Science in Christian Perspective
The Foundation Upon Which Science Rests: The Correlation Between the Human Mind and Physical Reality
W. Jim Neidhardt
New Jersey Institute of Technology
Newark, New Jersey 07102
From: JASA 32 (December1980): 244-246.
When the scientist attempts to understand a group of natural phenomena, be begins with the assumption that these phenomena obey certain laws which, being intelligible to our reason, can be comprehended. This is not, let us hasten to note, a self-evident postulate which leaves no room for qualifications. In effect, what it does is to reiterate the rationality of the physical world, to recognize that the structure of the material universe has something in common with the laws that govern the behavior of the human mind.1
In this manner one of the pioneers of 20th century physics, Louis de Broglie, describes how a scientist goes about doing his work. The scientific enterprise is seen as a creative dialogue between the human mind and physical reality (nature), a correlation existing between the two distinct entities. Two recent statements by physicists of today emphasize that scientists in their work are motivated by a faith that such a correlation exists. In a recent article the distinguished particle physicist, Steven Weinberg, stresses that our current understanding is that certain entities called quantum fields, highly abstract mathematical products of the human mind, are basic to forming a coherent representation of current elementary-particle physics. To quote Weinberg:
The laws of nature give a fundamental role to certain entities. We are not really sure what they are, but at the present level of understanding they seem to be the elementary quantum fields. They are highly simple because they are governed by symmetries. These are not objects with which we are familiar. In fact, our ordinary notions of space and time, causation, composition, substance and so on really lose their meaning on that scale. But it is just at that scale, at the level of the quantum fields, that we are beginning to find a certain satisfying simplicity.2
In a similar vein, the fact that highly abstract mathematical concepts are found to "mirror" physical reality is marvelled at by Eugene Wigner, a Nobel prize winner in physics, who states that "one is confronted again and again with an unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics while investigating the physical world."3
Today mathematics, an imaginative product of the human mind, plays a fundamental role in representing physical reality. The discovery of anti-matter, specifically the positive electron by Paul Dirac is a particularly good example of this as Nigel Calder points out:
In inventing 'anti-matter' Dirac was guided by his mathematics. He had imposed upon himself the very important task of reconciling two great new theories of physics, the quantum mechanics of sub-atomic behavior, and Einstein's relativity. With self confidence even greater than Anderson's (the experimentalist who discovered the positive electron) he interpreted a minus sign in his equations as meaning the existence of negative matter rather than negative energy. It implied an extraordinary and unlookedfor symmetry at the heart of the microuniverse, such that for each particle there was an antiparticle, its opposite in every respect4
It should be stressed that the mathematical patterns used in representing physical reality become recognized in acts of discovery rooted in observation and experiment, not in flights of a priori reasoning. Furthermore, it is an interesting fact that many of these mathematical patterns were created by the human mind for sheer intellectual pleasure prior to when they were found to be useful in explaining the nature of physical reality. This is a rather surprising fact and an explanation for it cannot easily be found from within a purely scientific perspective.
In the act of discovery the human mind utilizes a store of rational structures or patterns which it can use to formulate a hypothesis about the nature of physical reality. Propositions are then deduced from the hypothesis that may be compared to physical reality in acts of observation and experiment. If the results are positive the credibility of the hypothesis is enhanced; if the results are negative, changes are made drawing again upon the stockpile of rational patterns stored in the mind and new deductions drawn from the modified hypothesis are tested experimentally. By this cyclic pattern of hypothesis formulation and testing against physical reality science proceeds. Today in physics these hypotheses are highly complex and abstract mathematical representations of reality; simple mechanical or everyday experience analogies are no longer found to be useful in describing the really basic building blocks of matter-energy. The formulation of such hypotheses requires great physical intuition and mathematical creativity (often partly gained by serving an apprenticeship to creative members of the physics community). Science has abandoned cruder representations of physical reality couched in the language of the senses for much more ambitious representations couched in the language of that most abstract area of human reason, pure mathematics. In the following extended quote the theologian Thomas F. Torrance nicely summarizes the nature of modern science with its emphasis on mathematics as a means of exploring a rational, objective, external reality:
... In every science we presuppose that what we know is accessible to rational inquiry, that it is somehow inherently intelligible or rational. If it were not there could be no knowledge, let alone any science. Hence a primary operation that must be undertaken in any science, e.g., in developing verification, is to probe into the inner rationality of the object or field of knowledge, into its inner logic . . . What the scientist does in any field is to seek to achieve an orderly understanding of events in which he can group them as a connected and intelligible whole and so be able to penetrate into their inner rationality. He does not invent that rationality but discovers it, even though he must act with imagination and insight in detecting and developing the right clues and act creatively in constructing forms of thought and knowledge through which he can discern the basic rationality and let his thinking fall under its directions as be offers even a descriptive account of the events. Undoubtedly a two-way movement of thought is involved in working out the way in which his account of the events is related to the grounds upon which it is based, for it is the coherence in the pattern of his thought that enables him to discern the systematic connection in the nature of things and yet it is only as he reaches that discernment that he is able to separate out the actual evidence upon which his account of events must be allowed to rest. In so far as he can reduce to consistent and rational expression the ways in which his knowledge is related to the grounds upon which it is based, he is convinced that he has come to grips with the inherent rationality of things and is convinced of the truth of his constructions. Hence the crucial importance in many natural sciences of achieving wherever possible mathematical representation of our understanding of things, for it is in that way that we bring the objective rationality to view. Yet we may treat that representation only as an explicatory model or a disclosure model through which we interpretatively apprehend the reality that we are investigating and not as a descriptive formula or as the equivalent of some ontic structure of the reality itself ... We are engaged properly in scientific activity only when we pass beyond description and narration to explanation, in which we penetrate, clarify, and explicate the inner intelligibility of what we investigate.5A Theological Explanation
What has been testified to is the assertion that central to the doing of science is the correlation between the subject of science, the scientist's mind, and the object of science, natural phenomena. Why does such a correlation exist? As the Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper, pointed out over seventy years ago, the JudaicChristian perspective provides an answer:
Figure 1. The Scientific Enterprise - Its dependency upon the trustworthiness of a supremely rational, imaginative, purposeful, all-caring, personal God who holds in being both man, with his human reason, and nature thereby causing the two distinct entities to be correlated.
Nomenclature: GOD the LOGOS-The divine, creative word as set forth in the first chapter of St. John's Gospel. The Logos means that within the presence of God there is present a creativity which is personal, which orders the universe, which awakes the response in man corresponding to his order, and lastly which existed eternally but was manifest in the Jesus of history.
HUMAN REASON-The cognitive powers of man.
NATURE-All of physical reality.
A - God created the universe and sustains it in continuous being.
B - God makes man in the Image of God.
C - Human rationality guides the exploration of nature.
D - Nature's behavior affirms and modifies human conceptions about it.
... by our abstract thinking we constantly form conclusions, which presently are seen to agree entirely with actual relations. In this way object and subject stand over against one another as wholly allied, and the more deeply our human consciousness penetrates into the cosmos, the closer this alliance is seen to be, both as concerns the substanceand morphology of the object, and the thoughts that lie expressed in the relations of the object. And since the object does not produce the subject, nor the subject the object, the power that binds the two organically together must of necessity be sought outside of each. And however much we speculate and ponder, no explanation can ever suggest itself to our sense, of the all-sufficient ground for this admirable correspondence between object and subject, on which the possibility and development of science wholly rests, until at the hand of Holy Scripture we confess that the Author of the cosmos created man in the cosmos as microcosmos after his image and likeness.
Thus understood, science presents itself to us as a necessary and ever-continued impulse in the human mind to reflect within itself the cosmos, plastically as to its elements, and to think it through logically as to its relations, always with the understanding that the human mind is capable of this by reason of its organic affinity to its object.6
Thus Kuyper asserts that the Judaic-Christian tradition teaches that science, a creative dialogue between reason and all reality, is dependent upon the trustworthiness of a supremely rational, imaginative, purposeful, all-caring, personal God. That nature is not a chaos but a highly ordered structure, a cosmos, is a direct consequence of the nature of God; that man has the ability to create mental structures which are faithful representations of physical reality is a direct consequence of man being made in the creator-God's image. Hence human reason and nature must be correlated as schematically shown in Figure 1. The fact that mathematical patterns were created prior to a physical application being discovered is easily explained if it is recognized that the mind that developed the pattern is made in the image of the designer of the natural order.7
Furthermore, the creator-God's inherent rational and purposeful nature offers a plausible explanation for why highly rational mathematical structures are so useful in the physical sciences while in other fields in particular the human sciences, purpose and teleology play vital roles. Some scientists of mechanistic persuasion might object to the latter comment. One example will show the fruitfulness of the concept of purpose in the human sciences. Victor FrankI in his important book The Will to Meaning more than adequately justifies the validity of psychology named logotherapy based upon the precept that person who has found purpose and meaning in his life is free to shape his own character and remains capable of always resisting and bracing even the worst conditions.
Lastly, the all caring, loving nature of the creator-God is deeply
reflected in the human activity of science; scientific discoveries
were and are most often made by men and women deeply committed to their task, often sacrificing much in the way of time
and rejecting material benefits in order that their research efforts
bear fruit. To be truly creative in science you must love your
work. The knowledge of physical or mathematical structure
cannot be separated from a loving appreciation of their beauty
such intellectual acts are not only acts of understanding but
also acts of love.
We have shown that a theological perspective derived from Holy Scriptures (in existence long before the birth of modern science) provides a satisfactory explanation for the strong faith of the scientific community that human reason can successfully guide the exploration of nature, the two distinct entities being correlated. Furthermore, the most recent advances in modern science eloquently testify to the validity of this correlation. Relativity theory with its utilization of a four-dimensional geometry to represent physical reality is a striking illustration of this. As Thomas F. Torrance has pointed out:
No doubt four-dimensional geometries have chanced into science through free postulatory thinking, but when it was found that they could and did in fact apply to actual existence, it was realized that they were not just ideal possibilities which the human mind happened to think up, but involved a far-reaching correlation between abstract conceptual systems and physical processes that carried us into an objective state of affairs beyond all our intuitive representations, Hence the dismantling by relativity theory of the old cosmologies and the kind of objectivities bound up with them, has brought to light a new and far profounder objectivity which is invariant with respect to our subjectivities.8Postscript
Some might deny the full validity of the theological argument by invoking the scientific theory of evolution. They argue that the subjective cognitive structures of the human mind coincide to some extent with the objective structures of the real world, because they have developed as an adaptation to the real world which maximizes survival. From the point of view of a single individual, a postulate about experience is a postulate a priori is a strict sense. However, from the point of view of evolution, the same postulate is made a posteriori; it is based upon experience namely on the experience of our ancestors, which is preserved and stored in the genetic information we have inherited from our parents. In this manner it is argued man can "invent" statements that later are found to explicate physical reality. But is the emergence of the human mind's ability to do this explicable in terms of the survival advantage it confers on its possessors for the range of activities we have been considering? What is the survival value to its author or its observers of a Beethoven trio, a Ming vase, a poem of Dante, or an understanding of relativity?
The example of general relativity is striking. Human beings
have adapted to the flat, 3-dimensional space of Euclid seemingly separated from an absolute time. However Riemannian geometry, a non-Euclidian geometry of many dimensions, is found in
general relativity to faithfully represent space and time, no longer
considered separate but fused together as a space-time continium. Thus 4-dimensional Riemannian geometry which was developed by the human mind for no other purpose than to delight
in its intellectual beauty brings into being a new vision of physical
reality very different from the common sense 3-dimensional
world we thought we were adapted to. And this new vision of
reality accurately predicts physical behavior, i.e. the gravitational bending of light, that common sense notions never called
Indeed considering the possible validity of evolutionary theory
... the structure of matter and of space and time was established
long before men appeared on this planet equipped with a brain
which seemed to be only the accidental product of natural selection
on chance mutations in a changing environment. But now we have
discovered that systems spun out by that brain, for no other purpose than our sheer delight with their beauty, correspond precisely to the intricate design of natural order which predated man
and his brain. That surely has led to the discovery that man is
amazingly like the designer of that natural order; how better to
describe this discovery than to assert that man is indeed made in
the image of God!9
1Taken from Arthur March and Ira M. Freeman, The New World of Physics, Vintage Books, New York, 1963, p. 143.
2Steven Weinberg, "Is Science Simple?" Taken from The Nature of the Physical Universe, edited by Douglass Huff and Omer Prewett, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1979, p. 62.
3 Eugene Wigner, "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Science," Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics 13, 1960, p. 1.
4Nigel Calder, The Key to the Universe, Penguin Books, New York, 1977, p. 25.
5Thomas F. Torrance, God & Rationality, Oxford University Press, New York, 1971, pp. 94-95.
6Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology, Eerdmans, Michigan, 1968, p. 83.
7This argument is forcefully made in William G. Pollard's book Science and Faith-Twin Mysteries, Nelson, New York, 1970.8T. F. Torrance, op. cit., p. 103.