Saturday, November 24, 2007

Faith in Science

Paul Davies has an op-ed in today's New York Times on how today's science—cosmology in particular—involves a large dose of faith. He points out that the belief in ordered, rational laws governing the universe is a matter of faith. He rightly points out that this assumption originates in the Christian cultural matrix.

But from where do the laws themselves originate? The origin of physical law has a renewed salience because of the fine-tuning of the universe for life. The modern, secularist alternative to a Creator is a "multiverse" in which the laws of physics just happen to be suited to life in our part of the cosmos, but are different and inhospitable to life elsewhere. Davies rightly points out the problems in this "explanation":

The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. 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.

This comment is spot-on, but unfortunately he stops making sense near the end of the piece.

And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

The breakdown of Davies's argument shows that he is unaware of an additional level of faith inherent to science. As I've written here before, scientific knowledge is based on specialized experience; the rest of us take on faith what scientists report to us as the results of their experiments. Even scientists' "knowledge" requires faith in a web of others' results that no one could reproduce in a single lifetime. Philosophy on the other hand—natural philosophy especially—is (properly) based on experiences common to all healthy adults. We can go through the reasoning process ourselves based on our own experiences; there is no faith involved.1 Philosophy is the "missing link" that should bridge the gap between science and religion.

Philosophy should provide the common language in the "science-religion" dialog, of which Davies is a noted participant. Until there is a common language, the only possible results are, on the one hand, shouting matches, such as Richard Dawkins inspires, and, on the other hand, religion servilely submitting to science's demonstrable domination of the sensible world. The latter is the form that this so-called dialog typically takes these days.

Were Davies philosophically educated, he would realize the nonsense of expecting physical laws to have an explanation within the universe. Nothing in the universe explains its own existence—this is a matter not of faith, but of philosophy; it requires no faith.

Furthermore he would realize that since the object of modern physics is the quantifiable aspect of natural, moving things, physics itself can never rise to the level of answering "why does anything exist?".2 This and like questions are metaphysical; metaphysics properly rests on natural philosophy but transcends it to speak of immaterial things, things that do not change.

We can all eagerly hope that Davies takes some time to learn a little philosophy. But until he does, we can at least applaud Davies's assault on the "faithless" pretensions of scientists.


1. Davies says in the opening paragraph, "In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue." Davies's piece rejects the notion that science requires no faith, but it is not clear that he sees any reason in religion, which would itself be a problem in his worldview. The idea that faith and reason stand in opposition is a caricature of the Protestant Christian conception of the relationship of revelation and reason.

2. Nothing becoming something is not a motion (motion involves already existing things), and is thus unquantifiable (not even zero or null captures "nothing", since those two concepts imply the possibility of something, and absolute "nothing" includes not even possibilities). Anything that exists necessarily is for that reason eternal and the eternal is outside the purview of modern science, as it cannot be experienced by finite beings like ourselves, either directly or with instruments.

Paul Davies, "Taking Science on Faith," New York Times (November 24, 2007).

Friday, November 16, 2007

Nanogenerators—for Good or Ill

I'm rather late reporting on this, but it's such an important development, that it cannot go unnoted. Scientists have developed a way to power nanodevices off ambient vibrations. The device consists of zinc oxide nanowires whose movement generates a tiny electrical current via the piezoelectric effect.

The salutary uses are the most obvious, and of course the ones touted by the inventor:

But Wang believes the nano-generator could be ideal for powering tiny devices, including those that may be implanted inside the human body. "Imagine self-powered force-sensors implanted in blood vessel walls, taking your blood pressure. Or generators in your shoes that can charge devices while you walk," he says.

Almost any device that could use a wireless, mobile power source could potentially use the nanogenerator, Wang says: "I have full confidence that within three years we will have something that is useful commercially." (New Scientist)

Whether or not Wang's prediction proves true, the fact of this technology marks a decisive change in the possibilities for the kind of technology we can implant in the human body. No longer will machines in vivo be limited to bulky external power supplies or the chemical dangers of miniature batteries.

But imagine the harm that could be done if someone designed a malicious device that could be implanted in your body. Perhaps a self-replicating nanomachine—essentially a human-made micro-organism. As always, technological development expands the possibility not only for good, but also for unparalleled mischief.

Kevin Bullis, "Nano-generator could power tiny devices," Technology Review (April 27, 2006).

Michael Reilly, "Free Electricity from Nano Generators," New Scientist (05 April 2007).

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Politics and Morality

In the November issue of First Things, Richard John Neuhaus has a great article on "The Politics of Bioethics." He makes a number of points that those of us advocating an objective standard of morality should keep in mind in discussing bioethical issues.

First, how should we talk about human dignity?

For that purpose, then, is the concept of human dignity useful? The better phrase is “the dignity of the human person.” “Human dignity” may suggest the collective and include efforts such as taking technological charge of the evolution of the human species. “The dignity of the human person” places the accent on the individual—although, to be sure, the individual situated in community. The dignity of the human person may entail an important, although limited, measure of autonomy. Dignity as autonomy features strongly in, for instance, arguments for “death with dignity.” Morally, however, the dignity of the human person is affirmed most significantly not in the assertion of one’s own autonomy but in the protection of others who are most subject to having their dignity violated. Therefore, in bioethics as in medicine more generally, the first rule is “Do no harm.” That first rule enjoins us to protect and maintain something that is recognized as good simply in its being.

Second, that politics is inherently a moral undertaking.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and his Politics are both discourses on morality. From them we can derive this definition of politics: Politics is free persons deliberating the question, How ought we to order our life together? The ought in that suggested definition clearly indicates that politics is (in its nature, if not always in its practice) a moral enterprise. Our political vocabulary—what is fair or unfair, what is just or unjust, what serves the common good—is inescapably a moral vocabulary. Contra David Hume and many others, it is not so obvious that an ought cannot be derived from an is. In the ordinary experience of individuals and communities, it is done with great regularity. Neither agreement nor consensus is required on all the details of “whatever it is about human beings that entitles them to basic human rights and freedoms.” People who explain the “whatever it is” in quite different ways can agree on what ought and ought not be done to human beings.

Third, that what poses as a debate is over the beginning of human life should be recognized for what it actually is: a debate over which humans the state will recognize the human rights of.

The moral question is not, as the court majority claimed, about when a human life begins. That is a biological and medical question on which there is no serious dispute. The moral question can be put this way: At what point in its existence ought we, and for what reasons ought we, to recognize that a human life should be protected in law?

On this issue, if no other, Peter Singer has it right. As the noted Princeton advocate of infanticide said in a June 20, 2005, letter to the New York Times rebuking Mario Cuomo for his confused thinking about abortion: “The crucial moral question is not when human life begins, but when human life reaches the point at which it merits protection. . . . Unless we separate these two questions—when does life begin, and when does it merit protection?—we are unlikely to achieve any clarity about the moral status of embryos.”

That moral question is also and unavoidably a political question. One might make the case that it is the most fundamental of political questions. If politics is deliberating how we ought to order our life together, there can hardly be a more basic question than this: Who belongs to the we? Although ostensibly removing it from politics, the abortion decisions forced into the political arena an issue that was thought to have been settled in the centuries of civilizational tradition of which our polity is part. Namely, that it is morally wrong and rightly made unlawful to deliberately kill unborn children.

I've only drawn out the three most outstanding points, but there's much, much more to recommend the article. The entire piece is well worth reading and is a valuable contribution to current discussions on bioethics and the right to life.

Richard John Neuhaus, "The Politics of Bioethics" First Things (November 2007), 23-28.