Among the most famous first lines in world literature is the opening of Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella “Metamorphosis”: “When Gregor Samsa awakened one morning from uneasy dreams, he found that he’d been transformed in his bed into a monstrous bug” (my translation).
Kafka never explains the shocking transformation, and his story simply proceeds from there, describing how Gregor and his family try to deal with what’s happened to him.
Centuries before Kafka, the great Islamic philosophical theologian al-Ghazali (d. A.D. 1111) had mused, in his “Incoherence of the Philosophers,” about the fact that, when we put a book down on a table, we don’t wonder, upon returning, whether it might have turned into a horse during our absence.
But why shouldn’t such things happen constantly?
This is a much less frivolous and much more fundamental question than it might first appear. Why is the universe lawful, predictable?
Most modern scientists agree that the universe began in an inconceivable explosion of both space and time roughly 13.8 billion years ago — and that all of the fundamental physical or natural laws were in place and operative within an unimaginably small fraction of a second after that event. But why is this so? Why, in other words, is the universe a cosmos (which originally, in Greek, meant something orderly and organized) rather than a chaos?
As Albert Einstein remarked, “the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”
In a 1623 essay about “that great book which ever lies before our eyes — I mean the universe,” Galileo argued that “we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols, in which it is written. This book is written in the mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.”
More than 300 years after Galileo, the Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman, who taught for many years at the California Institute of Technology (and often played the bongo drums in a nightclub) not far from where I grew up, made a similar point in his 1965 book “The Character of Physical Law”: “To those who do not know mathematics,” he wrote, “it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature. … If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in.”
But why, if Feynman and Galileo are correct, is the “book” of the universe written in mathematics? How did that happen, and what, if anything, does it mean? Who, if anybody, wrote it? Why can mathematicians, thinking quietly in their studies or standing before whiteboards, create (or discover?) forms of mathematics that seem purely theoretical and lacking any practical value, but that later turn out to apply very usefully to the real world? (“Imaginary numbers,” for example, despite their name and their long history as an enjoyable puzzle for seemingly idle mathematicians, are now widely employed in electrical engineering and quantum physics.)
In 1960, three years before he would share the Nobel Prize for physics, the Austro-Hungarian/American scientist Eugene Wigner (d. 1995) published a now-classic paper titled “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” in which he argued that it was “unreasonable” to assume that the excellent match between physics and mathematics was the result of merely fortunate coincidence. It was, he said, deeply puzzling and very difficult to explain.
Feynman was an atheist. Wigner, however, although he had been raised as a secular Jew, eventually developed an interest in the Vedanta philosophical school of Hinduism, and especially in its teaching that the universe is pervaded throughout by mind. “It was not possible,” he wrote, reflecting on his work in quantum theory, “to formulate the laws in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.”
A Christian might think, in this light, of John 1:1. “In the beginning was the Word,” begins that famous verse. But the Greek term translated as “word,” “logos,” also means “logic,” “reason,” “rationality” — perhaps suggesting that, in fact, the universe isn’t merely brute, mindless matter, but is suffused throughout with mind or consciousness.
Of course, as Feynman observed in his 1965 Nobel Prize lecture, “A very great deal more truth can become known than can be proven.”
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directsMormonScholarsTestify.org, chairsmormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily atpatheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself. …….’