Part 2: Science

  • Chapter Three – Science: Ruining Everything since 1543?
  • Chapter Four – Science and the Humean Condition
  • Chapter Five – Photoshopped Science

Science has understandably taken the lead in our society with respect to many issues. Its undeniable success can make a certain narrative seem pretty plausible in fact. Since the publication of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus in 1543, the Scientific Revolution has made our world seem to many like a place that just doesn’t need God at all. The light of science constantly replaces those “God-filled gaps in our understanding with all-natural ingredients.” Part 2 of the book makes the case that there are reasons to doubt this narrative.

Right at the top of the field, Stephen Hawking has come out as – not surprisingly – an atheist. His long term goal of developing “an ultimate theory of everything” takes shape especially around three issues: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? Hawking seeks to unify these questions, science itself and everything, in so-called M-theory while altogether by-passing philosophy as a discipline. It is science that will deliver.

In sum, the results so far yield the multiverse, the 10500 universes each sealed off from the next, which all came into being from nothing as a result of physical laws. That at least one of them was conducive to life is a matter of probability, and that we got this set of laws is likewise an obvious possibility given so many chances. Lawrence Krauss’s book, A Universe from Nothing, makes much the same point in citing quantum (small-scale) fluctuations which in turn led to large scale universes from nothing. However counterintuitive it may be, cosmology may here find its naturalistic explanation in the same way that biology was flipped upside down by Darwin.

And yet we must raise the issue that Hume’s science-induced skepticism forced him to raise: science can only do so much. One of Hume’s crucial insights is that we do not witness causation. We may see a cue ball contacting an eight ball; we may hear the “crack” and see the effect of the eight ball rolling away from the cue ball. But we don’t see the cause itself; perhaps faeries simply spring into action in just those circumstances when two pool balls are close to each other in such a way. We don’t believe in faeries, and we do believe in the “glue” of causation but, again, it is not a sure thing. Hume’s modesty with respect to knowledge is in some sense attributable to his forebear Newton as well: for all of the promethean character of Newton’s breakthrough, he could not bring himself to speculate about the cause of the gravitational force he had described so well. Newton saw the force’s effects, but not the force’s cause, so he did not hypothesize about it. Do today’s scientific luminaries show similar restraint? It seems that they have not taken science and skepticism seriously in the way that Hume did.

In the exciting days after Newton had overturned “the rickety claptrap of Aristotelian science,” it’s easy to see how Hume understood science to be a smooth and shiny picture of reliable knowledge about nature. It is impressive, after all, and its practitioners make use of a great deal of technical virtuosity. Today, we tend to think of science more like an elaborate computer program than an earthy and sublime work of art. And yet, try as we might to deny it, science is still a human endeavor.

Hume sought to maximize science’s impregnability with respect to human error. “Hume’s fork,” as it’s now called, demands that claims be either 1) matters of fact (these are testable and may or may not be true) or 2) relations of ideas (these are necessary, like the statement that red things are colored). That’s it. Gone in Hume’s world are the dreaded metaphysics of speculation and scholastic theology: knowledge was about separating sense from nonsense, and the two sides of the fork were the only paths to sense. This resonated, too, with a circle in Vienna in the 1920s. This movement came to be called logical positivism, but their extreme verifiability criterion eventually fell under its own weight.

Thomas Kuhn added his voice with The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book important for our purposes. He showed that science cannot and does not “live by logic and observation alone.” Our cognitive faculties, our goals, and theories in practicing science all mean that science is epistemically messy: it reflects ourselves! In short, “science has a human face and so participates in the Humean condition.” The logical positivists’ picture of science was a bit too perfect, eerily smooth, like a photoshopped picture. Nor can this messiness be of no consequence to those doing science – assuming that it could would be like being too busy driving to get gas. Here in part 2 we’ll be arguing that we should be skeptical about some important features of science, some of its current theories, and its claims about conflicts with God’s existence.

  • Chapter Six – Real Science Is Hard
  • Chapter Seven – Arguing with Success
  • Chapter Eight – The Current Crisis
  • Chapter Nine – Physics-Based Metaphysics
  • Chapter Ten – God: The Failed Hypothesis?

Science, no surprise, has worked out really well for humans. That’s why when it is seen to rule against the existence of God, those who enjoy the fruits of science and still believe in God face some stern accusations from skeptics. For all of science’s great practical deliverances, we turn now to argue for being skeptical of what science says about the fundamentals of physical reality.

The beautifully human enterprise of science takes place according to a very complicated method. First, when we hear the phrase scientific theory, uncertainty may be the first thing that comes to mind; but, actually, theories are theories because they are inferred. You cannot see a theory. Scientists make observations which lead to theories, mirroring the perception/reason divide that’s been in the background of our discussion so far. It’s about making the best explanation (a technically unobserved one) that fits with what we do see and stands up to experiment. If we plot two points representing pressure and temperature, for instance, we might start to form a theory (in this case, an equation) for how they are related. The more data points we have, the better position we’ll be in, but as Einstein reminded us, “If he [the scientist] is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations.”

Some, like Niels Bohr, see theories as merely instrumental – they are tools for predicting things we can observe – while others, like Einstein, see theories delivering some truth about reality (this is called “scientific realism”). Complicating the matter further, there are many instances where arguing for theories involves standing on them since there’s nowhere else to stand. A debate about Newtonian physics versus general relativity could only take this shape, for instance, since each is fundamental for everything else. Scientists then are very often making theory-laden observations in the pursuit of theory-making. On the other side, theories can be tweaked to fit observations endlessly. “No statement is immune to revision,” quipped Quine; even the laws of logic (like the law of the excluded middle) have been altered to fit with the observations of quantum mechanics, pushing the mystery of what we find there from physics to logic.

Where does this leave us? If theories only touch on the unobserved, and if certainty cannot be had without observation, and if theories are endlessly malleable to fit new observations, do we find knowledge in science? Sure, science works for an amazing number of things even in everyday life – we observe that – but what about the parts of the world we cannot observe? It so happens that the history of science is littered with theories that fit the then-available observations but have gone on to be discarded (the optical aether, the theory of circular inertia, etc. etc.). We should treat the theories of today as though they just might end the same way says philosopher P. Kyle Stanford arguing for pessimistic induction. Lucy might not pull the ball out of Charlie Brown’s way, but he has good reason to be skeptical. We are on the “skinny branches” in reasoning about quantum mechanics, for example, and as the radical instrumentalism of someone like Hawking suggests, we’re just doing the best we can with what we know now.

But that’s just the epistemological predicament of observation-based theory-making. What about the truthfulness of the theories we have? Someone could respond just to the arguments above that they imply that our theories about fundamental reality, by the same token, might be right. But as we’ll argue, there are important aspects of our current physical theories that are false.

The current crisis in physics is complex, but its broad outlines run like this: Newtonian physics did well describing observations of medium-sized objects at medium speeds. However, as soon as those objects “red line” (think high speed, huge mass, infinitesimal mass), something else was needed. In the first few decades of the 1900s, general relativity, for the big stuff, and quantum mechanics, for the super small stuff, filled that observation/theory gap and became our fundamental physical theories. Newton was discarded. But the two theories don’t talk to each other. In fact, we have no way of seeing how they could. Gravity, the big topic for general relativity, doesn’t exist in the eyes of quantum theory. For many physicists, this signals a serious problem. How could they both be right?

What’s more, the attempts to develop a “theory of everything,” essentially a unifying theory, are far from secure. Superstring theory, an extremely elegant picture of vibrating strings which underlie quantum particles and the major forces of physics, has no equations – zero – to actually pin down what it is. It’s still an aesthetic attempt at unification with unresolved descriptions. M-theory, the current attempt to reconcile the many string theories, is just as inchoate. Also, the number of testable possibilities which might verify the theory is too vast. In fact, as theorist Lee Smolin explains, “…no matter what the experiments show, string theory cannot be disproved. But the reverse also holds: No experiment will ever be able to prove it.” Michio Kaku is even more pessimistic: “…the theory is in some sense untestable… not one shred of experimental evidence has been found to confirm the existence of supersymmetry, let alone superstrings.” This leaves science in a difficult position: however well we are able to deal with proximate reality, we don’t have a sound theory of the fundamentals of physical reality itself, things like matter, energy, and spacetime. How could science imply anything about nonphysical reality, in that case? We ought to be cautious about scientific claims in both arenas, far more cautious than many skeptics are at the moment.

Next, let’s ask the question whether science is even capable of making the case for naturalism, that God, the soul, the afterlife, etc. don’t exist. Given what we’ve seen about the constant tearing down and building up of explanatory models of reality, any “physics-based metaphysics” ought to arouse skepticism. We could glean metaphysical arguments from those parts of physics we can observe, things that “could survive any scientific revolution,” but the persistent questions of philosophy don’t seem to be unambiguously affected by those things. Perhaps we could even say that it’s not in the purview of science to explain the origin of physical laws. Why the universe behaves the way that it does in any ultimate sense would seem to be beyond the descriptive powers of science, however good it may be at tracing out causes within observable reality.

Relatedly, it seems as though we can’t reason from our observations back to a purpose or explanation for what is in any conclusive way. But that claim seems to run afoul of teleological arguments which make inferences from reality to a designer of reality. Indeed it does. Perhaps an account of belief in God could be much simpler than argument. As Alvin Plantinga has put it, “the belief that something or other [like a table] is a product of design is not formed by way of inference, but in the basic way; what goes on here is to be understood as more like perception than like inference.” And it is a sensus divinitatis (a built-in cognitive faculty that forms belief in God given certain experiences) that theologians like Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin have appealed to that grounds humans’ belief in God.

But let’s extend some charity to contemporary physics. Even if we grant that all it says about unobservable reality is true – with its fermions, bosons, multiverses, etc. – would this show that there is no God or that he’s not responsible for the existence of the cosmos? Not obviously. Hawking argued that contemporary M-theory shows mathematically that God is superfluous since universes can be created spontaneously out of nothing by quantum fluctuations. Ignore his instrumentalism (the idea that theories only probe explanations for observables, not underlying truths) as well as M-theory’s lack of empirical confirmation; couldn’t quantum fluctuations, if true, be God’s means for creating all things ex nihilo intending to produce humanity?

And we’re not here citing a problem with Hawking’s intelligence or capability. The issue is with the nature of science. For all its technical sophistication, it looks more and more like science is just not the sort of thing that can answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Even if our friend Krauss, for instance, found the X that lies behind all of quantum physics, we would still want to know why we find X and not Y, and so on. Maybe the whole endeavor is philosophical after all.

So far in parts 1 and 2 we have been saying that unbelievers who care a lot about reason and science are not nearly skeptical enough about important things like sense perception, reason, and science, and far too enthusiastic about the claim that science shows that there is no God. But, once again, let’s assume we’re wrong about all that. Let’s assume that physics gets it right and shows that nonphysical reality doesn’t exist. Something pretty unsettling follows.