Is the universe rational

Secular humanism: Is the Universe Rational?

Last edited Thu Jan 3, 2013, 11:14 PM - Edit history (1)


Is the Universe Rational?

To believers in God, our universe must look like it is a product of intelligence. Sometimes this leads to varieties of creationism, as in the current intelligent-design movement. But advocates of divine design need not object to evolution. They can argue that intelligence manifests itself at a deeper level. Some say that we live in a rational universe: the world is intelligible, and this can only be because intelligence and purpose pervade the structure of reality. On this view, our very ability to reason and do science signifies the existence of a God.

The idea that the universe is rational invites all kinds of mystical and metaphysical reflections, by scientists and philosophers as well as theologians. For example, Albert Einstein said that “a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order. This firm belief, a belief bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God.” Einstein made it clear that this led him toward a Spinoza-like pantheism rather than any idea of a personal God. Still, his sentiments are more at home in a theological way of thinking compared to any scientific naturalism.

Indeed, the notion that the universe is rational can be fashioned into a handy atheist-bashing tool. Conservative Catholic intellectual Michael Novak argues against the “new atheists” by presenting a picture of a universe suffused by an intelligence that underlies the intelligibility of all things. He tells a story about his daughter who found atheism “in the air” when she went to college:

Yet it didn’t take my daughter long to see through the pretenses of atheism. In the first place, the fundamental doctrine seemed to be that everything that is, came to be by chance and natural selection. In other words, at bottom, everything is irrational, chancy, without purpose or ultimate intelligibility. What got to her most was the affectation of professors pretending that everything is ultimately absurd, while in more proximate matters putting all their trust in science, rationality, and mathematical calculation. She decided that atheists could not accept the implications of their own metaphysical commitments. While denying the principle of rationality “all the way down,” they wished to cling to all the rationalities on the surface of things.

Novak thinks that we live in a rational universe, so denying a rational mind at the bottom of it all is a fatal flaw of atheism. Novak’s version of intelligent design does not directly challenge the practice of science, though he remains suspicious about the more ambitious claims associated with Darwinian evolution. Indeed, Novak accepts seemingly chance elements and apparent contingency in creation. His God is an artist, not an engineer.

This is an attractive view, appealing to our intellectual desire that everything should ultimately make sense, even if we only dimly apprehend this in our current state of ignorance. Still, though thinkers such as Novak prefer to argue at the level of armchair metaphysics, talking about the fundamental nature of the universe inevitably raises questions about physics. From the perspective of physics today, with all due deference to Einstein, the idea of a rational universe looks odd.

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I think the author misunderstands Einstein's statement and further misinterprets the significance of the probability physics he describes.

A debate over the rationality of the universe is akin to the rationality of your dinner. Any rationality is a product of, what the author would call, anthropomorphization. The universe is neither rational nor irrational