March 29, 2020

Cliff's Edge ––Blind Commitment

I’ve long been a fanboy of English physicist, lecturer, and writer Paul Davies. Decades ago, some of his books (The Mind of God, God and the New Physics, The Last Three Minutes) sparked my interest in quantum theory, relativity, and the nature of space and time. In what I’ve read at least, Davies doesn’t talk about any personal faith, but he hasn’t seemed hostile to religion and even, at times, sounds as if he has some himself. Such as in the last lines of The Mind of God: “I cannot believe that our existence in the universe is a mere quirk of fate, an accident of history. . . . Through conscious beings the universe has generated self-awareness. This can be no trivial detail, no minor byproduct of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here.”

Meant to be here? I agree. But, given Davies’ worldview—it’s hard to see why. Having accepted whole-hog the present scientific paradigm, he believes something like the following is how we got here.

Billions of years ago an infinitely hot, infinitely dense mass, the singularity, existed (some argue that it came out of nothing, though in The Mind of God Davies has a chapter titled “Can the Universe Create Itself?” as absurd as the singularity arising out of nothing).

This singularity then exploded (i.e., the Big Bang) and created matter, energy, space, and time (though if the singularity were stupendously hot and dense to begin with, wouldn’t that mean it already had matter and energy? Just asking.)

Then, as this newly-created space, time, and matter expanded (Expanded into what? Because, supposedly, nothing was there before the Big Bang)—clouds of gas that formed because of gravity, coalesced into stars. (Just one small question: according to the law of gravity, for any point particle in the universe the force of gravity between them is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Fine. But why did gravity arise? When? How? And by what? And why does gravity follow the inverse square law, as opposed to some other one?)

Anyway, other gas clouds coalesced into what became earth. Then, 4 billion years ago, based on the known laws of physics and chemistry, organic molecules by chance arose from the earth, air, and water, and these molecules, by chance too, turned into the first life forms. Next, the purposeless, mindless, and directionless forces of random mutation and natural selection kicked in and, well, here we are.

Nice story. But it doesn’t explain why “we are truly meant to be here.”

In The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information are Solving the Mystery of Life (University of Chicago, 2019), Davies tries to give an answer, of sorts. (The demon is a metaphor used in thought experiment about entropy.) He writes about the astonishing information required for life, which is so overwhelming, precise, and functional that Davies sounds—in spurts—religious again. He marvels about life as a “universal script,” about life as a “vast web of information management,” or about “how ingenious all this machinery is,” and that “the all-important organization of life requires a great deal of choreography,” and so forth.

I agree. But who wrote the script, Paul? Who created and manages the information? Who staged the choreography? Whose ingenuity was behind the machinery? The handiwork of God is so inextricably woven into life itself that even the language used by those who want to avoid design can’t.

Even more astonishing, these undirected processes created matter that not only lives but that thinks, and even thinks about itself as matter that thinks. What Davies struggles with, among other things, is: How did the unconscious laws of physics and chemistry, along with the unconscious processes of random mutation and natural selection, create human consciousness, i.e., matter that thinks?

The book’s subtitle is a tad misleading; these hidden webs of information reveal almost nothing about how life started, much less how it thinks. He writes about a moon around Saturn, Titan (average temperature -180°C), which is a “kind of gigantic failed biology experiment,” even though Davies wonders, “Could it be that Titan is now in some sense fairly close to incubating life?”

Maybe it’s just me, but when scientists speculate about a moon around Saturn -180°C in order to try to understand how life got started on Earth, something is amiss.

Even worse is his hypothesis about the diversity of life on earth.

Consider this scenario: life emerges on planet Earth 4 billion years ago. Ten million years later a huge asteroid strikes, releasing so much heat that the oceans boil and the surface of the planet is sterilized. The massive blow would not, however, destroy all life. Vast quantities of rock would be spewed into space, some of it containing Earth’s first tiny inhabitants. The microbial cargo could survive for many millions of years, orbiting the sun. Eventually, some of this material would find its way back to Earth and fall as meteorites, bringing life home. But meanwhile, in the few million years since the cataclysmic impact, life has got going a second time (it starts easily, remember), so when the ejected material returns there are now two forms of life on our planet. Because the barrage of huge objects continued for 200 million years, this same scenario could have played out many times, so that when the bombardment finally abated there may have been dozens of independently formed organisms cohabiting our planet.

Microbes from earth orbiting in meteorites for millions of years around the sun, then returning to earth and seeding new life forms here? Is he joking?

No. Instead, Davies is trapped in a paradigm based on a philosophical principle that allows only natural causes for natural events. On one level that’s fine. If you break your leg and, even if the doctor prays for you, you still want him to set the bone.

But when the philosophical presupposition of naturalism is applied to a supernatural creation, such as depicted in Scripture—we get things such as asteroids catapulting bacteria into space that millions of years later return and seed new life here. This, not God creating life “according to their kinds” (Gen. 1:24), is his explanation for the diverse kinds of life on earth.

Philosopher of science Imre Lakatos stressed that “blind commitment to a theory is not an intellectual virtue: it is an intellectual crime.” Yet this is what’s happened to Davies. Though evidence, even “proof” (in a non-deductive sense of the word) of a designer is so apparent that Davies’ own language (“choreography,” “script,” “ingenious,” “information management”) can’t avoid it, his blind commitment to a theory has forbidden him to entertain the idea.

The history of science is landscaped with “paradigm shifts,” when the background, the model in which individual theories are created, changes (some have called it a “scientific revolution”). Examples are the shift from an earth-centered solar system to a sun-centered one, from classical to quantum physics, from the aether to special relativity.

These were big deals, yes, but none came with the vast moral implications that a repudiation of naturalism—with its philosophical and empirical inadequacy, even absurdity (come on, the universe creating itself)—would bring. It’s one thing to transition from the aether to special relativity; it’s another to go from naturalism, with no conscious guiding forces, to intelligent design.

Why? Because intelligent design implies an intelligent Designer, a divine Creator, and that comes heavy-laden with baggage, especially moral baggage. However broad the shift from classical to quantum physics, it would be a mere footno
te in contrast to the intellectual revolution that a supernatural component would bring, and not just to origins but to all reality.

Hence, anything outside the naturalist paradigm is mercilessly squelched by the scientific Ministry of Truth, because anything outside naturalism would be—what? Supernaturalism (and all that it entails), which cannot be allowed, especially because of the human-made mantra that science allows only for the natural, and that the moment you step outside of that parameter you are no longer doing “science.”

That’s why Paul Davies oxymoronically interprets his own words. He’s forced to acknowledge choreography without a choreographer, ingenuity without someone ingenious, information management without an information manager, and scripts without a script writer. That’s the power of blind commitment; it blinds you to what your own language depicts.

All Davies could do, in the end, was speculate that perhaps life was “built into the laws of physics,” even though nothing in, for instance, General Relativity, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics is “rigged in favor of life.”

With his tendency toward sentimental endings, he concluded The Demon in the Machine like this: “But if the emergence of life, and perhaps mind, are etched into the underlying lawfulness of nature, it would bestow upon our existence as living, thinking beings a type of cosmic-level meaning.

“It would be a universe in which we can truly feel at home.”

Really? Unconscious forces blindly etched into existence matter like us that thinks, and this hypothesis makes us “truly feel at home,” even though these same forces will eventually destroy the universe and, to quote him, “the era of light will be over”?

Davies is a sincere man trapped in a false paradigm, and who (I think) suspects as much as well.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.

1)  Paul Davies, The Demon in the Machine (University of Chicago Press, kindle edition), pp. 181, 182.