Sunday, November 11, 2007

Between Science and Fiction

For some odd reason, I am rather annoyed by this, or rather, highly irritated.

This is a news article on Alan Lightman. It was an interview with the physics-trained author on the occasion of the release of his latest book "Ghost". The book focuses on the "controversy" between science and religion. Nothing new there. This isn't what annoys me. What did annoy me was this:

Q: "Ghost" may be critical, but it doesn't assert one viewpoint, science or religion, above the other.

A: No, I intended not to come down on either side. I think religion and science have been two of the major sources that shaped civilization. They both represent very deeply held beliefs that are matters of faith. One doesn't often hear of scientists spoken of as people of faith, but they believe in the laws of the universe and that takes a powerful amount of faith. Both of these world views are deeply held and visceral and not subject to evidence.

Q: "Not subject to evidence?" Wouldn't scientists say that everything they do and believe is based on evidence?

A: Yes, they would say that, and of course that is true for all the experiments they have done, but what they have faith in is that all the experiments they will do will also be true. They have faith, for example, that the equations for relativity hold true everywhere in the universe. They have faith that the universe is reducible to cause-and-effect relationships and reducible to rational causes. Those are matters of faith.

With all due respect to Dr. Lightman, this is CRAP!

To say that something is simply taken as a matter of faith usually means that there's no empirical justification for accepting it. One accepts a particular religion not based on empirical evidence, but rather for other reasons.

One can't say that with science. Why do we accept the validity of Special Relativity? Because we have seen it verified experimentally! We simply didn't accept it as a matter of "faith" when Einstein introduced it in 1905. In fact, historical records have shown that there were a lot of challenges and opposition to it, so much so that even the Nobel committee was hesitant to award him a Nobel prize for it. The same can be said with other aspects of science that have been deemed to be valid. They were never taken as a matter of faith. They were verified empirically.

This is where Lightman argument that it is a matter of faith of our acceptance of how our FUTURE experiment will turn out rings hollow. The FACT that science CAN accurately predict the behavior of a system that are yet to occur is the whole reason why it exists. When you can quantify a system based on a set of knowledge gained previously, and predict what will occur in the future accurately, you have understood that system extremely well, and that is all there is to it. Is the fact that we expect our modern electronics to work when we turn it on next simply based on "faith", or is it more based on the knowledge that we have sufficiently understood how it will behave? Such acceptance is not based on "faith". It certainly is quite different than the acceptance of a belief or religion.

Furthermore, our acceptance of any scientific principle is contingent upon the criteria that we continue to test it until we find where it breaks down. When that occurs, we refine our understanding, formulate a new, more general and encompassing knowledge, and modify our acceptance of it. Is this the typical symptom of accepting something on faith? People who believe something based on faith typically really do not care if there are "contradicting" evidence facing them. Earth is not 6000 years old? We don't care! Considering how science has and continues to evolve as we understand our world a lot more, this is not even close to be considered as acceptance based on faith.

I think it is highly irresponsible of any writer to equate the acceptance of science as being nothing more than equivalent to the acceptance of religion. Certainly in this day and age where science is under attack by religious fanatics and being dismissed by some people in political power, such claims only provides more fuel against science. That it was made by someone who was trained as a physicist makes it even worse. Do some theorists sometime forget about experiments, and the lack thereof in religion? The use of the SAME word - "faith" - to describe the acceptance of both science and religion is insulting, and undermines the clear and distinct difference between those two.



john said...

Dr. Lightman's vision appears to expand beyond one particular vernacular or paradigm.

We simple folk should applaud him for taking his head out of the "scientific hole in the sand" and acknowledging his vision is not necessarily paramount.

Zz appears to believe that the current scientific paradigm regarding the fringes of quantum physics offer certainties like "string theory", "non locality", and the "big splat".

Somehow, eventually, these concepts must be integrated into the mass reality paradigm before they can actually become real to non physicists.

Zz likely "believes" in "dark matter" because we can detect it. Yet, Zz most certainly knows little about the phenomena other than that “it must be there to hold our universe together”, and that we can detect “its” presence empirically (mostly thanks to Hubble).

Other than that, it is a matter of “faith” that “dark matter” is something we can eventfully understand.

In this case the “faith” in science.

It is most understandable and honorable for Zz to protect the integrity of science and avoid the quagmire of unsupported ideas and feelings.

Most particular when the ideas are religions and someone wants to impose a particular “faith” on other people.

Humankind is at an important juncture. Homo sapiens are beginning to explore the space beyond Earth’s atmosphere as they incorporate artificial and human intelligence into a global entity.

This is perhaps a good time to consider a reality paradigm that incorporates ongoing scientific discovery, space exploration, and religion into a compatible reality paradigm that will serve humanity going forward.

I’m sure Zz’s specific scientific viewpoint would be appreciated on a blog considering such a social reality paradigm for the space age. The link is:

ZapperZ said...

I would seriously caution you against making such judgment about someone you hardly know. You seem to not have any qualm about extrapolating what I "believe" or don't believe.

Furthermore, why are all the "examples" you brought up are those in areas which are STILL highly researched and debated? Why aren't you bringing up examples such as superconductivity, quantum hall effect, those semiconductors that you are using in your computers, etc, etc.? These are areas of study that has the highest degree of certainty in physics. Why are you picking on the ones with some of the lowest degree of certainty?

Lost in all of this is my central objection, that the acceptance of religion and the acceptance of the validity of science are NOT based on the same criteria. I don't know why this would be objectionable to anyone, because I thought this was obvious!

I don't wish to contribute to your blog, because if this is how you arrive at your conclusion, and since you have no hesitation to pigeon-holing people based on the flimsiest information, then I see no value in engaging in any kind of discourse with you.

I guess that is why it is so easy for some people to have "faith" in something, no matter how weak of an evidence it has.


john said...

Oops, did not mean to make judgments…merely casual observations.

Agreed I do not know what you believe, only what you write, not even perhaps what you mean by the words.

I selected examples with the lowest degree of certainty to make the point that people can have “faith” even in science, not to deny scientific achievement.

Unfortunately there is a difference between the reality of science and religion. My position is that there should be only one reality in a compatible paradigm as humanity moves forward.

Did not mean to pigeon-hole you or perhaps insult you in some way. Your knowledge of physics is most certainly superior to mine and any challenge was for dialectic purposes not personal in any way.

Agreed, end of discourse