John Lee Super-Understander

In an article in yesterday’s New York Times, Paul Davies claims that science is hypocritical in decrying faith, because (he says) it too is based on a different sort of faith. His argument, though, seems both disingenuous with its science (Davies is a physicist, so he certainly would know this) and rather slippery in defining its key terms.

Davies claims that “science has its own faith-based belief system” because it “proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way.” He continues: “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.”

The problem here is a confusion of “expectation” with “faith.” The reason no scientist is likely to think that “the universe was a meaningless jumble” is that, so far as science can determine based on its observations to date, it isn’t – and that any such “meaningless jumble” would be, by the very fact that so many patterns and forces have been established, a local exception, probably ultimately explainable by a higher-order organization (science has done quite a lot to explain the seemingly random: see chaos theory). That’s not “faith” – that’s reason. There is no rational reason to expect a large-scale exception to what has already been plentifully established.

Davies goes on to argue that “the idea that [scientific] laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are.” Reason is a tool. It is a mode of understanding phenomena. It is not an originating principal. The world may be ordered logically, but that does not mean a logical being ordered it (one implication of Davies’ ideas); nor does it mean there are “reasons things are as they are.” Davies here switches the meaning of the word “reason” from “a mode of thinking” to “a cause” without noting the switch. The two meanings are not equivalent.

Davies makes a similar move concerning the notion of “laws.” He writes, “a God’s-eye view might reveal a vast patchwork quilt of universes, each with its own distinctive set of bylaws. In this ‘multiverse,’ life will arise only in those patches with bio-friendly bylaws, so it is no surprise that we find ourselves in a Goldilocks universe — one that is just right for life. We have selected it by our very existence.” Uh, no: we haven’t “selected” it – we exist because it exists, with conditions ripe for our existence. That’s an odd definition of “selecting.” The multiverse theory, however, addresses what some people perceive as a problem: the fact that had certain variables in the early moments of the universe been infinitesimally different, life as we know it would not have evolved. What are the odds, these people say, that all those factors would have come together at random? There must be a higher, ordering power, they argue – by which they typically mean God.

That’s always seemed like an odd question to me. Let’s say you program a calculator to come up with a random number between 1 and 1,000,000. The calculator comes up with the number 50,392. You fiddle around with that number for a bit, enumerating its properties, its multiples and divisors and so forth…and then you exclaim, why look, this number has all these particular properties! How likely is it that a random process could have coughed up just these properties? Now imagine (pretend it’s an animated cartoon illustrating mathematical principles) that those various properties of 50,392 are presented as living beings. They’re all running around exclaiming how amazing it is that they exist. But it’s not extraordinary at all – or rather, that the number is 50,392 is exactly as extraordinary as if it had been 672,911, 15, 4,887, or 999,999: a million to one, each with its own set of properties. Even if there’s only ever been one universe, obviously it’s the one we have. You can call it 50,392 if you like. The multiverse theory makes this a little more comprehensible (in some ways): perhaps all those other universes once existed, exist in dimensions inaccessible to us, etc. Once again: we’re here because this particular universe is conducive to our existence. For all we know, billions of other universes exist, have existed, or will exist which aren’t.

Davies argues that the multiverse theory doesn’t really explain much, since, he says, “there has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.” Well, yes: but he’s moved from the question of “why are we here?” (emphasis on “here”) to “why are there ‘heres’?” Those aren’t the same question. Davies is essentially complaining that science has not answered, and likely cannot answer, every question. But science doesn’t claim to be able to do that, so far as I understand it: science claims to provide answers – the best, contingent ones possible given the current state of data – to those questions that we understand sufficiently to provide workable theories (i.e., about which we can make predictable statements). When Davies asks “where do they come from?” he’s implicitly suggesting that it’s absurd not to imagine some Ultimate Source. He seems to be smuggling God, in an unmarked package, through the back door. At least I suspect this is how many readers will understand him (even though elsewhere he describes himself as an agnostic).

What I’ve never understood about this approach to religion is the belief of its adherents that it answers anything at all. “Where did all those laws and principles come from? They must have come from God!” Okay…so where did God come from? “God doesn’t ‘come from’ anywhere: God is infinite, universal, and eternal, without beginning or end.” In place of science’s “I don’t know,” we have an “answer” that isn’t an answer at all: it’s a semantic gesture, in which “God” is defined as “that which evades all logical questions about origin or causality, being defined as beyond all that.” But you might as well just shrug your shoulders and say I don’t know for all the insight such a definitional gesture gets you. It’s merely answering the question with a name, a name delineating attributes that deflect rather than answer the question.

Back to Davies. Confirming our suspicion as to the contents of that unmarked package, he writes that “the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.”

First, I’m not sure that Christians typically believe that God created the universe “in a rational way” – I’m not even sure what that would mean. I suspect Davies means that Christians see the order in the universe as evidence of an order-giver. But in this passage, Davies is confusing “law” in the juridical sense with “law” as it’s used in science. There’s really only a coincidental similarity between the sort of “universal, perfect, immutable laws” some Christians might assert and scientific laws. The religious laws are more like juridical laws, in that they’re envisioned more or less as God saying, it shall be so in this manner, and so it is. Gravity does what it does, electrons do their thing, because God ordered them so. But a scientific “law” is merely a description, derived from many repeated observations, of the way something is. It does not assert a lawgiver or anything else beyond the observable universe.

Some more linguistic sleight of hand: while Christians might indeed envision God as existing “beyond” the universe, the “transcendent realm” of mathematics is not “beyond” the universe in the same sense. Again: mathematical laws describe the universe. That doesn’t mean they exist beyond or outside it. As well say that grammarians are positing something eternal and “beyond the universe” when they describe the grammar of a text: after all, the text itself says nothing about nouns, verbs, or dependent clauses.

I’m not so sure why it’s such a huge problem to accept that we humans, living here in this physical universe, simply can’t understand certain concepts: never mind “eternity,” even understanding “a trillion years” is well beyond most people’s capacity to imagine. Which is easier: to understand a universe that has no outside, has no beyond…or to understand the notion of an “outside” that’s somehow not part of the universe? I’d say neither notion is very comprehensible within our logic. So we posit a Super-Understander, one who can make sense of all this, one who can grasp trillions of years and trillions of light-years – and we give it a name, so we can thereby embody it and bring it down to earth. That’s understandable, and not what I have a problem with where religion is concerned (although it’d be nice if it were understood as happening that way). What I can’t understand is the peculiar – and rather astonishingly hubristic – notion that we can take this inconceivable and infinite Super-Understander – whose very existence in our minds comes from a need to at least have something understand and comprehend what we cannot – and fold it between the pages of a book, put it on a leash, and use it to police our bounds, all the while imagining we know what this Super-Understander we call God wants us to do, how He wants us to worship it (a peculiarly human attribute for an omniscient being), and that we know exactly which little rituals and localized lists of sins He endorses. (There may be eminently human, and humane, reasons to do the things religions typically enjoin us to do – but that’s a separate issue from whether God wants us to do them.) Does it never occur to religionists how arrogant they are – if the God they believe in exists, with all the attributes they imagine Him with – to pretend to be able to know His mind?

That is a far higher irrationality than science shrugging its shoulders and saying, you know, we just don’t know yet. At least that answer is honest, and appropriately humble.

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1 Comment

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One response to “John Lee Super-Understander

  1. yellojkt

    The anthropic principle has been messing with the heads of stoned college freshman for decades, so it’s little wonder that a thinly veiled fundamentalist would latch on to it.

    Step away from the bong, Davies.

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