existence long before we can get rid of one of the zeroes in that number. If I wanted to argue for a position on the basis of the anthropic principle, rather than trying to pretend that we live in a Goldilocks universe, we should be wondering how we ended up in such a hostile dump of a universe, one that favors endless expanses of frigid nothingness with scattered hydrogen molecules over one that has trillions of square light years of temperate lakefront property with good fishing, soft breezes, and free wireless networking.
Maybe Davies has faith in science, but I don’t. I take it as it comes. I have expectations and hypotheses, but these are lesser presuppositions than what is implied by faith—and I’m also open to the possibility that any predictions I might make will fail. Perhaps if Davies weren’t so obsessed with equating his religion with his science, he wouldn’t be blind to the fact that most scientists don’t see his god in the operation of the universe.
*I see that at least one of my physicist colleagues agrees — Sean Carroll’s reply makes the same point. If you want more perspectives than that, Edge is compiling contributions, and Mark Hoofnagle, Janet Stemwedel, and Dave Bacon have weighed in at Scienceblogs.