Monday, January 19, 2009

Speaking of Faith and of Science

What follows is an unpublished letter I submitted to the New York Times in November 2007 in response to an op-ed piece by Paul Davies, Taking Science on Faith, in which he elaborates a criticism frequently leveled at science, that is that it, too, relies on faith.

Dear Editor,

In drawing an equation between the explanatory capacity of religion and science, Paul Davies concludes that science's "claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus." Of course the scientific process is based on the assumption of a rational system of physical laws. How else could we talk about the world in any meaningful way? But such an element of faith is hardly theological, as Mr. Davies claims.

When I was a graduate student in physics in the 1970s we were taught to bring extreme skepticism to bear when considering even established physical laws. After all, discoveries of the early 20th century had demonstrated, contrary to all expectation, that measures of space and time depended upon an observer's relative motion and that the ability to determine the position of an object on the microscopic scale was forever shrouded in fundamental uncertainty.

Mr. Davies and other proponents of "separate magisteria" err in supposing that faith - even necessary faith in rational discourse - makes science and religion two of a kind. It isn't an absence of faith that distinguishes science, it is its dogged skepticism that encourages cherished beliefs to be assailed and revised, thus undergirding the development of an increasingly accurate and shared understanding of the physical universe.

Theology, though, is largely immune to such a process. How has our understanding of God been refined in any demonstrable way over the last two or three millennia? What kind of agreement over the nature of a supreme being could ever be reached that would satisfy disputing parties?

Marc Merlin
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