I was listening to a very nice talk by Ken Miller, from Brown University. He’s the Biology professor who testified in the Dover Evolution Trial. The reason that he is involved in cases involving the attack on evolution from the religious right is several-fold, including his knowledge of evolution (even though that is not his main area of expertise) and his widely-used textbook (which was the target of the warning labels in Georgia). Ken Miller keeps a page on evolution and his own webpage with many links, presentation slides, and talk videos. I think the most important reason for his involvement is that he is a self-acknowledged Christian (a Catholic, to be specific). Rather than inviting an expert like Richard Dawkins (who is decidedly anti-religious) to testify, it is much better to invite someone who claims there is no conflict between religion and science. Thus the case can’t be cast as a battle between science and religion, and can be seen only as what is appropriate science education.
So in his talk, Ken Miller makes the point that science should inform faith and faith should inform science. He cites Paul Davies, a physicist who has an interest in theism, and whose article “Taking Science on Faith” takes the position that science itself is a faith-based activity. Ken Miller points out, and you can confirm in Paul Davies’ article, that there are two tenets in science that are taken on faith:
- the universe is ultimately knowable and understandable
- knowledge is better than ignorance
At first I thought that one perhaps should call these axioms, more like mathematics, and not “faith” because something in me felt that these two ideas were different somehow than the belief in God. Then, I realized, that they are different fundamentally and faith, or even axioms, is entirely wrong.
The first idea, that the universe is knowable, needs to be a bit more specific: what does it mean to be knowable? Prior to 1900, it was believed that the pieces of a physical model, such as the force of gravity, or the electric and magnetic fields of Maxwell were “real”: there was one-to-one correspondence between the model components and things in the real world. Thus, it was believed, that knowing the model you would know nature. After 1900, with the advent of quantum mechanics, physical models were evaluated based on their predictive value: those models that predicted well were good models. It was not believed that there was necessarily a correspondence between the model components and the real components in nature. Aspects of the model, such as the wave function, were not believed to be real but simply useful in making predictions. To know the world is to be able to predict what would happen.
Let’s say we replace “understandable” with “predictable”, a replacement which I think makes practical sense (how else would you determine that you understand something?), and is directly in line with modern physical thinking. Doing this, then tenet (1) ceases to be an axiom, or something we take on faith, but is observable. If the universe is unpredictable, then all attempts at making prediction will fail. This is not what we observe at all. Surely there are still things that are unpredictable, such as the simultaneous value of the position and momentum of the electron, or the positions of every molecule of air in this room, but even there we can make specific predictions about average quantities or the values of other variables of interest. Practically, the universe has demonstrated itself to be understandable, on the whole. This is not a matter of faith!
The second tenet (2) I would wager is too vague. What does “better” mean? Better for whom, or for what? Psychologically, one might argue something akin to “ignorance is bliss”, and there might be something to that. If we define, however, “better” to be higher standard of living (longer, healthier, more free life) then knowledge can be argued to have a demonstrable benefit over ignorance. The results of science has doubled the life expectancy in the past 100 years, and has allowed us to live more free and healthy lives. The thousands of years of faith before that cannot say as much. As Carl Sagan says, science delivers the goods. Is there any convincing argument that ignorance is better, or that we really can’t decide which is better? Is there a preferable definition of “better”?