Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Taking Science on Faith?
An article by Paul Davies, 2007, printed in the NY Times
Lead: Rachel Ripperger & Jeff Tessein


Summary by Adam Fitzpatrick

Taking Science on Faith?
Is there a precise and fixed set of physical laws?
Problems with debates between science and religion

Taking Science on Faith” – Paul Davies, a NY Times article
Rebuttals by other scientists
“Clarification” – Paul Davies
“Just a Theory” – Ben Ari
“The Whole Shebang” Ch. 8 – Ferris
“Contrarian Theologian After word”

This summary will loosely outline the major topics of discussion which came up throughout the class.

The class began with a PowerPoint presentation provided by the presenters. What follows is a quick outline of the slides, along with a few questions which came up during this presentation.

Slide 1: Davies claims that faith is belief in something outside our Universe. He also claims that science relies on faith; faith that nature is ordered and that physical laws will not change. It is presented as a point that simple math formulas may come from religion.
Slide 2: In order to conclude anything about the distinction between science and faith, science needs testable theories of the physical laws inside the Universe. Or is it possible for science to provide laws outside the Universe, possible meta-laws, which would govern all Universes of a multiverse or other such occurrence?
Side Question: What about the big bang theory? Did the big bang occur inside the Universe? Or is it outside the Universe? The Universe may not have existed at the time just prior to the big bang.
Answers Presented: The big bang may not be how the universe began. It is recognized as the time when the known laws of our universe were created, the 4 forces which are recognized by science today along with the constants of nature. For this to occur, there must have been some initial conditions, which led to the specific constants and the precise ratios of these constants. These constants have been tested to a very high precision numerous times throughout the observable universe and have not been proven false. However, no explanation exists for why the ratios “are the way they are.” There is nothing to explain where the laws came from or how they came into being. It is as if they “fell out of the sky.”
Slide 3: There is a theory of a multiverse which presents the idea that each universe is created under a set of meta-laws, governing laws of physics, which apply to all universes. This is considered the “lazy way out” by some scientists and it tends to avoid the issues about why the laws are the way they are.
Slide 4: There must be a distinction between religious faiths vs. what Davies considers faith. To this extent, applications of science are much different than religious faith. Science may have faith, but not necessarily religious faith. There have been some problems presented in the debate between science and religion. These include: No one was around to see the emergence of life, and so we have no true way of knowing how it came to be; There has been a history of feuding between these two disciplines. The public is more likely to believe some untested theories than are scientists who come up with them; And historically scientists have stepped on the toes of religious beliefs.
Slide 5: Questions to start the discussion. Do you agree with Davies’ point of view about how science relies on faith? Are religion and science linked by faith according to Davies’ definition? What are your opinions regarding a multiverse and do you think that this just happens to be a planet in one universe where we find life by luck?

This concluded the short slide presentation. It was directly followed by a question

Question: Could you provide more information about the specific article?
Answer: This is an article written by Paul Davies in which he claims that both religion and science rely on faith;. Davies’ definition of faith is presented in a later clarification and defense of his first article. “both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too.” He poses the question of where and why the laws of physics came to be. He claims that scientists have faith that the laws won’t change. He says that the idea of a multiverse is inadequate for removing the faith in science and that in order to remove it, we would need a reason for the laws which is derived from inside our own Universe.

After this, a lengthy discussion of many topics followed. A list of the major topics, which reoccurred throughout the class, follows below.

Definition of Faith

A student presents the idea that there may be a disparity between religious and scientific faiths in the assumptions which they make. There seems to be this esoteric religious concept with no nice bridge to connect it to what is known about our universe. Scientific viewpoints, however, include those in which physical laws are constant and that math stays the same. Other scientific viewpoints may be included as well.

Professor Moebius provides that in talking about faith as it pertains to this article, we must understand Davies’ definition of faith. It is difficult to get a hold of this in such a short article, but, in reading his book further, one may be able to grasp his concept. In this manner, with the short article Davies may have set himself up to be misunderstood without more information on the subject.

Faith in Existence of Physical Laws and Uniformity of Nature

Does the uniformity of nature say anything about the external forces of the universe, that is, forces which may be external to our universe and which may affect any other possible universes? These external forces, whether they are religious or scientific, may be the only explanation for such uniformity. In this case, we may need to take them on faith.

Professor Moebius continues: Is it possible that God made physical laws? Newton credited the force of gravity to “God.” Similarly with Einstein, he credited his general theory of relativity to himself, but the forces, which changed the space time continuum to a “Lord”; that is, there is a higher being who is responsible for shaping the universe in such a way that the space time continuum works the way it does. Both of these ideas had origins in and links to higher powers. If we were to know and understand the laws, though, there may be no need for a “god” figure, but we may still need to take the existence of the laws on faith.

A question of where the laws come from is presented. Professor deVries asks in response: Is this even a valid question? Or is it unnecessary? If one is to relate it to the question of where a baby comes from, we can see that it is a different type of question all together. While the answer to where a baby comes from is a causal story of birth, the question of where the laws come from is not necessarily a causal story at all. It is, in fact, unknown and may never be known.

Professor deVries continues with the question: What might, in fact, count as an answer to the above question, where do the laws come from? Must it rely on a higher power, a “God”? To this effect, did this “God” create numbers?
One student adamantly says that from a religious point of view, she would say yes, God did create the numbers. From a scientific point of view, one might say that they are present no matter what; that math and the physical constants would exist if there were a universe or if there were not. If there were no universe, they might exist in preparation for the possibility of there being a universe.

Professor deVries continues with: whatever might be the case, there is a story to be told in that there are laws in nature. These laws in nature seem to be wholly different from things in nature. There is a distinction between the two.

Professor Davis provides the question: Why should there be a “why”? Why can’t we just say that the big bang laid out the laws of physics as we have found them and that this is final? Professor deVries states that the question of “why”, is much different than that of “how”; that is, why we have laws may not be known, but how we have laws may be a result of the big bang. These are two entirely separate questions.

The last paragraph of the Davies paper was then brought up. Points made were that to escape the dilemma of taking anything on faith, a scientific explanation of laws from within our universe must be found. It is like explaining a full system from within that system, and is therefore nearly impossible.

Are there any reasons to accept that nature is uniform? Is this significant? This might lead to arguing in a circle. If we assume uniformity of nature, it is easy to prove this concept. But this is then a bad argument. We operate on a habit of assuming that this uniformity in nature is true.

The discussion then turned to the philosopher David Hume and his thoughts on the uniformity and consistency of nature. One idea presented was his thought that although the sun has risen day after day, it does not necessarily mean that it must rise tomorrow. In this sense though, we could not really live our lives as they are today without making assumptions about the nature of our planet, such as the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow.

On this same note, scientists have been searching for evidence that the gravitational constant has changed some throughout history. No evidence has been found, and in fact, they have been able to test that it has not changed in the observable universe to a rather high precision. That is, we cannot prove these ideas, we can only test them to the accuracy and ability of our instruments.

Professor Davis suggests the idea that space, time, and the by-laws came into existence in parallel. But in this case, is there such a thing as meta-time - a time, by which all of the events in the universe are judged?

The Multiverse Idea

A side step is taken as a student claims that he is bothered by the idea of a multiverse, and especially by the fact that it is something which we cannot observe. If this is the case, must we take it on faith that it could exist? Professor Moebius provides an answer such that string theory has made no testable predictions for our observable universe yet, and so even though it presents the idea of a multiverse, it is not yet testable by our ability to observe the universe. String theory may be on the verge testability, however, in that it provides a natural explanation for supersymmetry, which predicts the existence of some very heavy particles. These particles may be detectable in the new generation particle colliders.

A student steers the discussion back to the meta-laws: is it possible that in some other universe they are very different from our own? That is, could it be in such a way that E=mc3 in some other universe? Professor Moebius provides that these meta-laws are, in fact laws which dictate why laws are different in different universes. So long as these meta-laws, these laws about how and why the universe came about, are followed, any subset of local by-laws is possible.

Professor deVries provides that the idea of a multiverse theory presents a far more elegant version of any theory we have for the universe. It has easier calculations, and is “niftier” than others. It is sometimes because of this internal elegance or beauty that the believability of the theory increases. It is hard to imagine that, with all this elegant work done, at least part of the theory is not true. This puts scientists in the position of saying “this model is more elegant than that model, so this one is better.”

A student brings up the thought of infinite regress. That is, if there is a god, who created god? And if there is a multiverse, is it one multiverse in a number of multiverses? And so on with questions like this. Infinite regression is a never ending regression looking for the answer to something complicated.

Professor Davis proposes the fact that the multiverse theory has elegance to it. It is harder to specify a model that is exclusionary. If there is more than one universe, it may be an infinite number of universes. With this approach, anything is possible in any other universe. There are many universes like this one and many which are similar and many which are different completely. This many is an infinite number. As an example Professor Davis says that there may be a universe exactly like this one we are in, but with this book moved an inch that way, as he pushed a notebook an inch across the table. And again there may be one like that but with the notebook moved 2 inches that way. If there is an infinite number, there not only may be one, there must be one.

Back to a multiverse: the multiverse would entail meta-laws. To believe in a multiverse is to believe in the meta-laws and that is to believe in something greater than the universe.

Testability of Science, Specifically of Physical Laws

Here Professor Moebius gets into our abilities to prove laws in science. We can make observations, but a prediction being correct does not necessarily prove any theory. You can, in fact, never prove that a certain theory is correct. We are able to disprove theories, and really push the limits of theories to do this at times, but we can never say, in complete certainty that a theory is 100% correct. All a theory does is work correctly within specified limits, even if we know no limits outside of which we must apply that theory. We can only see inside our universe, and cannot observe outside universes or outside presence.

The theory of energy production in stars is an example of a theory, which we believe to be true. It cannot be proven, but yet has been tested in many different ways. For many years scientists couldn’t figure out how the sun continued to burn without going out. It was not until relativity and nuclear physics that we were able to understand the nuclear fusion which took place and consequently predict outcomes of the event. No one has ever seen inside a star, but we have predicted that we might see neutrinos if this nuclear fusion was the case. After some decades of searching, neutrinos were detected. In this manner, it is not direct observation which provides our knowledge, but a deduction from other prediction and phenomena. Science has expanded to the point where a large amount of knowledge is no longer based on direct observation, but instead, on indirect observation.

In speaking of observation, how straight-forward can it be? If we have these complicated and elaborate theories, which make predictions, we may simply not be able to test for them with our capabilities today. The prediction of a multiverse is, on some level, different from many of the other predictions we have made and its testability is not known. May it need to be taken on faith, if it is taken at all?

Professor Moebius again presents the idea that a theory is only something that has a validated prediction, and therefore, by this definition, it should be called the string model, not string theory. This seems to be a point that Professor Moebius wants to make clear, a theory is a model, whose predictions have been tested and thus validated, yet, it can never be completely proven through testing.

A student asks if the multiverse theory must be taken on faith. Faith defined by Davies may say this statement is not true.

A student provided the idea that we don’t know anything but what we can observe with our senses. Thus, everything we know depends on our sense of perception. We must take on faith that our perception is an actual perception of what is actually there, what actually exists. We have no sense data of particles or occurrences at the atomic level, that is, we cannot see or feel protons and electrons, and therefore, if we know anything about the atomic level. We are, at least in part, taking it on faith.

Professor Moebius shows that science is a succession of theories, a series of steps in which the information in science is incrementally discovered. An example is that of Kepler’s theory being reworked by Newton’s theory which was reworked by Einstein’s theory which may be reworked by newer string theories, or another theory. In this case, there is a difference between a well tested and well proven theory.

In getting into this progression, we can present the example of the super-turtle presented by Davies in “Cosmic Jackpot.” The last step of this regression, however, is always questionable; there always exists the possibility of another, higher step to exist. This must end up in either one ultimate source, or a strange, infinite loop.

Again, Professor Moebius brings up the point that testing doesn’t prove anything “is so.” It can disprove a theory, but cannot truly prove one. We have the ability to test a theory over and over and over again, and, should none of the results be in conflict with the theory, it is assumed that it is a good one.

When testing these theories, however, you cannot test without faith in uniformity of nature. Because we must assume the uniformity of nature to test the uniformity of nature, though, where can the bottom line be drawn? Even if there existed a theory of everything, such as the string hypothesis becoming a theory, we would be back to square 1 in that there must be something, which explains this theory.

Our ability to test such events is still in question. Until we can test and someday possibly prove any of this, we may have to only take it on faith.

Faith vs Knowledge, in Science

Professor deVries returns to the theme of the fallibility of science and the unavailability of any conclusive, infallible validation of scientific claims. It can’t be proven true, only proven to be likely or wrong.

Professor deVries continues with some questions. Must knowledge be true? If it is possible that you can be wrong about P, then you can’t know P? If this is the case, then we don’t know anything. Professor Davis then asks why we don’t use believe, or claim to know, instead of know?

Back to Professor deVries’s example of a pair of glasses on a table: It can be said that you know the glasses are there, but it is possible to be wrong. It is possible that they are a holographic image projected on the table. It is therefore true that they are there, but it is also possible they are not and therefore possible to be wrong. Therefore we can say, I know they are there, even though we cannot be 100% sure that they are.

Professor deVries asks: Is it ok to just believe things? He then states that we can believe a lot of things. There needs to be some way that we can sort out the beliefs that we can act upon, which we can claim knowledge of. These are different than simply things which we believe.

Professor deVries says that we can make knowledge claims that are wrong, but we still claim to know them. An example is that the earth was at the center of the universe. This was a fact one could justifiably claim to know some time ago, even though it was wrong. We can always have a good reason to believe, but it is still possible to be wrong, and, by that logic, may never be possible to be 100% sure we are right.

Along these lines, we cannot know something that is false, but we can know that something is false. We can say, “I know”, but we always might be wrong. It must be taken on faith. We might be able to use “I claim to know” and “I believe.” By this standard, however, some people claim to know things about religion, but there always exists the possibility to be wrong and almost certainly never exists the possibility of proving it right.

Professor deVries asks: Are there some questions to which we can’t be wrong? Something, for example, like “Do I exist?” He claims that there does exist a few of these types of questions, but not many. There are too few to make them the foundation of all our knowledge.

With this in mind, where can we draw the line? When can we say something is true? When can we say “I know?” Can we only say this about “funny” things?” like “I am a thinking thing.” Or are there other times when we can “know” something?

Professor Davis states that faith and science relate in that some scientists think science will answer all questions worth asking. This is sometimes called scientism. In this case, science may become a religion; scientism followers have faith that science is the ultimate answer.

Theory of Everything

Professor Moebius asks: If we were to find a theory of everything, then what would be next? It would be reasonable to ask for most fundamental physical laws. There is, therefore, a possibly indeterminate series of regressions.

The discussion comes back to the uniformity of nature; must we take this on faith? Is there some way to test the uniformity of nature through distance and time? Where is the location of this uniformity? No matter what uniformities are presented, we can find consistency somewhere.

The thought of super-symmetry was then brought up again. In the realm of science, they would like to prove this not on faith, but with an educated guess and production of a model.

A student brings it back to the question of the planet being fit for life by luck and relates this to the laws of physics. Did the laws of physics exist before the big bang? Or were they born from it?

Professor Moebius provides the answer that in the string model combined with the inflation model, we get space and time out of these events. In the pre-existence of this universe, space and time, along with the physical by-laws present here, may have “frozen out.” But with this being the case, all these laws are linked to the over-arching meta-laws.

A description of string theory provided the idea that there are 10+1 dimensions, one dimension being time and the other 10 being, most likely, spatial. With these spatial dimensions, they can be thought of as “rolled up” on themselves, such that we as humans are unable to perceive them. Their size may be smaller than the Planck length, 10^-33 cm.

Another aspect of string theory is the idea of super-symmetry, that is, for every force-carrying particle, such as a photon, there is a super-symmetric partner-particle. This theory predicts the existence of very massive particles, which, at this point, we lack the capability of producing. No particle accelerator has been able to provide the energies necessary for this reaction to occur. There is hope that they will be observed at CERN with LHC. If this theory proves to be correct, this universe could be one out of many. It would truly be a “mind boggling” series of thoughts.

This concludes the class discussion portion of this summary.