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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Turtle trouble?, 29 Jan. 2009
This review is from: The Mind of God: Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning (Penguin Press Science) (Paperback)
Paul Davies is perhaps the most prominent of a nouveau species of scientist: the philosopher physicist. Here in The Mind of God he goes all out in an attempt to "trace the logic of scientific rationality back as far as it will go in the search for ultimate answers to the mystery of existence." (p. 223) And yes he runs into "turtle trouble." (You'll recall that the world is a flat plate resting on the back of a giant turtle... And what is the turtle resting on? It's turtles all the way down.)

I think it's fair to say--and this is my belief--that the human mind cannot fully grasp the whole of which it is a part, nor can it see beyond a certain distance, either out into the cosmos or into the very small, instead only to somewhere near the Big Bang, and only tentatively into the future, to the Planck limit perhaps. Clearly the mind of any God worthy of the appellation is far, far beyond our reach. And as for a theory of everything? Well, someday there may be a broken statue in the sand like that of Ozymandias, only this time it won't be that of an emperor drunk with self-importance, but of a humble physicist looking for a TOE.

Davies who is a recipient (1995) of the Templeton Prize which is given to people whom the judges think foster human understanding of divine creativity. Typically they like to give it to a scientist who believes in God, although the Rev. Billy Graham and Charles Colson of Watergate infamy have been recipients. After reading this book, and just from what is in this book, I believe that Davies does believe in God, but in a God that is a bit removed from the personal gods of the major Western religions. (But you might want to Google "Paul Davies" yourself and get a more definitive statement--or not, since what he writes in this book speaks for itself.) He clearly believes in free will (see page 139) and in a universe that could easily be designed. He also believes in "the progressive nature of biological evolution" (p. 183) which is a no-no for most evolutionary biologists, and in something he sometimes calls "the good" or simply "good" (e.g., p 183 and elsewhere). In short Davies is a man straddling two worlds, that of science and religion, who is finding a consilience in philosophy.

Let's look at some of the ideas and discussions in the book, most of which are still viable and fascinating even though the book was first published in 1992.

On the famous, often asked question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" the gist of an answer coming from much of what Davies writes is, "it couldn't be otherwise." From my point of view, the best way to say much the same thing is to recognize that nonbeing has no meaning without being. Of course this subjects the cosmos to the limitations of human logic! But that is what a lot of this book is about, the limits of human logic and human understanding.

Another point nicely made by Davies is that the incompleteness theorems of Godel and the self-referential paradox from Russell strongly suggest that we cannot hope to understand the universe. Those are logical obstacles. A physical one is the problem of getting to the Big Bang as opposed to getting very, very, very close to the Big Bang, which is where we are now and where we are likely to stay. In fact, Davies argues somewhere here that even if we could get to the very instance of the Big Bang that would not explain everything.

Davies is decidedly not a postmodernist. He believes that we discover the laws of the universe. He even sees mathematics as a discovery. However, I think some of the philosophical difficulties in this book would resolve a bit if Davies kept in mind that mathematics is a language, a very precise language with a great grasp but a language that so far as we know is only spoken by human beings. Davies is of the school that finds it surprising that mathematics should be so effective in describing and helping us to order the world. Personally, I am not so surprised since mathematics is part and parcel of the world, as inescapable as the law of gravity. The essence of mathematics is abstraction which is the talent that most clearly separates us from other animals. Mathematic abstraction comes from verbal abstraction, an evolutionary adaptation which allowed us to talk and think concretely about yesterday and tomorrow and things not in our immediate presence.

It appears that Davies believes in God as "a necessary being." He argues that "if"--Davies uses the conditional a lot, perhaps to avoid making the direct statement--"if the universe really has an explanation and it can't explain itself, then it must be explained by something outside itself--e.g., God. But what, then, explains God? This age-old...conundrum is in danger of pitching us into an infinite regress. The only escape, it would seem, is to assume that God can somehow 'explain himself,' which is to say that God is a necessary being..." (p. 177) Personally, I am not so unenamored with the infinite regress. In fact my mind cannot avoid it, despite the "turtles all the way down" parody.

As for marveling at the various "lucky flukes" (Fred Hoyle's term) of physics that allow us to exist in this universe (c.f., the anthropic principle), I want to say that had things been different, there would be no one around to do the marveling--no one around, no marveling--or those doing the marveling would be different from us in such a way as to be the recipients of some other lucky flukes of matter and energy, which they would marvel at.

This is the kind of book--delightful as it is--that makes one understand the need for experimental proof!
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Initial post: 28 Oct 2013, 13:40:45 GMT
It's not a case of whether Davies believes in God as what he might understand by the term. I'm pretty sure he's just trying to meet the godly - who can be touchy - half-way. Here he is writing in the Daily Telegraph, 26/9/06. 'Albert Einstein is famous for remarking that what most interested him was whether God had any choice in the nature of his creation. By this, Einstein was asking in characteristically quaint language whether the universe could have been otherwise, or whether it must inevitably be as it is.' Davies's own 'quaint language' here is, I think, indicative. (What interests me, by contrast, are the convoluted thought processes of the godly!)
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