Eugene Wigner (1902–1995) won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1963 but he was more famous for something else, an essay published in 1960 called The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences where he said things like:
It is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here, quite comparable in its striking nature to the miracle that the human mind can string a thousand arguments together without getting itself into contradictions, or to the two miracles of the existence of laws of nature and of the human mind’s capacity to
The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning…
“The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics to the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.
Whoa! What happened to the pre-human of evolutionary psychology, who spread his selfish genes by knowing arithmetic the way a hog knows truffles?
Wigner’s essay was viewed as a sort of “treason” against science, meaning that his thinking did not lead in a naturalist (nature is all there is) direction. Naturalism is often called “materialism.”
In his 1960 article, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” Wigner stated the truth which every atheist scientist and philosopher knew and was afraid to tackle: Mathematics and physics, originating from two completely different quarters, the former from the pure speculations of the mind, the latter from the empirical data the physical reality feeds our experience with, have no reason to be connected in any comprehensible or predictable way. And yet, mathematics has been wonderfully effective in describing physical laws and predicting outcomes of experiments in the real world. Why, asked Wigner, and couldn’t find an answer. No one can. Scientists keep using math and relying on math, as if they know for sure that math must be relevant to our physical experience. But they can’t explain why. The arrogant claim that science will explain the world more and more came to an end; science can’t even explain itself anymore.
Wigner added insult to injury when he ended his article using almost religious language of humbleness, gratitude and faith …
In short, Wigner committed a treason against science. He didn’t, in an Einsteinian fashion, just declare a personal faith in a God that had only marginal relevance to his scientific studies. He went farther than that: he implied that science was impossible and inexplicable without accepting a higher reality, transcending the mind of man and its capabilities for reasoning and experimentation. The short and ostensibly innocent article faced some really violent reactions; some objected to the conclusions in it, others to the premises, and still others refused to even deal with it, pretending it had never been written. But Wigner remained right about one thing: Despite the many attempts, no one could give a rational explanation for what Wigner described as the “uncanny ability of mathematics to describe and predict accurately the physical world.” Bojidar Marinov, “Mario Livio, or the Poverty of Atheist Philosophy: A Review of “Is God a Mathematician?”” at American Vision
Of course, people who know that there is no such thing as truth in our multiverse are somehow wiser now than Wigner…
See also: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos and “the artistic license to lie” One thing readers may not know is that, in a series that leaned heavily on the supposed conflict between religion and science, obvious and widely noted misrepresentations were excused in the service of a “greater truth”
Hat tip: Philip Cunningham
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