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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”. Wigner’s 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 one’s shoulders and say “That’s 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

Cosmic Questions

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Understanding the Universe

Why is Science Possible?

Science's Modest Ambition
Why is the Universe so Special?
Other Considerations
The Problem of Evil
Purpose and the Cosmic Conclusion


 John Polkinghorne

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