Is treating existence as meaningful a ‘leap of faith’? Is our experience of meaning sufficient to make it something other than a blind leap in the dark?
Is treating existence and meaningless, a brute inexplicable fact, also a leap of faith? Is the experience of tragedy and chance enough to justify it? Do such experiences make it any more reasonable a leap than those that people with a religious outlook take in the opposite direction?
Paul Davies wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times recently entitled “Taking Science on Faith”. His main point is that science proceeds on the basis of “faith” that the universe is rational. I’m actually not sure I agree. Einstein assumed the universe would be rational and opposed quantum mechanics on that basis. There is something that is at least arational about having something be inconceivable, with the best we can come up with being “sometimes it behaves like a wave, and sometimes like a particle.” Of course, if quantum mechanics ends up being incorporated into a larger framework that explains its oddities as having to do with our perception and measurement, then science may once again point to a universe that is rational and logical. But it will point to it rather than assume it. Science, it seems to me, points to a universe that is mathematical and intelligible (if not always subject to analogy and conceptualization). And perhaps it is the case, as Goedel’s theorem suggests, that our mathematical universe is inevitably ‘incomplete’ and thus points beyond itself. And if we are to avoid an endless regress, then we must situate it within another sort of reality. But even if we could make such a case, the larger framework, the transcendent reality, will be the ineffable one of the mystics rather than the anthropomorphic one of popular piety.
Davies’ piece is discussed in many places around the blogosphere and the web in general: Evolving Thoughts, Uncertain Principles, Edge.org, Cosmic Variance, Pharyngula, The Bad Idea Blog, Adventures in Ethics and Science, The Reference Frame, Ontogeny, A Guy In The Pew… OK, so maybe I won’t list them all. But the amount of discussion that has been generated indicates not only that this is an interesting and important subject, but that many scientists find Davies’ argument not merely unpersuasive but uncomfortable. I can understand why they feel that way, and as I have said above, I’m not sure whether I agree with the exact way Davies has formulated his point. He could well be wrong – he is, after all, a physicist (and physicists are sometimes wrong) and a human being (and human beings are sometimes wrong), and he is branching off into philosophy of science. But what he has written has people talking, and thinking, and that cannot be a bad thing. Even if science does not have faith in a rational universe, it certainly presupposes that a universe exists, and that something rather than nothing exists is itself an awe-inspiring mystery, one that regularly leads cosmologists to use the term historically applied to the ultimate mystery, i.e. God.