I have always appreciated the ability of great thinkers to see patterns that lie behind a multitude of details. Landmark discoveries are the result of imaginative brooding. From such effort, people discern the deep, subtle patterns that run through the natural world. John Polkinghorne discerns two patterns in the universe that ought to make any thoughtful person, whether theist or atheist marvel. First, that the patterns consistently followed by nature are describable by natural laws that are comprehensible to the human mind. At first, this did not strike me as very outstanding, since the brain of any child can model the rules of any language in which the child is raised. We are capable of modelling all kinds of patterns of thought, and all sorts of hypotheses about the universe, not just the ones that turn out to be correct, and we hone them until we get it right. However, as I thought about it, it is marvellous that the ones that turn out to be true have a quality of simplicity and beauty. (I’m sure that my knowledge of mathematics does not allow me to comment on their beauty but I’ve heard enough mathematicians and physicists quoted to know that there is a general consenus that this is so. )
While it may not be that surprising to me that we can teach any human brain to recognize an almost infinite variety of patterns, I do marvel at the fact that true hypotheses have a quality of elegance to them that appeals to our sense of beauty. This beauty is not the same beauty that we would find in a wilderness area where the trees, streams and mountains look gorgeous in every direction. Rather, their beauty lies in their being able to account for so much apparent complexity in very few lines, their harmony with other theories arising from investigation in apparently unrelated areas, and their fertility – their ability to spawn new ideas about the universe. I’m told that one example of this is the beguiling simplicity of Einstein’s ten equations of General Relativity, held by some to be among the most beautiful things in the world. So the laws of nature are not just small scale pretty, but have a quality of grandeur that makes them breathtaking.
Polkinghorne’s second pointer is the fine-tuning of the universe. I know this is a well worn subject, yet to me it is the phenomenon that inspires me to awe. Though not without challenges, it remains the concenseus among physicists that this particular universe is an exceedingly improbable one. (Sean) Of course, one may argue that it is not surprising creatures who can question why they exist can only exist in a univere with a set of conditions that permitted the development of life, we do not necessarily have the luxury of a gazillion tries and failed attempts as we have in evolutionary biology. There, we have many mutations that failed to be passed on through species that did not survive the conditions in which they emerged, leaving only the lucky few that thrive. In the case of the universe, it has to be right from the moment of the big bang -otherwise we have no matter or stars from which the sculpting of evolution can carve its forms.
Sean suggests that the equations that may best describe the univerese lead naturally to the possibility to the emergence of multiple universes. There is no way we are ever likely to prove or to disprove through observation, the existence of universes outside our own, but if we assume that we are here purely by chance, we are forced into the belief in something of the order of 10 to the 10 to the 120 universes to have a likelihood of finding one that will produce, stars that could synthesize elements beyond up to Iron on the periodic table. ( Fred Hoyle did this work on carbon synthesis and here is John commenting on his discovery)