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Jeans, Sir James - The Mysterious Universe - The Word

Identifier

013987

Type of Spiritual Experience

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A description of the experience

Sir James Jeans – The Mysterious Universe

The universe appears to have been designed by a pure mathematicien.

This statement can hardly hope to escape challenge on the ground that we are merely moulding nature to our preconceived ideas …. Kant discussing the various modes of perception by which the human mind apprehends nature, concluded that it is especially prone to see nature through mathematical spectacles.  Just as a man wearing blue spectacles would see only a blue world, so Kant thought that with our mental bias, we tend to see only a mathematical world.

A moment’s reflection will show this can hardly be the whole story.  The new mathematical interpretation of nature cannot all be in our spectacles – in our subjective way of regarding the external world – since if it were we should have seen it long ago.  The human mind was the same in quality and mode of action a century ago as now; the recent great change in scientific outlook has resulted from a vast advance in scientific knowledge and not from any change in the human mind; we have found something new and hitherto unknown in the objective universe outside ourselves.

Our remote ancestors tried to interpret nature in terms of anthropomorphic concepts of their own creation and failed.  The efforts of our nearer ancestors to interpret nature on engineering lines proved equally inadequate.  Nature refused to accommodate herself to either of these man made moulds.  On the other hand, our attempts to interpret nature in terms of the concepts of pure mathematics have, so far, proved brilliantly successful.

It would now seem to be beyond dispute that in some way nature is more closely allied to the concepts of pure mathematics than to those of biology or of engineering, and even if the mathematical interpretation is only a third man made mould, it at least fits objective nature incomparably better than the two previously tried.

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It may even be objected that our pure mathematics does not in fact represent a creation of our own  minds so much as an effort, based on forgotten or subconscious memories, to understand the workings of nature.  If so it is not surprising that nature should be found to work according to the laws of pure mathematics.

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Our contention is that the universe now appears to be mathematical in a sense different from any which Kant contemplated or possibly could have contemplated – in brief, the mathematics enters the universe from ‘above’ instead of from ‘below’ …….The signals from the outer world of reality which form the shadows on the walls of the cave in which we are imprisoned.

Lapsing back into the crudely anthropormorphic language we have already used … the Great Architect of the Universe now begins to appear as a pure mathematicien.

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Most scientists would agree that they [the different theories] are nothing more than pictures – fictions if you like, if by fiction you mean that science is not yet in contact with ultimate reality.  Many would hold that, from the broad philosophical standpoint, the outstanding achievement of the twentieth century physics is not the theory of relativity with its welding together of space and time, or the theory of quanta with its present apparent negation of the laws of causation, or the dissection of the atom with the resultant discovery that things are not what they seem; it is the general recognition that we are not yet in contact with ultimate reality.

To speak in terms of Plato’s well known simile, we are still imprisoned in our cave, with our backs to the light and can only watch the shadows on the wall.

At present the only task immediately before science is to study these shadows, to classify them and explain them in the simplest possible way.  And what we are finding, in a whole torrent of surprising new knowledge, is that the way which explains them more clearly, more fully and more naturally than any other is the mathematical way, the explanation in terms of mathematical concepts.  It is true, in a sense somewhat different from that intended by Galileo that ‘Nature’s great book is written in mathematical language’.  So true is it that no one except a mathematician need ever hope fully to understand those branches of science which try to unravel the fundamental nature of the universe – the theory of relativity, the theory of quanta and the wave mechanics.

The source of the experience

Jeans, Sir James

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Science Items

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Activities

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References