The Idea of an Intelligible Universe

By | October 15, 2011

By Juan Bernal

Question: Did mono-theistic religion give us the idea of an intelligible universe?

YES, the source is religion: Loren Eiseley gave some interesting comments about a contribution of theism to science. In his book Darwin’s Century, he wrote that theism provided the view that the universe possesses order which can be interpreted by rational minds.

“For, as Whitehead rightly observes, the philosophy of experimental science was not impressive. It began its discoveries and made use of its method in the faith, not the knowledge, that it was dealing with a rational universe controlled by a Creator who did not act upon whim nor interfere with the forces He had set in operation. The experimental method succeeded beyond men’s wildest dreams but the faith that brought it into being owes something to the Christian conception of the nature of God. It is surely one of the curious paradoxes of history that science, which professionally has little to do with faith, owes its origins to an act of faith that the universe can be rationally interpreted, and that science today is sustained by that assumption.” (p. 62)

Theism has gained much from modern thinkers who have criticized many poorly formed conceptions found in the theistic tradition. But a certain respect is appropriate toward the religious tradition which inspired our quest for truth and spiritual values.


NO, the idea pre-dates mono-theistic religion: According to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book, Philosophy in the Flesh, the idea that “the universe possesses order which can be interpreted by rational minds ” does not originate from theism (Christian theism?), but originates much earlier with an ancient folk theory that the world is intelligible, an idea that drives part of the early philosophy of the pre-Socratics, and is one of the assumptions found in Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophies. To quote Lakoff and Johnson:

“The forms of thought that we saw as emerging in the pre-Socratics and finding their most sophisticated expression in Plato and Aristotle are ..anything but quaint and archaic. They exist not only in contemporary philosophy and theology, but they lie at the heart of Western science. The Folk Theory of the Intelligibility of the World is a precondition for any form of rational inquiry.” (p. 390)

Yes, in part it is true that “the religious tradition …inspired our quest for truth and spiritual values.” But that quest for intelligibility and ‘truth’ is much older than the “religious tradition” and has often been frustrated by various religions (something that defenders of religious tradition tend to forget). However, both this aspect of the “religious tradition” (the quest for God’s truth) and the scientific assumption of the intelligibility of the world are off-spring of much older intuitions (“folk theories”) and philosophies. We find early signs of the scientific spirit in some of the Pre-Socratic philosophers and in Aristotle‚Äôs philosophy, as well as in the metaphysical thought of Plato.

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