Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Whence the Laws of Nature

Go here to read an article in the science section of the New York Times titled "Laws of Nature, Source Unknown." It's about the reaction--among scientists and others--to a recent claim by cosmologist Paul Davies to the effect that science relies on faith in an orderly universe. Davies' point was that scientists depend upon the existence of order and of laws in the universe but have no explanation for where that order and those laws came from, or why they exist.

Many angry respondents insisted upon the veracity of those laws, declaring that their existence enjoys overwhelming empirical support. In so doing, they missed Davies' point. He hadn't meant to deny those laws, but to comment on the current lack of grounding for them:
Dr. Davies complains that the traditional view of transcendent laws is just 17th-century monotheism without God. "Then God got killed off and the laws just free-floated in a conceptual vacuum but retained their theological properties," he said in [an] e-mail message.
I've posted about this before, of course, but this article begs response. It goes on to mention a number of rather absurd speculations being made from every corner of the materialist world in efforts to provide the grounding of those laws (to address the problem that Davies accurately exposes).

For me, the most interesting quote came late in the article:
"Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds," goes the saying attributed to Richard Feynman, the late Caltech Nobelist, and repeated by Dr. Weinberg.
The reporter (who, incidentally, seems unduly impressed by the title "Dr." and uses it throughout the article) shares this quote to suggest that all of these speculations are just that, and so don't qualify as science. But this idea--that philosophy of science is useless to scientists--betrays the silliness not only of the various speculators quoted but also of the journalist's own understanding.

To be sure, if all Feynman meant was that 'the average white-coated lab tech with a very specific task can accomplish that assigment without reference to the presuppositions of science,' well that's hard to argue with. Indeed, that's exactly what we see today--anybody can "do science" without having any reasonable justification for it. But once we start seeking answers to big questions--like "What's the origin of the order in the universe?'--then an understanding of both the philosophy and the history of science would serve to cut through all the nonsense like that in the NY Times article.

More about this tomorrow, as this provides such an easy target for more reasonable thinking.

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