“The very order, disposition, beauty, change and motion of the world and of all visible things silently proclaims that it could only have been made by God”
– Augustine, “City of God”
“The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate seized planet”
Stephen Hawking, as quoted by David Deutsch in the “Fabric of Society”.
“I do take life, mind and purpose seriously and I concede that the universe at least appears to be designed with a high level of ingenuity. It seems to me that there is a genuine scheme of things–the universe is about something”
– Paul Davies, “The Goldilocks Enigma”
And there it is: We begin with a historical, traditional/religious point of view (Augustine); we proceed to a very modern, very skeptical, and very nihilistic point of view where Hawking basically writes off biological life in general and human life in particular as a statistical abnormality in an otherwise random universe with no meaning; and we end with Paul Davies, like Hawking a noted physicists and writer, who tries from a secular perspective to build a bridge back to Augustine. But where Augustine defines this “something” as God, and while Hawking denies its existence, Davies asserts that while this “something” (which the universe is about) exists he leaves it undefined.
Paul Davies in his very readable book “the Goldilocks Connection” spends hundreds of pages taking his readers through the history, thought process, and intellectual dilemmas and baggage that each of these three philosophical positions have and what modern physicists know, think and feel about the science of cosmology.
The very traditional and orthodox position taken by Augustine about the existence of a God who created the heavens and earth AND who tracks our every thought, mood and action, keeps copious records, and assigns, based on these records, either eternal damnation or eternal bliss to individuals at the moment of their death does not resonate well with most thinking people today.
The rejection of this position comes easily to people who resent the basic unfairness of the threat of eternal damnation for people who lived before the birth of Jesus; or who lived far from the Middle East and never heard of him in their lifetimes; or who honor God within their own traditions. The rejection of the Church’s assertion that one needs to accept Jesus as one’s personal savior or to suffer eternal pain as a consequence is made even easier when one becomes aware of the corruption, greed, lust, lack of compassion and overall hypocrisy exhibited by so many Church leaders over many hundreds of years.
The life of Stephen Hawking, confined in recent years to a wheel chair being totally paralyzed by Lou Gehrig’s disease, but with a very active and creative mind that has made him a world famous physicists, teacher and writer makes him a model for all of us as to how to have a meaningful life on many levels despite crippling handicaps….and this is true whether or not we accept or do not accept his assertion as to the role human life and human consciousness plays in the world.
And Paul Davies, trying to bridge the philosophical gap between the world of religious orthodoxy and the understanding of modern physics, seeks to affirm the possibility of there being somewhere in the mix a benign, if not defined, intelligent life force that is Not the controlling and punishing God of Augustine, or the Goddess of Randomness that so many modern thinkers pay homage to in any discussion as to whether the universe in general or our individual lives in particular have any real meaning.
It is into this discussion that the noted author and philosopher, David Birnbaum, offers his very thoughtful definition for that “something” which Paul Davies left undefined.
For Birnbaum, that “something”, as outlined in his three books “Summa Metaphysica I, II and III”, is the concept of “Potentiality” which he defines as a creative impulse inside the Life Force that drives all change, all evolution (random and otherwise) and is responsible for the Big Bang and the resulting cycles on all levels of energy/matter with regard to birth, growth, decline, death and the continued transformation of energy/matter to ever increasing and higher levels of complexity and level of consciousness.
Paul Davies writes as follows in “The Goldilocks Enigma”
“The carbon atoms so essential for life were forged inside stars somewhere billions of years ago. As these stars entered into the final stages of their lives their nuclear material collapsed to a density of almost a billion tons per square centimeter causing a cataclysmic explosion that propelled carbon laden star dust across billions of miles of space some of which ended up through a process of long evolution into biological life on earth culminating in the creation of human consciousness”.
The beauty of Birnbaum’s philosophical view of Potentialism is that it allows for randomness to function within evolution within an intelligent design that made it possible against overwhelming statistical odds for star dust from dying stars to find their way to a moderate sized planet and to produce the “chemical scum” that made human life possible.
The fact that Birnbaum is able to accomplish this without mandating or insisting that the Potentialism at the heart of the concept of intelligent design is linked to or restricted by any specific system of religious beliefs makes it possible for modern individuals living deep within a culture of secularism to take a fresh look at the challenging and complex cosmological questions with which physicists such as Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies are struggling with not only within the academic walls of their profession and publicly in their books and public discourse; but also no doubt privately within their own souls as they like all thinking individuals ponder the meaning of life.
The fact that Birnbaum finds within the Jewish tradition a deep mystical and poetical understanding of the Universe that is now being mirrored more and more by the experimental and theoretical findings of modern day cosmologists is indeed a vibrant, valuable and most welcome connecting bridge for those of us who have one foot planted in the world of Jewish tradition and the other foot planted equally as firmly in the secular world.