Sunday, March 6, 2016

"At Its Heart Science Is Based On Faith?" -- Errr....No!

The issue of whether science is based on faith, like supernaturalist religion, is one that repeatedly occurs in debates - almost like the return of a bad penny. But in fact it is nonsense.

Look at your computer:  laptop, desktop or Ipad,  at which you're sitting and reading this post. Is the computer real?  Can you interact with it, i.e. scroll down, change pages, reduce scale ....etc....or is it merely a figment of your imagination in which you must invest faith that it really exists? I submit you know it is real and you need no "faith" to believe so or that you can interact with it.  In fact, the computer comprises  hard core evidence of the factuality of science - specifically quantum mechanics - because without the phenomenon of quantum tunneling computers could not exist, nor could video games, HDTVs, smart phones or dozens of other devices we take for granted.

My point here is that if  scientific knowledge is based merely  on an internal (subjective) faith in its methods of inquiry, there would be no hardware ever emerging from discovery of first principles. Nor would there be advances in the hardware. The reality of the hardware (such as working telescopes - like the one shown in the image accompanying this blog-  and computers,  scanners, GPS systems etc), implies that science must be based on something radically different from faith. In essence, there must be a substantial and objective dimension to scientific knowledge, i.e. that exists apart from the scientist's mind and personal beliefs.

For example, there is no disputing the reality of high-speed computers and micro-processors, medical imaging and diagnostic devices (e.g. MRIs), more efficient telecommunications systems -including fiber optics relays, and novel advances in gene mapping (such as to arrive at the human genome) and splicing techniques as applied to genetic engineering. Collectively, these show two things: 1) that science as a process cannot be "standing still" - since technology advances and technology is the offspring of applied or basic scientific research, and 2): these researches can generate real, physical counterparts in the objective world. (So they are in no ways the same as "souls", "demons" etc.)

Let's go one further and refer to the monumental achievements of celestial mechanics. The name conveys exactly what the subject embodies: Mechanics applied to the dynamics of celestial objects. A typical diagram from my own Celestial Mechanics notes when I took it at Univ. of South Florida, is shown below:

The diagram shows assorted "orbital elements" for a planet of mass m2 (the Sun is m1) and these could be used as a basis for orbital energy analysis and also to predict future positions.  By inclusion of Newtonian dynamics one could also map the trajectories of spacecraft to distant planets, as well as the Moon.

Is the wonderfully sophisticated mathematics of celestial mechanics and astrodynamics based on "faith"? Hardly! If it were indeed so then we'd never have been able to land men on the Moon- nor would we have trusted "faith" to get Apollo 11 there first, on July 20, 1969. Nor would we have used it to send the Mars Curiosity Rover to the Red Planet, e.g.

MSL RoverNor indeed would we have been able to dispatch the NASA New Horizons spacecraft on its recent flyby of the planet Pluto to capture extraordinary images, e.g.
The fact we have been able to accomplish these space feats shows clearly celestial mechanics is not based on any "faith" but on precise physical and mathematical laws which remain invariable over appreciable lengths of time. (Hence, enabling me to predict the position of Jupiter 100 years from today's date.)

It was therefore disturbing to read a recent (Mar. 2) WSJ essay by Matt Emerson ('At Its Heart Science Is Faith -Based Too') that attempts to portray science in the same mold as religion - based on faith.  But mixing science and religion up like he does serves the interest of neither.

To attempt to validate his argument he quotes a passage from Paul Davies' book, 'The Mind Of God':

"Just because the Sun has risen every day of your life, there is no guarantee that it will tomorrow. The belief that it will, that there are indeed regularities of nature - is an act of faith, but one which is indispensable to the progress of science."

Emerson seems not to grasp that just as there is artistic license, there is a degree of "scientific license" in popular books written by serious physicists. This is the case here, because if the laws of celestial mechanics are indeed precise - and moreover apply at the macro level of space craft, planets and asteroids (so exist independent of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle) then indeed the Sun must rise tomorrow, meaning that the Earth will continue rotating on its axis so that the current night side will see the dawn. (The Sun itself does not move, of course.)

What we actually have then isn't faith, but a mathematically -based expectation that is repeatedly confirmed. In order for it not to be confirmed all the laws of physics and celestial mechanics would have to be suspended and as even Davies acknowledges on the same page (81) if this were to transpire science would become merely a "charade"  since all regularities would then be treated as belonging to the realm of the random.

In this case you'd never be able to trust that the Newtonian law of gravitation remains as it is, as opposed to being suspended,  with disastrous consequences. Instead of rain or snow falling to Earth then one fine day it might levitate up toward the sky, and your  cup of coffee would instantly disperse as if suddenly in a weightless environment. Hence, all laws of physics would then become quixotic and chaotic.

Alas, Emerson misreads these fundamentals and hence misreads recent scientific discoveries such as the gravitational waves by LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) when he writes:

"When the scientists searching for gravitational waves set up LIGO to detect the waves they did so believing that Einstein's mathematics would be reliable and deep space would respond as their calculations had forecast. And they  kept us this faith even when by 2010 they saw no confirmation.."

In fact, this sustaining of the LIGO project was not predicated on "faith" but on the realization that more time was simply needed to find the source object (in this case, 2 colliding black holes) which could generate the necessary magnitude of gravitational waves to meet the measurement threshold.. Einstein's tensor equations were already known to be more than up to the task once the required source object was found.

Of course, given his earlier missteps it was inevitable Emerson would reach his last bogus conclusion in the form of a plaintive (if pathetic) question:

"If the combination of faith and reason can deliver the sound of two black holes colliding over a billion light years away - confirming a theory first expressed in 1915- what is so unthinkable about the possibility that this same combination could yield the insight that God became Man?"

Well, a number of reasons.  For one thing there is no hard evidence for the localization of a purported infinite entity into the form of a human. Secondly,  real science must always explain the unknown in terms of the known, or the relatively more known. Supernaturalists, by contrast, inevitably invoke the more unknown to explain the unknown. How, for example, does Emerson account for his God at all? He doesn't! Classical logicians refer to this fallacy as:  ignotum per ignotius:  “explaining the unknown by means of the more unknown.”  This is the fallacy Emerson has committed, given any natural object - like a black hole  - will always be more known than a supernatural construction like a god-Man.

More to the point, the claim fails other tests that negate any remote comparison to the gravitational wave find.  Can it be set against original and actual scientific hypotheses? No, it cannot.  Can it admit the basis of numerous empirical tests- and moreover- can it be susceptible to any form of prediction? NO, again, it cannot.

 If the answer is ‘No’, then we cannot place it into any scientific context. It will then have to be admitted that “faith” be enjoined to embrace or accept it, since no scientific rationale will permit true scientific inquiry. Hence, an incarnated deity cannot be a genuine object of scientific inquiry.

We can, however, pursue gravitational waves, black holes, colliding galaxies, pulsars and other astrophysical objects knowing the a priori physical tests can be met.  
It is this testing of reality which provides a coherent basis for scientific claims, and which bestows on science a legitimacy founded in reality rather than wish fulfillment fantasies.  This is a basis, moreover, for which theological claims have no counterpart, despite that fact that theologians have often tried to make their claims sound like proven theories. The most often used tactic is to present some sort of "evidence" or other for a theological fiction, thereby exposing themselves to scientific scrutiny and criticism.

The best policy for Emerson, to prevent subjecting religious claims to harsh scientific scrutiny, would be not to mix issues of faith and science in the future. No matter how much he may want it,  neither modern physics  nor any other branch of science  will validate the basis that a god-Man ever existed. And not to put too fine a point on it, but even many theologians (such as based in the Jesus Seminar) deny any credible basis for such a belief. 

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