Science’s Failure to Account for the One and the Many

The Difference between Limited Science and Naturalism

In the Western world of our day, the philosophy of naturalism or materialism has come to have a wide influence. Materialism says that the world consists in matter and energy and motion. It says that there is no God. Or if some kind of god exists, he is irrelevant.

Naturalism or materialism gains prestige from science. Science, it is said, tells us the way things really are. It tells us that the universe all boils down to matter and energy and motion. But this kind of argument fails to notice a gap between two conceptions of science. In the first conception, science as a discipline confines its attention to matter and energy and motion, in order to study them in depth. Matter and energy and motion—and complex arrangements of them into biological cells and geological formations and stars—become the focus of study.

Then, in a second conception of “science,” this focus for science is postulated to be the only thing that really exists. According to this sec- ond conception, “science” tells us that the universe is matter and energy and motion and nothing more. But in the process, the word science has changed its meaning. People have imported into the meaning a philosophical assumption, namely the assumption that the chosen focus for the practice of science is the only legitimate focus, and that it leaves out nothing that is important. This conclusion is not actually the product of detailed investigations into chemistry or star formation. It is an extra hidden assumption. It can never really be justified by detailed scientific experimentation, because such experimentation already presupposes the limited focus on matter. In the nature of the case, it cannot make pronouncements about that which it has not studied.

Science as Focused

Does science with a limited focus answer the problem of the one and the many? No, because the problem of the one and the many is a philosophical problem that is deeper than science. Scientific investigation starts with the assumption that the world is both unified and diverse. Typical experimental science uses the assumption repeatedly. A scientist compares a single experiment on a single bit of matter to other experiments of the same kind on other bits of matter. That is one of the principles about repeating experiments. But to repeat an experiment, the scientist has to rely on the fact that it is identifiable as the same experiment. There must be a basic unity. At the same time, the repetition implies that there are two or more instances of the experiment. The multiple instances show diversity. The different instances represent the many. The scientist thus is using the interlocking of one and many. He presupposes it rather than explaining it.

Materialism Trying to Answer the Problem

Materialism is the philosophical extension of science that says that there is nothing except matter and energy and motion. Can materialism answer the problem of the one and the many?

On one level, materialism says that human beings evolved in such a way that they see the world as one and many. The one and the many come about as part of our subjective perception. But is the world “out there” actually one and many? Or it is merely that we “see” it that way? Is our way of seeing just an accidental byproduct of mutations and chemistry in our brains? Let us suppose that our way of seeing is an illusion. Then what about the repeated experiments that scientists perform? The idea of a repeated experiment relies on the one and the many and their interlocking. Thus, the idea of a repeated experiment is also an evolutionary illusion, and therefore the science that is built on this way of seeing is an illusion. Since materialism claims to be built on science, materialism itself is also an illusion. This is not good news for materialism.

In fact, most materialists think that the world “out there” is one and many. At the level of material particles, there are many particles. And particles of the same kind share common properties, which means that there is a oneness or unity to all the particles of the same kind.

So where did the unity and diversity come from? Materialists would say that it came from the Big Bang, which through complex quantum mechanical processes led to the creation of a huge number of particles.

There are different kinds of particles. At the level of particles that make up atoms, there are three basic kinds of particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons. They all show some similarities in behavior (for example, they all have a “spin” of 1/2). So there is unity. But the three types differ as well. So there is diversity. There is additional diversity because there are huge numbers of particles of any one of these types.

Or we can go inside the protons and neutrons and say that each proton and each neutron is made up of three quarks. The quarks (in the current state of physical theory) are of six kinds (“flavors”), named whimsically “up,” “down,” “strange,” “charm,” “bottom,” and “top.” In ad- dition, they come in three “colors.” We see unity in the fact that all these kinds are quarks, and diversity in the fact that there are different kinds of quarks.

What, then, is the origin of this unity in diversity? Materialists have no complete explanation for the Big Bang itself, the initial event. But they would say that the laws of physics explain the unity and diversity in particles that we see today. Given the Big Bang plus the laws of physics, they would say that we can expect the unity and diversity among the particles. And this unity and diversity in the particles eventually gives rise to unity and diversity at all the other levels, including the levels of ordinary human observation. It sounds good, until we ask more questions.

Where do the laws of physics come from? As human formulations, they contain massive unity and diversity built into them. This unity and diversity comes from the ability of human beings to understand unity and diversity in their minds. But physicists have arrived at the present formulations by interacting with the world, which already had the unity and diversity in its particles. The unity and diversity in the particles leads to the unity and diversity in the formulation of the laws. And then these laws are supposed to explain the unity and diversity in the particles! It looks circular.

The obvious answer is to distinguish human formulations of the laws from the laws themselves—the laws “out there,” governing the uni- verse. The human formulations are chronologically subsequent to the existence of the particles. The particles are chronologically subsequent to the existence of the laws “out there.” So the laws “out there” explain everything else.

What Explains the Laws?

The laws out there already display the interlocking of unity and diversity. There are at a low level several laws, one for each kind of particle. It is hoped that physics can arrive at a final, unified formulation, sometimes called “the Theory of Everything.” Even if it did, the theory would contain unity and diversity within it. It would be one theory, and its oneness would exhibit unity. At the same time, it would be a theory that applied to all the different kinds of particles. The different kinds of particles represent diversity.

In addition, the diversity has to be present in another way. The very conception of a physical “law” implies unity and diversity. Each law is a unity. And each law applies to many particular instances of phenomena in the world. The application represents its diversity.

It should be evident by now that physical explanations do not get rid of the philosophical problem. They just promote the problem to another level. Instead of dealing with the problem on the level of ordinary human experience, we “promote” it into a problem about material particles. Then we promote it from there to a problem about the nature of physical laws.

If we focus on the laws “out there,” in distinction from our later human formulations, the laws show the attributes of God, just as the truth about 2 + 2 = 4 showed his attributes.2 The presence of the inter- locking of unity and diversity in the laws reflects the archetypal unity and diversity of God. We have not escaped God by promoting the problem up into the laws.

There is an additional problem. For their formulation, the laws of physics require mathematics—rather advanced mathematics. The ad- vanced mathematics is built up, layer by layer, starting from conceptions of number and space. The investigation of number has already turned up the problem of unity and diversity in its midst. And of course our ex- pression “layer by layer” implies multiple layers, which implies diversity (more than one layer) and unity (a unity where higher layers build on and are in harmony with lower layers). So if we explain the physics by using mathematics, we have promoted the problem of unity and diversity one more stage, into mathematics. We have not “solved” it.

In addition, we confront still another form of unity and diversity. There is unity between the mathematics that the physicists use and the physics to which they apply it. The mathematics “works” when applied to the real world. At the same time, the mathematics is not identical with the physics. Some mathematics has direct physical application, and some does not. Why does there exist a universe to which the math- ematics applies?

The naturalist would say that the universe exists because of the Big Bang. But we are not really asking about the Big Bang. We are asking, “Why is there such a thing as physical law, as distinct from a purely math- ematical truth?” The Bible has a clear answer: God spoke the world into existence. He specified laws that are in harmony with his character. The inner harmony of his nature is reflected in the harmony between math- ematics and physics. By contrast, materialism has no answer. In material- ism, the laws of physics have to function as a substitute for God.

Materialism is an awkward philosophy. In its typical formulation, it says that nothing exists except matter and energy and motion. But what it really ought to say, at the very least, is that there is matter and energy and motion, and in addition laws. The laws are neither matter nor energy nor motion, but something else, an immaterial, conceptual something, involving mathematics.”

(Poythress, Redeeming Mathematics)


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