Saturday, 4 May 2013

THE MYSTERY AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE

THE MIND OF GOD - Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning

THE MIND OF GOD is the title of a book published in 1993 (re-issued since) by Paul Davies, English physicist, astrobiologist and cosmologist, who has held academic posts at universities from Cambridge to Adelaide and now at Arizona State University.  Chapter headings range from ‘Reason and Belief’ through ‘Why is the World the Way It Is?’ to ‘The Mystery at the End of the Universe’ – three promising themes for future discussion at our open forum at Wychwood Library, if the group so chooses, following a recommendation by Clive Fieth.

Davies is not, as far as I know, a believer but he won the prestigious Templeton Prize in 1995 for his work on the deeper meaning of science.  His Address at Westminster Abbey on that occasion, entitled Physics and the Mind of God, is a more distilled example of his thoughts and argues against the ‘widespread belief that science and theology are forever at loggerheads’.  Where The Mind of God draws attention to the limits of rational explanations of the universe, in this address he is perhaps trying to persuade a more religiously inclined audience not to cling to a childish concept of a ‘cosmic magician’ but to ‘confront modern scientific thought’:

The position I have presented to you today is … one that regards the universe, not as the plaything of a capricious Deity, but as a coherent, rational, elegant, and harmonious expression of a deep and purposeful meaning.

Chapter 1 of The Mind of God sets out to answer the questions, ‘Can we really hope to answer the ultimate questions of existence through rational enquiry, or will we always encounter impenetrable mystery at some stage? And just what is human rationality anyway?’  He goes on to discuss the Big Bang, continuous creation, the Laws of Nature and The Cosmic Code, mathematics (far too much for me), Leibniz, Hawking and Hume, cosmology, astronomy, you name it…  This is not a book for the scientifically faint-hearted.  However it bears dipping into and drives on relentlessly towards his concluding chapters.

By chapter 9 he is suggesting that ‘it has to be admitted that our concept of rational explanation derives from our observation of the world and our evolutionary inheritance’.  After quoting  Stephen Hawking’s ‘turtle story’ as a symbol of the search for ultimate answers, he questions whether we should limit ourselves by identifying ‘understanding’ with ‘rational explanation’ and asks whether there are ‘other forms of understanding which will satisfy the inquiring mind’.  Alluding to a number of scientists, from Einstein onwards, he dares to broach the topic of mystical knowledge and revelatory experiences, both within and outside the scientific community.  The way we read of such experiences – which Davies says he himself has never had – varies depending on the culture of the person describing them, from Eastern mystics to Christian monastics to Roger Penrose the mathematician, and some such accounts are of course an immediate turn-off.

However, whether it is through turtles or Eastern mysticism, it is hard to resist being drawn – like much of twentieth-century mathematics, it seems – into pondering the infinite and hence what Davies, with only a hint of flippancy, calls ‘the mystery at the end of the universe’.  The final section of the final chapter is, appropriately, entitled What is Man? and includes this deliberately inconclusive conclusion: ‘We are barred from ultimate knowledge, from ultimate explanation, by the very rules of reasoning that prompt us to seek an explanation in the first place.’ 

Much scope for discussion here and some thoughts which would probably not sit uncomfortably with our current author and searcher for meaning, Jonathan Sacks, philosopher, theologian and, for a little longer, Chief Rabbi.


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