Imagine you’re an auditor working for the IRS or whoever the tax revenue agency is for your country and you’re working on two company audits. You’re responsible for meticulously scanning through the accounting and bookkeeping of two different companies.
With the first one, you find that they’ve been running their payrolls on time and keeping track of it, they’ve been filing their income accurately without under or overreporting their expenses, and they employ a staff of professionally trained accountants whose practices are easy to follow.
With the second company, you discover that nothing has been filed, no records of payroll, income, or expenses have been kept at all, and furthermore, all the documentation is in complete chaos and disarray.
When you investigate further, you find out that the CEO has lost his marbles a little and placed his 2-year-old grandson in charge of bookkeeping and accounting who, of course, spent that time throwing papers around and using the ledger stamp to decorate his office walls.
Now, if you were the auditor in this case, would you proceed with your audit of the second company? Would you say, I know he’s only two, but I still have to try to make sense of his method to see if anything reasonable can be gleaned from the work he’s done or would you admit that there’s nothing to be learned from proceeding and close the case on that file?
The only reason to proceed with an audit or inquiry is to discern what management practices have been utilized by those who have a rational method for accounting and then to determine if they stayed within the boundaries of acceptable and ethical practices or if they strayed from them.
That process assumes, before it ever gets started, that you are making an inquiry into work performed by intelligent minds. The purpose of which is to determine if those intelligent minds used the resource of their minds in the service of acceptable accounting practices or deceptive ones.
What you would never do, is undertake this inquiry when you KNOW for certain that there is no intelligibility to be discerned. If you knew a two year old had taken over the accounting responsibilities for a company, your audit would end because there’s no point to it any more.
What can we gain from this clumsy analogy? Rational inquiry is only applied to something that is assumed to be intelligible.
When we use our reason to try to understand something, we are assuming, from the outset, that the thing we are investigating can be understood by reason because it is reasonable and that it will reveal itself in a rational way, that behind the mystery of the thing, there is order and governance that can be discerned.
But if you knew, before that inquiry was ever undertaken, that the thing in question is composed of meaninglessness and chaos, then you would never try to understand it. One day you’d look at it and it would be blue with a certain size and weight, composed of certain properties, and operating in a certain way, the next time you look at it, it’s hot pink, and an entirely different random arrangement of properties.
Trying to understand a phenomenon like that is a complete waste of time and effort. So how does this relate to science?
Science is a method of applying rational inquiry to the natural world or the natural universe. It assumes, from the outset that the natural world is governed by order and intelligibility.
So, science seeks to audit it, to understand that order. We assume that human reason is compatible and can be applied to the natural universe the same way that human reason is compatible with and can be applied to accounting records or something like a machine.
A machine is governed and ordered by certain ideas and principles. It is designed by intelligence and is, therefore, intelligible.
If the universe is not designed by an intelligence, then it follows that it is not intelligible. Our classical and medieval ancestors in Europe understood this. They first assumed that it was designed by an intelligence and therefore the work of discovering its ordering would not be a waste of their resources.
European theists were obsessed with unravelling the rational mysteries of the natural world and they invested huge resources to develop academic training, research, and methods which yielded what we now know to be the scientific method.
By contrast, many other societies looked at the natural world and assumed it was chaotic which is why they weren’t nearly so preoccupied with this kind of inquiry. They noticed that one day it would be rainy and cold, the next it would be warm. One night the stars and moon would shine, the next they would disappear.
One day, the wildlife would behave a certain way, the next they would do something different. This appeared to them to be the temperamental behaviour of a personality who was suffering from mood swings. And so, they concluded that the universe was something like a person. This became known as pantheism and almost every primitive culture embraced it.
Theists like Jews, Christians, and Muslims, by contrast, believed that the world was created by a supreme rational mind and was, therefore, imbued with rationality such that you could rely on it to behave in an ordered way, even if it didn’t give that appearance at first glance. It only meant you had to deepen your inquiry to discover the laws that were behind the phenomena.
We’ve since inherited that axiom and all the great achievements of the founders of science who were, to a man, theists – people like Thales, Aristotle, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Nicholas Copernicus, Isaac Newton, & Renee Descartes.
And now we take it for granted that science is valid, but we don’t know what first principles had to be assumed to begin that great work. And since we’ve forgotten what those first principles were, we assume we can neglect them and carry on doing science, without admitting that we have conceded the existence of an intelligent mind behind the governing laws of the universe.
Whenever we first encounter some phenomenon, it’s not uncommon to ask, why is that the way it is? For example, “why does the Northern sky burst open into a light show from time to time?” or “why is the universe filled with matter rather than antimatter?” And as we progress through that instinct, we arrive at more ultimate and fundamental questions like, “Why does the universe exist at all?”
And we don’t look at these questions as if they’re a nonsensical arrangement of words. These kinds of questions immediately resonate with inquisitive minds as valid in their inception. It’s not like if someone were to say, “When did purple stop smelling like thunder?” A phrase like that should be met with immediate dismissal as a meaningless arrangement of words.
But when someone asks something like, “why is the sky blue?”, even if we don’t know the answer, we assume that it’s a valid question to which there is a reasonable answer.
Why? Because we assume there is a reason, and you can’t inject reason into anything without conceding that someone gave it a reason.
Reason can only be attributed to an intellect and to a will. It cannot be traced to random, indifferent, irrational processes. Whether we recognize it or turn a blind eye to it, reason applied to natural phenomena instinctively presupposes an intelligence behind those phenomena.
So, if we’re going to continue affirming those kinds of questions and the kind of inquiry that science promotes, we should stop pretending that intelligibility and reason, found throughout the natural universe, aren’t preceded by a rational mind.
And if we refuse to do so, it shouldn’t surprise us that as we become more hostile to the idea of an intelligence behind the laws of nature, that scientific truth will grow more marginalized by ideological assumptions which is something we’re already seeing an alarming amount of in our contemporary political discourse.