Nature’s “transparent rational beauty”

The kinds of considerations I was discussing in the last post are very similar to those that physicist-priest John Polkinghorne offered as part of a “modest” natural theology in his book Belief in God in an Age of Science. I posted on this several years back, but here’s the relevant portion of the post reproduced:

In the first chapter Polkinghorne discusses what he calls the “new natural theology.” There are two aspects of the physical world, Polkinghorne thinks, that provide “hints” of the existence of God. The first is the fact that our minds are fitted to understand the deep structure of the physical universe and that this structure can be expressed in elegant mathematical forumlas. “This use of abstract mathematics as a technique of physical discovery points to a very deep fact about the nature of the universe that we inhabit, and to the remarkable conformity of our human minds to its patterning. We live in a world whose physical fabric is endowed with transparent rational beauty” (p. 2).

Polkinghorne rejects as implausible the view that our ability to comprehend the fabric of the physical world and express it in the language of mathematics is a mere by-product of our evolutionary development:

No one would deny, of course, that evolutionary necessity will have moulded our ability for thinking in ways that will ensure its adequacy for understanding the world around us, at least to the extent that is demanded by pressures for survival. Yet our surplus intellectual capacity, enabling us to comprehend the microworld of quarks and gluons and the macroworld of big bang cosmology, is on such a scale that it beggars belief that this is simply a fortunate by-product of the struggle for life. (p. 2-3)

He likewise rejects any “constructivist” account of knowledge which says that we merely project our preference for mathematical reasoning onto the physical world. “Nature is not so plastic as to be subject to our whim in this way” (p. 3). The great discoveries of physics, however aesthetically pleasing they may be, depend on the belief that it is nature speaking to us in revealing aspects of its deep structure.

Revisiting this, it now looks to me like Polkinghorne is stealing some argumentative bases with his statement that it “beggars belief that this [capability for understanding the world] is simply a fortunate by-product of the struggle for life.” That is to say, just because something seems surprising or astonishing doesn’t mean it can’t be true. Polkinghorne might well reply that in the absence of a convincing account of how it could happen “naturalistically,” this “remarkable conformity of our human minds to [the universe’s] patterning” does provide a “hint” that something beyond blind natural processes is at work. So the question is whether there is such a convincing account (or maybe more basically what such an account would have to look like). Or is it enough to say that it’s simply a contingent fact–resulting from our minds’ long evolutionary history–that we’re able to successfully model aspects of reality?

4 thoughts on “Nature’s “transparent rational beauty”

  1. Pingback: For what it’s worth | A Thinking Reed

  2. Was just observing some discussion of Tegmark in my twitter feed today. Just thought you might want to be aware of it. It’s a mathematics-based hypothesis that gets at the same reversal of common scientific perspective that Hegel conceived of in phenomenological terms. You may also have heard of the physicists who, in contemplating different models for the origin of the universe, suggest that our universe of all of the universes that certain versions of Big Bang theory propose happens to be the one (or one might suppose one of the ones) intelligible to beings like ourselves, which is not far from saying or may be the same as saying: our universe is the universe that produces beings like ourselves capable of perceiving it as well as ourselves perceiving = our universe is the or a universe that among other things includes self-perception = our universe perceives itself.

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