For a scientist and the mathematician, the question of ‘what is real’ is very strongly linked to proof. In his Faraday seminar last month, “Is There a Place at the Science-Religion Table for Mathematics,” the mathematician and philosopher P. Douglas Kindschi, pointed out that proofs are the building blocks of mathematics so, historically, maths has had the strongest claim on what is real. Continue reading
What did you do on your leap day this year? I listened to a talk by Roger Trigg, who is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick and a Senior Research Fellow of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion in Oxford. Professor Trigg has recently written a book, Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics, and on the 29th February he came to the Faraday Institute to tell us about it.
Science works, and we have non-stick frying pans to prove it. But as a philosopher, Trigg cannot simply stop there. He has to ask Continue reading
Wonder can be one of the biggest drivers for a scientist, whatever their beliefs might happen to be. I have recently been reading the work of John Polkinghorne. He writes that, for him, wonder points to something beyond science.
Revd Dr John Polkinghorne, KBE was a particle physicist, and Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University. He had always been active in his Christian faith but when he reached his mid-forties he decided that he’d “done [his] bit for physics”, resigned from his university position, and began a second career in the Church. After a number of years as a parish priest he returned to the academic world and made a significant contribution to the field of science and religion, something he has continued to do long after his retirement.
Awe is an important part of the experience of science – one could almost say it’s a universal. When a scientist feels awe it is usually in response to something complex, precise, ordered, powerful or beautiful. There is an element of unexpectedness and delight, maybe even respect, fear or reverence. Awe always involves the need for some sort of mental adjustment or accommodation: we need to make room in our internal map of the world for this new and amazing experience. The physicist Werner Heisenberg vividly described this process of taking on board a startling new concept when he wrote of his discovery of atomic energy levels:
In the first moment I was deeply frightened. I had the feeling that, through the surface of atomic phenomena, I was looking at a deeply lying bottom of remarkable internal beauty. I felt almost giddy at the thought that I had now to probe this wealth of mathematical structures that nature down there had spread before me. Continue reading
The beauty of mathematics is in its ability to model reality. Our ability to do mathematics is equally astounding. Is there a theological aspect to this experience, and does it have its limitations? This is the second part of my interview with Enrique Mota, a mathematician from Valencia, Spain. (Part 1 here)
Mathematics, for me, is beautiful. It shows me that the God I believe in is great. In mathematics we have a tool that models structures and events that are deeply embedded in the fabric of the universe. You can write the problem as an equation, add some constants, and find a solution. It works. Continue reading
Enrique Mota is a Mathematician and a founding member of GBU, the IFES Christian student movement in Spain. He’s also a founding member of the Spanish Christians in Science group, which is making great efforts to help people in Spain understand how science and faith can relate to each other. This is the third of four interviews from my recent trip to Spain. Mota is a mathematician who clearly feels called to work in his field to the best of his ability, and to encourage others to do likewise.
On a recent trip to Nottingham I met Mike Clifford, who is an Associate Professor in Engineering at Nottingham University. He’s interested in the role of imagination in science and engineering, and spoke on this topic at the Christian Postgraduate student conference last year. In his talk Clifford described how Scottish philosopher Adam Smith recognised a strong link between memory and imagination. We tend to pigeonhole objects in our memories, grouping them into classes. When we see an obviously new type of object it provokes both wonder and the invention of a new classification category. Smith said that scientists are people “who have spent their lives studying the connecting principles between objects [who] will often note intervals between two objects which more careless observers will think are… joined. [Science] therefore may be regarded as one of those arts which address themselves to the imagination.” Not all scientists are classificationists, but I think that Smith’s principle could be also applied to ideas. Close observation of both objects and theoretical or mathematical models is extremely important in science. The most exciting advances begin when imaginative people spot holes in current thinking. Having a well-developed set of mental pigeonholes also makes lateral thinking possible. Coming up with original ideas often involves connecting different areas of knowledge in ways no one else had anticipated. New syntheses aren’t always arrived at by plodding from A to B – they often happen when someone tries to leap from A to Z in one jump.
I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world…Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.
Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.
John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (1929), Ch. XI
Advances were made in physics when Einstein and others began to conceive of conditions where Newtonian laws didn’t apply. Quantum mechanics was born. In mathematics, the use of negative numbers took hundreds of years to catch on. ‘Imaginary numbers’ were just as slow to be accepted, though they have important applications in both science and engineering.
Although to many [imaginary numbers] appear an extravagant thing, because even I held this opinion some time ago, since it appeared to me more sophistic than true, nevertheless I searched hard and found the demonstration…let the reader apply all his strength of mind, for [otherwise] even he will find himself deceived.
Rafael Bombelli (1526-1572)
Clifford commented that ‘I find it interesting that a failure to fully utilise the mind (including the imagination) may result in deception…it is only through the use of the mind or of the imagination that the truth will be revealed.’
The Christian in the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.
Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible, 1973
Of course to be useful a scientist’s imagination needs to be rooted in reality. What fascinates me is the contrast between our ability to grasp deep truth (such as imaginary numbers or quantum mechanics) and a different order of deep truths that are at times more or less socially acceptable – those to do with the person of God. Both require deep thinking and are controversial. Our minds are capable of grasping both and it’s important not to be deceived, either in a scientific or a metaphysical sense, through lack of hard thinking. So keep up the comments please, I don’t want to get lazy!