We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
Paul Davis, author of Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life, has an opinion piece in the NYT: Taking Science on Faith. It begins:
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.
The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. 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.
The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?
Read the whole thing. Jonah Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex in a piece titled The Faith of Scientists expands on the topic, referring to the ideas of philosopher V.W.O. Quine. A quote:
When Quine came up with his holistic version of knowledge, he also demonstrated that our most necessary scientific principles are actually the least provable. For example, most scientists, when asked what constitutes the starting principles of reality, will probably say something about one of nature's fundamental laws, like gravity or the theory of natural selection. But these are precisely the same things that we will never see directly. (As Gertrude Stein once wrote, "The laws of science are paper laws, they make believe that they do something.")
Read this whole thing too. The notion that the laws of nature have no existence seems obvious, but it turned on a lightbulb for me. The point, as I see it, is not to discredit the scientific method or scientific theorizing, or to glibly equate science with religion: the point is that we must have humility about the depth of our knowledge.
Photo: Starburst Galaxy NCG 3310 "blazing with star formation", from the Hubble site.
Or, as Rumsfeld would put it: There are the knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.
Science is the art of working from the first, through the second to see how the third slaps us upside the head. And as any math or set theory will tell you, set three, being the universal set, is much larger than set one or set two or both combined.
As to Stein, remember that the laws of society are paper laws, until you break one and run into a cop... then they become very real indeed. Beware when folks say 'its just on paper' for they are very close to taking the paper, ink, pen, books, and then your easy chair away from you to make you live in their real world. Which is where they tell you what to do and, how can you resist that? They took all the paper and words away... notably the Communists did a lot in that area to retouch photos, change newspaper copy and, generally, do things with paper to make things seem other than they were. And if you don't believe in evolution, it had best be that you don't catch the next multi-drug resistant staph infection for it really just doesn't exist on paper, donchya know? Or jump of a 10 story building above a street without a net or anything to catch you... gravity is just described on paper... but tends to be a final judge, itself, of its own working capability. Hasn't failed yet! Perhaps you could be the one to prove it doesn't exist!!
"Doubting Thomas"? Unless I remember my Bible incorrectly (which I do not, at least in this case), the reference to Doubting Thomas is highly ironical and, I suspect, indicates the author's ignorance of its provenance. For, as any literate person should know, St. Thomas the Apostle was invited by the Lord Himself to TEST his DOUBTS by physical inspection of Jesus' Resurrected and Glorified Body. Sounds a lot like a scientific method to me. :-)
Or do I misunderstand the author's somewhat cryptic opening remarks?
Did I miss something? There's nothing new in either linked item. The Davies piece is an extended rumination on the anthropic principle, and the ScienceBlogs post is a rumination on the nature of axioms. Both topics were covered in depth (along with many others) by a gent named Richard Hofstadter in his tome Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Published thirty years ago.
At least sixty years ago, to my personal knowledge, and presumably much longer than that, people have been aware that a purely materialistic, mechanistic faith suffers from the difficulty that it can't even explain the source of the rationality on which it depends. The idea keeps resurfacing in each generation and continues to surprise. The strong trend in the popular culture has been to assume that religion is nonsense because science has uncovered all the "true" mechanisms. From time to time, someone repeats the admonition that no one has ever come close to resolving the real mystery, which is why there should be intelligible mechanisms in the first place.