Here's a God you can count on

Tom Wilkie provides a brief history of the ideas of Paul Davies, a scientist who has won a prize for 'progress in religion'
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The Independent Online
In a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace last Friday, the Duke of Edinburgh presented the 1995 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion to Paul Davies, professor of natural philosophy at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

The prize, worth £650,000, was awarded to Professor Davies for his writings, many of them in the form of highly accessible popular science books, on the relationship between cosmology and religion. That the prize, gifted by Sir John Templeton, should have gone to a physicist highlights the remarkable transformation of scientists into quasi-theologians during the Eighties.

Once, the business of science had been to work out the mathematical details of a theory and then test the consequences against experiment. Despite popular hype about "breakthroughs", the everyday business of a scientific laboratory is mundane, painstaking work. Science advances by tiny steps. Only in retrospect does it become clear how far one has travelled.

But, more than a decade ago, some scientists began breaking out of the laboratory to make grand (and untestable) statements about the behaviour of the universe as a whole. The process reached its apotheosis with the notorious final sentence of Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time that through the study of relativistic quantum mechanics "we shall know the mind of God".

As well as winning the Templeton prize, Professor Davies has another distinction: he can explain what Professor Hawking's "brief history of time" is all about rather better than Professor Hawking - and in one chapter rather than an entire book. The thousands who have bought Professor Hawking's book but left it unread will find the first part of Professor Davies's The Mind of God easier and clearer. Whether any of it is true is, of course, a different matter.

Born in north London in 1946, Professor Davies joined the brain drain in 1990 when, frustrated by cutbacks in British science funding, he emigrated to Australia to become professor of mathematical physics at the University of Adelaide. In 1993, the university created a special post of professor of natural philosophy for him.

As a mathematical physicist, he has made important contributions to the theory of black holes and the early development of the universe. He worked first as a lecturer in applied mathematics at King's College London before, at the age of 34, becoming professor of theoretical physics at Newcastle University.

Professor Davies's position is radically different to that of Professor Hawking, who seems to believe there is no place for a deity in the scientific view of the universe. The "mind of God" is thus, for Professor Hawking, merely a metaphor. Professor Davies subscribes to a variant upon Wittgenstein's dictum that what is important is not how the world is (which is the purview of science) but that it is. According to Professor Davies, the fact that there are laws of physics at all is evidence of design in the universe. This design in turn presupposes some sort of designer, ie God. This would be so irrespective of the particular form that the laws of physics might take and irrespective of whether the ones that we believe to be correct today (such as relativistic quantum mechanics) are actually true.

But there is a second string to Professor Davies's bow. The world might have a design so complex that we humans would be unable to make sense of it. In fact, he argues, this is not so: science is possible; humans can comprehend creation and this again indicates purpose and design to human existence.

There are scientific and theological objections to this position. The first and most powerful scientific objection is that quantum mechanics is in practice one of the most powerful theories ever devised, while in principle it is profoundly flawed. Use it to calculate one of the simplest of physical quantities - the mass of the electron (the simplest of all the subatomic particles) - and the answer is literally infinite. There is a fix, known in the business as "renormalisation". This starts from the value for the electron's mass as measured by experiment (the answer that the theory is supposed to predict). Then the calculation is recast so that two infinite numbers have to be subtracted from each other, and the result of this subtraction is set to be the value measured by experiment. Renormalisation allows these infinite numbers to be handled in a consistent fashion so that calculations of other quantities can be done to enormous precision. But it is difficult to take seriously the application to the entire universe of a theory that would give the slightest of the universe's constituents a mass greater than that of the whole thing.

Apart from the details of quantum theory, it may not be true, scientifically, that the universe, considered as a whole, makes sense. It is our hope, aspiration and belief, but at present no more than an assumption. Ultimately, our scientific understanding may represent merely islands of coherence in a vast ocean of formless, unintelligible chaos. Humanity could live with that, just as we have come to live with the non-deterministic uncertainty at the heart of quantum theory, but it would be difficult to see the role of God in an incomprehensible world.

The religious objection to Professor Davies's God is that the Deity appears as some sort of celestial calculating machine in whom it is difficult to discern the loving relationship and personal concern for redemption that the Christian religion, for one, sees as a fundamental attribute of the Deity. The love of God was so powerful that once it set a bush alight in the desert, yet so tender that the bush was not consumed by the flames. There would seem to be no place for that love in the Davies equations.