Steven Landsburg: Physics or Faith?

In his book Fair Play (pp. 57-59), Steven E. Landsburg writes:

According to the book I’ve just been reading, we are living in the true age of faith. We flip a switch and confidently expect light to flood the room, never stopping to wonder why or how. We fly through the air, cook in microwave ovens, and surf the Web, all with little understanding–and often with even less interest–in the technology that makes it all possible. 

The same book says that our distant ancestors were, by contrast, masters of their reality. When your most advanced achievement is an arrowhead that you crafted by sharpening a stone against a rock, there’s not much danger that your technological reach will exceed your intellectual grasp. 

All of which is worse than nonsense. … Just sitting down on a rock–or a chair–and expecting not to fall right through it is an enormous act of faith for anybody with less than complete command of the quantum mechanical principles that make chairs possible. …

… Let me prove that to you by experiment. Take a twig. Break it in half. Now put the pieces back together. Now let go. Why isn’t the twig back in one piece? All the parts are still there, just as they were before you came along. Now that you’ve put the pieces back together, it appears that all the parts are in the same relative positions they were in before you came along. They had no problem sticking together then. Why won’t they stick together now? What held them together before and why has it stopped working?

Either you can answer those questions or you can’t. If you can’t then your confidence in the basic properties of twigs is a pure act of faith. If you can, then you are probably also the sort of person who has a pretty good idea what makes your lights come on. In either case, twigs are neither more nor less mysterious than house current, and it requires neither more nor less faith to take one for granted than the other.  

I am intrigued at the similarity between the similarity between how Steven is using the laws of physics as a measure of understanding and how I found myself driven to using the laws of physics as a way to distinguish between “natural” and “supernatural” in my post “What Do You Mean by ‘Supernatural’?” Of course, there is some faith left in physics because there are still things we don’t know in physics. But as near as we can tell, there is a bigger fraction of things we don’t understand about most other practical topics that come to mind. 

In particular, contrast physics with social science. When I talk about “The Unavoidability of Faith” in our lives, I point to social science and technological facts that we don’t know and have to guess at. If calculation came free, knowing all the true laws of physics might yield answers to all of the questions of technology, and even social science. But when calculation is not free, one can know the laws of physics but not all the technological facts those laws of physics imply, let alone the social science principles those laws of physics imply.   

To me, religion is the realm of mystery. Not things that will forever be mysteries, but simply things that are mysteries to us now. I put it better in “An Agnostic Grace”

Religion is the “everything else” category in our existence in human societies and as individuals after parceling out the things people understand fairly well about human life—just as “natural philosophy” used to be the “everything else” category after parceling out as natural sciences the things people were beginning to understand fairly well about the natural world.
There is still a great deal we don’t understand well enough about our existence in human societies and as individuals to parcel out as generally understood social science knowledge. I am defining “religion” as encompassing all of those areas touching on our human existence where we are still groping for answers and for the meaning of things (or for a meaning of things), even if one has ruled out supernatural answers.     

Although the metaphor is imperfect, when Steven and I reach for a metaphor for something humankind (speaking collectively and not individually) does understand, we turn to physics.