Physicist Eric Hedin writes:
Physicist William Pollard shares four examples in the history of physics where new physical concepts were found to match previously developed mathematics.[i] In each case, fields of pure mathematics were initially developed without their inventors having any conception that their work had the slightest connection with the physical world. Then, sometimes several decades later, physicists who were seeking to formulate equations that described regularities in the physical world found that these previously developed fields of mathematics perfectly fit and described the aspects of physical reality under investigation. The hand-in-glove fit even allowed the physicists to correctly predict new and unknown phenomena from their theories.
Among Pollard’s examples of this is the famous theory of general relativity. In formulating this theory, Einstein utilized Riemann’s mathematics of curved spaces of higher dimensions, an esoteric work developed several decades earlier. The union of elegant mathematics with Einstein’s profound physical insight produced a theory that predicted phenomenon no one had been able to describe or even imagine before then. These predictions include the warping of space near the sun, gravitational waves, and an accurate description of black holes. The mathematics of general relativity has a flawless track-record of giving highly accurate agreement between its predictions and observations. Einstein’s general relativity theory is well-deserving of the accolade, “Probably the most beautiful of all existing theories.”[ii] And its success in describing unexpected aspects of nature gives strong support to beauty as a guide to truth.
In a recent critique of mathematical beauty as a guide to understanding nature, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder laments that this approach has failed to bear fruit in modern theoretical physics.[iii] She asks, “Why should the laws of nature care what I find beautiful?” Why indeed? And yet it has often been so—a mystery inexplicable within the confines of naturalism.
Hossenfelder is correct that something is amiss in contemporary theoretical physics. But the problem is narrower than an appeal to beauty. The failure to make significant progress on the standard model of particle physics may stem from a misguided concept of beauty. In the last few decades, naturalism’s aversion to design has led to the assumption that evidence of fine-tuning in physical constants is “ugly.”[iv] The naturalist prefers to find a universe devoid of any distinctiveness that would seem to reflect a designer’s act of choice.
Naturalness expects that physical parameters, when expressed in dimensionless form, should only be of order unity (meaning approximately equal to one). Hossenfelder points out that this attempt at avoiding fine-tuning in physical parameters has not been productive. “Naturalness, it seems, is just not correct.”[v]
The solution is to discard scientism’s aversion to evidence of fine-tuning. Such evidence isn’t ugly, something to be explained away. It’s fascinating, and a whisper perhaps of a deeper reality, a sign that before there was matter and laws of matter, there was mind. That conviction was crucial to the birth of science. And we have no good reason to regard it as verboten now, precisely when the discovery of fine-tuning has given us a powerful additional reason to consider it.
Excerpted from Eric Hedin, Canceled Science: What Some Atheists Don’t Want You to See, (Discovery Institute Press, Seattle, 2021), pp. 200-201.
[i] Pollard, “Rumors of Transcendence in Physics” (1984).
[ii] Landau and Lifschitz, quoted in the title of S. Chandresekhar, “The General Theory of Relativity: Why ‘It is Probably the most Beautiful of all Existing Theories’,” Jnl. Astrophys. Astr. 5: 3–11, 1984.
[iii] Hossenfelder, Lost in Math (2018).
[iv] Hossenfelder, Lost in Math (2018), 38.
[v] Hossenfelder, Lost in Math (2018), 39.