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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Science & the Search for God, part 2

I am attempting a series on Kitty Ferguson's book, The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion & the Search for God. Here is the first post, in which Ferguson points out five assumptions which scientists have operated under for the last couple of centuries, at least, and which have been considered necessary to do science. She also points out that recent scientific thinking has indicated areas where each one of these assumptions may not hold.

In her third chapter, Ferguson considers us -- the observers. Some thinkers believe that modern physics tells us that the observer determines what reality is. Ferguson doesn't go nearly that far, but she does think that what is perceived is not merely an objective reality. She writes:

Can our point of view affect what we find? You don't have to believe things are as uncertain on all levels as they are on the quantum level to see that it can. Nor do you have to believe that a point of view changes objective reality. The choice of an experiment that is more likely to coax out one set of evidence than another; the choice based on a theory as to which evidence will be more significant and ought to be coaxed out; the choice of which theory we ought to take seriously . . . such choices don't change objective reality, but they do help determine what we perceive as reality and what will emerge as scientific knowledge. (p. 41, ellipsis in original)

She discusses the discovery of the W and Z bosons, and concludes, I believe correctly, that they could not have been discovered without the prior proposal of a theory that predicted them. In other words, the observers were, in large measure, determining what reality looked like.

Ferguson continues with a discussion of beauty in science, and the choice of theories. Ferguson does not quote Richard Feynman, but I will:
What is it about nature that lets this happen, that it is possible to guess from one part what the rest is going to do? That is an unscientific question: I do not know how to answer it, and therefore I am going to give an unscientific answer. I think it is because nature has a simplicity and therefore a great beauty. Richard Feynman, "Seeking New Laws," pp. 143-167, in Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law, New York: Modern Library, 1994. Quote is from p. 167.

I point out two things about that quotation. First, Feynman, one of the great scientists of the twentieth century, says that science can't explain why nature is susceptible to our examination. Second, scientists, especially in physics, are attracted by theories that have simplicity and beauty.

Ferguson briefly mentions some other ideas that bring the idea that scientific findings are especially objective, and unassailable, into question. One of them is that mathematics, on which the physical sciences depend, is a construct that has to be assumed -- it can't be shown, by mathematics, to be complete. Another idea is the importance of important scientists -- they can influence what is studied, or what is believed, even when they are wrong. Science is also influenced by the culture that surrounds it:
We're all to a certain extent prisoners of the mind-set of our culture and time in ways so inherently part of us that none of us can discern exactly how we and our science are influenced. It's easier to see biases in other cultures and historical eras than our own, but we can't look thoughtfully at human history and come away believing that our own culture is for some reason the exception -- free of biases that affect our perception of the world. (p. 73)

The author's third chapter is too complex to be summarized in a single quotation, but this one comes close:
The old, pre-Darwin 'natural theology' was a search for evidence of God in the works of his creation. Because science has found other explanations for the origin of so much that used to be considered explainable only as the work of God, there seems little basis for faith left in natural theology. We can no longer declare that nature points irresistibly beyond itself. However, the philosophical questions raised by science do irresistibly point beyond science. (p. 86) Here's the Wikipedia article on Natural Theology.

Thanks for reading. I hope to continue posting about this book soon.

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A subsequent post deals with comments on this one.


Pete DeSanto said...

After reading this chapter, I am having serious misgivings about the direction that Ferguson seems headed. She dwells a lot on what science CAN'T do, almost as if she is making the bed of ignorance in which god will rest.

There is a lot of discussion about preconceptions and how that affects the "emergence of scientific knowledge" that seems to ignore the fact that what emerges is always due to the questioning of our preconceptions! How else to explain the move away from natural theology? We have removed the need for god to explain the how to needing god to explain the why, despite centuries of religious claims to truth. Religious preconceptions were overcome with evidence (under penalty of physical and spiritual death), why should we not expect that secular biases will also not be overcome should that be required by evidence?

I would also like to see more contrast of science with Ferguson's religion. E.g. how does religion deal with questioning of preconceptions? How does society and culture influence and change religious belief? Most importantly, what checks are used to determine if a school of religious thought is valid?

I fear Ferguson is digging herself a hole which will collapse in upon itself.

Steve Finnell said...

you are invited to follow my blog

Martin LaBar said...

Perhaps so, Pete DeSanto.

My own view is that her comments about what science can't do are a welcome voice. I wouldn't characterize her as proposing a strong argument for God's existence. I would characterize her as showing, in a number of ways, that science can't disprove God's existence. I'm re-reading as I post, and will try to deal with this in due time, perhaps not satisfactorily. I have decided that it makes more sense to write about the book in the order it was written.

As always, thank you for your comments.

Thank you, Steve Finnell. I looked at several of your blog posts, and I have some agreement with what you say, but my wife tells me, and she is correct, that I spend too much time on this computer already.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks again for your comment, Pete DeSanto. After reading it again, and my response, I apologize for not responding more thoroughly.

First, there are two kinds of preconceptions related to science. One of them is a preconception about what sort of result you will find. There was, at one time, a preconception that protein was the genetic material. And you are quite right. Perhaps the greatest strength of science is that that sort of preconception gets discarded, as discoveries are made.

The second kind of preconception is about the very nature of things, or the scientific enterprise. The quotation from Feynman, as I read and understand it, shows an example of that. Scientists have a preconception that nature will let us discover things. There are other preconceptions of this type, the most fundamental one being that our senses are giving us reasonably accurate information about the world around us.

Certainly, religion has its own preconceptions, and they can be dangerous in a number of ways. But religion gets questioned a lot. There are atheists in a position to do so, and competing religions that question each other. Ferguson's book, to me, in a sentence, says that science is great, but it doesn't tell us everything. It is not principally a book about religion.

Thanks again.

Pete DeSanto said...

Feynman was certainly entitled to his opinions, but I think the jury is out on such things. You can always ask a deeper "why?" that doesn't have an immediate answer and assert that it is a matter of metaphysics and not science. In any case, the scientific approachability of nature is not an a priori assumption, but one discovered only after centuries of trial and error at determining answers to questions about nature. It so happens to be shown valid throughout the history of science.

Not to be insolent here, but show me a scientist who begins an experiment with the notion that nature will let us discover things. I would suggest that most experiments (and most human endeavors) are prefaced by the question, "Will this work?" and little else. The fact that we can use results from one experiment to predict expectations of other experiments in a wonderful thing, but certainly not one that was presumed with certainty absent evidence that it might indeed be the case. There was no shining moment when one person claimed such a thing and a whole realm of knowledge was suddenly opened to us. It took considerable effort by many people to come to the point of realization that nature is approachable analytically instead of by revelation.

Comments about what science can't do abound. Answering those comments with "therefore god" is special pleading. Science can't disprove the toothfairy or santa claus either, yet no one considers that a valid argument for their existence. So I agree that she does not make even a weak argument for the existence of god.

I think it's a bit disingenuous of Ferguson to make arguments about science's inability to disprove any god and then use that to make claims about a specific god. I.e. she uses examples of the Christian god throughout, but not any other.

As for the questioning of religious preconceptions, let's be clear that in the short time during which such questioning was not punishable by death or excommunication the result is ever more divergence in religion. Witness the thousands of Christian denominations based on various interpretations stemming from one group breaking off from another denomination. The situation is quite the reverse in science, where the number of diverse hypotheses gets whittled down to converge upon only those that are best supported by the evidence.

Martin LaBar said...

He Lives (who is a physicist) has used the quotation from Feynman, and discussed it in an interesting manner. I recommend that you read his post.