Paul Davies essay in the New York Times on “Taking Science on Faith” is sure to raise some hackles from the science community. Me, I’d just like to point out how silly some of Davies arguments specifics are. Yes, its another edition of “Nitpickers Paradiso.”
Davies begins with a mantra yelled by theists ever since science began getting things right and removing the need for supernatural explanation (here done valley girl style): “But, like, what you’re doing must be taken, like, on faith because, like, why do you have, like, faith in science? Wah! Wah!” But lets skip ahead and not deal with the substance of Davies argument (which I find rather unconvincing, and in portions downright deceitful in its use of the vagaries of language: certainly his use of the word “faith” differs markedly from my evangelical friends use of the word as does his use of the word “science” from that used by my scientific friends) and instead find someplace where we can really nitpick Davies to death.
Ah, here we go
Part of the reason is the growing acceptance that the emergence of life in the universe, and hence the existence of observers like ourselves, depends rather sensitively on the form of the laws. If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.
This is exactly the kind of baloney that makes me scream every time I see a talk on the anthropic principle (Stephen Hawkings makes me cry!)
First of all sentences like the above show the kind of lack of quantification that is the hallmark of bad scientific philosophizing everywhere. I mean what does it mean “sensitively on the form of the laws?” Does he mean the value of the coupling constants in the standard model? And what evidence is there that if, say, the fine structure constant were different by one part in ten trillion would we not exist as we currently do? Okay, so you say, the anthropic principle will just say that the parameters need to be in a certain range. But notice what Davies is saying. He’s saying that “the form of the laws” is important. Worse than assuming a final theory, which we don’t currently have, Davies has assumed that there is some notion of the the laws of physics over which one can talk about the parameters being just right.
But do we really know that quantum field theory, or string theory, or loop quantum gravity is the correct “form” of the laws of physics. No. The space of physical laws is a lot bigger than just the space of possible Lagrangians for the standard model. And I’m pretty sure that the space of all laws of physics is a might bit more problematic to pen down, parameterize, and say that our universe is the way it is because it if weren’t that way we won’t exist. Since we don’t have a “final” physical theory, it makes little sense to talk about how it is fine tuned (like fine tuning next years Lexus before it has been built.) Anthropic reasoning (of the type Davies employs) shows the kind of uncreative thinking about possible physical theories which I personally find deeply authoritarian and drives me bonkers. If however, Davies would like to show me some research showing a parameterization of the possible laws of physics which goes beyond simple parameters in a string theory or a quantum field theory Lagrangian, I’d be happy to hear the research and to learn why it is that quantum field theory is such an effect description of low energy physics.