At Cosmic Log, Alan Boyle posts a phone interview with author and theoretical physicist Paul Davies, who has recently moved to Arizona to start Beyond - an organization with similarities to the Foundational Questions Institute - to explore the "fundamental concepts in science," like "how do humans fit into the scheme of things?" or "how did the universe begin?"
In the interview Davies talks about such subjects as backward causality, fuzzy laws to accompany fuzzy quantum states, and the spiritual dimensions of his thinking.
Three things came to mind. The first is English philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright, who has written about the dappled nature of our world, which is more varied and less "law-like" than perhaps we can, or are willing, to understand. Such a place will not yield a single super law uniting all the physical sciences. Likewise, other philosophers of science have characterized our relationship to nature as ineluctable: it will resist attempts to fully naturalize the human condition by constructing meaning, for example, from the physical sciences. While a part of nature, we cannot - at least yet - be completely reconciled to it. If these rationalists are correct, we will never be fully at home with it.
The second notion, also drawn from the interview is the frank acknowledgment of the appeal traditional physics (implicitly) and religious faith (directly) to an unknown - perhaps unknowable - first mover, a philosophical knot known as foundationalism. For every event or cause, there is an event or cause that precedes it. Perhaps "what came first?" it is simply the wrong question - it seems to be for Davies - but this intellectual inheritance from the Enlightenment has until now been part of the bargain made with modernity and efforts, like logical positivism, to close the loop have been largely discredited. Axiomatic systems, as Kurt Gödel demonstrated, can never be complete. Worse, complete systems are never fully axiomatic.
Lastly, in this post-modern, immaterial age, the idea of purposes and ends is edging its way back into the wider discussion. Philosopher and Templeton prize winning Charles Taylor makes persuasive arguments - to me, at least, feel free to disagree - that while concepts like will and agency may be ascribed to all animals, it is the ability to imagine a satisfying future and to act with purpose that is fundamental to human being. Our ontology - there's your philosophy word for the day - also leads us to think about a universe fine-tuned for life, or perhaps a universe that is "self-made" to use Davies' term.
While we should be careful about such reasoning, the fact that we humans are predisposed to think in terms of ends, to repeatedly ask "what's the point?" shouldn't also be casually dismissed as irrelevant. The alternative isn't a purer kind of thinking, but a kind, rather, made much the poorer in my view. It's a point with which I think Davies agrees.
Read the whole Cosmic Log interview. You can decide whether this middle course between "God did it" and "Physics did it" makes sense to you.