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The Universe Beyond  


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), 223-232.

Photo credit: Intellimon Ltd. 

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