The Next Philosophy
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The Next 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 Marianna Krejci-Papa
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Celebrated cosmologist, physicist, and award-winning author Paul Davies has made a career of tackling lifes 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 worlds religions, seeks to plumb the heart of our existence. Yet, as Davies tells Science & Spirits 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. Thats 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 dont 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 its not infallible, because scientists change their minds according to new ideas and new experiments. Its essential that scientific knowledge is regarded as provisional, but thats what makes it all the more reliable: Its the best guess weve 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 dont 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 dolooking at the Big Questions through the lens of scienceas addressing genuine spiritual needs, especially of people who dont 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?
PD: This is a really important point. I can go to a physics conference and there can be participants from every culture you might like to imagine, and they might be worlds apart in their day-to-day lives or their politics, but as soon as they start talking about physics, everyones on the same wavelength. Science is for everybody. It is a wonderful, unifying culture within itself.
S&S: Youve given a lot of thought to the question of whether we are alone in the universe. Are we any closer to knowing if there is intelligent life beyond Earth?
PD: Whether there is life of any sort on other planets is the biggest unknown, since going from no life to life is the hardest and most mysterious step of all. Once life gets going, it has a chance of developing intelligence, and intelligence has good survival value. So, at least in some fraction of planets that have life, intelligence should emerge. But the first step, from no life to life, is problematic.
S&S: Can scientists calculate the probability that life has started elsewhere?
PD: The honest answer is no, although there is a famous formula called the Drake Equation that collects probabilities, starting with the probability that there are other Earth-like planets. But we dont know how to work out these probabilities because we have a sample of only one: Earth. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In a chain of terms like the Drake Equation, if youve got one term that could have a value anywhere from zero to one, it means the whole equation is useless, except to categorize our ignorance. It could be that theres life just on Earth or just within the solar system, or it could be that life is widespread and intelligence is very rare, or it could be that life and intelligence are widespread. With the Drake Equation, we are flying blind.
S&S: Are there no clues in any modern scientific field?
PD: We know that life established itself on Earth fairly soon after it became a habitable planet. Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. For the first 700 million years, it was mercilessly bombarded by asteroids and comets, so the surface was sterilized on a regular basis. And yet, by 3.5 billion years ago, we find evidence for life, so it got going really quickly once that window of opportunity opened up. Some people see that as evidence for life being probable. Another explanation for this rapid rise is that life didnt start on Earth, but came ready-made from somewhere else. Earth and Mars trade rocks on a regular basis, and rocks could contain microbes. These are the answers we would like to get from forthcoming Mars probes. If it turns out that there was or is life on Mars, and we could establish that it began independently of life on Earth, then we would have two samples in one solar system. That would show that life is almost inevitable in Earth-like conditions. And then we
would know that the universe would be teeming with life. Thats the best hope for an answer.
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