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Christian Union
June 24, 2017

Christian Union Ministry at Princeton Hosts Seminars, Lectures

By Catherine Elvy, Staff Writer

Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer and physicist, once opined that mathematics is the “language in which God has written the universe.”
With that quotation as a launching point, a Princeton University senior recently led a seminar on behalf of Christian Union for students to probe the idea that the field of mathematics reflects a divine blueprint of the universe. 

“Math seems to be incredibly powerful for describing God’s creation,” said Matt O’Rourke ’17. “Physicists have thought this for a while. Nobody really quite understands why.”

The physics major led the discussion on April 22 in East Pyne Hall as part of a series from Christian Union’s ministry at Princeton exploring the relationship between Christianity and the sciences and mathematics. The META initiative, which began in October, aimed to foster conversations on Christianity and culture. 

Also during April, students involved in Christian Union’s Princeton ministry heard Hans Halvorson, a noted Princeton philosophy professor, discuss the topic of science and miracles.

On April 3, Halvorson, who serves in both Princeton’s philosophy and mathematics departments, delivered a lecture entitled: Is the Belief in Miracles Ever Rational? Halvorson also participated in a robust question-and-answer session.  

On April 28, Christian Union Ministry Fellow Kevin Antlitz gave a talk on Genesis during Christian Union’s leadership lecture series. Antlitz said he launched the META initiative to provide student believers with a forum to engage critical issues within their cultural context. “I am passionate about studying and exegeting culture in order to contextualize the Gospel message so that it speaks to our world today,” Antlitz said.  

The students meet several times per semester to discuss a wide range of topics relevant to culture, including technology, social media, pop music, and films. “Our hope is that these conversations will help students continue to develop a robust faith in Jesus Christ, while also equipping them to share the Gospel in a compelling way,” Antlitz said.

During his segment, O’Rourke, who plans to pursue doctoral studies in theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology in the fall semester, noted that mathematics can be remarkably descriptive of natural phenomena. 

O’Rourke pointed the students in the audience to the reflections of the late Eugene Wigner, a Nobel Prize-winning Princeton professor of mathematical physics.

In his classic article on the philosophy of mathematics and physics, Wigner noted the “enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it.”

In The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences, Wigner explored how mathematics and physics are so well matched that the coincidence is uncanny. The Hungarian-born atheist went on to ponder “why the success of mathematics in its role in physics appears so baffling.”

In 1963, Wigner won the Nobel Prize in physics for his insight into the fundamental mathe­matics and physics of quantum mechanics. With a mathematic approach to the atom, Wigner became one of the first to apprehend the deep implications of symmetry, which later emerged as one of the key principles of theoretical physics, according to Princeton documents.

O’Rourke, a native of Massachusetts, also pointed to some of the philosophical insights from John Lennox, a University of Oxford emeritus professor of mathematics and a Christian apologist. 

In God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?, Lennox highlighted the apparent divine programming embedded throughout the universe, including in the enormously complex, but simultaneously precise, human genome. 

Lennox pointed to the improbability of randomness producing biologically significant materials, given the astronomical number of possible sequences of the components of a DNA molecule and the simultaneous extreme specificity and precision of the sequence for biological functionality. Likewise, proteins require a “high degree of molecular sensitivity” and the mere substitution of a single amino acid can produce catastrophic results, according to God’s Undertaker

“Indeed, only a very tiny proportion of all possible sequences on the DNA molecule will exhibit the specified complexity of biologically significant molecules,” Lennox wrote. 

“Math seems to be incredibly powerful for describing God’s creation. Physicists have thought this for a while.”—Matt O’Rourke

Essentially, it is unreasonable to expect that mere random chance produces complex biological molecules that only function within rigid parameters. “It would be way easier to win the Powerball every day for the rest of your life,” O’Rourke quipped. 

That points to a key question for scholars and students alike. “Where does the seemingly underlying intelligence come from?” O’Rourke asked. 

O’Rourke remains awed by the precise nature of mathematics and its ability to convey large subsets of information. “In principle, there is no logical reason why this abstract study of pattern should so perfectly and unfailingly describe God’s natural creation,” he said. 

“There are an infinite number of frameworks/perspectives through which one could view and interpret the natural world. The fact that we know of one and only one that does so with such radical success is completely remarkable.”