God is Not Just (Or Even Primarily) A Mathematician!

Last week we explored the consequences of the early modern shift from the organic model of the world to the mechanical model. When we imagine the world and every process within it as working like a machine we place ourselves outside of everything and every process in world. Our point of view is always that of an external observer of how the surfaces of things relate to each other. The external viewpoint is maintained even if we modify the metaphor to include waves, fields and strings. And the interrelationships of particles, waves or fields can be described scientifically only in mathematical terms.

Today let’s think a bit more about what science is, what it does, and what it can and cannot do; and I will apply this to the question of Big Bang Cosmology and divine creation. As I pointed out above mathematics is the native language of modern science. All other languages are at most pre-scientific; yet as we will see, science cannot rid itself of all pre-scientific concepts. As a most conspicuous example take the concept of a “thing.” Things are designated by names and properties. Its name designates a thing as a whole in its difference from other things: This is a dog, not a cat or a chair or a star. Its properties describe the distinct intelligible aspects that make the thing what it is and identify it as such: Cats meow, dogs bark and rivers flow. One of the properties of things is quantity. It seems to me that the only things that have only the property of quantity are numbers; and I even have doubts about this: can a thing have only one property? In general, the meaning of a thing cannot be fully described by expressing its quantity.

Pure mathematicians use only numbers and quantitative operations in their science. But as soon as you attempt to understand the empirical world in mathematical terms like physicists do you leave pure mathematics and begin to speak of things. And empirical things are more than numbers and can appear to us only through their non-quantitative qualities. The importance of this transition cannot be overstated; for it means that even physics, the most mathematical of all the sciences that study the real world, cannot escape the language of things and qualities into the clarity of pure mathematics. In order to increase our understanding of the world we experience through the senses physicists must tell us what things they are measuring. What is the mass of an electron? What is the electromagnetic charge of a proton. Physicists must relate their mathematical formulae to something we experience through the senses or their work illuminates nothing. And what is a proton or an electron or energy…or any of the other things physicists name? The answer cannot be a mere quantity! That would be a number. It must be a quantity of something. And things have qualities!

Physics and other natural sciences pride themselves on being empirical, that is, their goal is to explain theoretically the world we experience through our five senses. A scientific theory should be able to predict the occurrence of some event in the empirical world and the measure of success is whether or not its predictions turn out to be correct. Hence natural science begins with empirical experience and ends with empirical experience. Between the beginning and end of the scientific process scientists abstract from these empirical experiences aspects that are amenable to theoretical generalization, ideally in mathematical language. But when scientists abstract only the quantitative information from empirical experience what do they lose? What is the status of this ignored information?

On the purely empirical level, before the operation of our minds in reading the sense data, we receive only physical impacts that cause physical and chemical changes in our sense organs. But unless we are completely skeptical about our ability to know the external world, we understand that raw sense data encode information that are decoded by the mind. The information communicated by the senses to the mind includes the quantitative properties of things, but it also includes the other properties as well. Galileo dismissed all properties other than the quantitative as secondary. He considered such qualities as color, heat and cold, and smell to be mental reconstructions of more primitive mechanical qualities and these reconstructions do not tell us the truth about the external world.

But Galileo’s dismissal of qualities as secondary is blind to a huge fact: the sense data that the mind decodes and experiences as qualities is itself information. And information is created only by minds and is understood only by minds. Galileo and modern science in general are so focused on quantitative information that they relegate other types of information—esthetic and moral and religious—to the subjective realm. But why privilege quantitative information over qualitative information? If we read novels like physicists read nature—strictly as physicists, not as human beings who happen to be physicists—we would examine the quantitatively measurable properties of the paper and ink but completely miss the story. If however we read nature like we read novels we would find ourselves united with another Mind for an inside view of that Mind, its beauty, goodness and power. Why shouldn’t the Creator use the physical properties of the world to impact the senses, which the created mind decodes into various qualities, which in turn makes meaningful esthetic, moral and religious experience possible?

Next Week: I did not get to the Big Bang today. Next week, I promise! Hint: All physical theories of cosmology relate one empirical state of the cosmos to another state by way of theoretical explanation of the transition from a previous to the present state. Big Bang Cosmology is no different. It is not a theory of creation. It is a theoretical account of the development of the present cosmos from a previous state. On a theoretical level it speaks the language of mathematics. That is the secret of its explanatory power but also of its poverty. It sees numbers where we see color and hear music and feel the cool of the evening air! It can’t read the messages of running water, a singing bird, a sunset, the smell of a rose, the touch of a loved one. But these too speak truth! God is not merely a mathematician! God is also a composer, an architect, a lover, an author and a painter. Perhaps math is merely the medium whereas love, life, goodness and beauty are the messages!

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