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The road to panentheism
on 27 November 2011
"The Goldilocks Enigma" (a.k.a. "Cosmic Jackpot") is an interesting book by Paul Davies, the maverick quantum physicist who dialogues with theologians. Davies is sometimes regarded as a deist or panentheist, although he is at pains to sound as scientific as possible. Despite this, his collegues seem to regard him with intense suspicion, as evidenced by a 2007 controversy about an article Davies had written for the New York Times, entitled "Taking science on faith".
The first part of "The Goldilocks Enigma" is cosmology 101, but already here, Davies asks the mischievous question *why* the natural laws look like they do, and why the universe seems to be "just right" for life. This "fine-tuning" of the universe is known as the anthropic principle, and is often used by Christians as an argument for God's existence (see Patrick Glynn's book "God: The Evidence" for a typical example). Small wonder cosmologists attempted to avoid the issue for decades! The reasons are clearly ideological.
As the book progresses, it becomes progressively more interesting. In one section, Davies takes on the idea of a "multiverse". The multiverse theory in all its exotic permutations is an obvious attempt to break free from the theistic implications of the anthropic principle. Davies points out that the multiverse concept, in its worst versions, actually resembles pagan polytheism, with highly advanced "creators" generating fake universes, Matrix-like, with the aid of super-computers! One sure wonders what's wrong with science, if the "naturalist" explanations are more bizarre than the theistic ones they are supposed to overcome?
Davies, however, isn't satisfied with theistic Intelligent Design either. His objections are largely philosophical: how can a being be "necessary", how can a necessary being create "freely", etc. And who created God, anyway? He concludes that the traditional idea of God is really no different from the idea of self-existing physical laws: both are a kind of "levitating superturtle" whose existence has to be taken on faith. (The turtle analogy comes from the funny story about the lady who said that the Earth rests on an elephant, which in turn rests on an infinite number of turtles, all the way down!) Davies also amasses scientific arguments against a Designer, however. Our author claims to believe in the Neo-Darwinist scenario with living organisms changing due to random mutations and non-random selection, and he expresses confidence that the origins of both life and intelligence will soon be explained without the need for miracles.
Despite this, Paul Davies is nevertheless sceptical to out-right materialism. He believes that mind and intelligence are somehow basic properties of the universe, and occasionally sounds a bit like an idealist or even vitalist. Davies' preferred hypothesis seems to be a kind of self-explanatory, participatory universe in which consciousness somehow "creates" the universe by backwards causation in time. This is very difficult to take seriously, unless the consciousness doing the creating is of truly cosmic proportions - in which case we would indeed get a kind of pantheist or "panentheist" god! For reasons all his own, Davies stops short of saying this. Obviously, if Davies is right, then Darwinism cannot be correct, since "blind" mutations and selections would have to be combined with a teleological principle, in effect making evolution somewhat less than blind.
Davies ends by pointing out that his theory is a distinct minority position, and that most scientists prefer the multiverse, the so-called theory of everything, or simply don't give a damn, accepting the natural laws as brute facts and (presumably) our existence as a fluke.
"The Goldilocks Enigma" isn't an easy read, despite being a popular science book. However, if you manage to digest it, it will both introduce you to the strange land of cosmology and quantum physics, give you an overview of the major theories (and problems) in the field, and - the real point of the book - summarize Davies' own crypto-religious alternative.
And yes, the present reviewer does admit a certain partiality towards Paul Davies, that constant gadfly of modern science and recipient of the Templeton Prize. ;-)
(Please note that "The Goldilocks Enigma" and "Cosmic Jackpot" is really the same book in two different editions.)