Paul Davies on the Existence of God

Sky and Telescope, September, 1984, pp. 229-30.

Denis Dutton

God and the New Physics, by Paul Davies. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983. 255 pages. $16.95.


Paul Davies’s latest book is an exercise in what the eighteenth century called natural theology: the idea that the existence and nature of God can be deduced from observation of the natural world. Davies presents his admittedly subjective conclusions about the bearing of the latest advances in physics and cosmology upon classical theological questions. Whether you think he really has reached important conclusions or, like me, you remain skeptical, you are bound to be enlightened by his engaging account of recent work at the frontiers of science.

Paul Davies

The two most familiar arguments for the existence of God, and the ones most relevant to science, are the cosmological (since every effect has its cause, we must be able to trace the origin of the universe back to a “first cause”) and the teleological, also known as the argument from design (an organized universe implies an organizer). Davies has little use for the cosmological view, which presumes there had to be a God to initiate the universe. It is customary to counter this position by noting that the universe may be infinitely old (if something existed before the Big Bang), and that in any event, it does not explain what caused God. Davies takes a different approach, citing new theoretical work showing the Big Bang could be a “Free lunch” — the result of an uncaused, random quantum fluctuation in nothingness. “Recent discoveries in particle physics,” he affirms, “have suggested mechanisms whereby matter can be created in empty space by the cosmic gravitational field, which only leaves the origin of spacetime itself a mystery.”

The origin of spacetime would still be a pretty big mystery, and the theist ought to continue to insist that God had to be around to create it. The difficulty here, which Davies seems not fully to appreciate, is that the unexplained existence of anything at all — whether the universe as we observe it of even empty spacetime — would be evidence for the deity in the eyes of supporters of the cosmological argument.

It is, however, the teleological argument that Davies believes makes it possible for science to offer “a surer path to God than religion.” For the harmony, simplicity, and symmetry of the world deeply impress Davies, who finds it “hard to resist the impression that the present structure of the universe ... has been rather carefully thought out.” Indeed, Davies has every right to be filled with awe, and the many examples he describes, particularly the elegant symmetries displayed by the basic constituents of matter, make up the most fascinating passages of the book.

But I wonder if Davies isn’t too captivated by recent advances in physics. Naturally, the latest discoveries are marvelous, but the old physics is just as good as the new if you’re looking for examples of regularity and coherence to support the teleological argument. The periodic table of elements, the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, Kepler’s laws — all give “proof” that God exists, if we can accept the teleological argument.

It is the argument itself that is in doubt, and Davies should have subjected it to more critical attention. Certainly the God whose existence is supposedly proved is not of a specified religion. Furthermore, as David Hume already pointed out in the eighteenth century, how can we be sure that the deity proven isn’t actually a committee of gods? Is this universe the product of an incompetent god (as gods go, of course), or a trial-balloon universe by an infant god, who later abandoned his crude attempt, leaving us to live out the results? This may all sound slightly silly, but such speculations are consistent with the teleological argument of Saint Thomas Aquinas centuries ago or Paul Davies today.

In any event, it is not religion but science that is the main attraction of this book. Resides the obligatory accounts of black holes and Big Hangs, there are interesting discussions of alternative cosmologies, multiple universes, miracles, the nature of mind, and the possibility of free will. Throughout, Davies displays a consistent ability to explain intelligently a wide range of issues and of thinkers from Aristotle to John Wheeler.

Davies, however, occasionally mixes uncontroversial fact with dubious guesses. Although he knows the difference, his readers may not. He is on firm ground describing the implications of relativity theory, or even the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Not so, however — to cite one of many examples — when he reports a computation from Roger Penrose that “the odds against the observed universe appearing by accident, given that a black-hole cosmos is so much more likely on a priori grounds” are 1 in 10-to-the-1030! Here, surely, we are being served up a speculation wrapped in a hunch.

Of course the frontiers of science are always an odd mixture of new truth, sober hypothesis, and wild conjecture. But that just makes it all the more fun.