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Definition: The same word is used with two different meanings.

related: P.Z. Myers on the Davies piece, Faith is not a prerequisite for science Taking Science on Faith
SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.
(tip to phidippides)



I'm merely curious. Where is the equivocation?

Davies is using the term with the same meaning in both cases, but he is either wrong or it just doesn't matter. Tell the folks at CERN that they are taking science on faith and they'd probably laugh in your face. As they peer ever closer to the big bang with the new supercollider, they will be thinking about the origins of natural laws. On the other hand, theistic faith is an end in itself, where as faith in scientific laws opens one to a universe of discovery.

I expect to fall up someday, so clearly I have no faith.

I think I've read this before. Maybe when Davies spoke at Beyond Belief last year?

He's mixing up religious faith and something else he seems to think it's the same kind of "faith". That something else is just a reasonable assumption (that the laws of physics are the same in the observable universe) based on countless experiments and their cumulative effects and knowledge that they let us learn. Science works, and advances. That is the deal.

That assumption has not only worked as it is, but it both corroborates and is enhanced by observation and experiment. Science helps (or harms) people whether they believe it or not. It is as real and objective as it gets.

Religious faith (or just "faith") never advances, nor works as any kind of truth. It only helps the people who believe in it, and even then only psychologically.

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. 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. And so far this faith has been justified.

Hypothesis: the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way

Evidence in support for hypothesis: so far this "faith" has been justified (my quotes)

Davies apparently hasn't bothered to examine the difference between "faith" as it is generally understood - certainly as it is religiously understood - and the sense in which he uses it. When nature repeatedly confirms scientists' meta-hypothesis, that the scientific method itself will work, it ceases to be a matter of "faith" to continue to assume it is correct. It is a matter of simple good sense. This stand in total contrast to the manner in which self-described "people of faith" operate.

Davies entire article concerns two haphazardly juxtaposed meanings of the word "faith".

I think a defensive has been taken too quickly. Why not simply grant him the benefit of the doubt, that he is using "faith" in the religious sense? A great victory has been had, I think, when scientific thinkers are made to squirm and re-assess what Davies refers to as "meta-laws." He is not referring to higher categories of laws. He's referring to this epistemological principles we take presumptuously.

Approaching his article from this point, we're forced to examine his most critical statement: "All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way."

There is no evidence, in principle, that the Universe must be ordered in the way in which it is ordered. There is only evidence that presents itself as orderly to our limited mental and perceptual capacity.

We have no rationally defensible argument which says that the Universe must be ordered that does itself bear demonstration. We simply feel that order is the only way the Universe works because that's, for the most part, what we've been fed. Before any sense-data gets subsumed into our body of knowledge—which, for the weakest aspect of science, is its dependence on sense perception (our sense perception)—it could very well have been absolutely disordered and chaotic. It may simply be that our finite means of attaining data requires that we call it ordered.

But yes, I do not see the equivocation. Religious folks see their faith as being justified each day by the fact that they're still alive, enjoying happiness or are able to embrace the God's creation yet another day. By the same idea, scientists' have their faith justified when a hypothesis is not falsified and they can progress in whatever scientific direction; or, their faith is justified when a space shuttle doesn't explode and kill a top crew of astronauts, etc.

Davies is referring to faith as a social application of optimism. To do otherwise is to presuppose that faith has a necessary "other" quality to it that isn't completely psychological. Every human action is rooted in and can be understood through sociology and psychology. When someone refers to faith, they are referring to nothing more than an psychological predisposition to action. To see faith "justified" is to simply have one's own personal assumption about the world vindicated based on that specific myopic, finite view of the entirety of reality.

The religious have their Scripture; science has its latest edition textbook.

But words have multiple definitions all the time! There's not necessarily a problem with a word having multiple definitions--that's not automatically equivocation. It's equivocation when you try to use the same word/phrase/thing to mean two or more different things within one logical argument. For example, in math, it'd be like if you used variable 'a' to refer to both the length of the side of a triangle and the measure of an angle between sides 'b' and 'c' all within the same problem. The result is gibberish.

But about 'faith'. Whenever we are talking about the rift between those who are religious and those who are not, clearly that word 'faith' is a very loaded one indeed. When someone says "oh you scientist folks have faith too, it's just of a different kind," it's likely to cause sparks. (Especially since that statement also unfairly blurs between the not-equivalent sets of 'non-believers' and 'scientists'.

-- Furry cows moo and decompress.

Aaron, science have a huge (and I mean HUGE) body of evidence that suggests the universe (at least the observable part), behaves under certain laws that are uniform. It isn't 100% proven, nor is there any laws that preclude different laws in other parts, but every time scientists make an experiment, assuming that laws are uniform, and the experiment works as expected, and is corroborated, and sparks other discoveries, then it can't be said it's faith. It is just plain cumulative objective experience.

Can the religious say the same? They assume there's a God. They make experiments based on this assumption. What can we expect? Do we expect them to advance, and for their experiments to corroborate that assumption time and again? Religious faith is the same as it was thousands of years ago, it hasn't gotten any less ridiculous relative to society's standards, which is pretty ridiculous still.

And physicists are the first people to realize and point out that there is a possibility that the universe might not be totally uniform regarding laws, but all the evidence suggests that it is at least in the observable scale. If anyone knows this, it should be Davies.

I realize I have heard this from him before. I think it's a reaction to some scientists' recent bashing on religion (as in the Beyond Belief conference of last year, where he spoke about this). He just makes a half-assed apology in my opinion.


The article is incomplete in a sense. It just argues that modern physicists are shirking their duty to really explain why things are the way they are. However, what Davies doesn't go into in the article is that he's developed what he thinks is such an explanation. To complete the picture, you can hear him talk about his own theory in this NPR interview:

I think one key point is that Davies is NOT defending religion. He is not saying "sure, religion takes things on faith, but science can do not better." On the contrary, he thinks it is possible for science to give a fully adequate explanation using not faith, which religion could never do. He just thinks that modern physicists are too short sighted to see this.

I personally disagree with his definition of "faith", but I also don't think that he should be misread as supporting a religious answer to scientific questions.

modern physicists are shirking their duty to really explain why things are the way they are.

i don't think so. Modern physicists have simply refused to acknowledge, rightly I think, that part of their duty is to explain why things are the way they are. The task of physics is to explain what things are and how things are the way they are. Sure, physics seeks to explain why things are the way they are in terms of the fewest possible number of assumptions about the fundamental laws of nature (assuming that such laws exist - the fundamental meta-hypothesis of physics), but the question of why such laws exist is not a physics question.

I think Davies' piece can only be said to deal in equivocation if one doesn't accept his generous and non-theistic definition of faith. I read his use of the word in a broader, more mundane way, perhaps closer to the word "conviction"? His piece is not an apologia for religious fundamentalism: it's a pragmatic assessment of our tools and the limits of our tools. To assert that the practice of science requires (as does religious practice, but also political action, ethical action etc.) a conviction that is impossible to rationalize is not an attack on science, or a boost to religion. It prompts a discussion regarding the quality of these convictions, and their mediation. Which is only helpful, and will allow us to weed out misinformation and equivocation when it actually appears, in a far more nefarious manner.

My quibble is mostly with the title of the article. A title that inevitably assures that the article will be used by the apologist and the 'more nefarious' equivocation will certainly happen. I find it difficult to believe that Davies' motives are pure.

But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?

I don’t know that this either matters, or is in the province of science. If heat began to flow from hot to cold, I imagine scientists would be surprised, but then would set about figuring out why heat was behaving so oddly within the context of their experience. Yes, there would be an assumption that the reason for this phenomena would be discoverable, and if it was not immediately discoverable, I doubt that many scientists would just throw up their hands and say resignedly, “Well, there we have it: it’s a miracle. Our work here is finished.” The assumption would be that they have encountered the boundary between our knowledge and our ignorance; the conclusion that what is unknown is, ipso facto, evidence of a divine being or some other powerful entity outside of our own universe, would not be a conclusion in which most scientists would find comfort and resolution. I think we don’t have to believe that laws won’t fail in order to be scientists; that would be like saying that we must believe that we know everything about everything, and that there is no room for new information that could alter what we already know.

If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.

I disagree. Must we engage in the game of infinite regression to be credible? Must we banish all ignorance? That’s not within the scope of human nature, much less the scientific method. This isn’t like the question, “Who created the creator?” We will always be ignorant of some things, both as a species and as individuals, because some of what we wish to know has to do with meaning, and I’m not sure that meaning is something that’s within the “magisterium” of science. Might be, but I’m not sure. I think this is why we have poets and people like Joseph Campbell.

Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.

Perhaps Davies is equivocating on both reason and faith. If, as in the above paragraph, reason represents for him “meaning”, as it seems to, then I see no reason not to think that the order that we see is accidental and without intention, though he finds that conclusion uncomfortable or unacceptable. For years I looked for the meaning of life, for a revelation of what it was all about, before realizing that whatever meaning my life (not life in general) was to have would be a result of the meaning I imposed on it day to day. I’m no longer convinced that the idea of the “meaning of life” is not nonsensical. I’m content to acknowledge that there is such a thing as life, and to revel in it, without insisting that it have meaning, purpose, and goals.

If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.

This is like shooting fish in a barrel. Life as we know it would not exist if certain laws, with which we’re familiar and which we know to be necessary for life, were altered. But perhaps life could emerge under new rules. We don’t know, or have, so far as I know, a way to determine, whether life would evolve under different rules or not. It’s a hypothetical, like asking about angels and pin heads.

…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.

The use of the verb “selected” here leads me to think that Davies is either sloppy or doddering at the young age of 61. How can we be said, in any meaningful way, to select a universe that is right for life by virtue of existing within it? It is like saying that I selected my parents by virtue of being their son. It’s nonsense on the order of a zen koan. Either that or he’s simply too deep for my pedestrian brain – a not unlikely possibility.

(My first time trying to do HTML. If I messed it up, please - be gentle)

Of course his motives aren't pure. This is just a long version of the argument that belief is justified because it cannot be disproved.

Then there is this...

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.

This makes absolutely no sense. He is basically saying here that there is some devine intervention or there is no rhyme or reason for existence at all. He leaves an alternative, that there is reason sans divinity. The second sentence is gibberish.

I see this as just another whiny rant to justify a faith in divinity within the bounds of reason. The two are incompatible because reason is critical thinking based on evidence, and faith is belief void of any evidence.

Davies is taking a beating from fellow scientists, even from Scott Attran, who was notoriously scolding anti-religion scientists last year at Beyond Belief.

It seems that Lawrence Krauss (I call him Larry) agrees with me too!

Moreover, the facts that (a) the scientific method continually refines and changes our understanding of physical law, whereas religious 'truths' have remained largely unchanged, and (b) scientists are now, as Davies mentions, trying to address questions of the origin of physical law, both suggest the comparison that Davies is trying to make between science and religious faith is strained at best.

Here's my reduction of Davies' critique of science. Its a well-worn one.

A) The scientific premise is: what is known is what may be demonstrated.

B) The scientific premise cannot be demonstrated empirically.

Therefore, the "faith" of which he speaks.

Where's the problem?

Isn't it the point that premise A) is not "known" in the same sense that sense-data is known?

Ultimately, the first principle of science seems to stem from epistemological intuition rather than an explicitly accepted axiom by which we observe and systematize reality.

I honestly don't get where people are pulling this apologist notion against Davies, though. It's more curious and Mystical than any sort of theistic notion. "External to the Universe" does not entail "God with a personality," deism, or an external intelligence.

Not all religions rely on blind 'faith,' or belief in a deity. Liberal religions, in fact, encourage reason, approve of the scientific method, and accept questioning as a vital part of the religious experience and the search for truth. 'Revelation,' if I may use the word, is not sealed.

"Logic is not everything. But it is something—something which can be taught, something which can be learned, something which can help us in some degree to think more sensibly about the dangerous world in which we live.—David Hackett Fischer, Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of..., Harper & Row, 1970, p. 306."

For "dangerous world," substitute "puzzlingly just-right-for-life nature-of-Nature". I believe Davies is in over his head, but if he comes up for air he may just be fishing nearer the right location than... S. W. Hawking... Roger Penrose?. Speaking of which, Better bait might be found by (re)opening K. Goedel's can of worms,

how 'bout a new Church? The "Worm-on" Church? Church of Meta-Scientology? Never...I hope Davies is NOT like these impure global-warming skeptic types ASU tends to want to hire (and nurture) down here. Is his research really partly funded by the "Dis"/cover/y Institute? It beats cold fusion I guess:



In a shrub by the arroyo, there's a cicada who chirps...

...Cause, you know sometimes words can have way more than two extreme-ings...



Maybe the writers for the Daily Show can figure it all out in their spare time. I don't miss them very much.

Aaron - thanks for clearing up my thinking. I suppose its in the gap between the two ways of "knowing" that Davies' "faith" resides. Or rather, his "faith" = your "epistemelogical intuition".

I honestly don't get where people are pulling this apologist notion against Davies, though. It's more curious and Mystical than any sort of theistic notion. "External to the Universe" does not entail "God with a personality," deism, or an external intelligence.

Posted by: Aaron | November 25, 2007 8:54 PM

Well, you gotta see the context and the ramifications. For one, he is a Templeton-friendly guy. That alone does not say much (though something), but also, look at how the creationists are latching on to his argument like the leeches they are. Whatever criticism of science they can get is good enough, even if they totally misrepresent it.

Davies, if not a religious apologist directly himself (which is debatable) had to know what he said was gonna be fodder for the religious apologists and more importantly, the nutcases. The fact that his "criticism" is not a very good one, makes one wonder even more why would he write something so sloppy if not to apologize for Templeton-induced nuttiness.

Boy, engineering will never amount to anything, because it doesn't explain why the laws of physics are ordered the way they are. That darn engineering is useless until we can figure out the philosopy behind "why".

That's an unfair argument. The argument over the practicality of science can be detached from the debate of the metaphysical principles of scientific realism.

However, some philosophers (like Bertrand Russell) would criticize science because its principles are intimately bound up to the idea that what is being hypothesized is a true explanation rather than appealing utterly to epistemological modesty. It shows when scientists defend the scientific method because they hold it as an axiom that does not need to be defend.

The debate is not whether or not science does this or that that is "productive." The debate is whether or not scientific realism, arguments for simplicity and the scientific method are rationally defensible concepts. It should be our tasks, as scientists and philosophers, to question the very foundations by which we subsume further knowledge.

Like I said, scientific disciplines like engineering are not useless. But the question of their relationship with "truth" is not so easily accepted, as it shouldn't be. You should appreciate that the principles of discovery and the method themselves are too subject to scrutiny. If you do not accept this, you saying "well something could come along and change the most fundamental theories of science" is a completely hypocritical statement. It isn't that your body of evidence has a counterexample; it is such that your very core foundation of investigation is not absolutely sound. Understanding this is true scientific skepticism, which most scientists wish to claim they are influenced by.

The claim that philosopher's consider science lame because it cannot answer their "why" questions is a grossly inaccurate caricature of the relationship between the two discipline. It's at least an informal logical fallacy, I'm sure (possibly ad hominem, unless you're being sarcastic).


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