Sunday, July 22, 2018

Dr. Lightman on the existence of God

In a 2011 Salon article titled "Does God exist? The case for reconciling the scientific with the divine — and against the anti-religion of Richard Dawkins", Alan Lightman, a professor of humanities who was initially an astronomer and astrophysicist, first at Harvard and subsequently at MIT, argues as follows:
"As a both a scientist and a humanist myself, I have struggled to understand different claims to knowledge, and I have eventually come to a formulation of the kind of religious belief that would, in my view, be compatible with science. The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the Central Doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis advisor never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the Central Doctrine is the invisible oxygen that scientists breathe. We do not, of course, know all the fundamental laws at the present time. But most scientists believe that a complete set of such laws exists and, in principle, is discoverable by human beings, just as 19th-century explorers believed in the North Pole although no one had yet reached it."
Seven years later, in his new book "Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine", he reiterates that this "Central Doctrine of science" is "an article of faith" because it "cannot be proved" and it "must simply be accepted".
Nineteenth century explorers had some evidence backing their belief that the North Pole was accessible. They knew that the surface of the ocean is frozen solid as a result of the cold temperatures and accumulated snow, and they were committed to confirming or disconfirming their belief by traveling there on sleds. People who believe that there is a complete set of laws for all properties and events in the physical universe also have evidence backing their belief, and they are also committed to confirming or disconfirming their belief. Beliefs are properly justified in proportion to the available supporting evidence, not with proof (outside of logic/mathematics is there is no such thing as "proof" in an absolute sense). The 19th century explorers had, and today's scientists have, some evidence for their respective beliefs. Therefore these beliefs are not "an article of faith". This should not be confused with the explorers faith that they would survive the difficult journey, which has no relevance to the question of whether they were properly justified in believing their journey was technically feasible or we today are properly justified in believing that our universe obeys laws.
One possible reason that scientists do not talk explicitly about the Central Doctrine is that, contrary to what Dr. Lightman asserts, they do not assume it must be true. It is more accurate to describe scientists as people who have committed themselves to try to determine what is true regardless of where that search for truth takes us. Despite the fact that Dr. Lightman is a (non-practicing) scientist, what he is doing here is endorsing and promoting a negative and unfair stereotyping of science. While it is plausible that many scientists are inclined to believe that a complete set of laws exists and, at least in principle, is discoverable, it does not follow that they also think this belief "must be accepted". On the contrary, if science demonstrated that the universe operates as described in a holy book that is authored by a deity then that is what scientists would believe. There is nothing intrinsic to science that a-priori precludes one conclusion over all others on any question, including the question about the role of laws in the operation of our universe. Furthermore, it can be reasonable to infer that the way the universe operates is the way it must operate. People who believe our universe obeys laws are being reasonable when they infer that this probably is a necessary characteristic of the universe.
Is the belief that all events and properties are governed by laws a properly justified belief ? We arguably will not have finally resolved this question absolutely until we have indisputable explanations for all events and properties, past, present, and future. That is impossible. There is no point in demanding we reach an impossible goal, nor is there any need to do that. Sensible people instead set for ourselves the achievable and useful goal of matching our conclusions to the available evidence. The impressive success of mathematical equation based models, including the Standard Cosmological Model and the Theory of Relativity, and the lack of evidence for lawlessness, support the conclusion that our universe is governed by laws. Does Lightman cite any empirical evidence for lawlessness in his new book? The conclusion that our universe is governed by laws appears to be a better fit overall with the available empirical evidence than the contrary conclusion.
Dr. Lightman cites his personal experience of feeling a transcendent connection with the universe (on an island in Maine), of human desires for permanence and absoluteness, and the like, to buttress his argument for the validity of religious knowledge claims. Those are very weak arguments. He is confusing human emotions and sentiments for evidence regarding how the universe operates. We have lots of empirical evidence from studies of human cognition that basing our conclusions about how the universe operates on our feelings and hopes is a recipe for failure. We know, from hundreds years of success and failure, that our universe is pervasively non-intuitive and counter-intuitive and as a result beliefs originating mostly or entirely from within our own minds are fictions.

Dr. Lightman is contributing little, if anything, of substance to properly resolving the question of whether or not the universe operates according to discoverable laws. He is advocating against disciplined, critical thinking, as if humanity does not already suffer enough from a surfeit of irrationality. He is starting from an unbalanced and unjustified perspective that the proper goal is to reconcile science and religion as methods of attaining valid knowledge about how the universe operates. He ignores the pervasive failure of religion to demonstrate it has the capability to attain knowledge. His claim to have reconciled the scientific with the divine is unpersuasive.