Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

Paul Davies, in his Op-Ed piece Taking Science on Faith, uses recent untestable speculation about multiple universes motivated by string theory to claim that “the mood has now shifted considerably” among physicists. He characterizes physics as being, just like religion, “founded on faith”, faith in the existence of intelligible laws describing nature and in a “huge ensemble of unseen universes”, the so-called “multiverse”.

The only real recent shift in mood among most physicists has been a loss of interest in string theory, precisely because its proponents have been forced to invoke the multiverse hypothesis in order to explain why string theory can’t predict anything. The existence of mathematical “laws of physics”, describing accurately and successfully the physical world in a testable way is not a “belief” but a fact.

Update: The Edge web-site is promoting both the Davies Op-Ed, and several critical responses to it.

Update: Lots of other bloggers weighing in, with the Science Blogs crowd (here, here, here, and here) uniformly Davies-hostile. The only positive blog entries I’ve seen about the Davies piece come from the IDers and Lubos Motl. Lubos seems to feel that the main issue here is that Steven Weinberg, Stephen Hawking, Lenny Susskind and Frank Wilczek may be unable to pursue their anthropic-principle-inspired research programs out of fear that I might criticize them. I would think they might be even more intimidated by P.Z. Myers, who reaches rhetorical heights I can not aspire to, referring to the Anthropic Principle as that tiresome exercise in metaphysical masturbation that always flounders somewhere in the repellent ditch between narcissism and solipsism.

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36 Responses to Letter to the Editor

  1. D R Lunsford says:

    Needless to say, someone should write a very hard-hitting Op-Ed rebuttal to this crap. This fiction that physics is somehow about us, is the ultimate expression of an absolutely pernicious narcissism.

    Davies, one notes, is British.

    -drl

  2. cyberfizzle says:

    I wrote a rebuttal, but I don’t know if it’s any good.

  3. gbp says:

    I think, we see just the beginning of this shift. I expect that all papers where nothing observable is computed with reasonable accuracy may be banned in some way (or labelled as junk). This is going to be the price the community will pay for the decades of superficial speculations.

  4. LDM says:

    Well, Davies is all wet.

    First, religious faith, where you are not allowed to challenge dogma, but must accept it even if it is contrary to reason, does not have a counterpart in science.
    Everything in science is fair game to be questioned, and any theory respected today could conceivably be overturned by a new fact discovered tomorrow. Not so in religion.

    Second, he accords the multiverse much more legitimacy than it merits.

    Third, his statement “ the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm.” is false. The notion of physical law in science, as already noted, is in fact the opposite of a theological notion. Any law is fair game, including the notion of physical law itself, and unlike religious dogma, science needs to have its ideas questioned to remain vital…Religion is the opposite, and cannot stand free inquiry and questioning.
    If, for example, I call Susskind a hack because I don’t agree with his ideas in HEP, he probably could care less. If I draw a cartoon with him in it ridiculing his ideas…again, he could care less. But, if instead of Susskind I chose a certain religious figure, I could find a fatwa issued against me.

    Davies doesn’t know what he is talking about.

  5. zorba says:

    Paul Davies said: “In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. ”

    I fail to see what anyone [apart from religious people] could object to in that statement. Boltzmann *explained* the second law of thermodynamics [in terms of probability], Einstein *explained* the laws of gravitation, etc ; all PD is saying is that he wants to see this project furthered, and that people who deny that this is necessary are behaving in an irrational ["religious"] way. Lubos Motl regularly denies that certain things need to be thought about [for example, the smallness of the entropy at early times] and PD is just decrying this kind of head-in-the-sand attitude.

    By the way, the notion that multiverse ideas are *intrinsically* unverifiable is an error; to take just one example, see

    Anthony Aguirre, Matthew C Johnson, Assaf Shomer, Towards observable
    signatures of other bubble universes, arXiv:0704.3473

  6. lostsoul Ph. D. says:

    Davies’ conclusion, that the’ laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research’ seems reasonably sensible. And is the faith referred to in ‘until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus’ anything other than a belief in the efficacy of the scientific method? This is something all scientists have, I would have thought. Just by mentioning the multiverse, which he says is ‘increasingly popular, but– doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue’, and having a bit of ‘history’ in this area, Davies appears to become a target for unreasoned and ad hominem abuse (saying that the fellow is British, for example) of the type more usually associated with anonymous string polemicists.

  7. Constantine Tynyansky says:

    All mathematical axioms are religion. The mathematics are a sect of axiomatic religion. The mathematics nothing explains! For example, where an explanation, why is true (has the proof) any mathematical theorem? Physicists-theorists it the religious fanatics, which try to search for explanations with the help of mathematics. For example, theory of superstrings, multiverse etc.
    Sample of religious fanaticism: “all mathematical structures exist” [Max Tegmark].

  8. nigel cook says:

    I read Paul Davies 1985 book The Forces of Nature as a kid, and it was helpful in explaining (without any mathematics) a little about the origins of fundamental forces from experiments in electromagnetism, beta radioactivity (weak force), and particle interactions (strong force and validation of the basic electroweak theory by the discovery of three massive weak gauge bosons in 1983). I think it did contain some speculative ideas like string at the end, but that wasn’t hyped. The nice thing was the graphical explanation of how the idea of quarks arose from plotting known particles in geometric shapes with particles arranged at their points experimental data (arranging the known baryons and mesons by their charge and spin properties), which led to predictions like the omega minus (containing three strange quarks), which were experimentally confirmed. The book didn’t explain everything very well, and the lack of presentation of any significant mathematics was unhelpful. But at least it showed that there was substance and scientific method in some modern physics. It’s bad news that Davies has now moved on from explaining how science should be done, to seeking to replace it with religion. However, he clearly wants to be fashionable and he did receive a Templeton Prize for Religion a few years back. What do you seriously expect in this day and age? Science has reached a dead end.

  9. The convention of accepting axioms and definitions, is an act of “faith”. Thus all logic and deduction is rooted in faith.

    Believing that observation of an incomplete sample of a class or process can be used to estimate properties of the class…or the future, is an act of faith. Therefore all inductive empirical reasoning depends, at least implicitly, on faith.

    Yet Paul Davies is wrong, for the reason repeatedly cited above: Science, which MUST depend on these faiths, none the less, in contrast to theisms, insists that they all are provisional beliefs, scaled by some confidence intervals, and subject to possible refutation by future observation.

    Science (as all rational disciplines) makes models of “reality” as perceived by imperfect minds in a noisy environment. No matter how beautiful, the relationship of a model to reality can only be judged by empirical “tests”. Until multi-verses, string theory and even Higgs bosons are “tested”, they are indistinguishable from good science fiction. And the longer it takes their proponents to at least “design” such tests, the greater our right to be skeptical!

    There can be few absolute truths, even in purely logical systems, as Gödel demonstrated; the Platonic dreams of such absolutism by some mathematicians and physicists notwithstanding.

  10. Chris W. says:

    Davies’ concluding paragraphs (already quoted in part):

    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. [emphasis added] The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

    Some of the previous commenters (and Peter too) haven’t read his essay very thoughtfully. It seems clear that he is calling for an explanation of physical laws from within the universe. This is hardly consistent with the viewpoint of intelligent design or earlier theological accounts, which call for an explanation from outside, ie, from a deity. He is hardly endorsing the notion of a multiverse as an adequate solution; on the contrary, he evidently regards it as deeply problematic and question-begging, if not altogether vacuous. He is issuing a challenge, and I believe he hopes it can be met.

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  12. DB says:

    There is no belief system in science which is comparable to religion. What Davies claims to be science’s belief system is in fact a set of expectations, based solely on the experience to date that the interplay between hypothesis and experimentation yields a progressively refined and more powerful grasp of the workings of our universe. This is a perfectly rational stance which requires no belief system to underpin it. As long as each iteration continues to deliver the goods, you stick with it.
    Someday, this process could very well end in the conclusion that mankind had gone as far as its limited mental capacities allow. At which point the only rational position would be to acknowledge that we don’t possess the ability to go further at this time. We are already at the stage that a thorough understanding of established QFT and GR demands exceptional mathematical ability and years of university level study and is therefore reserved to a tiny minority of humanity.
    As Poincare explained so eloquently in his popular text Science and Hypothesis way back in 1905, our so called immutable laws are nothing more than a set of mathematical models of reality and are to be retained only in so far as they correctly predict the outcomes of experiments. To the best of our knowledge, they have no existence outside the human capacity to create and process the symbols which encode this information.
    There is simply no overlap whatsoever between this position and the set of immutable fairytales for adults which serve as a psychological crutch for the ignorant, impoverished or weak-minded who have either been thoroughly brainwashed as children or, in their dotage, are terrified by the inevitability of death and personal extinction. Or indeed, with any of their modern reincarnations such as the anthropocentrism promoted by Davies.

  13. D R Lunsford says:

    What Davies fails to get is the difference between faith and intuition. Faith is a choice of free will – intuition is something ineffable and innate – either you have it or not. The nearest religious analogy is “grace”.

    When enough people share the same faith, they can then organize and block competing faiths. Thus faith is essentially negative because it leads automatically to dogma. There is no possibility of “enough people having the same intuition”. Those come to a only a few, sometimes contemporary (e.g. Newton and Leibniz, Gauss, Bolyai, and Lobatchevsky etc.). Intuition leads on to physical law if properly interpreted. It can be mis-interpreted (Kepler) and so is not “perfect” in a religious sense. It can subsequently be re-interpreted (Kepler again) and that is the stuff of heroism.

    What has happened is – religion and metaphysics have been systematically discredited by several generations of physicists (which however does not make them unnecessary and vital), and they have now spilled over into physics.

    -drl

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  15. lylebot says:

    The convention of accepting axioms and definitions, is an act of “faith”. Thus all logic and deduction is rooted in faith.

    No, the axioms are just taken as antecedents at the very first step in a chain of modus ponens. We don’t have to believe that they’re true to use them to reason.

  16. ekzept says:

    With all the possible variations on even DNA-based life, and the contingent pruning happening along the way from LIPS and the occasional space rock, I think the words of Loren Eiseley might be remembered:

    Lights come and go in the night sky. Men, troubled at last by the things they build, may toss in their sleep and dream bad dreams, or lie awake while the meteors whisper greenly overhead. But nowhere in all space or on a thousand worlds will there be men to share our loneliness. There may be wisdom; there may be power; somewhere across space great instruments, handled by strange manipulative organs, may stare vainly at our floating cloud wrack, their owners yearning as we yearn. Nevertheless, in the nature of life and in the principles of evolution, we have had our answer. Of men elsewhere, and beyond, there will be none forever.

    That’s from Eiseley’s essay “Little Men and Flying Saucers” in The Immense Journey.

  17. Bad says:

    Not until today have I been familiar with Lubos Motl. Can someone briefly explain what the heck is going on there?

  18. Peter Woit says:

    Bad,

    That’s rather off-topic, and I’d rather this thread not turn into a discussion about Lubos, no matter how entertaining the topic might be.

    Short version is that Lubos is a string theorist, considered by some one of the leading young people in the field, and until recently a junior faculty member of the physics department at Harvard. He has done more to convince people that there is something really wrong with string theory and how it is being pursued than anyone else. Also a fervent climate change denialist. For more, read his blog.

    Sorry folks, please don’t go on about Lubos in this comment thread.

  19. Yatima says:

    I think this discussions should be put on ice until the moment Theological Engineering finally manages to disburse Mana from vending machines or until we have regressed to the Dark Ages, whatever comes first.

  20. Marty Tysanner says:

    My reading of the essay was similar to that of Chris W, and so after reading Davies’ piece I was surprised how many others had a very different perspective on his words. This may be partly be a case of getting out of the essay what one brings into it. For example, I am especially sympathetic to Davies’ statement:

    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.

    Relatively few people I have talked with share this perspective, so perhaps that partly accounts for the apparent majority who dislike his essay.

    DB presents what seems to be a common perspective:

    There is no belief system in science which is comparable to religion. [...] a set of expectations, based solely on the experience to date that the interplay between hypothesis and experimentation yields a progressively refined and more powerful grasp of the workings of our universe. This is a perfectly rational stance which requires no belief system to underpin it.

    This is a very defensible viewpoint as far as it goes. However, it overlooks the “faith” component of the process, at least in theoretical physics and cosmology, by ignoring the crucial role of initial assumptions. To give two examples (many others could also be given):

    1. Searches for quantum gravity, or even more restricted attempts to explain why the standard model has the form and parameters that it does, almost invariably seem to assume from the outset that quantization of some kind is fundamental. By “fundamental” I mean underived rather than emergent from some process or configuration of more primitive non-quantized objects. Most knowledgeable theorists don’t seem to deny the possibility of emergence, but neither do they take it seriously. It doesn’t fit in with their own beliefs about Nature.

    2. Minkowski spacetime as the “ground state” in general relativity. An alternative to this viewpoint is to see Lorentz symmetry as emergent from more fundamental objects; if one does not assume fundamental quantization either, then this emergence would need to be be from more primitive, continuous objects. Almost no one I have talked with seems to take interest in this possibility, but again it seems to come to a matter of faith.

    These examples are not trivial, in that they determine the scope and direction of major research programs, and more insidiously, help define what theoretic directions lie outside the mainstream (and hence define where a tenure-minded individual should tread carefully).

    I don’t see these two examples of faith among theorists as being equivalent to faith in religion, as long as there is recourse to experiment to test whether a theoretical framework represents Nature; empirical tests are the central distinction between science and religion. With concrete feedback from Nature, wrong assumptions should eventually be uncovered, or else out of desperation new generations of physicists will try a different set of initial assumptions that may prove more fruitful than those that led to dead ends. Nonetheless, I think it is hard to argue that faith (or “belief,” if one prefers that as a “nicer” word) doesn’t play an important role in science.

  21. Chris W. says:

    To follow up on what Marty said, in science as in life we make choices and commitments that we hope will be successful, while knowing that at least some of them will not be. To do this requires some faith that at the very least we’ll be able to learn something from our failures. As Davies pointed out, the universe doesn’t have to be constructed in a way that permits this. Nature could be just screwing with our heads in utterly inscrutable ways:

    Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.

    Many working scientists (and others) may consider it silly to worry about such a possibility. Such people do not understand what it means to confront a truly deep problem in the natural sciences.

  22. dark-matter says:

    Paul has a book out lately based on certain metaphysical thesis, which is not selling well, and he needs to kick up a fuss to help out on the marketing.

  23. lylebot, Chris W., and Marty:

    For language to work, there has to be at least some kind of explicit or implicit commitment, by its users, to an agreed upon set of “axioms”, rules, and definitions. It follows that the same applies for ALL rational systems. Such discipline is distinguishable from a system of theistic faith, ONLY in the required absolute commitment of religions.

    As I noted above, and as was established by Hume, empirical induction from the part to “the whole” also requires UNSUPPORTABLE faith.

    The criticism that science depends on faith is therefore a straw man!

    Degree of commitment in science, usually varies with the preponderance of the evidence. Since Jerzy Neyman introduced the concept of “confidence intervals” in 1937, this commitment has become somewhat quantifiable. But even when we’re talking about a 99.999% confidence (e.g., that associated with the measured mean magnitude of the fine structure constant), it’s not absolute, and new observation may prove that our confidence has been misplaced.

    It’s this recognition, WITHIN science, that distinguishes its practitioners from priests.

    Unfortunately, some scientists(?) believe they ARE priestly prophets, and it’s the RESPONSIBILITY of other scientists, at times, to disabuse the public on such matters.

  24. Hans says:

    what I think most disgusting these days, is that even nobel laureates join such an anti-physics campaign.
    Here is a talk for laymans of condensed matter physicist R.B. Laughlin, who states, that high energy physics is like religion:

    http://www.physik.uni-muenchen.de/aus_der_fakultaet/kolloquien/physik_kolloquium/laughlin/laughlin261107.pdf

    (I have seen only the first 15 minutes of the talk, and then suddenly found out, that i must leave the room).
    It is depressing, when someone, who apparently knows nothing about quantum field theory of gravity, and what the problems are in high energy physics, says, without any good foundation, that all high energy phycisists are doing religion
    (And this in front of a full audience of laypeople!)

  25. Peter Woit says:

    Hans,

    I’m no fan of Laughlin’s, but his comment about medieval religion is not original, but something Glashow and some other particle theorists have been saying for years. Unfortunately Laughlin is not completely wrong: there are theorists promoting ideas that are little better than religion, and this has given encouragement to those like Davies who like their religion and science together. You may be justified in walking out on Laughlin, but I think it would be helpful if you would also walk out on some of the pseudo-science talks on things like the anthropic landscape.

  26. Hans says:

    What Laughlin wants to say is more!
    He does not criticise specific attempts to build a quantum theory of gravity.

    He wants to say, that you cannot build a theory of quantum gravity at all.

    He has a book in press on this. For Layman, here:
    http://www.amazon.de/Abschied-von-Weltformel-Robert-Laughlin/dp/3492047181

    You can criticise theories like string theory or LQG. But it is simply wrong if you seemingly have no knowledge of high energy physics at all, you stand in front of laymans and say that it would be in principle impossible to find a quantum field theory of gravity (with no accurate scientific argument) and that all attempts are to be fruitless.

    His wrong argument was, that for systems with a small number of particles, collective laws would break down. Therefore, he thought, you could not define any quantum field theory at small scales.

    He seemingly did not know, for example, that high energy physicists would be very fine if they would have a quantum gravity that works at the scales where the standard model gives good results.

  27. Zathras says:

    As usual, there is a huge amount of inaccuracies in this discussion about what “faith” or “belief” is, and this misrepresentation completely skews the analysis.

    Faith is most emphatically not a set of axioms held without evidence. Put crudely (there is no other way) faith is a feeling about things. It is synthetic, rather than analytic, in that it is based on some sort of continuum of how one feels about the world (notice you cannot really define faith without using words such as belief or feeling.

    As Nietzsche observed, “philosophy allows us to rationalize what we already believe.” The axiomitization is the outcome of this rationalization process. The axioms of faith discussed here are just a by-product, not the core of what belief is.

    At least part of what I think Davies is talking about here is the faith in progress. There is of course no single axiom that embodies this idea of progress for every single scientists, or probably even a majority of scientists. Scientists do what they do because they think that they can make or contribute to the progress of understanding the universe.

    As DB says, “What Davies claims to be science’s belief system is in fact a set of expectations, based solely on the experience to date that the interplay between hypothesis and experimentation yields a progressively refined and more powerful grasp of the workings of our universe.” However, the scope of perceived past progress varies from scientist to scientist, and therefore so does the belief in
    attainable future progress. No scientist has all the information of how science has progressed, or failed to progress, so far, so there is a different set of information which shapes each scientist’s faith in progress. A scientist from a subfield which has been stagnant for years will come to a very different conclusion than someone whose field has seen rapid advances.

  28. Peter Woit says:

    All,

    Please, enough, I can’t stand it any more. Take the highly general discussion about science and belief etc. to one of the dozen or so other blogs featuring discussion of this topic.

  29. Peter:

    You started this “Letter to the Editor” topic with Davies’ title “Taking Science on Faith”.

    Now you object to “the highly general discussion about science and belief etc.”!

    A precise general discussion of the relationship between “Science” and “Faith” is just what’s needed to understand Paul Davies’ “mistake”. We may individually fail in our attempts to add to clarity. But you should be ready to put up with this kind of effort. Otherwise, why start the topic?

  30. Peter Woit says:

    Leonard,

    I think the confusions of Davies on this issue have been dealt with more than sufficiently here and elsewhere. Further elaboration of this topic seems to me a waste of time and likely to convince anyone who comes to this blog looking for something worthwhile and interesting to read that they’re in the wrong place. So, please, enough about the Davies confusions.

  31. milkshake says:

    The salesmanship about far-off ideas in theoretical physics and cosmology can produce a wooly impression how the science normally works. Davies is trying to be provocative but he actualy sounds like a Jesuit seminary kid.

    I think if the wheelchair luminaries were saying more frequently “we are trying to find out how this Universe works behind the scene” and “We don’t really know for sure, we postulate all kinds of ideas but in the end we take it the way it comes out” the public would get a lot less elevated view on natural laws and the fontiers of our understanding – and there would be less opportunity for this metaphysical gorp.

  32. D R Lunsford says:

    There’s a wonderful “Letter to the Editor” today, by Chance Reschke of Seattle, who states:

    Condemning science for its failure to explain the divine makes as much sense as condemning Kant for failing to explain the aerodynamic properties of the Concorde, or Moses for failing to predict Google.

    Beautiful!

    -drl

  33. Belizean says:

    Getting back to physics, does anyone else have a problem with Davies use of the word “multiverse” in connection with the Anthropic Principle? While his usage is “correct” in that it’s the one that has in the last few years come dominate particle physics, the word predates the current hyping of the Landscape.

    Multiverse used to mean the ensemble of universes in the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. The AP and MWI multiverses are not the same. Unlike the AP multiverse, the multiverse of the MWI requires its constituent universes to interfere with each other, and the prevalence of any particular universe in the multiverse generally changes with time.

    Yes, this is a bit OT, but a source of irritation nonetheless.

  34. manyoso says:

    I can imagine the smackdown Richard Feyman would give to Davies were he still alive…

    Some quotes from Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman:

    “The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, … we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure–that it is possible to live and *not* know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes that this is true.”

    and…

    “He believed in the primacy of doubt, not as a blemish upon our ability to know but as the essence of knowing. The alternative to uncertainty is authority, against which science had fought for centuries. “Great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, ” he jotted on a sheet of notepaper one day. “… teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed.”

    and …

    “You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here…

    I don’t have an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.”

  35. Kralizec says:

    I would think they might be even more intimidated by P.Z. Myers, who reaches rhetorical heights I can not aspire to, referring to the Anthropic Principle as that tiresome exercise in metaphysical masturbation that always flounders somewhere in the repellent ditch between narcissism and solipsism.

    Mr. Myers seems to have written as if his feelings are a proper standard for rejection or acceptance of opinions. I doubt we really think one’s fatigue, boredom, hatred of idle pleasure, or repulsion from either self-loving or candidly lonely observers is grounds for rejecting or affirming an anthropic principle, or any other opinion. Most everyone writing here seems closer to thinking that an opinion is true or false irrespective of the way one feels about it or about the possible motives of anyone who may hold it.