PAUL DAVIES, author of Mind of God and 1994 winner of the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion recently spoke to Paul Richardson

PR: You have written that science can provide a surer path to God than religion.

PD: That’s often quoted but I wrote it to be deliberately mischievous.

PR: But do you stand by it?

PD: Yes.

PR: One of the points you have made is that you are impressed that the universe seems to follow basic laws, and these laws seem to enable the emergence of conscious life. In explaining this apparent design you have used the word “God” but you have made it clear that you don’t want to use that in the Christian sense.

PD: I like to distinguish between the concept of God as the grand architect of the cosmos, a sort of remote, timeless, intellectual underpinning of existence, and the personal God of popular religion – the God you might pray to, the God who might work miracles on your behalf, the God who would intervene on a day-to-day basis, in human affairs. It is very hard for a scientist to believe in the latter type of God, but when it comes to the former type of God – the notion that the universe is not absurd, that at rock bottom it is deeply rational and that there is something like mind or intellectual input underpinning it all – that’s something that appeals to a lot of scientists, or certainly a lot of physicists, and something about which there is a lot of circumstantial evidence from scientific research.

So what I actually say is that the God that I am referring to is this ‘grand architect’ notion of God, and I might say that many eminent Christian theologians over the centuries have also, when they have spoken of God, had that in mind.

When it comes to the notion of a personal God I suppose I am agnostic on that, but I see no reason why science can’t help us to illuminate it.

I feel deeply uncomfortable with the notion of the Incarnation. I think that puts me where I can’t be a Christian, although we know of course there are some senior members of the clergy who are equally uncomfortable, but would still call themselves Christian.

PR: In your writings your concept of God sounds rather vague and nebulous. It is rather like seeing smoke and saying “I see that which causes smoke.” It would be more useful to say “There is a fire.”

PD: I believe that just giving a label to that which we don’t know tells us nothing. Atheists are well used to the argument that simply saying “God has brought this about” doesn’t have any value unless you explain how God brings this about.

I think it’s better to ask the question: “Is the universe ultimately absurd, is it about nothing at all or is there something like meaning or purpose in the universe?”

PR: The words you use – purpose, design and so on – are intentional words which we associate with personal being. Doesn’t this suggest that what you are really talking about is a God who is in some sense personal?

PD: Well yes, it could be interpreted that way. Certainly one way of interpreting the ingenuity, harmony, felicity and apparently contrived nature of the physical universe is to assume that this is simply designed by a being that we would recognise as a person with a powerful intellect, a loving being, a rational being… and that this being has somehow conjured this lot into existence. You could do that.

There are a number of reasons why I wouldn’t want to reduce it to quite such an anthropomorphic level. One of the reasons concerns the nature of time which is a real problem for physicists. Physicists are very used to this idea that time is part of the physical universe, and any sort of rational scheme that is going to explain the physical universe has to be something that is ultimately outside of time. And I’m not sure that anything you would recognise as a person or persona type of being can be truly timeless.

Now some theologians, for example Keith Ward, attempt to fuse the temporal and atemporal in a single complex entity. Maybe that’s one way to go. But it seems to me that there is a danger of getting back to the miracle working cosmic magician who brings about this felicitous and harmonious state of affairs by continually prodding and intervening with nature, moving atoms about fitfully, as John Polkinghorne would say, and I think that’s a horrible image.

What I have in mind is something much deeper and more impressive, which is that if you have got a cleverly thought out – so to speak – set of physical laws, then all of this happens automatically. The universe brings itself into existence, it organises itself, life emerges, consciousness emerges… all of this is part of a natural outworking of this felicitous set of laws.

PR: If there is some sort of God, some architect of the universe, who has arranged the laws so that the universe will exist ultimately without the kind of intervention that you don’t like and will produce conscious human life, don’t you think it strange that this “God” doesn’t seem to want to make contact with the conscious human life, that there is no sort of disclosure, no sort of revelation?

PD: If you really don’t want an interventionist God, then even mental disclosure would amount to physical intervention. If we believe that our thoughts are tied to patterns of activity in our brains, then to put it crudely, to plant a thought in our minds would amount to moving atoms about in our brains. That notion of God as just another force of nature is I think a rather demeaning view of God.

PR: Theologians have suggested various ways God intervenes but I’d like to push a little bit the question “What’s the point of God arranging the laws so that conscious human life emerges and then not entering into any relationship with this human life?

PD: What is the point? Well now, if I knew the point of the universe I think I would have told you already. I could equally turn the question around and say: If God is perfectly capable of bringing about a state of affairs by that sort of intervention, what is the point of going through the whole drama of the evolution of the universe in any case? He could simply have created the whole thing in its final form.

PR: I think it was designed to preserve human freedom… Is there a danger that some scientists are themselves becoming deified?

PD: I am well aware of this, and of course it would be quite wrong to resort to a sort of scientism where science replaces religion or science becomes a religion, and scientists claim to be talking about truth with a capital “T”.

I think John Templeton is spot on in his belief that if science is done properly it should never claim to be dealing in truth. I think the best description of science is John Zieman’s, which is that it is reliable knowledge. That doesn’t mean the old theories are valueless; it doesn’t mean that they’re wrong: it’s not a matter of right and wrong. You know Newton’s theory of mechanics is used for most purposes – you can get a spacecraft to the moon quite well, but we’ve got a better theory – we’ve got Einstein’s theory – and no doubt in the fullness of time we will have a better theory still. And once a scientist starts saying this is the ultimate theory, this is how the world is, we won’t hear anything against it, of course it ceases to be science. And I think the strength of science is that it should remain forever open in that way.

That doesn’t stop individual scientists of course being overwhelmed with hubris. However, I’ve got some sympathy with the likes of Richard Dawkins because they have such a struggle with the creationists that unless they state their case really forcefully, as the other side does, it looks like they’re wriggling around when in fact their arguments are fairly secure.

PR: You mean the scientific arguments are fairly secure but that some of the philosophical conclusions that they have drawn from them are not in fact scientific theories at all and are open to challenge by anyone – myself for example – a lay person in these matters…

PD: That’s right, and I often do challenge these people. I once said that science can only deal in the facts and religion can deal in the interpretation of those facts. Dawkins and I might take the same lot of facts and draw very different conclusions and we should be allowed to do that, but I don’t think Dawkins or I should present our interpretations of scientific facts or theories as anything like the truth. We shouldn’t present them in the same manner as the scientific facts themselves.

PR: Last year a meteorite from Antarctica was thought to contain evidence of life on Mars. It now looks as if it can be discounted. Are you disappointed about that?

PD: Not really, because I think if we find life on Mars there’s a good chance it’s just cross-contamination from Earth. This is very frustrating because I see the existence of extra-terrestrial life arising independently from life on Earth as the absolute acid test for my whole view of a purposeful universe. Such a discovery would provide enormous circumstantial evidence for the purposefulness of the universe, and that the general trend from simple to complex with the emergence of life and consciousness is written into the universe in a fundamental way.

PR: The historian Thomas Reeves has written of your Templeton Address; “This address presents us with a classic example of a scientist whose yearning for God is blocked by the discipline that rules his mind and soul.” Would you like to comment on that?

PD: I think the two great strengths of science are its open-mindedness and its unswerving intellectual rigour – the honesty that is brought to bear. I said at the end of The Mind of God that there are really two ways in which we people have traditionally sought truth. One is through rational reasoning and observation of the natural world, and the other is through some sort of spiritual or revelatory insight or mystical experience. i think that what I have to say refers only to the former.

I believe that when we are dealing with the objective universe then we are quite right to employ those standards of rigour. To let the waters be muddied by what might be described as mystical yearnings I think would be quite wrong. That doesn’t of course prevent people from looking inside themselves and seeking some sort of revelation.

PR: Ironically I think that your books have encouraged the sort of New Age movement that wants a vague spirituality and belief in a cosmic power but doesn’t want the demands and moral imperatives of a revealed religion.

PD: Well you are absolutely right. Those sorts of people get joy from what I write. I can’t help that of course. I write what I think is worth saying and all sorts of people plunder it for whatever they want. I myself recoil from this whole New Agey, wishy-washy mystical stuff – I’ve got no time for it at all. I try to distance myself from those people because I find the most fruitful exchanges on the science–religion front are not in that area at all, but in exploration of the question: does quantum physics provide a way to God acting in the universe?

Paul Richardson is Bishop of Wangarrata in the Province of Victoria, Australia. This article is also appearing in the may issue of The Melbourne Anglican