THE MYSTERY AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE
Davies, a distinguished theoretical physicist, explores the link between scientific and mystical
knowledge, and the quest for the infinite. Excerpts have been taken from Davies’ material and sometimes
adapted in these notes.
Is it possible to trace the logic of scientific rationality back as far as it will go in the
search for ultimate answers to the mystery of existence? The idea that there might be a complete explanation
for everything – so that all of physical and metaphysical existence would form a closed explanatory system –
is a tantalizing one.
Might it not be the case that the reason for existence has no explanation in the usual sense?
This does not mean that the universe is absurd or meaningless, only that an understanding of its existence
and properties lies outside the usual categories of rational human thought. There will always be truth that
lies beyond – that cannot be reached from a finite collection of axioms.
As long as we insist on identifying “understanding” with “rational explanation” of the sort
familiar in science – there will always be mystery at the end of the universe. (The axiomatic method of
making logical deductions from given assumptions cannot provide all the answers.)
It may be, however, that there are other forms of understanding which will satisfy the inquiring
mind. Can we make sense of the universe in a way that lies outside the road of rational scientific inquiry
and logical reasoning? Many people claim there is – it is called mysticism.
Most scientists have a deep mistrust of mysticism – it lies at the opposite extreme to rational
thought, which is the basis of the scientific method. Also, mysticism tends to be confused with the occult,
the paranormal, and other fringe beliefs. Also “mystical experiences” are said to be hard to convey in words.
Mystics speak of a sense of being at one with the universe or with God, of glimpsing a holistic view of
reality, of being in the presence of a powerful and loving influence, of grasping ultimate reality in a
single experience, or of experiencing an inner sense of peace (a compassionate, joyful stillness that lies
beyond the activity of busy minds).
Western mystics tend to emphasize the personal quality of the presence, often describing themselves as being with
someone, usually God, who is different from themselves but with whom a deep bond is felt. Eastern mystics
emphasize the wholeness of
existence and tend to identify themselves more closely with the presence.
The essence of the mystical experience, then, is a type of shortcut to truth, a direct and
unmediated contact with a perceived ultimate reality. The central teaching of mysticism is this: Reality is
One. The practice of mysticism consists in finding ways to experience this unity directly. The One has been
variously called the Good, God, the Cosmos, or the Absolute.
In our quest for ultimate answers, it is hard not to be drawn, in one way or another, to the
infinite. Western religions have a long tradition of identifying God with the Infinite, whereas Eastern
philosophy seeks to eliminate the differences between the One and the Many.
In the end, a rational explanation for the world in the sense of a closed and complete system of
logical truths is almost certainly impossible. If we wish to progress beyond, we have to embrace a different
concept of “understanding” from that of rational explanation. Possibly the mystical path is a way to such an
understanding. Maybe mystical experiences provide the only route beyond the limits to which science and
philosophy can take us – the only possible path to the Ultimate.
Source: Paul Davies, “The Mystery at the
End of the Universe” in The Mind of God:
Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning (London: Simon and Schuster, 1992),
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