Et Philosophy: Science Has Helped Answer Some of the Fundamental Questions of Our Existence. Yet, as Paul Davies Reminds Us, We Are Still a Long Way from Solving Perhaps the Most Intriguing Mystery of All: Are We Alone in the Universe?

By Krejci-Papa, Marianna | Science & Spirit, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview

Et Philosophy: Science Has Helped Answer Some of the Fundamental Questions of Our Existence. Yet, as Paul Davies Reminds Us, We Are Still a Long Way from Solving Perhaps the Most Intriguing Mystery of All: Are We Alone in the Universe?


Krejci-Papa, Marianna, Science & Spirit


Celebrated cosmologist, physicist, and award-winning author Paul Davies has made a career of tackling life's most profound questions, enticing us over the past three decades to consider the universe in new ways. As a pioneer in the burgeoning field of astrobiology, he continues to push the frontiers of science, questioning the likelihood of the existence of intelligent life beyond the confines of our planet. While modern science has given us impressive means of exploring this possibility--exemplified by the highly sensitive radio telescopes developed by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute--Davies sees the search for extraterrestrial life as an extension of the age-old work of theologians and philosophers. Science, like the world's religions, seeks to plumb the heart of our existence.

Yet, as Davies tells Science & Spirit's Marianna Krejci-Papa, the science we have today may not be enough to answer our biggest questions. Nonetheless, for reasons that reveal much about our nature, we will continue to ask them.

Science & Spirit: You wrote in your 1983 book God and the New Physics that science is the surest route to understanding God. Do you still believe this?

Paul Davies: When I wrote that, I was being provocative. I wanted to make the point that science has something to say about these deep questions that were formerly just the province of religion. That's not to say that science can provide the answers, but it can often change the conceptual framework in which the questions are asked. Take, as an example, the nature of time. There was a long-standing debate about whether God is inside of time or outside of time, or both simultaneously. This became a nonissue with the rise of modern cosmology and the theory of relativity, where we understand that time is part of the physical universe, like space and matter.

The other point about science is that it deals in claims that can be tested. This makes scientific knowledge more reliable than religious experience that is confined to just one person. If scientists make a statement about the world, then other people can go and check it. I don't deny that a lot of things that are important to people are not testable in the scientific way. When other forms of intellectual activity make claims on a subject that science can also speak to, scientific knowledge is more reliable. It is not infallible, but it is reliable. It is reliable precisely because it's not infallible, because scientists change their minds according to new ideas and new experiments. It's essential that scientific knowledge is regarded as provisional, but that's what makes it all the more reliable: It's the best guess we've got at any given moment, and the guesses get better all the time.

S&S: So you see science as a way of framing existential questions such as the nature of truth and the meaning of life.

PD: The science books that sell well address fundamental issues. People don't care about technicalities like how you measure the mass of a neuron or how you make a transistor, but they do

want to know how new discoveries change the way they think about themselves and the world. So the fascination with popular science is part and parcel of this ongoing desire of human beings to see something beyond themselves. That deep need, that yearning, is there, I believe, in almost everybody. It is part of the spiritual side of human beings, and I see the work I do--looking at the Big Questions through the lens of science--as addressing genuine spiritual needs, especially of people who don't feel the questions are being posed the right way in conventional religion.

S&S: If we want to discuss the purpose of humanity within a religious context, we have to choose among traditional religions like Christianity or Buddhism or Judaism, or from newer forms of spirituality. Do you see science as transcending these distinctions? …

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Et Philosophy: Science Has Helped Answer Some of the Fundamental Questions of Our Existence. Yet, as Paul Davies Reminds Us, We Are Still a Long Way from Solving Perhaps the Most Intriguing Mystery of All: Are We Alone in the Universe?
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