Is the Universe Rational?

Taner Edis

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.

Now, there is certainly a sense of order one can get from physics; indeed, physicists will often use words like elegant to describe the symmetries that form the basis of our most fundamental theories. But this is an impersonal order for which “rational” is an overly anthropomorphic description. It is not much better than saying the universe is hungry.

Indeed, physicists today have become accustomed to thinking of physical order as inseparable from disorder—from sheer randomness. For example, quantum mechanics, the most fundamental description of nature we have, allows us to calculate probability distributions because the microscopic events underlying our large-scale experiments are random. Conceivably, a god could arrange events to make the world more transparent to us, or a demon could mess with nature to frustrate our attempts at prediction. But either would mean that microscopic events would not be completely random: they would exhibit a pattern understandable in terms of anthropomorphic purposes. The kind of randomness we see in physics does not admit any kind of intelligent design.

Aside from statistical order, physicists also emphasize the fundamental symmetries of nature that give rise to conservation laws. Such laws also support the intuition that we inhabit a lawful, intelligible universe. But these symmetries present us with a fundamentally very simple universe—they have practically no information content and so tell us next to nothing about the details we observe. Furthermore, these symmetries and conservation laws follow in large part from the requirement that we formulate physics independently of any point of view. The messy, complicated low-energy physics we experience is due to a history of random “symmetry breaking” events. In other words, the elegant symmetries revealed in physics today have nothing to do with anthropomorphic notions of rationality. Indeed, they are inseparable from randomness; the most basic laws of physics tell us what kind of dice were rolled to generate our universe and our history. Einstein, insisting on a rational universe, never entirely reconciled himself to quantum mechanics with its irreducible randomness. He got it wrong: in many ways, our universe is a game of dice.

In modern science, randomness is not just a quirk confined to fundamental physics. It is in fact the best source of novelty—the raw material for the creativity we find in Darwinian evolution and human brains. Today we understand much better that order and disorder are two sides of the same coin. The patterns we observe in nature, by which we find intelligibility in the world, are often the direct consequence of underlying disorder.

Our intellectual culture as a whole has been slow in catching up to natural science in this regard. Intuitively, without the aid of mathematics, we too easily make the mistake of thinking that fundamental randomness in physics would imply that the universe would be a formless and incomprehensible chaos. The intuition that order requires design, that the universe is rationally structured, still retains a grip on much of intellectual life. Nonetheless, if the universe is as we describe it in current physics, then calling it rational or irrational stretches a metaphor beyond any legitimate use. It really is like arguing over whether the universe is hungry or satisfied.

However, the claim that the universe is rational is not entirely about physics. It is also a claim about the nature of reason. A conservative Catholic like Novak conceives of reason in a way that hearkens back to Aristotle and Plato by way of Aquinas. In this venerable philosophical tradition, reason—we should really capitalize it and say Reason—has transcendent qualities. Reason is a divine power, a way to revelations of eternal metaphysical truths. If Reason has more earthly applications as well, this is because transcendent Reason is fitted, by design, to the inherent intelligibility of nature.

Such views still find echoes, sometimes even in physics, such as when mathematical Platonists talk about the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. But again, such mystifications of reason are out of step with modern science. Platonism validates our intuitions about the solidity of mathematical truths, but it is useless in explaining what flesh-and-blood mathematicians and theoretical physicists actually do. If there are causally impotent Platonic realities, our knowledge of them has to come our way by some kind of revelation, even if it is dressed up as a
deliverance of Reason. But we have a much better prospect of understanding mathematics and physics if we pay attention to how communities of mathematicians and physicists construct their knowledge and how their brains actually embody reason.

Many of the reasons that make Platonic conceptions of mind implausible come from progress in cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence. After all, intelligent design, whether it explicitly opposes evolution or not, is more fundamentally a claim about intelligence, about our minds. And intelligence is increasingly understood within the natural world of rules and randomness described by physics. Certainly, scientific naturalists have yet another God of the gaps to contend with, since a fully satisfying scientific understanding of human minds is still distant. But what we have learned so far goes against the notion of universe-pervading rationality.

None of this means that ideas of transcendent Reason or the rationality of the universe are about to go out of fashion. They have been integral to the philosophical tradition and woven deeply into the humanities. They still affect how many scientists conceive of the very act of doing science. Rejecting them in favor of a naturalistic conception of ourselves and the universe is not easy.

It is not even easy for humanists and nonbelievers. After all, we often conceive of ourselves not just as favoring reason over faith but as letting reason shape our lives comprehensively. We reason not just to figure out the life cycle of stars but also to establish moral values. So notions of transcendent Reason can creep into our thinking, especially if we go in search of universal moral truths transcending human interests and agreements. Transcendent Reason belongs more properly to philosophical theism or to Islamic or Catholic high culture rather than to any tradition critical of supernatural beliefs.

Science-minded nonbelievers are often accused of making a fetish of reason. Perhaps we should more clearly point out that we are the ones defending a more modest view of human reason. We should be the ones expressing skepticism about a rational universe.

Further Reading

  • Edis, Taner. The Ghost in the Universe: God in Light of Modern Science. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2002.
  • —. Science and Nonbelief. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007.
  • Einstein, Albert. Ideas and Opinions. New York: Crown Publishers, 1954.
  • Haught, John F. God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Westminster, U.K.: John Knox Press, 2008.
  • Hersch, Reuben. What Is Mathematics, Really? New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Novak, Michael. No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers. New York: Doubleday, 2008.
  • Young, Matt, and Taner Edis, eds. Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Taner Edis

Taner Edis’s most recent book is Islam Evolving: Radicalism, Reformation, and the Uneasy Relationship with the Secular West (Prometheus Books, 2016).

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 …

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