Sunday, March 1, 2009

The unreasonableness of agnosticism

Albert Einstein famously said that “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” This peculiar fact is taken for granted as a foundation for modern science, yet most people seem to be unaware of how peculiar a fact it is. Why is it that the universe we observe operates by rules which can be described, and often described very accurately, in the language of mathematics?

Physicist Eugene Wigner, not exactly a household name, wrote a highly influential paper in 1960 called, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the natural sciences.” How is it, asked Wigner, that mathematical truths are often so accurate in describing the physical universe? Mathematical truths, after all, can be derived entirely independently of scientific investigation. There’s no reason for there to be any correspondence between these two independent spheres.

Wigner went on to say that “It is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here, quite comparable in its striking nature to the miracle that the human mind can string a thousand arguments together without getting itself into contradictions, or to the two miracles of laws of nature and of the human mind's capacity to divine them.” Einstein also recognized this when he wrote, “How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?” Wigner’s conclusion was that “the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it.”

This mystery seems lost on modern-day skeptics who simply take it for granted that we can describe physical reality mathematically without ever asking “why?”. There’s certainly no reason to expect this correspondence between the abstract realm of mathematics and the concrete world of physics if our universe is the product of blind materialistic causes and nothing else. Some have suggested that the underlying reality of the universe just is mathematical. This would explain the correspondence between math and physics, but it raises a much deeper question. Mathematics consists of abstract truths that are ascertainable by minds independent of experience. If the underlying reality of the universe is mathematical, then how can the universe be anything but the product of a Mind?

This is just one more reason to think that the materialistic worldview is entirely inadequate as a description of reality. On the other hand, many of the earliest scientists believed that the universe operates according to laws that are rationally discernible because the universe is the product of a rational mind. That is a much more consistent explanation of what we actually observe than to think that it just happened to turn out this way for no reason at all, or by sheer coincidence. That is not an explanation at all, but rather a non-explanation to give comfort to materialists.

God is the elephant in the room for modern scientists who are the intellectual heirs of the mathematicians and philosophers of past centuries. It’s reminiscent of the words of astronomer and physicist Robert Jastrow when he was confronted with the origins of the universe and the realization that this was a mystery which science was unable to penetrate. He said, “for the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Antony Flew, the former atheistic philosopher, made religious headlines in recent years by abandoning atheism and becoming a theist (more specifically, he adopted a form of deism). Flew said it was a result of his commitment to “following the evidence wherever it leads.” He was compelled by the evidence of science to accept that the universe must have a mind behind it. Many atheists attacked Flew because of his age, even hinting that he was going senile. However, Flew continues to give public lectures on topics relating to science, philosophy, and religion as well as giving interviews. His mind appears to be as lucid as ever. As a Christian, I would of course hope that Flew would go one step further and consider the historical evidence for the truth of Christianity. But at least he’s moving in the right direction.

Robert Jastrow, on the other hand, remained agnostic. I have concluded that agnosticism is really a choice: the choice of eternal unbelief. Why do I say that? Consider the position of the agnostic. We have a perfectly good explanation for the features of the universe and for the very fact of the universe’s existence and its origins. That explanation is God. The agnostic, however, has determined to wait and see if another explanation will be forthcoming. But it’s not as though science is equipped to discover why the universe operates according to mathematical rules. All science can do is to say this is the way it is. But it can give no explanation for it. So what is the agnostic waiting for? There’s no hope in waiting for science on this one. The agnostic simply refuses to accept the one explanation that explains all else. Far from being a reasonable position, which is how it is often presented, agnosticism is inherently unreasonable.

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.