Attention Presuppositionalists

Any and all aspiring presuppositionalists need to read Paul Davies’ NY Times Op-Ed article, “Taking Science on Faith.” (And when you’re done, you might be interested to read at least one atheist’s response). Right up front, Davies sounds like Bahnsen or Van Til getting warmed up on TAG:

…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. … Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational.

I’m not aware of whether Davies is a Christian, but I’m guessing no.  Towards the end of the article, he parallels the one-way flow of authority from a Sovereign God to his created universe, with the one-way flow of authority from impartial natural laws, to the universe they control (concluding that “both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence”).

As a scientist, dissatisfied with this state of affairs, he attempts to bend things back around to pure naturalism:

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.  In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency.

I can’t imagine how that would work — it seems that such a scheme would be in principle impossible.  Davies speaks of the laws of physics as “the bedrock of reality”; if science somehow reaches his desired end, then there is no longer any bedrock.  It would have to be a worldview not founded on axioms, but somehow circularly self-supporting.  Whatever such a beast might look like, I don’t see how it could be immune from Davies’ own criticism of the explanatory weakness of multiverse theory: “This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.”

Davies’ closing sentence is also a good closer for me: “until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.”

I wouldn’t wait up.


10 Responses

  1. Fantastic blog — thanks for flagging the article. The earth sits on an elephant, the elephant on a turtle, and after that it’s turtles the whole way down. The fierceness with which self-proclaimed rationalists refuse to consider their own presuppositions is … amusing.

    More from me later.

  2. … oh, and speaking of multiverses

  3. turtles the whole way down

    Funny you should jump to this apt analogy; one of the articles cited by the atheist I link to is titled “Turtles Much of the Way Down“, which I thought was pretty funny. No time to read the whole thing, but from that link, this line jumps out:

    Davies manages to hit a number of hot buttons right up front — claiming that both science and religion rely on faith (I don’t think there is any useful definition of the word “faith” in which that is true)

  4. (I don’t think there is any useful definition of the word “faith” in which that is true)

    If he’s entitled to claim that, than I’m entitled to take serious exception to the supposed religious criticism of “doubting Thomas.”

  5. Not to intentionally derail the thread, but the phrase “turtles all the way down” + yesterday’s webcomics post = (oddly enough)
    today’s Wondermark webcomic

    (Wondermark is another webcomic with fantastic <img title>s)

  6. Another webcomic I’ll have to start following! Two days ago has an interesting take on the ethical implications of denying the external agency of laws…

    Funny how these coincidences pile up. Just this morning I was listening to Ken Samples talk about naturalism (you can get whole series’ here), and I could swear he almost used the exact phrase “The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational”. And he mentioned Paul Davies as a prominent physicist who talks a lot about the fine-tuning of the universe for life.

  7. Then again, maybe the multiverse concept is unnecessary:

    Despite this unusual career path, his proposal is remarkable because, by the arcane standards of particle physics, it does not require highly complex mathematics.

    Even better, it does not require more than one dimension of time and three of space, when some rival theories need ten or even more spatial dimensions and other bizarre concepts. And it may even be possible to test his theory, which predicts a host of new particles, perhaps even using the new Large Hadron Collider atom smasher that will go into action near Geneva next year.

  8. Thank you for the blog post. I’ve been reading Frame’s book on The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God and this post strikingly reflects what Frame says in the book regarding empiricism:

    “Science does not operate by means of a pure empiricism, and certainly the rest of us cannot be expected to either… the propositions of logic and mathematics, propositions that claim to be universally true, cannot be established on an empirical basis… thus we must either drastically limit the scope of what we call ‘knowledge’ or else abandon empiricism… once again, rationalism becomes irrationalism: a bold plan for autonomously building the edifice of knowledge ends up in total ignorance.” – The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, pp. 117-119

  9. Cool beenz — thx for dropping by jo*sh!

  10. […] Russell that “without this principle [Induction], science is impossible,” and with Paul Davies that “You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of […]

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