Elegance at the Core of Creation
The so called “new atheists” often try to denigrate what we call Creation by asserting that the more science learns about nature, the more we realize that everything we prize came from a few simple elements that are hardly worth our attention at all. So we shouldn’t marvel at the complexity around us, nor should we be misled into thinking it took any particular intelligence to bring it about.
Those of us who are relatively unschooled in science, but who reflect seriously on nature in other ways, have always been able to spot two flaws in this reductionist argument. First, no matter how far an atheist may pare matter back toward relative insignificance, as a matter of simple logic he cannot escape the dilemma that something can’t come from nothing. Second, the notion that a few primitive bits of matter simply evolved randomly into such beautiful complexity is counter-intuitive unless the matter was either actively guided as it developed or invested from the first with some tendency to develop in this particular way. (Interestingly, probability theory reinforces this second thought; given the scientific understanding of the age of the universe, there simply isn’t enough time for the large number of precise changes required by a series of new complex systems to repeatedly randomly coalesce at exactly the right instants for success.)
But these two flies in the atheistic ointment are not the only ones. It turns out there is a third objection to atheist reductionism which arises from science itself. We know from the study of physics that each time we reduce a complex system down to its component parts, we find that the parts themselves are characterized by a more comprehensive order which includes within it the capacity to exhibit the qualities of the resulting system as a differentiated form. When we stop to think about it, this is exactly what we should expect in a true evolutionary system—that things unfold according to their natures, and that characteristics of a later development must be implicitly included in an earlier one.
Logically, any successful evolutionary system would have to contain in its original material the potential to develop in certain ways, much as the adult person develops from the small (but very richly endowed) fertilized ovum. It is possible that God could actively add and shape things as they develop, much as a craftsman adds and shapes until he has built what he had in mind. But God is a superior sort of craftsman, and it seems more likely (actually more likely on both philosophical and scientific grounds) that when He creates something intended to unfold over time, He creates it complete with the seeds of its further development.
Prescinding from the God question and looking only at matter itself, this is what physics demonstrates again and again. In an essay in the October 2010 issue of First Things entitled “Fearful Symmetries”, physicist Stephen M. Barr of the University of Delaware explains this brilliantly. It is a shame that First Things asked us a couple of years ago no longer to include their material in our library, and Barr’s article is not yet available on their own web site. So I need to work a little harder. Here is Barr’s thesis in his own words:
As we turn to the fundamental principles of physics, we discover that order does not really emerge from chaos, as we might naively assume; it always emerges from greater and more impressive order already present at a deeper level. It turns out that things are not more coarse or crude or unformed as one goes down into the foundations of the physical world but more subtle, sophisticated, and intricate the deeper one goes.
Barr demonstrates this by explaining, among other things, one of the central concepts of modern physics, namely “symmetry”. In physics, a “symmetry” is an aspect of potential development which is actuated or “done” when the other symmetries of some material thing are “spontaneously broken”, such that the matter in question behaves in one particular way while losing the ability to behave in other ways. As Barr puts it, “symmetry is just one kind of order,” and the mathematics required to describe the symmetries of matter becomes more complex, not less, as we drill down.
Barr explains that there are other principles of order recognized by physics as well, such as the mathematical principle of least action, which physicists later discovered to be a special case of the even more subtle and sophisticated path integral principle, which is the basis for quantum mechanics. Once again, extremely high forms of mathematics are the only means we have of expressing the ordered relationships which characterize matter, and the mathematics for these principles also becomes more complex—and more unified, comprehensive and elegant—the further we go down into the foundations. Consider this telling passage:
Johannes Kepler discovered three marvelous geometrical laws that describe planetary motion…. Decades later, Newton succeeded in explaining Kepler’s laws—but he did not explain them down, if by down we mean reducing what we observe and experience to something more trivial or brutish. On the contrary, he explained them by deriving them from an underlying order that is more general and impressive…. Newton’s law of gravity was later explained, in turn by Einstein, who showed that it followed from a more profound theory of gravity called general relativity…. Einstein’s theory is but the manifestation of a yet more fundamental theory, which many suspect to be superstring theory. Superstring theory has a mathematical structure so sophisticated that…it is still not fully understood.
At the risk of calling attention to the ignorance of the new atheists, what science actually teaches us is, as Barr puts it, that “the symmetries that characterize the deepest laws of physics are mathematically richer and stranger than the ones we encounter in everyday life.” Barr also cites some of the many physicists who have found a Divine beauty in the mathematic principles animating the physical world. Kepler wrote: “I thank, thee, Lord God our Creator, that thou hast allowed me to see the beauty in the work of creation.” Another great physicist, Hermann Weyl, described mathematical physics as revealing a “flawless harmony that is in conformity with sublime Reason.”
So the deeper one goes, the more profound the mathematical descriptions become. They can even be described as profoundly simple, in the sense of possessing greater elegance, economy, harmony and perfection. Put another way, the deeper one goes, the less the universe looks like trivial junk and the more it begins to look suspiciously—if we can imagine the power of intellect required—like an idea.
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Posted by: Justin8110 -
Oct. 02, 2010 5:51 PM ET USA
Science and religion don't have to be enemies but the one sided and dogmatic materialism of the new atheists turns some of us like myself away from wanting anything to do with it. There is so much poison out there. I have no use for science for the most part but this article makes me want to check out Stephen Barr just to see what he has to say.
Posted by: bnewman -
Oct. 02, 2010 8:55 AM ET USA
Yes Stephen Barr is an excellent writer. He writes lucidly for the scientific layperson and does not make the presumption of atheism so commonly found among writers on science. I recommend his books. Also I recommend First Things, which can sometimes be found at Barnes and Noble or Borders in the magazine section if you can't afford the subscription.