The Mind of God
by Paul Davies
Simon & Schuster, 254 pages, $22
“I have always thought it curious that, while most scientists claim to eschew religion, it actually dominates their thoughts more than it does the clergy.” So said celebrated astronomer and atheist Fred Hoyle.
With this quote, physicist Paul Davies concludes his latest book on new developments in theoretical physics. As both the title and his own musings throughout the book make clear, Davies has no trouble admitting that religion and its subject, namely, the Creator, occupy him in more than passing fashion. And his book suggests that scientists should address the obvious metaphysical implications of twentieth-century physics: e.g., Einstein and quantum mechanics and the more recent developments in the field of chaos theory and nonlinear systems.
The book’s title, The Mind of God, was taken from a well-known story about Einstein, who, when asked why he became a physicist, answered that he wanted to read the mind of God. This might seem to have been a symptom of great hubris, but Einstein is after all to be forgiven for it because it wasn’t questions of theology that occupied him so much as questions of design. (“I have to add the last point explicitly,” he once wrote to his friend M. Solovine, “lest you think that, weakened by age, I have fallen into the hands of priests.”)
In these days of rival grand theories—superstrings, the inflationary model, et al.—competing on the front pages of the Wall Street Journal for the status of last word on the ultimate, Davies’ book might appear to be just another technician’s confident assertion that science will soon have all the answers. On the contrary: The Mind of God is rather a reappraisal of reductionism (its sweeping generalizations about the nonexistence of things like the mind and the soul) and a most refreshing if also sober assessment of the limits of mathematics and the physical theories it supports.
True, Davies, a professor of mathematical physics at the University of Adelaide in Australia, isn’t always easy to read. The non-physicist may have to spend time scrutinizing a diagram or scale model of the universe to keep up with Davies as he demonstrates the work of Mandelbrot or Feigenbaum’s constants. But unlike such other popularizers of scientific issues as Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, he does avoid either talking down to his readers or succumbing to adolescent exclamation points at the mere sight of numbers requiring scientific notation.
Davies is more interested in what lurks behind the numbers—the fact, for instance, that mathematics should consistently tell us so much about the physical world at all. While this fact is perhaps too often taken for granted, Davies makes no attempt to hide his certainty that all ballyhooed attempts to find a Grand Unified Theory of Everything are to some extent self-defeating precisely because of the quite inexplicable, indeed mysterious, effectiveness of mathematics in explaining events in the physical world. “Mathematics must be founded on a set of axioms,” he writes. “Though the theorems of mathematics may be deduced from within the system of axioms, the axioms themselves cannot . . . . There is also the serious problem of Gödel’s Theorem. Recall that, according to this theorem, it is generally impossible, from within the set of axioms, even to prove that the axioms are consistent.” Thus Gödel’s Theorems of Incompleteness continue to haunt reductionists, and Davies is one of the outspoken scientists who would remind his colleagues that they must at some point come to terms with mystery.
A convinced Platonist, at least with regard to the existence of mathematical laws, Davies rejects the cultural view of mathematics merely as a language created by man to describe the natural world; and like his colleague Roger Penrose (one of the foremost theoreticians on black holes) he flatly asserts that mathematical laws have an existence of their own:
First, much of the mathematics that is so spectacularly effective in physical theory was worked out as an abstract exercise by pure mathematicians long before it was applied to the real world . . . . The British mathematician G. H. Hardy wrote that he practiced mathematics for its beauty, not for its practical value . . . and yet we discover, often years afterward, that nature is playing by the very same mathematical rules that these pure mathematicians have already formulated.
This is not to suggest that Davies is deeply theological in his thinking. He professes no specific religious creed, although it is remarkable how closely his own ruminations about a necessary creator resemble the classic demonstrations of Thomas Aquinas. If indeed Davies paraphrases the angelic doctor too liberally in places, unlike many other science writers of prominence he has not confused the Thomist distinction between the possibility of an infinite series—which Aquinas contended no philosopher had ever succeeded in disproving—and the possibility of an infinite regression of causes—which Thomas ruled out.
Davies is acutely aware that twentieth-century physics has rejuvenated a host of philosophical questions once considered in bad taste; this may in fact be the best thing about his work. (Harvard physicist Sidney Coleman commented that twenty years ago if you mentioned quantum mechanics at a cocktail party, everyone would leave the room.) In any discussion of modern physics, especially as it relates to religion and metaphysical questions, there are a few things that can now be asserted with clarity and confidence; it often seems that not since the thirteenth century have religion and science so well complemented each other.
Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity restored the universe, indeed the very idea of the universe as a whole, to the realm of intellectual respectability in the twentieth century. Some cranky conservatives seem for the wrong reasons to be overly loyal to Isaac Newton and to feel that Einstein, by asserting the strange bendability of space and time, somehow violated the sanctity of the cosmos. This is unfortunate because they don’t realize the influence of Kant on cosmology and philosophy. For a century and more after Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the universe was dismissed as an “illusion,” a bastard product of the metaphysical cravings of the intellect and so to be ignored. A number of scientists, notably Stanley L. Jaki, have documented the unfortunate influence exerted by Newton’s mechanistic cosmos on the German philosopher. In fairness to Newton, it seems that Kant hadn’t really read the entire Principia, and was hard-pressed to understand what little of it he did read. He was more taken with the idea of applying purely physical principles to philosophical questions, questions in the end he decided weren’t even legitimate.
When Einstein finished his tensor equations for the General Theory of Relativity in 1916, Kant and his Critique became the first casualties—along with infinite space, infinite time, and the other vague notions so cherished by nineteenth-century reductionists. And in rapid succession during the 1920s and 1930s the world awakened not only to the fact that the universe was a finite though unbounded reality, but also to the realization that it was expanding, with the frightening implications of its own beginning staring up from the equations over which the physicists were brooding.
At the same time, determinists were reeling from evidence on the atomic level that reality was becoming unpredictable, dissolving into a shower of particles that seemed to alternate between being particles and being waves, and to alternate between one energy level and another instantaneously. Today, quantum mechanics and chaos theory are revealing a world more creative and unpredictable than ever.
Chaos theory is specifically the study of initially simple systems—as simple as a leaking faucet or a swinging pendulum, or as complex and huge as the red storm on Jupiter—which can rapidly assume unpredictable properties that expand beyond the capacity of mathematics to determine. Among other things, Davies feels that more and more the study of chaos is forcing a reappraisal of reductionism in physics, its shrinking role in science as a whole, and the liberating implications this has for the role of, yes, teleology in physics and biology.
This is good news for several reasons. For one thing, unlike physicists and mathematicians, Darwinists have been getting away with decidedly unrigorous theories about the evolution of man—usually hiding behind vague assertions about chance and random mutations while staunchly refusing to allow any kind of teleological impulses to creep into the history of natural selection. Chaos and self-organization in non-organic systems, however, now promise to change all that. (Davies has described these developments in his other books, most notably The Cosmic Blueprint and The Matter Myth.)
All this makes Davies’ one lapse all the more surprising, and that is a careless repetition of one of the most irritating scientific clichés: namely, that given an infinite amount of time, even a monkey will type out the works of Shakespeare. The absurdity of this slip on his part is all the more baffling since Davies has taken such pains to dispel the evasions of the early Darwinists, now that fractals, chaos, and auto-catalysis offer such superior mechanisms for the progress of evolution. What is so irritating about the notion that given enough time anything can happen is that what can happen is glibly assumed to be everything. Only a moment’s sober reflection will show this to be ridiculous, especially since Davies himself has gone to such lengths to describe how modern cosmologists believe the universe was created, not in time but with time. In addition, the irreversibility of physical processes contradicts such a possibility (not to speak, in this specific case, of the insult to Shakespeare).
Nevertheless, The Mind of God, and Professor Davies’ work as a whole, provide a most welcome antidote to such comfortably superficial—and perhaps on that account best-selling—offerings of the very popular Messrs. Sagan and Hawking.
John Farrell is a writer living in Massachusetts with special interest in scientific subjects.