Monday, November 10, 2008

Religious and Scientific Faith in Simplicity

It took a while for me to be able to read through this whole article. At the end, I could have saved some time by simply reading the summary.

The author argues that both religion and science are based on the same fundamental principle of "faith", and this faith is on an assumption of "simplicity", as in Occam's Razor, of our world.

In particular, here I wish to emphasize how both religion and science share an unproved assumption in their common element of faith in simplicity, that simpler explanations for our observations are generally better. There is also the related tacit assumption that the world is at least partially intelligible.

At the end of the article, he re-emphasized again:

In conclusion, I believe both religion and science share a common underlying unproved faith in simplicity. One might argue that the assumption of simplicity has proved itself by working in the past. But this argument depends on the assumption that what has worked in the past is true and will work in the future, which is essentially a special case of the assumption of simplicity that I am arguing is not proved.

Of course, one can take the experience of its working in the past as evidence for its truth, just as one can take religious experience as evidence for the truth of religious beliefs, but ultimately one cannot prove this assumption and can only accept it by faith.

There are several point of contention here that are missing from this entire article:

1. Which part of physics, for example, has been "proved" in the same way that we do in mathematics? All of what we accept to be valid in physics are those that are based on PREVIOUS experimental verifications that have no falsified the valid description. There's nothing here that has been "proven" to the level of mathematical proofs. We know something to be valid within a certain boundary conditions because we haven't seen any experimental observation to the contrary. If and when we do, we will reformulate the theory to correct it, or we know under what conditions the current theory is no longer accurate. Nothing here is "proven". So to single out "simplicity" as cannot be proven is misleading as best. Why didn't he argue that the whole of physics cannot be proven if he's going down that route?

2. However, is the requirement for simplicity valid? It sure is because, as the author himself has said, it has worked before! Again, using purely empirical observations, until we see something to indicate that it doesn't work, we'll stick by it. To argue that something works is a very powerful argument that many, somehow, overlook. There really is not that many things outside of science (and especially physical sciences), where one can unequivocally argue that something works with the same degree of certainty.

3. He skipped the argument for equating what works in physics as being similar to "... religious experience as evidence for the truth of religious beliefs...". This is highly dubious. How does a religious experience be the evidence for the truth of religious beliefs, and how is this even anywhere near the nature of scientific evidence that support the validity of scientific principle? To compare and equate the two is utterly ridiculous. Valid science produces unique principles that everyone agrees on, and more importantly, produces repeated valid measurements. Religious experiences do not produce unique religious beliefs, as evidenced by the numerous religions of the world, and never produce any verified, reproducible evidence/measurements. To equate those two is absurd!

4. Did this person missed Lawrence Krauss's speech and Richard McKenzie's articles? I see no references to either of them. Those certainly would challenge the author's definition of "faith".

On a whole, I was disappointed with the caliber of this article, considering the author's affiliation. I was expecting quite a bit more, but what I read was on the level of a common argument we see on various internet forums and webpages that try so very hard to put science on the same level as religion. I've seen this argument before, so it isn't even anything original, and I've seen plenty of counter argument against it, some of which I've presented above. And if I'm going to present something like this, I certainly would pay attention to stuff already appeared on arXiv!



Anonymous said...

Thanks for making these points. I started reading that article and got too frustrated to continue reading about half way through.

Peter Morgan said...

I think the focus on simplicity in the Page article is problematic because he forces too much material into his theme.

Simplicity is only one requirement for Scientists to take new work seriously. People can't understand and effectively use a complex structure as readily as they can something that is more complex, so if I introduce a complex idea, it had better have some other very good pragmatic features. The best other thing is perhaps empirical accuracy -- better empirical accuracy certainly allows a more complex model to be accepted. Thus, Ptolemy could model celestial motion better if he introduced epicycles; the SM of Particle Physics is more complex than, but can also better model physics than, say, QED. Simplicity, mathematical beauty, empirical accuracy in a wide regime, engineering applicability, are only four of the many requirements on a proposed new class of models.

It's not necessarily that simplicity is "valid" because it "has worked before", it's equally explanatory to say that simplicity is necessary for wide acceptance.

Science "produces repeated valid measurements" is problematic, because no experiment is reproduced identically. It's true that experiments can be reproduced in a thermodynamic sense: that the results of two experiments can be close enough, given an agreed choice of statistics of measurements. We agree, however, that the significant statistics are those in which we can see regularities, which leaves begged the question of what to do with statistics, and the much more detailed raw data that is not reproducible, in which we cannot see regularities. If God is in the gaps, then perhaps God is great indeed.

What are the thermodynamic data of religious life? Do I have an identical religious experience to that of my neighbor on a pilgrimage? No. Can we agree on some aspects of our experience? Yes. Is religious experience reproducible? No, or Yes, depending on whether we choose descriptions that have something in common.

So, I'll venture this: whether faith is the enemy of science depends on what DoFs of society and of individual behavior one thinks this thermodynamic characteristic describes. But I suppose that the enemy is more abstract, a closedness of mind that supposes that when we identify a given thermodynamic variable as having some regularity in our experience, we fail to understand why others cannot see that regularity, and a failure to see other people's choice of thermodynamic variables and how they see or feel their regularity. There is a word for this: empathy. So I suppose that The Enemy of science, as much as that of us all, is the failure of empathy.

Sometimes seeing other people's experience requires years of study, as it does when we are students of Science, and the regularities can only be understood if we can think with heart-stopping subtlety, as we do when we engage with extraordinary mathematics. Perhaps a religious sees only imaginary regularities, but perhaps they are as subtle as the high mathematics of Physics, which is simple and beautiful or incomprehensible depending on how one thinks of it and on whether one can think of it at all.

Sorry this is so long (though I've written at all because it seemed after a day that your comments crystallized my thoughts). This topic is something I have thought about a lot, but perhaps not to great effect, and probably with no intention of publishing. If you don't want to publish it in your comment stream, that's OK. Your choice. Gratefully, Peter.