Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why Mathematics Works - James Nickel

Part 1

RMCF members enjoyed a unique experience at the July 8, 2011 meeting, where James Nickel of Wenatchee, WA spoke on his specialty, mathematics and creation.  James Nickel is a mathematics teacher at the Potter’s School, which partners with families to provide a wide range of training and resources for family discipleship and home education.  His book, “Mathematics: Is God Silent” is available at his website,

Mathematics: Is God Silent?
Education, BooksmathJames NickelPaperback408 pages

This book revolutionizes the prevailing understanding and teaching of math. The addition of this book is a must for all upper-level Christian school curricula and for college students and adults interested in math or related fields of science and religion. It will serve as a solid refutation for the claim, often made in court, that mathematics is one subject, which cannot be taught from a distinctively Biblical perspective.

Part 2

  James spoke about a Grand Mystery of science, which is a conundrum to many mathematicians and
philosophers: the fact that the physical world can be comprehended.  A. Einstein wrote:  “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”—there appears to be no reason to justify its comprehension. Mathematics is a key player in this whole situation. Mathematician Richard Courant said, “That mathematics, an emanation of the human mind, should serve so effectively for the description and understanding of the physical world is a challenging fact,” a mystery of mysteries. Naturalists admit they have no clue as to the reason why  the universe is intelligible; it is not at all “natural” that laws of nature exist, much less that man is able to discern them.  Amazingly, many aspects of  empirical reality seem to fit themselves into established mathematical forms, as if through a kind of pre-adaptation.

  Many scientists say there is no rational explanation for the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences. In a naturalist context, that is true: Given only TIME plus MATTER and RANDOM processes, nothing should be comprehensible! There should, therefore, be no coherence between thought and the physical world, given this premise of naturalism.  But, since this coherence does exist, naturalists must embrace blind faith.  John Polkinghorne, theoretical physicist says, “Science does not explain the mathematical intelligibility of the physical world because it is a part of scientists’ founding faith that it is so!”

  So, is there justification for why the universe is “user friendly,” and is there a reason why mathematics works so effectively in the application and discovery of science?  The answer lies in the CREATION. The
universe points beyond itself to an intelligent source thatis non-physical. The universe does not  generate
rationality; it only reveals it! Therefore, there must be a transcendent source for this rationality.

  Nickel asserts that the physical world has been ordered in such a way as to be accessible by mathematics.
There is a connection between the mathematical thinking of the human mind and the workings of the physical
world.  According to Oxford mathematician John Lennox, “The intelligibility of the universe is grounded
in the intelligence of God who created both it and the human mind.  Hence, it is not surprising that mathematical theories spun by creative human minds, themselves created in the image of God, find ready
application in a universe whose architect was that same Creator God.”

  Nickel also asserts that mathematical concepts always arise from an impulse for beauty. The universe is built on a plan of profound symmetry, which is evident throughout the whole creation:  the solar system, human body, particle physics, etc., and this beautiful symmetry is somehow present in the inner structure of our intellect. It is unreasonable to expect, on purely naturalistic grounds, that what arises from the impulse for beauty should be effective in physics.  But a significant number of these concepts, born out of a desire for beauty, are significantly effective in physics.  We are talking about a paradox of the utility of beauty, and we are dealing with a miracle of the second order of magnitude.

Newton’s inverse-square Law of Gravitation, elegantly simple and accurate, and the similar Coulomb law of
electrostatic repulsion are examples of the highly ordered  physical laws that yield to a mathematical description of profound beauty and tractability. Mathematicians look at Maxwell’s equations of the
electromagnetic theory and say, “This is beautiful.”  The equations predicted the existence of electromagnetic
waves before they were discovered.  A devout Christian and creationist, Maxwell had the words of Psalm 111 engraved over his laboratory in Cambridge:  “Great are the works of the Lord, pondered by those who delight in them,” That’s what Creation Science is:   Investigating
the works of the Lord [and seeing His attributes there].

The reason that math works in science, ie., the way we account for the suitability of mathematical theory to the laws of the physical world, is by turning to scripture: Biblical Christianity, as opposed to a “nature-first”
impersonal philosophy, is a “Logos-first” personal worldview  (meaning, the Word of John Chapter 1).  We
read in Col 1:15, that Christ is the first principle and the upholding principle of the whole scheme of Creation. The Logos is a personal God-man, “In Whom and by Whom all things are created, by Whom all things consist and cohere.” (Phillips).  Christ is the true source of rationality in the universe, the rationality outside of man and the rationality inside.  In the Biblical Christian worldview, God designed a “user friendly” Creation where the world of human thought mirrors the deep structure of the world.  This is THE challenge to naturalism.  The answer is in embracing the Biblical Christian doctrine of Creation.  The mind of man, with its mathematical capabilities, and the physical world with its observable mathematical order, cohere (connect, correlate) because of a common Creator.  Einstein’s eternal mystery has a solution:  the Biblical revelation of the Creator God is the unifying factor that reconciles what is irreconcilable in a naturalistic context.  Amen.

Thanks to James Nickel for a fascinating presentation.