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Explaining Existence - Paul Davies

Paul Davies

Paul Davies is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist and astrobiologist.

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Paul
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Physicist, Arizona State University

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Paul, traditionally when we want to explain reality, explain existence, a passion I've had, generally it's two camps. It's the theistic view of some kind of god or deep religious meaning to the world, or it's a purely naturalistic, materialistic one where the universe is there and there's really no purpose whatsoever. You've talked about not purpose but the universe being about something, which is a strange position. It's neither one. Help me to understand what that means, why you think that way and all the criticism that you get because of it.

Paul Davies:

Well first of all I specialize in being strange. You know, that's what I do. Let me make this following point. So, religion was the first attempt by human beings to make sense of their world. And then science was the next great attempt. And the assumption is well that's all there is. That's all we've got. We just take these two different worldviews. But why can't there be others? Maybe in 10,000 years, there'll be a completely different way that we haven't thought of yet of looking at the world and making sense of it. So, the first thing is that the job isn't done by just saying well you, you pays your money [sic] and takes your choice between these two camps. So, I've always tried to rise above that. To try to chart some new way of looking at things. And in a nutshell, I think the religious view says well, God created the universe for a reason and we're part of that reason. The scientific view is it's just all there, it doesn't have a reason or a purpose, and we just get on with the job of exploring, it and we not only don't worry about whether there's a purpose, we deny that it even exists or that it's even meaningful.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And that we're an accident in that whole lack of purpose.

Paul Davies:

Right, right. And so, what I feel is well look, both camps have something to offer, whilst we're struggling to construct yet another way o,. I don't know, post-religious, post-scientific view which still offers some sense. It's not anti-religious, anti-scientific. It's taking the elements of those that, don't forget, that a lot of the scientific worldview is in fact a derivative of the theistic world view. It took a lot of concepts out of theology. So, there's a lot of common ground to start off with. And so, I just see it's not so much a matter of occupying the middle ground, but of trying to break through to a higher level, a better way of tackling these things, because I just get bored with this sterile, you know, is there a god, there isn't a god; I just think it's... after a whole career of listening to that, that we can do better. I'm trying to find a set of concepts, and this aboutness thing is my attempt to just elevate the debate to a higher level. And I struggle to do that because I think I tend to be condemned by both sides because any mention of, you know, that the universe is about something, looks like purpose, oh, this is a way of smuggling in God. But if you say, well I don't believe in a god, or a preexisting being, or a cosmic magician, and miracles and all that stuff, I reject all that stuff, but I think the universe is about something, well that looks very wishy-washy to a standard believer. But that's okay. I'm trying to do something new. And I think to do something new, you have to bring in a new conceptual framework. I've tried to build it on the old concepts, so we get back to the same old problems.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay. So, if the universe is about something, giving you this new way of talking about it and see what we can do, a word that comes to my mind is teleology. That there is a purpose, there is a goal, and at least in our current world, teleology is a dirty word.

Paul Davies:

That's right, and I think it's time that we dusted it off and looked at it again. Where teleology got into trouble was in the theory of evolution, the idea that evolution was being guided towards or guiding itself towards some specific goal. And it's usual to say, well nature is blind, and that it can't look ahead, and that life does just what it can do best at the time. And I don't deny Darwinian evolution. But if you stand back and look at the universe through the eyes of cosmologist and say well what's the story of the universe, a hundred years ago the story was that the universe began in some sort of ordered state and is sliding towards a maximum entropy state of disorder. But now, with modern cosmology we see it rather differently. The universe began in a rather bland and uninteresting state in the Big Bang, and it's developed more complexity and richness over time, and it may go on doing that. So, there's a sort of directionality to it, and we struggle to grasp exactly how to quantify that, but most people sort of accept that it's so. And that we can talk again about the far future of the universe and what its ultimate destination might be. But all of this strikes me as being not just an arbitrary unfolding of meaningless stuff; it looks much more like something which is, there's an agenda. Now, when I say agenda you think oh, there was a preexisting being who had in mind what might happen, and that's not what I'm after at all. And I come back to this point that I've made, which I think is an important part of this, that human beings, through the scientific method and the exercise of reasoning, they've, products of nature, they've come out of nature and they have the capacity to link into nature through science and mathematics at a very fundamental level. We can decode nature, and that means that human existence and cosmic existence are linked. So, the closest thing I can say, if you ask me what do you mean about something, that's what I'm referring to. That's the most obvious and manifest example, that it's not arbitrary, and it's not disconnected, our existence is not disconnected.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, you're privileging consciousness in a sense in this universal history, even though human consciousness may be only a few tens or hundreds of thousands of years old, depending on how you define it.

Paul Davies:

Right, it's come out of the universe. That's right. [crosstalk] It wasn't there at the beginning, you see, so that's why I say it's about something, because there's a directionality which has given rise...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Most scientists would say that's just a pure accident of evolution.

Paul Davies:

Well, I don't deny that there are accidents along the way, but we come back to the T word, teleology, that if overall there is a scheme, or a structure, or a constraint in the way that the universe is evolving, it's entirely reasonable, it seems to me, that this includes the emergence of life and mind. And it's very, very curious because my scientific colleagues, when I was a student, they used that type of reasoning to say there couldn't possibly be any life anywhere else. It's obviously a bizarre fluke. Now these people are rushing to say, oh the universe is teeming with life. It's sort of inevitable. Well if life is inevitable why can't mind be inevitable, why can't comprehension be inevitable? So, they've already gone the major step in saying that the emergence of life is built into the nature of things; why can't the emergence of mind be built into the nature of things?