Why is Science Possible?
Those of us privileged to be
scientists are so excited by the quest to understand the workings of the
physical world that we seldom stop to ask ourselves why we are so fortunate.
Human powers of rational comprehension vastly exceed anything that could be
simply an evolutionary necessity for survival, or plausibly construed as some
sort of collateral spin-off from such a necessity. How could that kind of
argument possibly relate to our amazing ability to understand the strange and
counterintuitive quantum world of subatomic physics, or to comprehend the
cosmic structure of curved space? The point is reinforced by considering what
the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Eugene Wigner, called the unreasonable
effectiveness of mathematics. Wigners brother-in-law, Paul Dirac, one of the
founding fathers of quantum mechanics, said that his fundamental belief was
that the laws of physics are expressed in beautiful equations. The relentless
and highly successful pursuit of a beautiful equation was how Dirac discovered
the relativistic equation of the electron, and consequently antimatter.
Einstein discovered the equations of general relativity in a similar fashion.
Mathematics is abstract
human thinking. When this most austere of subjects proves to be the key to
unlock the secrets of the physical universe, something very unexpected is happening. The unreasonable effectiveness
of mathematics is a phenomenon that the mathematicians, in their modest way of
speaking, would call non-trivial. Non-trivial is a mathematical word meaning
highly significant. This raises the metaquestion of why this is the case.
In dealing with a question
of that kind, I want first of all to say two things by way of preliminaries.
One is that it is a question that should be pressed. My instinct as a scientist
is to seek understanding through and through and it seems to me that it would
be intolerably intellectually lazy just to shrug ones shoulders and say
Thats just the way it is - and a bit of good luck for you people who are good
at mathematics. The second thing I want to say is that deep metaphysical
questions of this kind are too profound to have simple knockdown answers to
them. When we enter the realm of metaphysical enquiry, we are in a domain where
no one has access to absolute rational certainty. For that reason, I could not
use so curt and categorical a title for my talk as that chosen by Steve
Weinberg for his. This character of metaphysical argument does not mean that we
shall not have reasons for the answers that we propose, for stating them will
involve invoking the metaphysically desirable properties I have already
discussed, particularly that of scope. However, none of us can pretend that our
answers are logically coercive in a 2+2=4 way. I am going to propose theistic
responses to the questions we are concerned with. I think I have good reasons
for my beliefs, but I do not for a moment suppose that my atheistic friends are
simply stupid not to see it my way. I do believe, however, that religious
belief can explain more than unbelief can do.
Back then to the
metaquestion of why science is possible at all in the deep way that it is. I
have described a physical world whose rational transparency makes theoretical
physics possible and whose rational beauty guides and rewards those who inquire
into its structure. In a phrase, it is a world shot through with signs of
mind. I believe that it is an attractive, coherent and intellectually
satisfying explanation of this fact that there is indeed a divine Mind behind
the scientifically discerned rational order of the universe. In fact, I believe
that science is possible because the physical world is a creation and we are, to
use an ancient and powerful phrase, creatures made in the image of the
Creator (Genesis 1,26). I regard this insight as the primary ground for
believing that the universe is designed. I make no apology for speaking in
theistic terms, for if the universe is designed, who could be its designer
other than a Creator-God?
Contributed by: Sir John Polkinghorne