Is Logic Faith?

I read a very interesting post today. It tries to prove that science – as opposed to religion – is not faith-based. The story also got on Digg frontpage and was heavily discussed there. One comment thread in particular caught my attention, and it gave me some ideas that I feel I should write down before I forget them.

As I understand it, in the original post Phil Plait (the blog’s owner) argues that religion always relies on one or more untestable assumptions (e.g. that there is a god) that are supported solely by faith. According to Phil, science makes only one assumption – that the Universe follows a set of rules (not any specific rules, just that there are rules). This is a testable assumption – you can check if a rule holds up based on what happens “in the real world”.

Here’s the conundrum – one Digg’er suggested that “testability is truth” is a faith-based assumption. In other words, it is only an untestable assupmtion that testable assumptions are not faith-based. Think about it.

I’m not an expert of logic, but I think I see a flaw here. “Testability” is not an assumption, it is instead a part of the framework in which assumptions, theories, proof, etc are assessed – logic (in the wide sense). It’s meta.

But there’s more. One of the definitions of logic is “a system of reasoning”. Logic is rules for reasoning. So is the assumption that “the Universe follows a set of rules” really testable? If it does follow rules, there’s no problem. On the other hand, will logic – a set of rules – apply if there are no rules? Probably not, but how would we be able to find out? No rules -> unclear if logic works -> can’t use logic to determine if logic works. So it appears that we can’t really determine if the Universe follows a set of rules, because there is no way to detect a case where it doesn’t.

What’s worse is that I (hopefully) used logic to ask the above questions and come to those weird conclusions.

Am I wrong? :P

Addendum. This comment on Digg puts a part the issue a little more eloquently -

Logic (which is the heart of science) relies on axioms; and axioms, by definition, are unprovable assertions. For example: “If A implies B and B implies C, Then A implies C” I have faith that this is true; but any “proof” would necessarily be a circular argument, for how would one link together the steps of the proof without using the result itself?

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4 Responses to “Is Logic Faith?”

  1. Andrew says:

    The important difference for me is that on the one hand you have a conclusion that is based rational, logical, reasoning that can be reached simply by observing the environment and is open to amendment should it be contradicted, whereas, on the other hand you have faith in an irrational, illogical, concept that has no observable features at all and which cannot be questioned regardless of evidence to the contrary.

    The first isn’t really faith at all is it?

    I commented on another blog about this article that one of the problems is that people end up arguing about semantics, i.e. if the universe follows rules then what makes it stick to those rules, who created them etc,

    I would argue that there isn’t even an initial assumption. Science operates on the basis that the universe operates and then tries to discover how by creating a a set of explanations, that we call rules, to explain it. If the universe operated differently, the ‘rules’ would be different, even if that meant that there was only one rule: that there are no rules.

  2. White Shadow says:

    I guess it could be said that I’m arguing semantics or somesuch. After all, the question whether there “actually” are rules is completely unimportant in any practical context. Pragmatically, it seems self-evident that there are rules and we can achieve results based on them.

    However, I disagree with this :

    I would argue that there isn’t even an initial assumption. Science operates on the basis that the universe operates and then tries to discover how by creating a a set of explanations, that we call rules, to explain it. If the universe operated differently, the ‘rules’ would be different, even if that meant that there was only one rule: that there are no rules.

    I still think that we wouldn’t be able to correctly identify a situation when the Universe has no rules. Because …
    *Humans look for rules, not their absence. We tend to see patterns even in a completely random stream of data.
    *We can’t get enough data. The Universe might be appearing to follow a set of rules, until a random point in future when everything becomes chaos. We can’t know whether this will happen unless we’ve traveled the entire timeline.
    *More fundamentally, we operate inside this universe. If it wouldn’t have rules, we simply wouldn’t be able to reliably detect this. Our own logic would be affected by the unpredictability of the universe.

  3. Andrew says:

    I agree that we wouldn’t be able to identify the absense of rules in a universe without rules; however, the reason for this is not a failure of the way we seek those rules but the very fact that if the universe was not consistent then we would not exist.

    It isn’t a matter of faith that there are rules, or a matter of assumption, but the fact that we are here to observe rules is contingent upon the presence of those rules.

    If the rules change we will either cease to exist or incorporate the change, and the fact that it was possible, into our view of the universe. It doesn’t change the reasoning behind the existence of rules.

  4. White Shadow says:

    (…) the fact that we are here to observe rules is contingent upon the presence of those rules.

    That’s a very good point. My intuition tells me there might still be some caveats, but I can’t quite define them at the moment.

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