Paul Davies


English Physicist, Author and Broadcaster, Professor at Arizona State University, Chair of SETI, Director of BEYOND: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science

Author Quotes

People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature - the laws of physics - are simply accepted as given, as brute facts. Nobody asks where they came from; at least not in polite company. However, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as law-like order in nature that is at least partly comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.

The epoch before about a billionth of a second, however, remains murky territory, with plenty of scope for disagreement.

The vast majority of terrestrial species are in fact microbes, and scientists have only begun scratching the surface of the microbial realm. It is entirely possible that examples of life as we don't know it have so far been overlooked.

Where do we human beings fit into this great cosmic scheme? Can we gaze out into the cosmos, as did our remote ancestors, and declare: ?God made all this for us?? I think not. Are we then but an accident of nature, the freakish outcome of blind and purposeless forces, incidental by-product of a mindless, mechanistic universe? I reject that, too. The emergence of life and consciousness, I maintain, are written into the laws of the universe in a very basic way. True, the actual physical form and general mental make-up of Homo sapiens contain many accidental features of no particular significance. If the universe were rerun a second time, there would be no solar system, no Earth, and no people. But the emergence of life and consciousness somewhere and somewhen in the cosmos is, I believe, assured by the underlying laws of nature.

Perhaps the best motivation for going to Mars is political. It is obvious that no single nation currently has either the will or the resources to do it alone, but a consortium of nations and space agencies could achieve it within 20 years.

The general multiverse explanation is simply naive deism dressed up in scientific language. Both appear to be an infinite unknown, invisible and unknowable system. Both require an infinite amount of information to be discarded just to explain the (finite) universe we live in.

The very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

Words like ?meaning? and ?purpose? are human categories, derived from human experience, and so we?re projecting them onto nature and saying, well, the best way of understanding the universe is to say it behaves in a purpose-like manner.

Perhaps there are many nows of varying duration, depending on just what it is we are doing. We must face up to the fact that, at least in the case of humans, the subject experiencing subjective time is not a perfect, structureless observer, but a complex, multilayered, multifaceted psyche. Different levels of our consciousness may experience time in quite different ways. This is evidently the case in terms of response time. You have probably had the slightly unnerving experience of jumping at the sound of a telephone a moment or two before you actually hear it ring. The shrill noise induces a reflex response through the nervous system much faster than the time it takes to create the conscious experience of the sound. It is fashionable to attribute certain qualities, such as speech ability, to the left side of the brain, whereas others, such as musical appreciation, belong to processes occurring on the right side. But why should both hemispheres experience a common time? And why should the subconscious use the same mental clock as the conscious? ? Paul Davies, About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution

The German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, himself one of the founders of the science of thermodynamics, was one of the first to suggest that life somehow circumvents the second law. Eddington likewise perceived a clash between Darwinian evolution and thermodynamics, and suggested either that the former be abandoned or that an "anti-evolution principle" be set alongside it. Even Schrodinger had his doubts. In his book What is Life? he examined the relationship between order and disorder in conventional thermodynamics and contrasted it with life's hereditary principle of more order from order. Observing that an organism avoids decay and maintains order by "drinking orderliness" from its environment, he surmised that the second law of thermodynamics may not apply to living matter. "We must be prepared to find a new type of physical law prevailing on it," he wrote.

The way life manages information involves a logical structure that differs fundamentally from mere complex chemistry. Therefore chemistry alone will not explain life's origin, any more than a study of silicon, copper and plastic will explain how a computer can execute a program.

You can't teach it in science class. God has never been a part of science.

Psychologists have devised some ingenious ways to help unpack the human now. Consider how we run those jerky movie frames together into a smooth and continuous stream. This is known as the phi phenomenon. The essence of phi shows up in experiments in a darkened room where two small spots are briefly lit in quick succession, at slightly separated locations. What the subjects report seeing is not a succession of spots, but a single spot moving continuously back and forth. Typically, the spots are illuminated for 150 milliseconds separated by an interval of fifty milliseconds. Evidently the brain somehow fills in the fifty-millisecond gap. Presumably this hallucination or embellishment occurs after the event, because until the second light flashes the subject cannot know the light is supposed to move. This hints that the human now is not simultaneous with the visual stimulus, but a bit delayed, allowing time for the brain to reconstruct a plausible fiction of what has happened a few milliseconds before. In a fascinating refinement of the experiment, the first spot is colored red, the second green. This clearly presents the brain with a problem. How will it join together the two discontinuous experiences?red spot, green spot?smoothly? By blending the colors seamlessly into one another? Or something else? In fact, subjects report seeing the spot change color abruptly in the middle of the imagined trajectory, and are even able to indicate exactly where using a pointer. This result leaves us wondering how the subject can apparently experience the correct color sensation before the green spot lights up. Is it a type of precognition? Commenting on this eerie phenomenon, the philosopher Nelson Goodman wrote suggestively: The intervening motion is produced retrospectively, built only after the second flash occurs and projected backwards in time. In his book Consciousness Explained, philosopher Daniel Dennett points out that the illusion of color switch cannot actually be created by the brain until after the green spot appears. But if the second spot is already 'in conscious experience,' wouldn't it be too late to interpose the illusory content between the conscious experience of the red spot and the conscious experience of the green spot?

The increasing application of the information concept to nature has prompted a curious conjecture. Normally we think of the world as composed of simple, clod-like, material particles, and information as a derived phenomenon attached to special, organized states of matter. But maybe it is the other way around: perhaps the universe is really a frolic of primal information, and material objects a complex secondary manifestation.

There are indeed a lot of stars -- at least ten billion billion in the observable universe. But this number, gigantic as it may appear to us, is nevertheless trivially small compared with the gigantic odds against the random assembly of even a single protein molecule.

You feel good when you kill off a penalty. It's part of the game that can make a big difference.

Science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview... even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of a law-like order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us.

The language of chemistry simply does not mesh with that of biology. Chemistry is about substances and how they react, whereas biology appeals to concepts such as information and organisation. Informational narratives permeate biology.

There?s no doubt that the popularity of the multiverse is due to the fact that it superficially gives a ready explanation for why the universe is bio-friendly. Twenty years ago, people didn?t want to talk about this fine-tuning because they were embarrassed. It looked like the hand of a creator. Then along came the possibility of a multiverse, and suddenly they?re happy to talk about it because it looks like there?s a ready explanation. Only those universes in which there can be life get observed, and all the rest go unobserved. Notice, however, that it?s far from a complete explanation of existence. You still have to make a huge number of assumptions. You need a universe-generating mechanism to give you all these universes. You need a set of laws that can be scattered across these universes, distributed in some way, according to some algorithm. You?re no better off than saying there is an unexplained God. Even the scientific explanations for the universe are rooted in a particular type of theological thinking. They?re trying to explain the world by appealing to something outside of it. And I think the time has come to move beyond that. We can ? if we try hard enough ? come up with a complete explanation of existence from within the universe, without appealing to something mystical or magical lying beyond it. I think the scientists who are anti-God but appeal to unexplained sets of laws or an unexplained multiverse are just as much at fault as a naive theist who says there?s a mysterious, unexplained God.

Science is based on the assumption that the universe is thoroughly rational and logical at all levels. Miracles are not allowed. This implies that there should be reasons for the particular laws of nature that regulate the physical universe. Atheists claim that the laws exist reasonlessly and that the universe is ultimately absurd. As a scientist, I find this hard to accept. There must be an unchanging rational ground in which the logical, orderly nature of the universe is rooted. Is this rational ground like the timeless God of Augustine? Perhaps it is. But in any case, the law-like basis of the universe seems a more fruitful place for a dialogue between science and theology than focusing on the origin of the universe and the discredited notion of what happened before the Big Bang.

The laws [of physics]... seem themselves to be the product of exceedingly ingenious design.

There's no need to invoke anything supernatural in the origins of the universe or of life. I have never liked the idea of divine tinkering: for me it is much more inspiring to believe that a set of mathematical laws can be so clever as to bring all these things into being.

Science, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term ?doubting Thomas? well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

The living cell is the most complex system of its size known to mankind. Its host of specialized molecules, many found nowhere else but within living material, are themselves already enormously complex. They execute a dance of exquisite fidelity, orchestrated with breathtaking precision. Vastly more elaborate than the most complicated ballet, the dance of life encompasses countless molecular performers in synergetic coordination. Yet this is a dance with no sign of a choreographer. No intelligent supervisor, no mystic force, no conscious controlling agency swings the molecules into place at the right time, chooses the appropriate players, closes the links, uncouples the partners, moves them on. The dance of life is spontaneous, self-sustaining, and self-creating.

They are working for companies that make huge profits. Some get sick pay and some don't get sick pay but they all have the same size mops and buckets.

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English Physicist, Author and Broadcaster, Professor at Arizona State University, Chair of SETI, Director of BEYOND: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science