Elegant Universe
  • A reader writes:

    Dear Sir: You are reported to have said that there is no order or disorder in the universe apart from what man himself puts there — this in spite of your well-known preoccupation with a fluid and congruent universe. Can you tell us how you reconcile this, with regard in particular to your views on God?


    Sarah H

    Dear Sarah H: I don’t recall my exact wording of that statement, but I’m certain it’s not as you recapitulate. Presumably you’re referring to my conviction that order and disorder are epistemological words, not metaphysical. By which I mean, they are products of the human brain, and nothing in nature is “disorderly” as such: It simply is. To speak of order or disorder apart from the human mind is like speaking of color to a person born without sight.

    Using a slightly less elaborate analogy, I might, however, concede that nature is “congruent” in the sense that each thing in the universe, however small or large, has a specific nature and must act in accord with that nature.

    In this way — and this is also known as the law of essence or identity — the universe is congruent and elegant.

    Matter acts and reacts as it must. Matter does not possess will. That is why there’s really no such thing as chance.

    It’s in this sense that the Nobel Prize winning doctor Christian de Duve, in his fine book Vital Dust, speaks of the universe as a “cosmic imperative.” By that he means nature does not possess volition — or, if you prefer, nature does not possess choice, as humans do.

    Nature must act as it does because the identity of each thing determines how it must act. This applies as much to a bursting star as it does to a sub-microscopic particle.

    As for God, I can only explain Her popularity by an atheist’s nighttime sweats.

    Related: What is Beauty?

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

4 Responses and Counting...

  • Doc Jim 03.03.2012

    I would like to understand your comment: “To speak of order or disorder apart from the human mind is like speaking of color to a person born without sight.”

    In this example I was wondering about entropy and the refraction of light waves, events that would seem to occur in a mind-denuded world. They do not require outside observation to occur. I take your comments about the nature of each thing in the universe to argue these will obtain in a world without language. (However that may be, we might agree to rely on arbitrary signifiers to have this conversation.)

    While the signifiers “disorder” and “color” are arbitrary and depend on a shared language, wouldn’t a system marked by entropy be “disorderly” by its nature, or its identity? Wouldn’t the refraction of light produce varied optical bandwidths, even if there was no painter in the room?

    Is your point that words are arbitrary; what we call “dogs” could just easily be signified by the term “cats” and its phoneme? Or is it that entropic systems and refraction don’t occur, or even exist, without a Berklean observer?

    Just asking, trying not to shout.

  • Mind-denuded! My dear fellow, what a phrase.

    The truth is, no phenomena in nature (apart from consciousness) requires observation to occur or exist, and that is one of my main points. This is why the answer to your question — “Wouldn’t the refraction of light produce varied optical bandwidths, even if there was no painter in the room?” — is yes, it would and does produce varied optical bandwidths. My point isn’t quite what you suggest: i.e. words are arbitrary (which doesn’t ultimately matter), and systems don’t occur without an observer.

    My point is this: nothing is “orderly” or “disorderly” in the universe apart from a consciousness. Order and disorder are epistemological words. Things exist and they act and react as they must apart from all consciousness, but it is only a consciousness which regards these things as “orderly” or not. The same, I suppose, could be said about entropy itself: it’s epistemological — i.e. of the human mind — and not existential.

    When I said “To speak of order or disorder apart from the human mind is like speaking of color to a person born without sight,” I only meant it as a metaphor, a comparison. Specifically, I meant that it’s equally absurd to describe as orderly or disorderly the universe apart from consciousness as it is to speak of color to a person who was born without any sight. A poor metaphor, perhaps, but a metaphor nevertheless.

    Thank you for the excellent comment, and thank you for dropping by.

  • I’m right there with you on the nighttime sweats. Religion is a far more pleasant idea. Somewhat sadly, the comforting trick doesn’t work on everyone. However, I’m surprised that you seemed to have referred to yourself as an atheist! As it was once explained to me, “doesn’t atheism take, at the very least, a little negative-faith?” Or as I tend to explain it, “I’m agnostic because the Spaghetti Fairy is just as likely to appear after I choke to death on a meatball.”

    And, Thank you for the order-disorder lesson: There goes Aquinas’s fifth proof (i.e. Intelligent Design).

    Btw, Sorry to creep all of your post.

  • Sorry!? My dear fellow, I’m loving it.

    In answer to your question, no, I don’t think it requires even a little negative faith but just the opposite: there’s no reason to have any faith at all. In the same way, and for the same reason, that one doesn’t, for example, hold one’s mind open to the possibility that if one martyrs himself for Allah, killing thousands in the process, one will then be met in heaven with 70-plus(sized) virgins, so one doesn’t hold one’s mind open to the notion of God or gods. Any arbitrary claim falls under this category. I’ve written about it in more detail here, if you’re interested, but even better: my novel discusses that very question in depth.

    Thank you for dropping by.

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