The mind of God
The mind of God
Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: Revista Nuestro Tiempo, nº 467, pp. 116-124.
Date of publication: May 1993
In 1988, Stephen Hawking published his book History of Time, a best seller that combines the scientific knowledge dissemination with a not very rigorous Philosophy . In the conclusion of the book, Hawking asks whether we will be able to find a theory that fully explains the universe, and concludes with these words: "If we discover a complete theory, it will eventually have to be, in its broad outlines, comprehensible to everyone and not just to a few scientists. Then all of us, philosophers, scientists and ordinary people, will be able to take part in the discussion of why the universe exists and why we exist. If we were to find an answer to this, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason, because then we would know the Mind of God" (in English, the Mind of God means not only the thought, but the plan of God).
The Mind of God is precisely the degree scroll of a new book by Paul Davies, published in London in 1992. This is no coincidence. The book begins with Hawking's paragraph, and attempts to answer the questions it raises: can we understand why the universe exists and why we exist, and does science provide an answer to these ultimate questions about existence?
Davies is a university lecturer in physics. He has recently moved from Britain to Australia, and now teaches at the University of Adelaide. He is a prolific author, with this work making issue the twentieth of his published books. He has official document as a populariser. His language is simple and direct, as far as the subjects he deals with allow. He does not shy away from difficult subjects; rather, he seeks them out and takes pleasure in them. He reviews current scientific issues, analysing their philosophical connotations and their relationship with theological problems.
The central question Davies asks is whether our existence is a mere accident, a chance result of cosmic processes, or whether we should rather think of it as responding to some purpose. His answer is that self-consciousness cannot be a trivial detail, a minor by-product of forces lacking purpose: our existence responds to some subject plan.
The limits of science
In assessing Davies' response, it is worth bearing in mind his intellectual trajectory. In 1983 he published a book entitledGod and the New Physics, in which he argued that science now provides a surer way to God than traditional religions. Of course, the "god" he arrived at had little in common with the creator God staff of Christianity; rather, it was an idea that had overlaps with pantheism. Davies referred to pantheism as if it were a widespread idea among scientists; it was "the vague belief of many scientists that God is nature or God is the universe". He suggested that, if the universe were the result of necessary laws, we could dispense with the idea of a creator God, but not with the idea of "a universal mind existing as part of that one physical universe: a natural God, at civil service examination to the supernatural".
In that book, Davies was ready to answer, science in hand, the great questions of human existence. Something seems to have changed in the ten years since then. Now, although Davies claims that he does not belong to any institutional religion and has never had a mystical experience, he also claims that science cannot answer the ultimate questions; he adds that subject answers can only come from mystical experiences that transcend the realm of scientific speculation, and he argues for the existence of some higher plan capable of explaining human life.
All this may seem trivial, especially to a believer, but it is not when it is presented as the result of an extensive analysis carried out by a person who, like Davies, does not find it easy to affirm the existence of a creator God staff . It is one thing to assert in general that science and religion are two different realms, whatever one's position on religion, and quite another to find a scientist who tries to push science to its limits, analysing in particular the many and varied answers currently proposed to the ultimate questions, and engaging in a real intellectual combat in which the arguments for and against the various solutions are discussed in detail.
As in previous books, Davies' reasoning can lead anyone without a solid mental structure to the psychiatrist, as it extends to the most unusual interpretations. These are reflections aloud in which Davies expresses his perplexities, which are neither few nor small. Their interest lies precisely in the fact that they show that a scientist like Davies, uncommitted to conventional religious positions and willing to admit the part of truth to be found in any proposal however strange it may seem, now affirms with plenary session of the Executive Council conviction that it is not viable to attribute human existence to the simple accidental play of natural forces.
The rationality of the world
There is still a widespread cliché that science removes all mystery from human life, providing answers that would render useless any question beyond the confines of science. The reality is different. Indeed, scientific progress opens up ever more astonishing vistas, starting with the very existence of science itself. Davies writes: "The success of the scientific method in unlocking the secrets of nature is so dazzling that it can blind us to the greatest scientific miracle of all: that science works". This is true. The progress of science assumes that nature has a rationality inscribed in its Structures and processes, and that we are able to know it, even if only in a limited way. And this is not trivial, especially if we take into account that the organisation of the world we live in is enormously sophisticated and unique.
Advances in science provide a picture of the world that is almost fantastic, if it were not real. According to the old mechanistic picture, which still enjoys some popularity, the subject would be composed of particles whose only property would be displacement and collision. Today's science, by contrast, discovers a microphysical world in which particles spontaneously group together to form organised patterns that make possible, in turn, the training of other patterns of greater complexity, until they reach the high level of organisation characteristic of living things. In 1989, Davies wrote: "It is one of the universal miracles of nature that huge gatherings of particles, which are subject only to the blind forces of nature, are nevertheless able to organise themselves into patterns of cooperative activity". Indeed, it is so astonishing that it is logical to wonder whether such behaviour is in fact due to blind forces alone.
This is the question that recurs again and again throughout Davies' analyses. Indeed, the astonishing rationality of nature demands a non-trivial explanation, especially if one takes into account our capacity to know it, that is, the existence of self-aware minds like ours that are capable of establishing, with resounding success, a dialogue with nature that leads to ever deeper and more coherent knowledge. To claim that all this is purely accidental, the result of mere chance and blind laws, is not at all satisfactory.
Explanation of the order
Those who reduce our understanding of reality to the explanations provided by the sciences are forced to explain how the prodigious organisation of nature, from agreement with scientific laws, arises from more primitive states. At final, they must explain the whole by the sum of the parts.
No doubt many explanations can be found for this subject, especially if the parts are not merely passive elements. When hydrogen and oxygen atoms are combined under the right conditions, what results is not a simple juxtaposition of atoms: the atoms interact and produce a compound that possesses veritably new or emergent properties. If we take into account that, contrary to the claims of mechanism, there are no purely passive elements, it would seem possible to explain the organisation of nature by successive combinations, at levels of increasing complexity, of components and processes.
In fact, this idea is widely spread today: nature would be the simple result of combinations that would produce results of all kinds subject, among which only those would survive that would be able to functionally adapt to the circumstances. This is the basic outline proposed by Darwin to explain biological evolution, which would also be able to explain cosmic evolution and, in general, all natural processes. What room is left here for further metaphysical subject questions?
Davies repeatedly states that there is at least one subject set of questions that cannot be adequately answered at outline. These are the questions about the laws that underlie all these processes and make them possible. Why do these laws exist and not others? In fact, we know today that our existence is possible because the laws and basic quantities of physics have extremely fine-tuned values.
It might be retorted that there is nothing special about status after all, because otherwise we would not exist; in other words, it is logical that the basic laws are such as to allow us to exist, otherwise we would not be here. However, Davies is not convinced by this answer, and rightly so, because he provides no explanation: he simply accepts the mere fact of our existence and the conditions that make it possible.
The sciences explain, to some extent, how the order of nature arises from certain antecedent conditions. But we always find, in the end, initial situations and basic laws that demand an explanation, unless we are prepared to assert an infinite process that explains nothing. Moreover, what we have to explain is not simply a certain order, but a truly fabulous Degree of organisation on different levels that intertwine and complement each other.
One way to avoid the mystery is to affirm that our world is only one part of a much wider universe in which all possible situations occur subject . Under this perspective, our status, however privileged and unique it may seem to us, would be just one among many others that occur or may occur in other parts of the universe or, as other theories say, in universes parallel to our own. In fact, some physicists hold the many-worlds theory, according to which, by virtue of the peculiarities of quantum physics, a whole series of universes parallel to our own exist. Others claim that our world could be the only logically possible one, and therefore we should not be surprised by its uniqueness either.
Davies does not think that these theories solve the problem. On the one hand, because they are not scientifically testable: if the existence of other unobservable universes is postulated, nothing is advanced; rather the opposite is the case, since unnecessary complications are introduced which fall outside any possible verification. Nor does it seem possible to prove that our universe is the only logically possible one, and all indications point, on the contrary, to the existence of a contingent order.
This notion is crucial. Davies writes: "It seems, then, that the physical universe need not be as it is: it could have been otherwise. Ultimately, it is the assumption that the universe is both contingent and intelligible that provides the motive for empirical science. For, without contingency, we would, in principle, be able to explain the universe using only logical deductions, without recourse to observation. And without intelligibility, there could be no science". True. Then, we must ask ourselves about the ultimate explanation of this contingent order.
Davies analyses the different possibilities. It could be the case that there is no explanation; but this would mean the collapse of rationality, which is supported, among other reasons, by the existence and progress of science. On the other hand, we find the classical explanation proposal by theism, according to which there is a God staff creator who provides the ultimate foundation of rationality.
Is there a superior plan?
Davies' reasoning seems to accord with the characteristic claim of theism. However, he thinks that this position faces an all too serious objection: if God exists, he must be unique, infinite, perfect, and necessary: possessing in himself his reason for being, his non-existence must be impossible; but, in that case, how is divine necessity reconciled with the contingency of the world, and should it not be admitted that, if God is necessary, so should the universe be necessary, as result of divine action? And in that case, how would the necessity of the world be reconciled with the contingency we observe, and above all, with the creativity of nature and with human freedom?
The problem is undoubtedly serious and has occupied illustrious minds throughout history. Davies sees no solution. For this reason, he thinks that the only theistic position that would avoid the difficulties mentioned above would be what is usually called process theology. This is a doctrine that refers back to Alfred North Whitehead, whose impact is especially B in the Anglo-Saxon world. In short, it asserts a kind of dipolar god who is partly necessary and independent of the world, but partly involved in the contingent vicissitudes of the world. Davies confesses that he found the idea difficult to assimilate, but adds that he came to find it acceptable when he considered its parallels with some of the situations studied in quantum physics.
The allusion to quantum physics leads to difficult discussions about the interpretation of this theory; there is not even unanimity among scientists. Moreover, it is not difficult to see that the idea of a dipolar god is rather contradictory.
The difficulties Davies notices in theism can be solved in another way, by using a distinction that is frequently employed by scientists, for example, when discussing theories of evolution. They often say that the fact and its explanation must be distinguished: the evolutionary process would be a well-established fact through palaeontological evidence, from comparative Anatomy , from Genetics and from Biochemistry , and the explanation of the process, however, would involve many controversial problems. The distinction between the two aspects would allow us to argue that uncertainties about the explanation do not affect the assertion of the central fact. In our case, the status would be analogous: there are sufficient arguments for affirming the existence of a God staff creator, whose nature and relations to the world, however, are somewhat mysterious to us.
In reality, this way of reasoning is not new. For centuries, philosophers have distinguished two kinds of questions: the one that concerns the existence of something (the question an sit, i.e. whether something exists), and the one that concerns its nature (the question quid sit, i.e. what is it, what is its mode of being). These are two questions which, although related, can be distinguished. In the sciences, this happens all the time. Nobody doubts the reality of subatomic particles, even though we encounter difficulties, which for the moment are insurmountable, when we try to determine their nature; these difficulties do not prevent us from possessing a lot of well-documented knowledge about particles, and from using it as a basis for very sophisticated technology.
A crucial point, in our case, is whether the existence of a necessary God, which seems to be required to understand how the universe is possible, is compatible with the contingency of that universe. If it is not, then the existence of God would lead either to the assertion that the universe is also necessary, or to a contradiction. But why should one assert that a necessary God would have to produce an equally necessary, non-contingent universe?
In reality, there is no reason to affirm this, but rather there is reason to maintain the contrary. Indeed, there cannot be anything absolutely necessary that is not God Himself. Whatever God produces, it will contain contingent elements, otherwise it would be identified with God.
It is possible to argue rationally that God exists; that he is not only free, but sovereignly free, since he is not determined by anything outside himself; that he does not act arbitrarily; that he is infinitely perfect. If we try to fully understand the divine being, we find limits that are logical: a god who could fit perfectly in our mind could not be the true God. However, we can understand that divine necessity does not imply that God necessarily creates, nor that he can only create a single universe.
Mystery and mysticism
Davies is right that the creator God staff contains mysterious aspects: it could not be otherwise. However, these are not arbitrary mysteries, but, if I may say so, reasonable mysteries.
By the way of reason, we can arrive at the affirmation of God and his principal attributes. This is not little. It is enough to orientate the whole of life in its basic aspects. But we do not, and it is logical that this should be the case, reach a perfect understanding of the divine being, which appears to us wrapped in mystery.
To explain this status, Chesterton proposed a suggestive comparison. The sun is so powerful that we cannot look at it directly, yet it has its own light and radiates it, so that we see everything else by that light. Similarly, God is mysterious to us, but everything is intelligible in his light.
Davies is aware of the problems and has the courage to confront them. In his latest work, he openly acknowledges the limits of science in resolving the ultimate questions about human life. He claims, and rightly so, that empirical science always works on assumptions that it cannot itself test. One of these assumptions is the rationality of the world and of man. Davies rightly warns that the grounding of that rationality takes us into a realm beyond the possibilities of science. Moreover, scientific progress sample, in almost unbelievable detail, shows that this rationality is much greater than it might appear at first sight. All this leads Davies to wonder, which has always been the gateway to genuine Philosophy.
But Davies remains, for the moment, at the door. The paths that open from that door seem to him metaphysical, and he does not see how rational argumentation could be pursued when one settles on them. He sees only one way out: what he calls mystical experience, which would be at the antipodes of rational thought. According to Davies, the paths of mysticism do not lead to unequivocal conclusions, but lead to different conclusions, from agreement with the personality of each person: there are those who arrive at affirming a God staff, and there are those who do not.
Davies places himself in the second group, and explains why. "I have always wanted to believe that science can explain everything, at least in principle," he writes. He adds: "Personally, I would prefer not to believe in supernatural events. Although I obviously can't prove that they never happen, I don't meeting a reason to assume that they do. My inclination is to suppose that the laws of nature are always obeyed". However, he is not convinced by pragmatist atheism, since it implies admitting that the universe is a given, a fact that admits of no ultimate explanation, and this seems unreasonable, even absurd.
Davies argues that, when we seek ultimate explanations, we run up against the limits of the very rationality that drives us to seek them: a completely rational theory is impossible, because we will always have to admit some assumptions. If we wish to go further," he adds, "we have to adopt a different subject of explanation from rational explanation. It is possible that the mystical path leads to that subject of understanding. Personally, I have never had a mystical experience, but I am open-minded about the value of such experiences. Perhaps they provide the only route that goes beyond the limits of science and Philosophy, the only possible way to the Ultimate".
With respect to his previous works, Davies has come a long way, full of uncertainties that remain to this day. It is impossible to foresee where he will go from here. Among other reasons, because we are free. The action of God, all-knowing and all-powerful, not only respects the free activity of the human person, but makes it possible. God has created us so that we can participate in his perfection and goodness, but we can only achieve happiness through our free activity. This is why it has been said that God speaks softly enough so that those who do not want to hear him cannot hear him, and loud enough so that those who want to hear him can hear him. The rationality of the world is one of the ways that God uses to manifest Himself to us; science alone does not arrive at the affirmation of God, but its progress considerably expands our knowledge of the rationality of the world and, for this reason, constitutes a suitable basis for arriving at knowledge of its Creator.