Universal Reason …

So, Jerry Coyne is asking for responses to a position of Polkinhorne’s. The position is this:

His two arguments are these:

* The universe can be comprehended by the rational faculties of humans, and its workings appear to adhere to laws of physics.

* Much of our understanding of the universe is expressed through mathematics, which is “unreasonably effective” in encapsulating what we discover about nature.

Ergo Jesus.

(Coyne, BTW, would do well to lose the dismissive “Ergo Jesus” at the end. It’s annoying enough when it might actually be the case that they’re using the argument to get to the Christian God, but since he uses it even when they aren’t it’s really annoying.)

Coyne quotes Polkinghorne in some detail:

“. . . why is science possible at all in the deep way that has proved to be the case?” p. 71

“A distinguished nuclear physicist, Eugene Wigner, once asked, ‘Why is mathematics so unreasonably effective?’ Those seeking an understanding as complete as possible must ask what it could be that that links together the reason within (mathematical thinking) and the reason without (the structure of the physical world) in this remarkable way? The universe has not only proved to be astonishingly rationally beautiful, affording scientists the reward of wonder for all the labours of their research. Why are we so lucky?

It would surely be intolerably intellectually lazy not to seek to pursue this question. Yet science itself will not provide its answer, for it is simply content to exploit the opportunities that these wonderful gifts afford us, without being in a position to explain their origin. Theology, however, can step into the breach. Science has disclosed to us a world which, in its rational transparency and beauty, is shot through with signs of mind, and religious belief suggests that it is indeed the Mind of the Creator that lies behind the wonderful order of the universe. (p. 73)

Now, I’m not going to answer this or respond to it, favourably or unfavourably. All I’m going to do is examine and clarify the question, and the issues around it. At the end of this, my only hope is that you’ll understand what is at stake here and what are the implications and the issues that each side of the argument have to address. Then, I’d ask you to read Coyne’s initial responses and the ones in the comments to see if they really go after the question that is being asked here.

Polkinghorne’s argument is basically that the universe we have seems to be, for the most part, rationally infused. By taking a rational and even intentional approach, we have had great successes. It really seems that the laws of physics are exceedingly and excessively rational and mathematical, in such a way that science and understanding can proceed under what you’d call almost ideal conditions. Thus, we can form incredibly detailed and generalized models that just work, with little ad hoc corrections and manuevering. The universe, then, seems ideally rationaly understandable by the best tools of logic and reason, including mathematics. But there’s no reason to think that this is just the natural state of affairs; we could certainly be in a world where fewer things are generalizable and where a grand Theory of Everything would be automatically dismissed as a pipedream as opposed to a Holy Grail. The universe seems intentional and rational, and Polkinghorne’s argument is that this then reflects a rational, intentional and intellectual mind. That mind, then, is God’s mind.

Now, there are numerous potential pitfalls along the way. The first challenge is whether or not this universe really is that ideally rational. While our scientific models look pretty, in practice you always have to slip a lot more ad hoc reasoning into them, and sometimes even contort the mathematics slightly to get them to work out in the world. For the argument to work, it must be the case that reality is ideally rational, not our best academicized models of it. This leads to the second objection, which is that maybe our laws are not as reflective of it all as we’d like. Maybe, like Newton’s equations, they only work locally, and break down elsewhere in the universe. Yes, we have some cosmological results that suggest otherwise, but those have enough issues — dark matter, for example — that we can’t be certain that our generalizations really do hold … or that we can really generalize that far. Now, most scientists will probably defend the rationality of the laws and their generalizability, but that doesn’t leave them out in the cold when it comes to criticism. They can ask if it really is the case that a rationally ideal universe must be generated by a rational mind, or if this could just happen on its own. Maybe, in fact, this is the normal way of things; universes tend towards greater regularity unless they can’t. And the last desperate gasp is to deny that if it needs a mind that doesn’t make it God, but if you have a rational mind that created the universe you’re well, pretty much there, so it would be a desperate grasp at some counter, but not a very strong rebuttal.

Note that none of these counters, though, are damning. The argument is essentially this:

1) An ideally rational universe requires a rational mind to have structured it that way.
2) This is an ideally rational universe.

C) This universe requires a rational mind to structure it that way.

In order to oppose it, then, you have to attack either 1) or 2). Anything else is sophistry that brings in other arguments or disputes to dodge the key argument being made here. As I said, both premises can be challenged, but it isn’t clear that they’re false. Which means, then, that the argument — in my not-so-humble (and Not-So-Casual) opinion — is interesting and worth considering, but it needs more work to actually prove what it is trying to prove. There are, as far as I can see, no quick rebuttals, but this argument isn’t a killer one either.

Which, really, is where the fun begins for philosophers and theologians.


6 Responses to “Universal Reason …”

  1. mrventriloquist Says:

    First problem with arguments concerning the universe: We don’t have enough data to be able to talk about the universe. All we know is that the universe operates by a set of rules or laws, that the universe is expanding, and that it is increasing speed without an obvious explanation.

    Those who claim that there is a supreme being overseeing the universe use two ways of proving him. (1) They claim that the universe is “rational” or operates by a set of laws, which they see as evidence for a supreme being. (2) Anything that acts or seems to act against these laws, they see as evidence for a supreme being.
    *Notice that these two things are complete opposites of one another. If nothing seems out of the ordinary, then it must be God keeping it in order. If something is out of the ordinary, then it must be God causing it to be out of the ordinary.

    This is why it is difficult to argue with them: Because they take a stance that allows them to (a) take literally any happening or non-happening to be evidence of God, and then (b) slip away to the other perspective when you make objections to it.

  2. verbosestoic Says:

    I agree with you that we don’t know enough, which was part of my comment about the laws maybe only holding locally.

    As for the second point, I saw this at Coyne’s site, and this is one of the arguments I find to be a bit of a dodge. As you can see, it doesn’t directly address the specific argument, but instead tries to aim at a claim that those making the argument are somehow being intentionally slimy and slippery. Even if they are, it doesn’t make the argument I outlined wrong.

    You can make a better argument out of this, by arguing that that evidence of God’s intervention is actually evidence that disproves 2), that this world is ideally rational. The problem with that is that for the most part these things seem to be cases of exceptions that prove the rule, that show just how good our models are and can be as opposed to examples of how modelling doesn’t work, even to the scientists that might want to use that argument. And from that, we can see why those seemingly conflicting claims maybe actually aren’t in conflict: our models and success with them really do indicate that 2) is true and this is an ideally rational universe, and all of the exceptions are, in fact, ones best explained by an appeal to an intentional agent and not just a difference or discrepancy in the rules. So, for example, they’re all one-time events at important times, that don’t challenge the models but do fit with an intentional intervention.

    And so, with that argument, we can see that you can’t take any happening or non-happening, but only very specific ones … but that their claim would be that those specific ones happen to be the ones we have.

  3. quoded Says:

    1) An ideally rational universe requires a rational mind to have structured it that way.

    I just don’t see any reason why this is true. And that is a failing of the argument, and one that absolutely requires justification before anyone presents this as a valid argument. I’ve never seen anyone presenting this argument actually present an argument for why an ideally rational universe (like ours, supposing ours is) requires a rational mind to have structured it that way. We have very good explanations from physics as to how our universe could have come about, as it is, without any rational mind creating it. In order for this argument to be coherent, it would have to demonstrate that there is some rational ordering in the universe inexplicable by any means other than a rational mind structuring it that way.

    Also, I think the universe seems to behave in a magically mathematical way in part (not wholly!) because we have designed mathematics that way. Euclid based his geometry on the axioms he did because they were born out by his intuition of the physical universe. There are plenty of mathematicians who argue against accepting the Axiom of Choice it results in thing like the Banach-Tarski paradox, which doesn’t seem to agree with what we know about the physical universe. But the mathematics developed from accepting the Axiom of Choice is perfectly logical. So certainly the universe behaves in a surprisingly and beautifully mathematical way, but I think leaping to the conclusion that this necessarily means something more is unwarranted.

  4. verbosestoic Says:

    Well, I do think it isn’t really a problem to say that a world that looks ideally rational had to have a rational mind behind it. That does seem to be the default position, and a reasonable one. It’s what we do everyday; if something looks intentional or rational, we presume it is until told otherwise. So starting there isn’t a problem. Now, I agree that we might be able to make arguments that would demonstrate that if it looks rational it may not be, but I would suggest not starting with physics because that would be assuming the conclusion; physics is one of the things that people like Polkinghorne are saying is too rational to be done without the influence of a rational mind.

    So I agree it’s controversial, but don’t necessarily agree that the burden of proof on that is on theologians like Polkinghorne. They could rightly claim that such a burden is simply the result of excessive skepticism; you’d accept it for anything else except this, and we would need to know why that should be the case.

    It’s a bit shaky to argue too much that mathematics is what it is because it is derived from the world; mathematics itself seems to be derivable and quite often derived independently of it, and merely used to describe the world. That being said, you can indeed ask if that’s good enough, or how much mathematics was invented to deal with the phenomena it describes as opposed to the other way around.

  5. aleanation Says:

    For most of history, the discoveries of science mostly served to strengthen the argument for the existence of God, particularly an intelligent design type of argument, because they demonstrated the order and lawfulness of the universe.

    The striking exception to this trend is Darwin, because his discoveries and his resulting theory provided an alternate explanation for such things as eyeballs and hands and various creatures, an explanation of such simplicity and beauty that it became much more plausible, for maybe the first time in history, to understand the world around us without appealing to god.

    In this case, an alternative theory that could explain the apparent rationality of physics/chemistry/etc would go something like this: Our nature and our minds, and thus, our capacity (our group of capacities) that we have named “rationality,” were forged by the world in which our species arose. The struggle to survive necessitates, among other things, sharp senses and the ability to analyze the data that we receive from them. These capabilities are further refined over time. It is not surprising that the world that was the context of our development would seem rational, now that we have created the concept, for evolution is a reactive process. In our struggle to survive, it became important for us to perceive and understand the world with increasing generality and abstractness, and similarly it was important for these senses/capacities to be accurate. By saying that we are “rational,” we are saying that our sense of the world and its dynamics are accurate. The capacities that we call rationality are a response to the world-as-it-is. And therefore, it is not the world that resembles rationality; it is rationality that mirrors the world.

    I definitely could have stated this position more clearly, but I am sure that you, who are (I would imagine) a more educated and competent philosopher than I, are already familiar with such a line of thought. I think it makes for an interesting debate, nonetheless, so I thought I would raise this possible counter-argument.

  6. verbosestoic Says:

    That our mental states and abilities are influenced by the world we are in is, I think, absolutely uncontroversial, but it’s a far step from there to arguing that there is no indepedent notion of reason that we can use to ask if this is a maximally rational world or one that could be more rational, especially if you want to avoid any arguments that this world only looks rational because we impose it on it, and may not be rational at all (like Kant’s “phenomenal/noumenal” distinction). But this is indeed an argument that you can use to challenge the idea that the world is ideally rational, and it gets into some very interesting philosophical waters.

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