Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 6 February 2011

Metaphysics in mathematics, science and religion

Why Beliefs Matter; Reflections on the Nature of Science, by E. Brian Davies, is one of the best books I’ve read on science, philosophy and religion, and I’ve read lots of books in all those fields. Davies is Professor of Mathematics at King’s College London and a fellow of the Royal Society. He gives one of the best arguments I’ve encountered against mathematical Platonism, which is high praise indeed from a self-confessed mathematical Platonist like myself.

There is much in this book to be commended, not least his conscientiousness in separating philosophy from science and of pointing out that ‘beliefs’ like the anthropic principle are, in fact, metaphysical considerations rather than truly scientific (it can’t be tested). He outlines the significant difference between the philosophical and scientific ramifications of quantum mechanics, which I’ve expressed myself in a post on Science, Philosophy, Religion (November 2009).

More than anything else, he reinforces the intellectual reality that philosophy often deals with questions for which there may well be no definite answers. And whilst science can provide answers in the form of empirical evidence as well as mathematically based laws to explicate them, the bigger questions, concerning our existence, the origin of the universe and a potential higher purpose, remain elusive.

The scope of Davies' book includes the history of science, the mind-body problem, induction, determinism, artificial intelligence and the modern day ‘warfare’ between science and religion, especially in America (this is not an exhaustive list). I’ll only cover 2 apparently unrelated topics: mathematical Platonism and religion and science.

Davies has no particular barrow to push, and is candid in his disagreement with his fellows on all topics, expressing bewilderment, bordering on amusement, at the hostility one often encounters concerning questions for which there are no definitive answers. One such topic is the philosophy of mathematics and its various ‘schools of thought’ that borders on religious zeal. He calls himself a mathematical ‘pluralist’ because he can see merit in alternative views. As far as mathematical Platonism goes, he expresses appreciation of its appeal to both mathematicians and physicists without necessarily agreeing with them. In his conclusion he calls it ‘irrelevant’, but only because it doesn’t really provide any theoretical benefit. In other words, being a Platonist won’t give you an advantage in understanding mathematics – it’s purely a philosophical position, with no real practical ramifications in executing formulae or even searching for new ones.

He points out that mathematical Platonism has quasi-religious overtones, which I don’t shy away from. I’ve written at least 3 posts previously on this topic, so I won’t labour the point here. It’s a very good example of a philosophical position based more on a ‘feeling’ or ‘sense’ of abstract reality, which its proponents (like myself) then support with rational argument. One of Davies’ strongest arguments is that we are the only species (that we know of) in the entire universe who can not only appreciate mathematics but make it manifest. Without an intelligence like ours, it remains completely hidden which makes its apparent essentiality questionable.

I have 2 not-unrelated responses to this argument. Firstly, all the laws of the universe, that we have discovered, from quantum mechanics to relativity to thermodynamics to the DNA code, would remain complete secrets in the exact same way, yet the universe, that we observe and exist within, is completely dependent on all these things. Secondly, mathematics is the only way we can quantify and interpret these very same laws, which leads me to contend that the mathematics is just as essential as the laws themselves. DNA is a 4 letter code, by the way, that is completely analogous to computer code, so life entails mathematics at a fundamental level.

The alternative view to this is that mathematics is an intellectual construct, purely of human origin, that has allowed us to unravel some of nature’s deepest mysteries. Roger Penrose, whose Platonist philosophy is discussed in some detail by Davies, manages to incorporate both views in a non-contradictory though paradoxical manner, which is what sold me on mathematical Platonism eventually (see below). In other words, I am a convert who came to this position via Pythagoras. In my early years of studying science, I saw mathematics as a tool that physics had seconded, but even then I struggled to reconcile natural laws with their apparent and deeply enigmatic mathematical precision (more on this below).

Davies postulates a hypothetical that there may be a species somewhere in the universe who can fathom nature’s secrets heuristically without mathematics. I can remember, when I was much younger, contemplating the same scenario and even entertained writing a sci-fi story that incorporated such a species. However, I gave up on the enterprise, when I realised that, philosophically, my world-view had changed. Physics, especially quantum mechanics, is so fundamentally dependent on mathematics for its interpretation, that any other methodology appears impossible, which is not to say that it is. Whilst quantum mechanics remains a conundrum in terms of envisaging the ultimate reality of the universe (or universes), it remains, mathematically, a completely consistent and eminently reliable metatheory.

Of course Davies’ discussion on this topic is much more comprehensive than what I’ve presented. I’ve just re-read my post on Schrodinger’s book, What is Life? and his quote concerning mathematics, “…whose truth is not only unassailable, but is obviously there forever; the relations held and will hold irrespective of our inquiry into them. A mathematical truth is timeless, it does not come into being when we discover it.” Davies also quotes Einstein, who wasn’t a Platonist: “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.” This neatly encapsulates the paradoxical nature of mathematics that I described above.

Davies disputes the ‘independence’ claim because geometry and arithmetic didn’t evolve independently of the physical world that we’ve investigated since we first learnt to count. He also argues that not all ‘objects of reality’ can be defined or described mathematically, but he’s talking about ‘...the contents of our conversations and the products of our culture, in which mathematics is completely useless.’ No one would argue with that, but it’s obvious that Einstein’s ‘objects of reality’ are physical objects rather than cultural artefacts and mental constructs specific to the human race.

I disagree with Davies on his first point too, because mathematical investigations, at least since Newton, have evolved independently of the physical world only to be married back into it when our science has caught up with our mathematics. The most famous examples would include Riemann’s geometry being married to Einstein’s general theory of relativity and complex algebra being essential to Schrodinger’s equations for quantum mechanics. It’s as if mathematical discoveries precede physical discoveries, and, in fact, necessarily so.

There is a sense that mathematics entails a world (at least in the abstract realm) greater than our world, with multiple dimensions that can extend to infinity, of which string theory represents a potential multitude. In other words, there is more mathematics than we need to describe our physical theories, which is why Max Tegmark argues that all mathematically possible universes could exist in a multiverse. If one takes this at face value, then the mathematical world extends beyond the physical world (as Penrose points out) in the same way that the physical world extends beyond our mental world. Hence the paradox that the mind is an effective subset of the physical world, and even if the physical world is not a subset of the mathematical world (as per Tegmark), it appears, at least, to follow mathematical rules, yet mathematics is a product of the human mind. Penrose represents this relationship between the physical, mental and mathematical (Platonic) worlds as a closed circuit, one being a subset of the one before, just as I’ve described them above. Davies also addresses this aspect of Penrose’s philosophical discourse in his book, but I’ll leave that for the reader to pursue if they’re interested.

In a section called The Human Condition, Davies introduces the subject of ‘induction’ by referring to Aristotle’s ‘four types’ of causes that he recorded and discussed in the 4th Century BC. He did this in reference to a clay pot. The ‘material cause’ is the materials that the pot is made from which is the clay. The ‘formal cause’ is its shape or form which is a pot or vase. The ‘efficient cause’ is the process involving the Potter who made it. And the ‘final cause’ is the whole reason it was made which is to store something.

I have to admit I’d never come across this before, despite having read and studied Aristotle at Uni, and Davies makes particular reference to the 4th ‘final cause’ which has disappeared in the philosophy of science, and is arguably the principal source of friction that lies between science and religion. Davies rightly points out that since Descartes, and even more so after Darwin, final cause has no place in science. This is a particular issue of contention I've had with many fundamentalists, like William Lane Craig (refer The God Hypothesis, December 2008). Even if there is a final cause for the universe, science can't tell us anything about it – it’s purely a metaphysical question.

Aristotle’s final cause refers to a human artefact, and it’s not difficult to see how God became an anthropomorphic equivalent who created the universe, life and us, which means we are the final cause. I really don’t have a problem with this, purely from a philosophical viewpoint, because it makes God dependent on us rather than the other way round. If we are the final cause then, without us, there is no reason for God to exist. Few people appreciate the reverse logic that this argument entails: it doesn’t make sense for God to exist without a purpose, and the only purpose we can come up with is us.

In a recent post (Cycles of Time, last month) I gave considerable space to the exposition of entropy, aka the 2nd law of thermodynamics. A corollary to the 2nd law is that the universe is not teleological and by inclusion neither is evolution. I would suggest that this, and not the Book of Genesis, is the main philosophical difference between science and religion. Religion infers that the universe has a purpose and science infers that it doesn’t.

Davies expounds at length on the indeterminism inherent in chaos theory as well as quantum mechanics. Another Davies (Paul Davies), when he still resided in Australia, wrote an excellent book on chaos theory called The Cosmic Blueprint. The significance of chaos theory, and its particular relationship with entropy, is that very small changes can lead to huge differential consequences. In a not-so-recent issue of New Scientist (16 October 2010) their feature article described how chaos theory appears to rule evolution. In particular, evolution is fractal in the same way that branching blood vessels are in the human body. Fractal relationships appear everywhere in nature; the best example being a coastline (Davies’ example in Cosmic Blueprint). The Mandelbrot set is fractal and so are Pollock’s paintings (like Blue Poles hanging in the Sydney Art Gallery). Fractals demonstrate the same relationship at all scales, which means, in evolutionary terms, that speciation branches appear in similar ratios at all levels. The article explains how, over 65 million years, major climatic events, major tectonic events and major evolutionary events all follow the same ‘chaotic’ patterns, though ‘...connections between them are hard to discern.’

Brian Davies, like Schrodinger (What is Life?), explains how radioactivity is statistically highly predictable whilst individualistically it is impossible to predict. In fact, Schrodinger begins his book with an exposition on how almost everything in physics is statistically determined: from magnetism to the photo-electric effect to the behaviour of gases and fluids. It’s only at a macro scale that physics appears predictable. The point is that between chaos theory, the 2nd law of thermodynamics and quantum phenomena, the universe is a lottery. As Stephen Jay Gould famously said, if you were to rerun the universe you’d get a completely different result. This flies in the face of all religious philosophy.

The last 60 pages of Davies’ 240 page book (so 25%) is devoted to a section titled, Science and Religion. He starts off with a philosophical aphorism: “We must learn to live with the fact that some disagreements cannot be resolved.” Throughout his book he places terse statements in bold type like the following:

Christian theologians ignore the fundamentalist challenge at their own peril. It is the greatest threat to rational thought and toleration at the present time.

To outsiders like myself, America appears to be one of the most polarised societies in the Western world: politically, intellectually and religiously. The all-consuming debate between evolutionary science and fundamentalist religion really doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, certainly not to the same degree of hostility and, dare-I-say-it, desperation. It’s only taken on a global perspective because American culture is so pervasive, especially on the internet.

Davies points out that humanist philosophy goes back even further than Christianity, citing Socrates, Aristotle, Plato and even Confucius. Confucius is the earliest known philosopher (500 BC) to evoke a fundamentally empathetic approach to ethics: ‘Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself.’ He acknowledged the importance of trust between rulers and their subjects, arguing that trust was the last commodity a ruler could afford to lose. (Someone should point this out to Egypt’s Mubarak.) Davies argues that Mill's utilitarian philosophy has probably been the biggest influence on Western democracy, because it’s inherent in civil rights and feminist movements witnessed in the last half of the last century. Even though no one invoked Mill as the model to follow; utilitarianism is concerned with the greatest benefit to the greatest number.

At the end of his book, Davies discusses the religious views of famous scientific figures, both historical and contemporary. He is not afraid to criticise Dawkins’ The God Delusion, even though he obviously is not completely at odds with Dawkins’ philosophy. Dawkins polarises people almost like no one I know, yet he’s neither a villain nor a hero. He has a demeanour not unlike an Australian politician: provocative, rhetorically aggressive, disputatious, uncompromising and unapologetic. On the blogosphere, if you criticise Dawkins, as I have done a few times, you suddenly become a Christian apologist to his supporters. It’s a sign of insecurity that people can’t deal with criticism without adopting an extreme position. Davies, like myself, takes Dawkins to task for treating all religions and all religious followers the same. It doesn’t help his cause to alienate people who would otherwise support him. ‘The worst feature of Dawkins’ book is its failure to get to grips with the variety of religious belief. Dawkins’ real enemy is fundamentalism, but he attacks religion indiscriminately.’ I agree completely.

Davies ends with a poem by William Cecil Dampier, from which I’ll quote the last verse:

And Nature smiles – still unconfessed
The secret thought she thinks –
Inscrutable she guards unguessed
The Riddle of the Sphinx

Davies follows with these words:

The riddle of our place in the universe may never be solved, and I am content that this should be so. The struggle to divine the meaning of life is a part of being human.

Science can’t solve this riddle either; in fact it tells us that our existence is a completely arbitrary phenomenon built upon an accumulation of arbitrary phenomena. The end result (so far) is mind and mind seeks its own purpose because that’s its nature.

Addendum 1: I need to point out, in all fairness to Davies, that his discourse on mathematics is far more erudite than mine, which is not apparent from my presentation above. I attempted to address this in a later post, Metaphysics in mathematics revisited.

Addendum 2: In March 2012, I give a more definitive response to the question of teleology after re-reading Paul Davies' Cosmic Blueprint and blogging about it.


klatu said...

The riddle has been solved, but still a struggle ahead:

What science, religion, philosophy, theology, psychology, Hawkins or Dawkins thought impossible has happened. History now has it's first fully demonstrable, Christian proof for faith. And coming from outside all existing theologies, clearly has 'tradition' in the cross hairs. To test or not to test, that is the question?

"The first ever viable religious conception capable of leading reason, by faith, to observable consequences which can be tested and judged is now a reality. A teaching that delivers the first ever religious claim of insight into the human condition that meets the Enlightenment criteria of verifiable, direct cause and effect, evidence based truth embodied in experience. For the first time in history, however unexpected or unwelcome, the world must contend with a claim to new revealed truth, a moral wisdom not of human intellectual origin, offering access by faith, to absolute proof, an objective basis for moral principle and a fully rational and justifiable belief! " And it's called The Resurrection!

If confirmed and there appears a growing concerted effort to test and authenticate this material, of which I am taking part, this will represent a paradigm change in the nature of faith and in the moral and intellectual potential of human nature itself;  untangling the greatest  questions of human existence: sustainability, consciousness, meaning, suffering, free will and evil. And at the same time addressing the most profound problems of our age.

While the religious won't be happy looking into their abyss, what of those who have claimed to be of an Enlightenment mind? For if they are unable to appreciate this change in the historical faith paradigm, to one that conforms precisely to a criteria subject to direct evidence and confirmation, then their own 'claim' to rationality is no better then those theological illusions they find so abhorrent.

The tragedy for humanity will be if religion, skepticism and atheism have all so discredited the very idea of God for us to re-imagine, discover and experience just how great this potential is? More info at

Paul P. Mealing said...

Sorry Klatu, but I can't take your manifesto seriously, I'm afraid.

Thanks though, for taking an interest in my blog.

Regards, Paul.

Eli said...

"Firstly, all the laws of the universe, that we have discovered, from quantum mechanics to relativity to thermodynamics to the DNA code, would remain complete secrets in the exact same way, yet the universe, that we observe and exist within, is completely dependent on all these things."

Yeah, this was the same thought that jumped to mind for me as well, although I can't say I'd ever thought of the idea of a species coming to understand the universe without math. To be honest, I'm not sure I can picture that - it would be a much more interesting argument if there were an example, even a rough one.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Eli,

I thought you might have something to say on this.

I guess you could call it a 'thought experiment', knowing your aversion to thought experiments per se.

I had this idea (purely fictional) that all technology would be biologically based, which is not a new idea in science fiction. As someone recently pointed out (Marcus du Sautoy) when someone kicks a soccer ball or throws a baseball (for you Americans) they don't think about quadratic equations, they just do it. But if you want to fire artillery shells over any distance you need to figure it out, and sometimes even allow for the curvature of the Earth.

We may discover, through trial and error, or even guess, that propelling something at 45 degrees will achieve the longest distance, but it takes mathematics to explain why.

Regards, Paul.

Eli said...

Hm - okay, so that's one option. The worry there, though, would have to be the fact that proprioception only extends to the stuff that's connected to your neurological system. Except actually that's not precisely true: it's a famous linguistic quirk that people who get into car accidents say that they themselves were hit and not just their cars, and part of that is because the car is included somewhat under proprioception. It'd be tough, though, cause the species would have to be able to directly manipulate stuff at the micro level and also at a large scale. But that's what scifi is for, right?

Paul P. Mealing said...

Interesting point, Eli. In my one and only sci-fi novel, I happen to mention proprioception, because the heroine, Elvene, has stun gun bracelets that are connected to her neurologically. When asked how she aims them, she explains that they are connected to her proprioception and her eyesight.

Interesting point about the car, because I believe that we can perceive the car as an extension of ourselves, though obviously some people do it better than others. Few people are aware that we use our neck muscles in combination with our sense of balance to judge cornering forces as well. I think proprioception applies to all sorts of sports apparatus like bats, rackets and the like.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I've added the following addendum: I need to point out, in all fairness to Davies, that his discourse on mathematics is far more erudite than mine, which is not apparent from my presentation above.

Regards, Paul.