Science, Faith and Reality

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Hebrews 11:1

The Catholic saint and philosopher Thomas Aquinas would probably roll over in his grave, or at least roll his eyes, at the modern state of the faith and science debate.   Aquinas lived in the 13th century CE but his views would make those of most contemporary fundamentalists seem outright archaic.  Aquinas dedicated his life to his faith, and to a belief in God inspired by divine scripture, but he also believed in science.  When there was a conflict between science and scripture there was a need to reconcile the two.  Aquinas would put more weight on science to determine the proper interpretation of scripture, but today’s evangelicals choose to deny science whenever it doesn’t fit the most literal of all interpretations of their religion.

This is what philosopher Soren Kierkegaard would have called “blind faith,” and though his views were contrarian to those of Aquinas is many ways,  blind faith was not something that Kierkegaard endorsed.  Kierkegaard thought a life without faith was a hollow one and that a reasonable version of faith was necessary to live.  He compared this kind of faith to the one we have in a lover.  Romantic love is not something that can be calculated and predicted but requires a person to take a leap into the unknown.  People who deny the relevance of this simple analogy I find absolutely maddening.

Increasingly, partially as a reaction to religious fundamentalism in the west and misguided ethnocentric fears about religious extremism elsewhere in the world, we are seeing people who claim just this.  The idea is that science can solve all our problems and give us all the meaning we need, either by defining science in such a broad way that it can be said to answer questions about ethics, meaning, and how we should live, or dismissing any nonscientific question as meaningless or “malformed” in its conception.

I’m not a religious person, nor do I buy the “non-overlapping magisteria” argument put forth by scientists like Stephen Jay Gould and Albert Einstein.  I think there are definitely questions that religion tries to tackle that science cannot answer, though I do not think religion the only means of tackling those questions.  I also think there are some direct conflicts between religion and science that are very hard to reconcile, and when I read thinkers like Ian Barbour try to make the case for science and religion being completely compatible I find myself seeing problems with their arguments almost immediately.

This puts me in a weird position.  I defend faith, because I agree with the assertions made by Kierkegaard, but I do not choose his brand of Christian faith to live by.  Defending faith has become interchangeable with defending religion, though I find the kind of free thought that I am actually defending to be just the kind of thing that many religions try to squash.  Ultimately, what I think I am defending is a kind of pluralism, and what I am opposing is both a theological absolutism and shallow scientism.    What I find is that it is an argument that people in either camp want to dismiss outright, or either greatly misunderstand.

I thought about these issues again while reading Jim Baggott’s Farewell to Reality.  Baggott’s book is not about religion, but he ends up mentioning the concepts of faith, metaphysics and theology throughout the book.  This is partially because Baggott is arguing to a scientific audience, and he knows that the vast majority of scientists consider these concepts, despite whether they are materialist atheists or have religious or spiritual beliefs, to not be part of the process of science, no matter what validity they have elsewhere.  By making a parallel between  these matters and what Baggott is arguing against, which for the record is M theory, string theory and the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, made me reexamine how I looked at these issues and seemed to open up some interesting questions about the limitations of science that the book never addresses.

This has nothing to do with the quality of Baggott’s book.  It is a well argued and well reasoned book, and Baggott is a former physics professor turned science writer, so he knows the issues involved.  The thing that makes this argument about science difficult is that his book is really a book of philosophy.  Baggott seems to know this, and he spends a great deal of time making arguments about what science is, but like most philosophical arguments it has its problems.

At the beginning of the book, for instance, Baggott argues that scientific realism is an article of faith.  It fits Kierkegaard’s definition of reasonable faith because it comes from our experience.  Science has been very successful and as the famous “no miracles” argument goes, it would be a miracle if science were as successful as it was while not reflecting  objective reality in some way.  Though as solid as this faith may seem it still is indeed faith because it is not testable and this is what Baggott uses to illustrate the divide between faith and science.  It is impossible to operate in life without faith, Baggott is saying and even in science, but no assumptions should be made that aren’t testable beyond those that science needs to function.

In pop science books you almost never see science framed this way, but I’m convinced this is the way that the majority of scientists, or at least the ones who think seriously about epistemology, see science.  Not dealing with these base assumptions leads to some confusion about what science is and what its limitations are among the general public.   Baggott returns to this toward the end of the book where he discusses intelligent design.  Intelligent design, like the other theories he discusses in the book, is not science, and he even cites some conservative Christians who acknowledge this as being the case.

I think it is a good thing that Baggott leaves this part for the end because I imagine anybody who was inclined to support M theory or string theory is likely to be insulted by this implication.   Intelligent Design, by most scientists as well as philosophers of science, is usually portrayed as a form of pseudoscience and as “back door creationism.”  I agree with the assertion that ID is not science, and I also agree with Baggott that it is a form of metaphysics best discussed in a philosophy class or theology class, not a science class,  but I see a big difference in this comparison that might make proponents of M theory upset.

M theory is an attempt to reconcile two scientific theories , Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Quantum Theory.  Both of these theories, while their inability to work together seamlessly suggests they are somehow incomplete,   are able to make accurate predictions.  Intelligent Design, on the other hand, is meant to reconcile a scientific theory, belief in evolution, with a theological position of the existence of a deity.

I find myself in another weird position.  I  have a lot of sympathy toward Baggott’s definition of science but at the same time a certain amount of sympathy for the M theorists.  If Baggott’s definition of science is right then M theory and string theory cannot be science.  They definitely rely on metaphysical speculation, but it isn’t as radical as the kind of metaphysical speculation that theologians use, trying to reconcile a seemingly materialistic reality with belief in the supernatural in many cases.

At the beginning of his book Baggott mentions Thomas Kuhn and expresses some sympathy for Kuhn’s idea that science is “theory laden” and that the interpretation of science is based around the acceptance of a theory, which can never be complete and relies on a certain level of connecting the inductive inferences of scientific data to form on complete map that future data can be gathered from.  He suggests that this may be what really needs to be done to reconcile relativity and quantum theory.

Here is the thing that stuck out to me. Baggott offers no real alternative to the kind of speculation of M theory and string theory.   It is true that these theoretical physicists base their speculations both on metaphysical inferences and mathematical formulas that are outside the strict confines of empirical science but what is the alternative?   The advocates for these theories usually say that though these theories themselves may not be testable, no theory is testable in its entirety.  Baggott would agree with that in terms of the whole of the theory, he simply thinks these theories are invalid because they did not come from a speculation based on experimental data, but because the experimental data for quantum theory and relativity support theories that are themselves not compatible.

One of the most important post-Kuhnian philosophers of science was Paul Feyerabend.  While Kuhn remains controversial, especially among hardcore scientific realists, Feyerabend was even bolder, famously argued in his work Against Method that there was no such thing as the scientific method and that advances in science were made when the old methods failed and scientists had no choice but to strike out in bold new directions.  In this debate, I suspect that Feyerabend would side with the M theorists.

Baggott describes those who have embraced these theories as “giving up.”  With all his talk about how faith is necessary and that even science cannot proceed without faith this is odd.  It seems to me that the debate between those on Baggott’s side, of which their are many, is that this is too big a leap of faith to make, not that a leap of faith itself is not permissible in science.  However, somebody like Feyerabend would say that science progresses in exactly this way and it would be best for everybody if the M theorists proceeded in their fashion, while Baggett and others proceed in their own and time and results tell the tale.

Who is right?  I don’t know.  Perhaps there is no way to reconcile quantum mechanics and relatively in terms understandable to the human brain.  One of the assumptions of science is that the universe is comprehensible to human minds.  Immanuel Kant found this to be the most amazing thing about the universe, but maybe its not even true beyond this point.  Is Baggott even right about science?  His definitions seem to me to be reasonable and a very good functional definition but what happens when you hit a seemingly unpassable roadblock?  That is what is happening now.  The path forward can only be determined by whatever gives us results.  The M theorists think their leap is necessary.  Only time will tell if their faith will be rewarded.