Refuting Paul Davies

EDIT: I received some helpful suggestions to have this article make a bit more sense. I’ve broken it up a bit and have a tl;dr at the end.

Paul Davies’ book the Mind of God was given to me as a Christmas present (how fitting) by a friend, and I found it a deep, complicated but an extraordinarily interesting read; even if I did have to take it piecemeal. Thus, Paul Davies is not someone to be excoriated, rather, approached with the appreciation that I might have him wrong. This blog intends to offer a counter to two of his suggestions. To begin with, an attempt to debunk the idea that we have some sort of exceptionally unlikely capacity to understand science, given to us by what we could call a deity and secondly, a counter to the embrace of mysticism. Interestingly, the two issues overlap.

Paul Davies is not a theist in any strong sense, although he does embrace something “between Einsteinian pantheism and an obscure form of deism” (Dawkins, The God Delusion, p40). Nevertheless, Davies feels that there is something uncanny about our ability to understand and investigate through science and hints at a sort of supernatural entity. This notion is one of many similar themes under the chapter title “The Mathematical Secret”, and these themes all share an allusion of scientific understanding revealing inner workings of the universe, even if we do not know the workings to start with. To put it another way, mathematics (for instance) happens to, or Davies might say is directed to, use methods that discover formulas that already exist “out there” and it is of profound luck or assistance that it is capable of doing so.  So to with the human comprehension of science.

Davies’ suggestion is that human understanding has no logical place, especially if we derive ourselves from ancestors primarily concerned with eating, breeding and general survival. Dawkins, in The God Delusion, gives a description of how a religion might manifest itself assists in elucidating the disparity between scientific and instinctual thought and here explains in simpler terms Davies’ contention (even though he probably would not support Davies’ case personally) . The actions of science are labourious and complicated- far better is it to have a mindset wherein we believe objects to possess intention, such as the tiger intends to eat us, rather than appreciate the tiger as a self-replicator designed over millions of years that happens to be a carnivore; this would be a scientific appraisal. It extends to non-life of course, and often in ways we would consider bizarre- storms give life to crops and must be persuaded to do so, the ocean drowns its victims. So, probably happily for Dawkins, his example also helps us to see why humans at least began with a desire to adopt scientific practices, and why scientific discovery was useful. Of course the storms adhere to weather patterns, and naturally the ocean seeks to do us no ill, if only because it has no capacity to seek anything. Even if marginally more useful to think more scientifically about needs, social and biological evolution has shown us that it will be adopted. Not that anyone is suggesting there was a direct leap from instinctual to scientific thought of course- David Deutsch in The Fabric Of Reality suggests that rules of thumb in any industry that bare approximations of good design slowly gave way to scientific investigation as knowledge expanded and similarities in designs were found, collected and tested.  At the very least it can be fair to say that instinctual thought progressed in a very evolutionary manner to scientific understanding to the point where we have found the best ways to appreciate science and the world- the Scientific Method.

The leap was not a particularly large one anyway. As the same friend who gave me this book remarked once that “animals conduct science all the time”. To some degree he was correct- the most efficient manner of dealing with objectives will eventually be mete out by trial and error through what behaviourists often term operant conditioning. Operant conditioning does not need much explanation here, suffice to say that it simply the method in which we associate a behavior with its outcomes. Operant conditioning by the way, is more than capable of associating behavior with outcomes even if the outcome is abstract or counter-intuitive. Pidgeons in one of many famous studies involving Skinner boxes behaved in bizarre ways to get food, if only because a particular stance or movement they were in was accidentally reinforced as they were fed at those times (as an aside this behavior has been cited as good method as any to develop a practice of religious worship). Abstract thought therefore seems to be a naturally quite useful tool inherent in more developed brains and not necessarily human ones. I could postulate that it would be useful in a natural setting only in that evolutionarily it was understood no one organism can be fully aware of environmental surroundings and that conferring to abstract but result-making behavior is more advantageous than relying purely on sensory modalities.

With these points in mind, it can also be asked by what means could we expect anything but scientific understanding? It is true that proto-science had positivistic roots, but as abstraction piled on abstraction and normative science emerged. Normative sciences seek to do science for its own sake and for the fact that it leads to the best possible science which does reveal the inner workings of the universe. We now have a robust scientific system by which we move impeded towards deep discovery.Or do we?

Davies acknowledges that science tends to be difficult, and that it requires a great many number of years of study to even attempt making a scientific contribution but to consider only this understates the great many difficulties we have with the craft. Let us not forget the hundreds upon hundreds of years that abstractive thought was occupied by another enormous human institution, religion. Buried in mind, that religion, as Christopher Hitchens puts it, was the first attempt at understanding the world and was found to be severely wanting. Regardless of religion’s failed premises it stands as one of the great blockades against rational reasoning to the point it stifles scientific fact. Other human errors pervade science- for a method by which the universe is suppose to be understood we are nevertheless severely lacking in technology. We may suppress a giggle at the belief in the 1960s and ‘70s that we would have a ‘micro-dot’ in our brain that would process any language into interpretable data but why don’t we have this and other true marvels for a supposedly scientific age? I won’t go into other issues- such as our use of language seemingly hellbent on making scientific statements a pain to construct. Science is hard. Really hard. It takes most of our effort to just establish appropriate conditions for scientific appraisal. Huge workarounds for human flaws must be made; the double-blind wherein the researcher applying the test does not know the test scores serves as a good example. Even at the purest of science that touches the underside of pure mathematics is not only confounding but sometimes flat out irreconcilable. Dark matter is still undiscovered but is required for our theories to pan out. The Large Hadron Collider has been made to solve what sort of theoretical physics is the better as current theories are equally proven and equally at odds with each other.

Quantum physics is the epoch of science telling us in no uncertain terms we lack capacity to appreciate the universe. Great leaps forward in science and the people who make them are orders of magnitude less than what would be expected in a normal curve of scientific discovery- even as gross outliers. The kicker is of course, is that it should not actually be that difficult! David Deutsch points out that explanations in science tend to be very simple, and then may subsequently be applied to any situation. Evolution, for instance, was perhaps the biggest leap forward and yet so blindingly simple “one is tempted to marvel that it took so long for a Darwin to arrive on the scene and discover it” (Dawkins, The God Delusion, p147). So unlikely are these great, but simple, leaps forward that Paul Davies has considered them to be involved in some sort of mysticism.

By its very nature, mysticism defies definition. Davies’ approach is twofold- first the eureka!-type mysticism that goes along with finding scientific and mathematical theories (see above) for which I have outlined why I do not think these moments are particularly good evidence for anything more than some people occasionally possessing a greater capacity to overcome human foibles than others. The second is much more mysterious, and has to do with the experience of a euphoric wholeness and oneness with the universe, beyond the realm of science. It describes itself as sudden burst of understanding. How one ‘embraces’ mysticism and science is beyond me- it seems so sudden, rare and fleeting that it seems impossible to attempt a mystic experience. There are logistical problems of course- while Davies suggests that we should take on mysticism when science is exhausted, how do we realize when science can no longer answer our questions satisfactorily? Could not some other, currently unknown avenue of science manage to push forward into the unknown? What sort of event could defy science?

In my refutation it is not to suggest however than either atheist or scientist should remove themselves from spiritual understanding or shun moments of transcendence- Sam Harris make note that spiritual episodes are both encouraged and possible regardless of one’s religious leaning (or none at all). However, these mystic moments have dangerous potential for us to give up at using science. No matter that quantum physics rattles our brains- let our transcendental awareness peer, without explanation, into the void and not to take anything translatable out of it. God of the Gaps seems to loom close here. Indeed, Christian theologian and philosopher D’Souza is very happy with the concept of quantum physics and multiverses, suggesting that these seemingly unanswerable confer opportunity for God’s existence. Davies speaks of Hoyle’s God driving us towards some end point. I believe this is not a logical way to go about describing quantum physics or multiverses (or any number of currently unknown/ postulated science questions). Think of the universe as a shoebox. We find no shoes inside it. There is no particular reason to suggest that any other unknown shoebox contains shoes. Strictly speaking, the lack of shoes in our shoebox supports the proposition there are no shoes in others. Even if shoes were to exist in other boxes, these shoes would also be so very different to ours that even the least descriptive element we would hazard to guess at before we saw them would have every chance of being way off the mark. It would be like guessing a shoe for a Martian.



– Paul Davies makes the assertion that the fact humans have a capacity for science, we are in some sort of privledged position that suggests some sort of assistance of a supernatural entity is at work.

-This assertion is challenged by several issues. These include: there is a logical pathway for humanity to eventually come to embrace science, any other alternative would have even less possibility of occurring, and as a rule we are not particularly good at either doing or appreciating science.

-Paul Davies also suggests we embrace mysticism. It is pointed out that mysticism is inherently impossible to appreciate, equally impossible to implement in any real way and due to its nature, and it seems in Davies’ mind to encourage potential for a God to be out there beyond the universe; in places that human comprehension is  at its weakest such as quantum physics.


~ by freeze43 on December 8, 2010.

One Response to “Refuting Paul Davies”

  1. This is a fair argument. It should not be surprising that we have developed and refined methods of bringing our beliefs closer in line with the true state of the universe. This is because of the adaptive advantage it gives us, but also because of regression to the mean: since there is no other reality to bring out beliefs in line with, anything but a completely random walk in belief adjustment would tend towards true facts.

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