The Divine Mathematician and His Image-Bearers

Philosophy is written in this grand book—I mean the universe—which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth.

~Galileo Galilei, from The Assayer

In his celebrated book, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe, Dr. Steven Weinberg said that mankind is a “farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes” after the Big Bang. According to Weinberg and many other atheist thinkers past and present, the cosmos is not purposeful and we, its observers, amount to nothing more than self-aware cosmic dust bunnies.

Dr. Weinberg is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, a scholar who has spent decades investigating the intricacies of the material universe. I find it astounding that individuals with such extensive knowledge of the mathematics of nature could so confidently dismiss the implications of the fact that we are conscious, intelligent beings capable of ascertaining these complex truths.

As science has become fully integrated with mathematics, knowledge of the world has exploded. Why isn’t every physicist asking the question: Why is there such a deep interconnection between mathematics, an abstract product of human rationality, the material cosmos, and the human mind if we, and it, are merely accidental?

In his 1623 work entitled, The Assayer, Galileo Galilei said:

Philosophy is written in this grand book—I mean the universe—which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth.

In their fantastic book, A Meaningful World, Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt remark:

We could imagine, with random ordering, that by some mercy of fickle chance, a purely accidental relationship of some mathematical system would “map onto” a particular aspect of nature, but we would never expect it to effectively illuminate the natural order beyond that merely accidental relationship .Yet if we keep finding that multiple mathematical systems “map onto” nature—calling us from one steppingstone of discovery to the next—then it is certainly reasonable to suspect a conspiracy of reasoned order.

Eugene Wigner, a prominent physicist (and agnostic) of the 20th century found this arrangement astonishing as well. He said:

The enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious…There is no rational explanation for it…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.[i]

Mathematics illuminates the orderliness of nature, yet it was first conceived by the human intellect. Isn’t this extraordinary? The natural world is intelligible and the mathematical truths needed to comprehend and describe it pre-existed our attempts to do so. Why should there be such a relationship between our abstract reasoning and the realities of the cosmos?  Where did our capacity for higher mathematics even come from? Materialists say that it is the product of blind evolutionary processes, but what survival or reproductive advantage is gained from being able to perform sophisticated equations—equations that have led to extensive scientific discovery?

Yet, if we are made by, and in the image of, a Rational Intelligence who is also the artificer of the universe itself, this coincidence is something we shouldn’t be at all surprised to find. As my great hero, astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler said:

To God there are, in the whole material world, material laws, figures and relations of special excellency and of the most appropriate order…Those laws are within the grasp of the human mind; God wanted us to recognize them by creating us after his own image so that we could share in his own thoughts.[ii]

D I G  D E E P E R

Galileo Galilei

(1564–1642), Italian mathematician and scientist, usually known simply as ‘Galileo’. An early attempt to enter the monastic life was foiled by his father, the musical theorist Vincenzio Galilei, who envisaged a medical career for his son. Nevertheless Galileo did not complete his medical course at the University of Pisa, but turned to mathematics and in 1589 became professor of mathematics at Pisa; in 1592 he was appointed to the more lucrative chair at Padua. At this time he developed ideas on a new science of motion that eventually found mature expression in his Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche intorno à Due Nuove Scienze (1638). By asking, not about the causes of motion, but rather how they would occur in certain ideal situations, he concluded that an unimpeded horizontal motion would continue indefinitely at uniform speed, and an unimpeded vertical motion would be uniformly accelerated—ideas that can be seen as leading towards Newtonian physics. In 1609 Galileo heard of a new optical instrument, later known as the telescope; he soon had exemplars made for himself and embarked on a systematic observation of the heavens. His results, which he used for supporting a heliocentric *Copernican cosmology, were published in Sidereus Nuncius (1610) and Istoria e Dimostrazioni intorno alle Macchie Solari (1613). In 1610 he moved to Florence as Chief Mathematician and Philosopher to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and soon the theological implications of Copernicanism became a matter of great concern (which they had not been hitherto). Galileo in 1615 composed a long letter (pub. in 1636, Lettera a Madama Cristina di Lorena, Granduchessa di Toscana) on the relation of astronomy to Scripture, in which he advocated a liberal use of the principle of *accommodation in interpreting biblical passages seemingly inconsistent with the motion of the earth. Matters came to a head in 1615 and early 1616 when the theologians of the *Holy Office asserted that to maintain the immobility and centrality of the sun as opposed to that of the earth was heretical, and soon Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium caelestium (pub. in 1543) was placed on the *Index, pending correction. Galileo was informed of the decision and was reported to p 654 have acquiesced in it. For some years he was publicly silent about Copernicanism, but when his friend Maffeo Barberini became Pope *Urban VIII in 1623, he gained the impression that he could discuss the new system, provided that he treated it as hypothetical and did not introduce biblical arguments. The result was his Dialogo sopra i Due Massimi Sistemi del Mondo (1632), which was more faithful to the letter than the spirit of this understanding, and contained an apparent insult to the Pope. Galileo was summoned before the *Inquisition, made to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. His famous words Eppur si muove (None the less it does move) seem to be legendary. The ‘Galileo Affair’ has been a continuing leitmotif in accounts of the meeting of science and religion, and Pope *John Paul II in 1981 appointed a commission to study the case and in 1992 endorsed its report admitting the ‘subjective error’ of Galileo’s judges.

Sources & Resources

The standard edn. of his works is the ‘Edizione nationale’ by A. Favoro (20 vols., Florence, 1890–1909; repr. 1968). Eng. trs. include Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, tr. S. Drake (Garden City, NY, 1957; tr. of Siderius Nuncius and Lettera a Madama Cristina di Lorena, with extracts from other works); Siderius Nuncius, tr. A. van Helden (Chicago, 1989); Dialogo sopra i Due Massimi Sistemi del Mondo, tr. S. Drake (Berkeley, Calif., etc., 1953); and Discorsi e Dimostrazioni, tr. id. (Madison, Wis., 1974). The secondary bibl. is vast; E. McMullin (ed.), Galileo: Man of Science (New York and London [1967]) incl. convenient updating of bibls. of Carli, Favaro and Boffito (see below). Useful biogs. by L. Geymonat (Turin, 1957; Eng. tr., New York and London, 1965), S. Drake, Galileo at Work: His Scientific Biography (Chicago and London, 1978), and, on an introductory level, id., Galileo (Past Masters, Oxford, 1980). S. M. Pagano (ed.), I Documenti del Processo di Galileo Galilei (Collectanea Archivi Vaticani, 21; 1984). Eng. tr. of various primary docs., with introd., by M. A. Finocchiaro, The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History (Berkeley, Calif., etc. [1989]). Secondary works dealing with Galileo’s relations with the Church include G. de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (1958); J. J. Langford, Galileo, Science and the Church (New York, 1966; 3rd edn., Ann Arbor, [1992]); P. Poupard (ed.), Galileo Galilei: 350 ans d’histoire 1633–1983 (Tournai [1983]); O. Pedersen, ‘Galileo and the Council of Trent: The Galileo Affair Revisited’, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 14 (1983), pp. 1–29; G. V. Covne, SJ, and others (eds.), The Galileo Affair: A Meeting of Faith and Science. Proceedings of the Cracow Conference, 24 to 27 May 1984 (Vatican City, 1985); R. S. Westfall, ‘The Trial of Galileo: Bellarmino, Galileo, and the Clash of Two Worlds’, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 20 (1989), pp. 1–23, repr., with other material, Essays on the Trial of Galileo (Vatican City, 1989); A. Fantoli, Galileo: Per la Copernicanesimo e per lit Chiesa (Studi Galileani, 2; ibid., 1993; Eng. tr., ibid. 3 [1994]; 2nd edn., 1996). P. Redondi, Galileo eretico (1983; Eng. tr., Princeton, NJ, 1987; London, 1988), argues provocatively that the underlying cause of Galileo’s condemnation was his espousal of an atomism that was seen as inconsistent with the doctrine of *transubstantiation. Bibl. covering the period 1568–1895 by A. Carli and A. Favaro (Rome, 1896); 1896–1940 by G. Boffito (ibid., 1943); and 1942–1964 by E. Gentili (Milan, 1966). S. Drake in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 5 (1981 edn.), pp. 237–49, s.v.; U. Baldini in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, 51 (1998), pp. 473–86, s.v.

F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 653–654.

Image by Tom Darin Liskey

[i]  Eugene Wigner, Symmetries and Reflections, 222, 237.)

[ii] Carola Baumgardt, Johannes Kepler: Life and Letters, 50.

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Melissa Cain Travis

Melissa Cain Travis serves as Assistant Professor of Christian Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. She is the author of Science and the Mind of the Maker: What the Conversation Between Faith and Science Reveals About God (Harvest House, 2018) and is a contributor to the forthcoming book, The Story of the Cosmos (Harvest House, 2019). She is nearing the completion of a PhD in humanities, her research focusing on the history and philosophy related to scientific and mathematical thought in the Western tradition and contemporary scholarship.