Paul Davies recently wrote a piece in The New York Times titled “Taking Science by Faith. Davies is a astrophysicist, origin of life researchers, and philosopher. He is also a pantheist, which is a “religious” version of atheism. That may sound strange, but both share the same ontology (God does not exist). The latter differs from atheism in that it views the universe as an object of religious devotion. For Davies, the laws that govern the universe are the object of religious devotion.

Davies’ metaphysical commitments make his article all the more interesting. He argues that both science and religion have faith commitments. While many philosophers have pointed this out, it is rare for a practicing scientist to admit it. Maybe his background in philosophy is forcing his honesty! I quite Davies at length:

Science, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. … The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. … The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?

His point is that before a scientist can even begin the work of science, he must presuppose certain things to be true about the natural world. Those presuppositions are not obtained through the scientific method, but rather give rise to the method itself. Without those presuppositions, science cannot get off the ground.

He speaks of the laws of physics. Where do they come from, and why are they what they are? Why should there be any laws at all? Why doesn’t the physical world behave differently in different places and at different times? Science does not know the answer to these questions. And yet they must rely on the physical laws to inquire of physical reality. He continues:

When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance. The laws were treated as “given” — imprinted on the universe like a maker’s mark at the moment of cosmic birth — and fixed forevermore. Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.

Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.

“They just are.” That’s the explanation some atheists give for the existence of the entire cosmos. Why is there something rather than nothing? There is no reason, they say. It just exists as a brute contingent fact, completely inexplicable. As Davies says, this is deeply anti-rational. And yet science, operating on the principle that agent-causation is not a valid explanation for physical phenomena, cannot explain why the universe exists, or why there are physical laws. They are left merely with the observation that they exist, inexplicably. Why? Because the cause of the physical laws, like the cause of the universe, cannot be physical. If science cannot allow a non-physical, agent cause to explain physical phenomenon, science must be content with anti-rational answers like the ones Davies laments. Davies notes the fact that the explanation must lie outside the physical universe:

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

I find it interesting that Davies thinks more research can unveil a materialistic cause for the natural laws. Unless he wishes to advance the notion that the laws of nature developed over time, this project is doomed from the start. Physical laws began with the existence of the universe. If they were there from the beginning of physical reality, physical reality cannot explain their origin. Whatever caused them cannot itself be physical. Only an immaterial source can cause physical reality and physical laws. Davies will never solve the dilemma of where the natural laws came from until he opens himself to the metaphysical possibility of God’s existence. Only an immaterial, personal, intelligent, rational, and powerful being could produce physical reality with all of its attendant laws.