Little Green Men and Big Questions

by Paul Richardson

THE DISCOVERY of possible evidence for life on Mars proved a boon for Australia’s most prolific theologian. Dr Paul Davies, an English physicist who migrated to Adelaide in 1990, would not relish this title. he would probably prefer to be regarded as a scientist who looks at the wider questions raised by developments in modern physics, but when it comes to issues like the implications of extra-terrestrial life for religious belief, a topic on which he published a timely paperback last year, his work undoubtedly becomes metaphysical in nature.

Put simply, Professor Davies believes that if the NASA discovery is confirmed, it will strengthen his own conclusion that the universe shows signs of some kind of a purpose behind it, but that it will also weaken Christian claims about the Incarnation and biblical revelation.

As he told newspaper readers across the country, if life on Mars really did originate independently of life on earth, then this would pose major difficulties for those who still attribute such a significant development purely to chance. The more likely conclusion is that the fundamental laws of physics are somehow weighted in favour of, or friendly towards, life.

“It seems that the laws of nature have this built-in self-organising tendency to drive matter and energy to states of even greater richness and diversity”, Davies told the Melbourne Age. “The law of the growth of complexity makes biologists feel very uncomfortable. They don’t like the idea of any sort of directionality in evolutionary processes. And so any hint of directionality in pre-evolutionary processes undermines their position a bit. What we are talking about here is an innate tendency for matter and energy to organise towards life. It’s but an easy step to suppose that goes on right the way up to intelligence. That is the assumption that the SRTI (Society for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) people make, which is a huge assumption and it challenges directly the central orthodoxy of biology. It’s raising some very deep issues.

Davies is still very cautious about all this. As he points out in Are we alone?, even if the NASA discovery is confirmed, it is still possible that life may have originally travelled to Mars from earth by meteorite or the converse could be true and all life on earth may ultimately be traced back to Mars. Life may even have originated from elsewhere in space and travelled to both Earth and Mars. There is no certainty yet that we can presuppose the independent emergence of life on two or more separate planets.

All this is fascinating and it is not surprising that Paul Davies is a best-selling author all around the world. It is important to note, however, that what he writes is far from being pure scientific analysis. He is in fact one of a growing number of popular writers who are keen to go beyond traditional, narrow scientific concerns and speculate in a non-empirical way about what Davies himself labels “The Big Questions” As the titles of some of his books like The Mind of God or God and the New Physics indicate, Paul Davies is really part scientist and part theologian. What he offers is a distinctive understanding of the origins of the universe and the meaning of human life that surpasses what can be demonstrated from scientific evidence.

Despite his popularity, Davies is not always clear or easy to pin down. He talks at great length about God but it is far from obvious what he really means by the term. Sometimes it seems close to the figure of eighteenth century deism, a great architect who is responsible for the overall organisation, structure and lawfulness of the universe. At other times it looks as though he is really talking about a semi-gnostic demiurge, a kind of cosmic purpose that is immanent in the universe. As he admitted to the journalist Philip Adams, he really does not like using the term at all but he finds that “god” is a word he has to hang on to in order to capture the ingenuity and rationality of the universe. He also finds it a source of amazement that human beings are able to crack what he describes as “the cosmic code”.

“When I use the word “god”, which I do reluctantly,” he told Adams, “I mean something like “that which underpins or guarantees this mathematical law-like order in the universe”.

Paul Davies is a significant voice on the religious scene. He speaks to a lot of Australians who feel that there may well be some higher power behind the universe but who feel uneasy with the churches of the dogmas of institutional religion. He probably encourages the growing number of people who are seeking for a spirituality outside the ranks of Christianity. Davis makes it respectable to believe in some kind of higher purpose behind the universe but leaves people free to imagine such a god in whatever way they please.

The Christian response to all this needs to be an intelligent restatement of the importance of revelation. It seems strange that scientists like Davies, who speculate both on the presence of other forms of life in the universe and on the existence of some kind of a god, should be interested in finding out whether extra-terrestrial life wants to make contact with us but not in asking whether God might also want to do the same!

We must not fall into the mistake of using theology to try to correct the findings of modern science. But when physicists turn to wider metaphysical questions they might find it profitable to examine both the way theologians have handled these issues and also to ask whether Christian revelation points in fruitful directions. For their part, theologians need to be careful to express Christian affirmations about creation in such a way as to take account of the findings of modern science and to show how revelation and scientific knowledge can be fitted together.

I suspect that, for theologians, the real challenge at the present moment is to hang on to the transcendence of God without losing sight of divine immanence. For Paul Davies, a difficulty he faces is to explain how he can believe in some kind of higher purpose behind or within the universe that is seemingly impersonal and not really interested in communicating with the created order.

Paul Richardson is Bishop of Wangarratta in the Province of Victoria.