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The Great Questions of Existence
Jul 1, 2011

Throughout the ages, human beings have yearned to know how the universe came to exist and what role we play in this vast world with its limitations of space and time. It has been said that the discipline of science deals with how things work and religion and philosophy deal with the question of why. But at this time in human history, some scientists and theologians assert that the two disciplines may not be so separate and distinct as we previously thought.

Paul Davies, a British-born cosmologist, theoretical physicist, and bestselling author, conducts inter-disciplinary research in the areas of physics, cosmology, and biology. Dr. Davies is the director of a new research center at Arizona State University called Beyond. The mission of the center is to explore the great questions of our existence, the origin of our universe and life, the nature of consciousness, and the mathematical laws that underpin the universe. He is particularly interested in the Big Bang Theory, one of the most influential theories of our time concerning the origins of our universe.

Matter&Beyond: You are a cosmologist and the topic obviously is fascinating. But what is the root of our connection with space? What is the root of our human fascination with the sky and stars?

It’s very interesting to speculate if human beings had developed on a planet that was totally covered in cloud and had no awareness of the sky and astronomical bodies, whether society would’ve developed very differently. It’s quite clear when you look back at human history that the “heavens,” as they used to be called, had a very major role to play in all early civilizations. We can see evidence of astronomical observatories, thousands of years ago, long before the invention of telescopes. There are monuments, for example, pyramids that were built or Stonehenge in England, which are clearly astronomical monuments of some sort. And then we think of the world’s great religions and they all have an astronomical component. Think of the role of the new moon in Islam, for example, or the Star of Bethlehem in Christianity. … I think we can trace this preoccupation with the sky and the heavens to the early days of the development of agriculture because it became really important for people to know when to plant their crops and when to harvest them and the different seasons and so on. We can imagine that, say 10,000 years ago, people studied the sky very, very carefully and they became familiar with the movement of the objects and they invented complicated mathematical formulas to chart them.

M&B: How did our fascination with space change after industrialization?

What I would say has happened in the last three or four hundred years is that actually most people have become less aware of space. We live in cities that are polluted so we don’t see outer space. We’re too busy looking at televisions or driving home from work so we never look up and see this wonderland above our heads. How many people, for example, could name even the major constellations of stars if they were ever taken outside of their cities to somewhere where they could see the dark night sky? And so astronomy has become in a way less and less significant in people’s lives.

M&B: But today astronomy and cosmology is making a comeback. There are a lot of bestseller popular science books written on space and time.

I think during the 1970s and ‘80s people became very antiscientific, perhaps as a result of a reaction to the Vietnam War. Astronomy somehow remained aloof from that. It was perceived as a subject that wasn’t dangerous, that we could study the stars, they were a long way away using benign equipment like telescopes and astronomers weren’t going to threaten anybody. And so I think exploring the universe has been seen in many ways as a sort of untainted glorious enterprise that doesn’t have this sort of threatening aspect to it. It’s still, of course, immensely popular. People still want to go to planetariums and they read books on astronomy and they like television productions on astronomical things. But I think it’s shifted now from those early days where people’s lives really revolved around the stars in a very literal sense, and those days are now gone.

M&B: You are a cosmologist, but based on the wide range of research areas at the center Beyond, I would say that you look more like a modern seeker of old times.

Since the dawn of human history people have asked the great questions of existence, how did the universe come to exist? What is the role of human beings in the great cosmic scheme of things? How will the universe end? What is it made of? Now for the greater part of human history, these questions were addressed by priests and philosophers. But in recent years, science has made progress as well. So scientists find themselves now asking those same age-old questions of existence. In my career, I have covered topics like the origin of the universe and the origin of life, the nature of time, the nature of consciousness, and the underlying laws of the universe. Inevitably these topics trespass on territory which was previously almost exclusively philosophy or religion’s. Now science has a story to tell about these great issues.

M&B: If you have to pick the most interesting question modern science is trying to answer, what would be your choice?

I suppose the most interesting thing modern science is telling us about is how the universe came into existence. When I was a student, the Big Bang Theory was just one of many ideas about the origin of the universe. But over the past 30 years it’s become much more secure so that not only do we know that there was a Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago, but we know a great deal about the details including the conditions that prevailed in the universe back to as little as one-trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. So we’re now able to reconstruct precisely how the universe went bang and how it developed over the subsequent billions of years into what we see today. So I think that the scientific story of the genesis of a universe is fascinating—its origin, its explosive outbursts, and the long period of enrichment and complexification of matter leading eventually to the emergence of life and beings like ourselves who could look back and reflect on it all.

M&B: The Big Bang Theory is well established. Yet it’s still open to commentaries and interpretations.

It’s often said that science deals with “how?” questions and religion deals with “why?” questions and so you don’t normally go to a scientist to find meaning or purpose in the universe. Nevertheless it is clear that because science is now able to fill in so many details about the big picture, that scientists are inevitably asked to make pronouncements about meaning and purpose. As they do so, they divide about equally into two groups. One group who says, “Well, the universe is beautiful, it’s so ingenious that it looks as if it has been designed by an intelligent creator but in fact it hasn’t.” There is no meaning, no purpose in the universe. The famous quote by Steven Weinberg, the American cosmologist, goes: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” Then the other half of cosmologists look at this same set of facts and they agree about the facts but they interpret them differently. They will say, “Well, it does suggest that there is a grand scheme of things, it does suggest that the universe is about something. This grand and wonderful scheme, which is so ingeniously constructed, does suggest that there is something deeper to it all.”

M&B: We find more and more scientists thinking and writing about these topics on both sides.

Human beings usually are not happy just to have a technical description of how the universe works, and in particular people always want to ask the question what happened before the Big Bang? What made the Big Bang go bang? Why is there a universe in the first place, and why is the universe as it is and not something different? And these are questions right on the edge of science because science really can only deal with things that can be measured and observed. They can deal with the facts of the world, the things before us. When we come to questions about why does the world exist at all or why are there laws and where do those laws come from, it’s very difficult for science to make a contribution. Nevertheless, in the last ten or twenty years more and more scientists have been addressing those questions. The nature of physical laws is a very good example… When I was a student, you were simply told the laws of physics are what they are, we don’t know why, maybe there isn’t any reason why—that’s just the way it is. It was not the job of the scientists to ask why those laws of physics exist. The job of the scientist was to discover what the laws are and then apply them. But that has changed. There is now a feeling that maybe the nature of physical laws is something that is a proper, legitimate subject for scientific inquiry. And so there’s a whole bunch of physicists who are looking at alternative laws.

M&B: How do they theorize alternative laws?

Supposing we stipulate a different law of gravitation and see what the consequences would be. We can work out using mathematics what it would be like if gravity differed a little bit from the observed law. And then we can do the same with the other forces of nature and other features of the world. What would it be like if we lived in the universe with 23 space dimensions instead of three? We can work that out. Partly that’s a recreational exercise—it would be fun to know what it would be like in a universe with different dimensions or different forces—but also we would like to know is there anything special about the particular laws of this particular universe.

M&B: What is the result of such experiments?

There is something special and that special thing is that the particular laws that we observe in this universe are very strangely conducive to the emergence of life. They’re highly suited to life, even suspiciously so. It’s almost as if these laws have been fine-tuned for life, and so at that point disagreement sets in and some scientists say, “Well, it’s just a lucky coincidence that that is the case,” and others say, “No, there must be some other explanation for it.” But it is certainly the case that the universe we observe and the laws that underpin it, which used to just be regarded as given, as not a proper subject for inquiry, are now being studied as one set among a vast variety of possible sets, and it’s generally agreed that the particular laws that we observe are very special in their relation to the ability to bring forth life.

M&B: And you call this a “cosmic jackpot.”

My book, Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life, examines a very specific problem, the problem of why the universe seems to be just right for life. When we look at the fundamental laws of physics and the way that the universe originated in the Big Bang, there are many features that appear to be coincidences or the happy arrangement of different aspects of physical laws without which there would be no life and no observers like ourselves. And the question is, What are we to make of that? Some people say, “Well, it looks like the whole thing is a fix, it looks like the universe is being created by an Intelligent Designer.” Well, obviously all the scientists aren’t going to believe that. So instead they come up with other explanations.

M&B: There is the theory of multiverses.

According to that theory, there are many universes each of which has its own set of laws and these laws are just randomly distributed across these universes. So here and there, just by chance, the laws are going to come out just right for life. It’s no surprise that we find ourselves living in a universe where conditions are just right for life because we could hardly live in a universe which had laws of physics that did not permit life. It’s like a gigantic cosmic lottery with all of these different universes and we’ve just hit the cosmic jackpot because we’re winners of this vast lottery. So that is the popular view as to how we explain that the universe is just right for life. I think that view is progressive but I think it falls far short of providing a complete explanation of existence. I take life seriously and I take the mind seriously so I don’t think that these are just incidental phenomena in the great cosmic scheme of things. I think they’re fundamental to the workings of the universe as a whole and so what I’m trying to do here is to go beyond the rather startled debate between science and religion that’s existed for the last 30 years about the ultimate source of reality.

M&B: It just seems to me, just based on intuition, that we’re not alone here. The universe is so vast, there’s just got to be life somewhere. Does mathematics and statistics support this intuition?

A lot of people make that mistake by saying, statistically, there has to be life elsewhere, the universe is so vast, so many stars out there. It would be incredible if this was the only planet with life. It’s just simply not true. The probability of forming even the simplest enzyme, the simplest protein in known life, if you did it just by shuffling the building blocks, the amino acids that make up for that, is infinitesimal. If you took the entire volume of the universe and filled it with an amino acid soup and just kept shuffling and shuffling and shuffling, you would simply not make it. If it’s happened once, we’re it. It would not happen anywhere else. So the probability of life forming in that way by chance is twice as infinitesimal. So if that’s the way life happened, the fact we live in a vast universe makes no different whatsoever.

M&B: People who are not scientists may think that scientists are the smartest of all of us so they must be figuring out everything, they’re the smartest ones who bring the technology. They look at scientists as natural guides. Do you see a danger here?

Scientists are human beings like everybody else, and I think it’s a mistake to see scientists as generally cold, hard, soulless people who don’t care about the consequences of their work. Scientists are very passionate people and they feel passionately not only about their work but about other aspects of human life. It is also a mistake to think that scientists have any special moral authority over questions of general relevance to human beings. The vast majority of problems that we confront in the world really are only related obliquely, if at all, to science. We struggle with things like the ruin of our environment or international disputes or family concerns or education concerns. These sort of day-to-day things loom very large in people’s lives, but I’m not sure that scientists make a contribution. Science is obviously relevant to some of these things, for example, if we could find a better source of energy that doesn’t heat the planet, that would be good. So science can play a role, but individual scientists, I don’t think are any better than anybody else as moral judges.