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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Metaphysical Order

It is certainly natural to perceive a physical order to the universe. Matter behaves in particular, predictable ways, and we have used mathematics to generalize those predictions with incredible, perhaps "unreasonable" success, to borrow Eugene Wigner's famous characterization.[1] An associate of mine recently offered up an argument for the existence of God which alleged that this formal order strongly suggests the influence of a personal designer. He did not rely directly on any Platonic understanding of math, although I suspect he believes therein; however, one of his key premises assumed that the order itself possesses divine attributes. If not exactly on the same grounds as Platonism, I must vehemently disagree.

He described the physical world as "mathematical," and conforming to an order which is "omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient as can be demonstrated by a few quantum experiments."[2] Yet to thusly imbue mathematical abstractions with anthropomorphic qualities is at best highly misleading. While we may sometimes decide to engage in such an exercise by constructing creative illustrations in order to aid human understanding (e.g. the concept of "happy" atoms in chemistry), we must never remove those models from proper context, nor misunderstand them to literally represent actual processes. Molecules do not really feel joy, and math is not an intelligent agent.

If we crop the argument somewhat, supposing our mathematical universe is unexpected apart from the design of a deity, on what do we justify even that more modest contention? One might argue that, without God, we have no reason to believe math will accurately describe the behavior of matter. Yet this constitutes evidence for God only if it is the sort of being who wishes math to model that behavior. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that we require no expectation of efficacy in order to hold to naturalistic assumptions. For an ordered, material world, free from supernatural influences is a perfectly consistent hypothesis, requiring no reconciliation through the invocation of God.

Even careful not to commit such errors, we might yet feel inclined to treat physical order as something quite special, and in need of a deeper explanation. Here too I must urge caution. Why is order so unusual or unexpected? One might answer that disorder is the natural state of physical systems. Yet this sort of entropic disorder is not at all similar to that so often postulated by the apologist, which supposedly stands in contrast to the mathematical order of the universe we occupy. Indeed, entropic disorder is itself described by its own family of equations,[3] and thus is among the very phenomena which theists prefer to explain through divine will.

Provided we understand all this, I have no objection should we wish to seek an explanation regardless, and in fact I support any such pursuit of knowledge. If we have independent justification for belief in the existence of God, then we may perhaps incorporate that into an account of metaphysical order. If not, then we are nevertheless welcome to pursue God as an open hypothesis, developing possible leads which we can empirically investigate. Yet we obtain no license to advocate an unsupported explanation simply by our desire to avoid facing the unknown. I certainly look forward to that day, should it come, in which we are able to satisfy our curiosity through evidence and reason. Until then, we must content ourselves with the beauty of mystery.


[1] Wigner, Eugene. "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences," Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, vol. 13, No. I (February 1960). New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Link to article.

[2] The fellow in question I met on William Lane Craig's message board, and goes by the name harvey1. His argument, from which my quotations are drawn, can be found online, here.

[3] For example, one entropy equation defines dS=(δQ/T)int rev, where dS and δQ are entropy and heat, respectively, expressed in differential form, T is a temperature variable, and "int rev" denotes an internally reversible process. Cf. Çengel, Yunus A., and Michael A. Boles. Thermodynamics, An Engineering Approach, 5th ed., 2005, ISBN 9780073107684, p333.

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