The rational world

One of the things that triggers a writing attack for me is the fortuitous coincidence of separate ideas that seem to inform each other. On this occasion it’s reading Michael Polanyi on the true nature of scientific thought, and the recent discussion on here, BioLogos and everywhere about the Cosmos TV series. To that I must add the catalyst, an old video I chanced upon where philosopher and theologian R C Sproul mentions a correspondence he had with Carl Sagan towards the end of the latter’s life. Let’s start there.

Sproul was struck by the fact that to Sagan, “Cosmos” didn’t only mean all that is, was and evermore shalt be. He meant it in the original Greek sense of the antithesis of Chaos. It was the order of the Cosmos that inspired him. That makes sense to me from my memory of the original series. At the time I was an absurdly busy young doctor, and a father of three infants. Nevertheless I was still keen enough about astronomy to watch most of the series.

The first of my two abiding memories was the anti-religious tone, which I’ve talked about before in relation to the remake, but which rankled me then because I was closer to a secular academic training dominated by such unnecessary prejudice. As an aside, it’s hard truly to enjoy learning psychiatry as a Christian when the lecturer teaches as fact that the word “sex” comes from the prudish Christian association of sexual activity with sin via the sixth commamdment (6=sex in Latin). You can’t keep raising your hand to point out that adultery is actually covered by the 7th commandment, the 6th dealing with theft, and that the actual derivation is from the more boring Latin root of seco, to divide (in this case, the race into two genders). It had already found itself into his popular book on sexual fantasy anyway, so the lie was halfway round the world already.

More positively, my second abiding memory of Cosmos was Sagan’s sense of wonder, and as Sproul noted, that wonder revolved about the astonishing organisation of the universe, and not its mere existence or diversity. This sense of order clearly, from considering Sagan’s case, need not necessarily be associated with awareness of God (although it is at the very heart of the Christian doctrine of creation, as shown by John Walton’s exploration of the neaning of the Hebrew word bara as bringing order from disorder, rather than just existence from non-existence).

The same sense of order – in the form of the recognition of rational beauty – is claimed by Michael Polanyi to underlie the best science. At one time this was overtly recognised: to Pythagoras and his followers, the harmony of mathematics was something fundamental: the music of the spheres in astronomy was neither a mere metaphor nor superstitious woo – it was the actual way such people experienced what they discovered intellectually. “Reason” was transcendentally experiential. It is less well known that this concept directly inspired early modern scientists, and specifically Polanyi mentions Kepler, who read deeply in Pythagoras and was seeking just such a sense of order and beauty, in the name of God, before he actually discovered anything.

Polanyi also points to the example of Einstein, whose theory of special relativity was universally said, in the textbooks of Polanyi’s time (the 1950s), to have been a classic instance of a theory formulated to explain the data of the Michelson-Morley experiment. In fact, the Wikipedia article linked tells the same improving tale 64 years later. But in correspondence with Einstein himself, the latter said “the Michelson-Morley experiment had no role in the foundation of the theory”. Instead, since the age of 16 Einstein had intuitively sensed, by thought experiment, that something of the nature of special relativity must be true. And he was committed to his theory long before sufficent data existed to confirm it. Polanyi’s conclusion is telling (and sadly up to date!):

The usual textbook account of relativity as a theoretical reponse to the Michelson-Morley experiment is an invention. It is the product of a philosophical prejudice. When Einstein discovered rationality in nature, unaided by any observation that had not been available at least fifty years before, our positivistic textbooks promptly covered up the scandal by an appropriately embellished account of his discovery.

As the modern Wikipedia article on special relativity shows, it’s an invention that remains absolutely immune to the truth, even when it comes from the lips of Einstein himself and was published by the celebrated Polanyi before I was even born.

But my main interest is not the contrast between positivist myths about science, and its real epistemological basis, significant though that is, but rather about the separate, but equally sharp division, between those who instinctively recognise the rational and aesthetic cohesion of the universe, and those who don’t – between those who recognise cosmos, and those who see chaos instead.

Here’s an example close to home – that is, on my own patch of land. Yesterday, I saw a tree-creeper close by where I was working in the stable. They’re usually very shy. And what I saw, and later read about, was a finger-length of creature beautifully fitted to its special role in the world. But that is also true (as I set out to consider) of every other species I saw subsequently – the woodpecker with its famed adaptations for headbanging, extraordinary tongue and, of course, every other feature of its body and behaviour. The more jack-of-all-trades ravens doing aerobatics for the hell of it. The robin in our hay-store with her great nest-building skills, and a quantum-coherence navigation system in her eyes (they never include that in the “evolution of the eye is simple” scenarios, do they?). The striped spider on the wall. The pile of rabbit fur reminding me that bunny’s fecundity and imperfect defences keep the food chain going. The dung beetles busy recycling. The 150 year-old oak providing an ecosystem for up to 284 species of insects and 320 taxa of lichen even before one gets to the birds and mammals all mutually adapted to it, and in many cases absolutely tailored for their roles. You appreciate my drift.

There’s a nice little radio programme on the BBC when I wake up some mornings called Natural World, in which some some biologist with an insane interest in the large blue butterfly or the greater stitchwort takes the interviewer into the field and – invariably – describes a whole new world with the species of his obsession at its centre, keyed integrally into the whole οικονóμος of the world. That grand economy is cosmos.

But not everyone sees it that way. The Berkely University website on evolution sees optimization as an “evolutionary misconception”:

It is true that natural selection weeds out individuals that are unfit in a particular situation, but for evolution, “good enough” is good enough. No organism has to be perfect… Rather, they are fit enough to survive and reproduce, and that is all that is necessary to ensure their existence.

…Fitness is linked to environment, not to progress.

At the genomic level, my oft-used quote from Eugene Koonin (2009) seems relevant:

…the complexity of the genomes of multicellular eukaryotes is interpreted as evolving, primarily, not as an adaptation ensuring organizational and functional complexity but as a “genomic syndrome” caused by inefficient purifying selection in small populations.

This is not unrelated to the whole junk DNA concept, just one example of the argument not for evolution itself, but for its purposelessness, others being pseudogenes, atavistic organs, poor design, cruelty and waste – all arguments, notice, that have been used by the religious as well as the anti-religious. The common theme is chaos: what might appear to be organised, integrated, rational and  beautiful  is in fact meaningless. Cosmos, indeed, implies meaning – even if that meaning be internal and not divine, and chaos nothing other than lack of meaning.

And it’s in the eye of the beholder, perceived at an almost intuitive level (though via a suprememly rational intuition, as Polanyi argues), determining what evidence you will see. I remember being regaled once with the example of barnacles that are “jerry-built” – cheap and mass-produced, in effect. I was sold that as an example of poor design, of evolution being a pretty incompetent workman or, of course, a blind barnacle-maker. They should have been done better. That was the view from chaos.

But the cosmos thinker would, perhaps, see the thing is a broader sense: the comparison to me is the difference between, say, a Sherman tank and a German Tiger. The latter was a far “better” machine. But it was over-engineered, and therefore slow to produce and hard to maintain. The Sherman may have been junk (according to my uncle, who drove some other kind and complained they were breaking down all around him after D-Day). But they could be produced in vast numbers, and so won the war in Europe, which was the aim in view.

Even that explanation is limited to “what’s good for barnacles”, which is to focus on the small picture. In that view, the fact that barnacles produce anything up to several thousand eggs, most of which will of course be predated before adulthood, is a sign of the wastefulness of the reproductive process, and consequently of the violence and free-for-all of nature as a whole. But it could equally been seen as part of the orderly provision of live food for all those further up the food chain, whilst maintaining the barnacles in their allotted role. Theologically (and remember, this is only by secondary implication a theological theme), Augustine described that as the good inherent in the fact of a lower nature giving way to a greater.

So in conclusion, maybe the biggest lesson we have to seek out in nature, whether as scientists of just folks, and to nurture if we have already begun to learn it, is one that is simple, yet engages us intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, imaginatively and even ethically: Have we yet learned to see a Cosmos when we open our eyes, or do we still live in a Chaos?


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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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