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Looking for God (and not through a telescope...)
on 6 December 2005
Paul Davies, a professor of theoretical physics, has written extensively both for the scientific and the popular audiences on topics of current interest in physics and cosmology. In particular, he concentrates on issues to do with quantum theories, relativity and beginning/end of the universe issues.
In his book 'God and the New Physics', Davies continues a new tradition in which physicists particularly and scientists more generally write about their fields in philosophical, nearly theological terms discussing first causes, ultimate meanings, and the place of God and humanity in the overall scheme of the universe. Our understanding of the universe has changed dramatically in the last century, having been a fairly stable image for the past several hundred years. This has understandably made the philosophic and anthropomorphic considerations of the universe change dramatically as well.
'Science and religion represent two great systems of human thought. For the majority of people on our planet, religion is the predominant influence over the conduct of their affairs. When science impinges on their lives, it does so not at the intellectual level, but practically, through technology.'
Davies explores first the idea of genesis of the universe, exploring the intricacies of the big bang theory. This is a theory that has difficulties philosophically, that a purely scientific approach does not have an answer to, not least of which because it isn't asking the same question. Essentially, according to the big bang theory, the universe began as a singularity, essentially an infinitely small point from which all space and time (and all that is in it) emerged in an explosion-like phenomenon. Davies explores problems associated with conventional thinking around this unconventional theory -- what is the first event? what is the first event after the big bang? what is the purpose? what is the cause?
It is a bizarre twist of quantum theories that causes and effects are not neatly, logically arranged along timelines which we have become accustomed to. Thus, can the universe be considered to be self-causing?
'The fact that modern cosmology has provided hard physical evidence for the creation is a matter of great satisfaction to religious thinkers. However, it is not enough that a creation simply occurred. The Bible tells us that God created the universe. Can science throw any light at all on what caused the big bang?'
Alas -- even with exotic causality strains and quantum mechanisms which may remove the need for a first cause (as Davies tends to argue, using modern science essentially to refute already largely-refuted cosmological arguments for the existence of God), it does not adequately explain why there is a universe at all, that would have as part of its nature not needing a first-cause.
In the course of his discussion of the ideas of theoretical physics and traditional religious views, Davies explores the mind/matter connexion, the nature and direction of time, the scientific and philosophic issues around free will and determinism, and the idea of what nature truly is (and isn't).
Near the end of the book, Davies recaps the argument thus far:
'In spite of the spectacular success of modern science, it would be foolish to suppose that the fundamental questions concerning the existence of God, the purpose of the universe, or the role of mankind in the natural and supernatural scheme has been answered by these advances. Indeed, scientists themselves have a wide range of religious beliefs.'
There are no easy answers here. This book is not intended to settle anything, but rather to help clarify the issues in the debate, particularly in an era where there is as much misconception over what modern science really means as there is over what religious interpretations really mean. This is not a book for the intellectually timid. There is a presumption of scientific literacy in all of Davies' work; one needn't be a rocket scientist (or theoretical physicist), but those intimidated at basic algebra will most likely not benefit from this volume.
'I am sometimes asked whether the insight which physicists have gained into the inner workings of nature through the study of fundamental processes throws any light on the nature of God's plan for the universe, or reveals the struggle between good and evil. It does not. There is nothing good or evil about the way quarks are united into protons and neutrons, or the absorption and emission of quanta, the bending of spacetime by matter, the abstract symmetries that unite the fundamental particles, and so on.'
That having been said, many of the philosophical and theological questions remain unanswered, but now have a new element to be considered. Davies' work helps to reframe questions.