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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Davies' weakest book?, February 23, 2005
This review is from: God and the New Physics (Paperback)
This is one of Davies two or three most noted books but certainly not one of his best. You'll get a better discussion of quantum theory in his volumes 'Superforce', 'The Matter Myth' or 'About Time' and a better treatment of philosophical and theological considerations in his award-winning 'The Mind of God'.
Davies is one of this reader's favorite science writers, but I'll not recommend this volume. Your time will be better spent reading any of the four books that I mentioned above. Developments of the past twenty years have countered some of the cosmology presented here, but this is nothing to hold against the author, it is what happens in science. Rather worse is Davies' understanding of theology, it is strangely uninformed for someone with his apparent interest in the discipline. On several points he is dealing with mere straw men.
One of several problems is Davies treatment of theology's famous 'cosmological argument' which has been variously employed by such thinkers as Aristotle, Leibniz, and Swinburne. In this discussion (third chapter) he appears to accept that Bertrand Russell had succeeded in defeating the general argument through the introduction of his famous "sets of sets" paradox. The argument is this: if the cause-effect relationships within the temporal universe are taken as sets of relationships, then the universe as a whole is the set of these sets. Russell then demonstrated, using the 'library books / catalogs of library books' paradox, that the universe itself need not be subject to the rules of causal relationships that apply within the universe. The reason, Russell argued, that causal relationships should not be applied to the universe (as a set of sets) is that causal relationships within the universe (space/time) must have an aspect of temporal sequence, and that since there can be no temporal quality such as "before" "before" time itself, the universe need not be caused.
That there is no sequence outside of time is hardly arguable. But when Davies goes on to say that we must think in terms of "beyond, not before" the universe, he demonstrates that the supposed problem is simply one of reckless semantics. After all, just as 'before' is a temporal concept, 'beyond' is a spatial concept; perhaps there cannot be a "beyond" the universe either? Davies would (rightly) respond that "beyond" does not necessarily involve a spatial quality, for example we might speak of a concept or understanding being "beyond me." And as Davies later explains, in his consideration of 'mind', ideas (say, the calculus or a Beethoven symphony) do not, in essence, exist spatially (or temporally, the piece of music does not cease to exist when the orchestra finishes), yet certainly do exist "beyond" the concert hall or the notations on paper. Similarly, of the "super-existent Being," the theologian says, "Cause of all existence, and therefore itself transcending existence" (to cite ancient language), causes space-time from "beyond" [or conceptually "above"] space-time, not from temporally "before" it. As Davies concedes, theologians (notably Augustine) discerned this many centuries before Russell attempted to colonize causal language. There are several definitions that logicians have assigned to the concept of causality; Aristotle's most straightforward definition is simply "explanatory factor." Russell's argument based on a temporal baseline presents no clear paradox for a supra-cosmic Mind; most philosophers have rightly rejected his demand that we restrict explanation to his preferred language, and it is unclear why Davies was so uncritical on this point.
Concluding this discussion, Davies says that we can imagine an uncaused universe -- or even a steady-state universe (although the idea fares poorly against observation) -- but eventually concedes that we cannot finally explain such things in any scientific or otherwise rational way: ". . . Swinburne writes: It would be an error to suppose that if the universe is infinitely old, and each state of the universe at each instant of time has a complete explanation in terms of a previous state . . . (and so God is not invoked), that the existence of the universe throughout infinite time has a complete explanation, or even a full explanation. It has not. It has neither. It is totally inexplicable."
Davies later revisits causality from the perspective of quantum uncertainty and the superposition problem. He treats this material better elsewhere. In many ways, Polkinghorne's 'The Quantum World' (written at about the same time) treats this subject better than any I have seen. The ideas in Davies' chapter on Time are treated more extensively in his later volume 'About Time.'
On points Davies strays completely from physics while failing to penetrate philosophy very deeply. A straw characterization of theology's understanding of 'omnipotence' is presented in the consideration of free will versus determinism (chapter 10). Davies cites Hume's argument that God either wills evil (and is therefore not omnibenevolent) or is incapable of eliminating evil (and therefore not omnipotent). Again, the author uncritically accepts Hume's argument, apparently ignorant of the theological response (Hume's argument was not new and some counter arguments had been given two millennia earlier). Davies says, "the power of an omnipotent God is without limit, and such a being is free to have whatever he chooses." Actually the statement cannot be true, omnipotence is logically self-limiting in a way that omnipresence or omniscience, is not. For example, an omnipotent Being cannot be free to terminate his omnipotent self, for if he is "free to have whatever he chooses," in choosing cessation he could neither "have" nor "choose." Logical limits seem inherent to omnipotence, limits imposed by mutual exclusion. Again, consider the question: "is God powerful enough to make a rock so heavy that he is not powerful enough to lift it?" The question is supposed to demand a glitch in God's omnipotence. Ignoring that since Newtonian relativistic physics (let alone its advance via Einsteinian fields), the picture being painted is physically nonsensical, it is also logical nonsense. Further, an omnipotent being is not free to simultaneously provide and deny freedom any more that he could create a three dimensional spherical (1 surface) cube (6 surfaces), because of logical mutual exclusion. Strangely, after arguing otherwise earlier, Davies reaches such a conclusion in chapter 17. For a technical theological consideration of omnipotence and the existence of evil, one should seriously engage so-called 'possible worlds' theory; for a less technical approach, one must consider the substantive, rather that superficial, essence of often misunderstood words like "love" and "freedom" (both are "good", neither is necessarily "nice"). And, like quantum entanglement, freedom is so complex as to be fundamentally mysterious to any human observer who would pretend to be its judge, as certain theologians have variously stated for more than 2500 years.
Much argument is distilled into little in the book's three closing paragraphs (so what was the point?). This is Davies at his worst. He improved with age, read his 'The Mind of God' instead.
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