Order out of Chaos: Resonance between Theology & Experimentation

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On 28 May 2003, Ilya Prigogine (1917–2003) died. A Russian-born physical chemist, he won the 1977 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on “the theory of dissipative structures.”

His best known work is perhaps the “Theorem of Mimimum Entropy Production” (1945). This theorem states that at local equilibria, the rate of entropy production (P) is a minimum defined by the second derivative, δS², a Lyapunov function.

His book Order out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature (1984), co-authored with Isabelle Stengers (b. 1949), included some reflections on the convergence of theological and scientific thought regarding the mechanistic universe:

At the origin of modern science, a ‘resonance’ appears to have been set up between theological discourse and theoretical and experimental activity—a resonance that was no doubt likely to amplify and consolidate the claim that scientists were in the process of discovering the secret of the ‘great machine of the universe.’ Of course, the term resonance covers an extremely complex problem. It is not our intention to state, nor are we in any position to affirm, that religious discourse in any way determined the birth of theoretical science, or of the ‘world view’ that happened to develop in conjunction with experimental activity…

3263887“It must now be stressed that scientific discourse is in no way a mere transposition of traditional religious views. Obviously the world described by classical physics is not the world of Genesis, in which God created light, heaven, earth, and the living species, the world where Providence has never ceased to act, spurring man on toward a history where his salvation is at stake. The world of classical physics is an atemporal world which, if created, must have been created in one fell swoop, somewhat as an engineer creates a robot before letting it function alone. In this sense, physics has indeed developed in opposition to both religion and the traditional philosophies.

“And yet we know that the Christian God was actually called upon to provide a basis for the world’s intelligibility. In fact, one can speak here of a kind of ‘convergence’ between the interests of theologians, who held that the world had to acknowledge God’s omnipotence by its total submission to Him, and of physicists seeking a world of mathematizable processes.

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James Clerk Maxwell: Light in Nature and in Faith

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The Scotish physicist James Clerk Maxwell FRS FRSE (13 June 1831 in Edinburgh – 5 November 1879 in Cambridge) was one of the chief figures among 19th century physicists. His most notable achievement was formulating the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, bringing together for the first time electricity, magnetism, and light as manifestations of the same phenomenon.  Maxwell’s equation for electromagnetism have been called the “second great unification in physics” after the first equations by Isaac Newton. He saw great significance in a universe where the laws of nature fit together like pieces in a puzzle. In those links, he saw the existence and goodness of God and the mystery of the divine.

His Christian faith permeated his scientific work and, according to his own testimony, was at times a source of inspiration. One of his prayers was:

“Almighty God, Who hast created man in Thine own image, and made him a living soul that he might seek after Thee, and have dominion over Thy creatures, teach us to study the works of Thy hands, that we may subdue the earth to our use, and strengthen the reason for Thy service; so to receive Thy blessed Word, that we may believe in Him Whom Thou hast sent, to give us the knowledge of salvation and the remission of our sins. All of which we ask in the name of the same Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

He favored a world-view which includes ideas like the ones in the modern chaos theory such as ‘sensitive dependence to initial conditions‘. In his 1873 lecture on determinism and free will, he says:

“The subject of the essay is the relation to determinism, not of theology, metaphysics, or mathematics, but of physical science,—the science which depends for its material on the observation and measurement of visible things, but which aims at the development of doctrines whose consistency with each other shall be apparent to our reason…

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Maxwell can be seen, together with Poincaré, as a forerummer of Lorenz’ Butterfly effect (1963) . Image credit

“For example, the rock loosed by frost and balanced on a singular point of the mountain-side, the little spark which kindles the great forest, the little word which sets the world a fighting, the little scruple which prevents a man from doing his will, the little spore which blights all the potatoes, the little gemmule which makes us philosophers or idiots. Every existence above a certain rank has its singular points: the higher the rank the more of them. At these points, influences whose physical magnitude is too small to be taken account of by a finite being, may produce results of the greatest importance. All great results produced by human endeavor depend on taking advantage of these singular states when they occur.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

“The man of tact says ‘the right word at the right time,’ and, ‘a word spoken in due season how good is it!’ The man of no tact is like vinegar upon nitre when he sings his songs to a heavy heart. The ill-timed admonition hardens the heart, and the good resolution, taken when it is sure to be broken, becomes macadamised into pavement for the abyss.

“It appears then that in our own nature there are more singular points,—where prediction, except from absolutely perfect data, and guided by the omniscience of contingency, becomes impossible,—than there are in any lower organisation. But singular points are by their very nature isolated, and form no appreciable fraction of the continuous course of our existence. Hence predictions of human conduct may be made in many cases. First, with respect to those who have no character at all, especially when considered in crowds, after the statistical method. Second with respect to individuals of confirmed character, with respect to actions of the kind for which their character is confirmed.”

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As a child, Maxwell had attended both Church of Scotland (his father’s denomination) and Episcopalian (his mother’s denomination) services.  In April 1853, he underwent an evangelical reversion to Christianity.

Maxwell is buried at Parton Kirk, in Galloway (near Castle Douglas where he grew up), and his memorial reads:

“His short life was rich in distinguished contributions to every branch of physical science – heat, light, mechanics, above all, by unifying the theories of electricity and magnetism he established a sure foundation for modern physics, electrical engineering and astronomy and prepared the way for radio communication and television. A good man, full of humour and wisdom. He lived in this area and is buried in the ruins of the old Kirk in this Churchyard.”