CLUES OF GOD 8: The Mystery of Human Cognition

Building upon my last post about human consciousness, a further problem for scientists who are seeking to explain life apart from any sort of transcendent creator, is the mystery of human COGNITION. This is a particular aspect of our ability to think rationally and abstractly that provides further evidence for the existence of a supremely intelligent creator God.

Not only is human consciousness inexplicable in terms of purely physical / chemical processes, so too is our ability to perceive and decode the fundamental laws of the universe, a process which involves the embracing of abstract concepts. Any animal can observe an apple falling from a tree, but only the human mind can perceive the abstract concept of gravity and seek to define and explain it in precise mathematical terms.

Roy Williams, in his book God Actually, makes the point that there is no good explanation of this ability to engage in abstract thinking in terms of mere ‘survival value’.[1] As he states,

“It ought to be enough that Man, like many other animals, is capable of seeing and dodging out of the way of the falling apple. Anything else looks like a huge case of overkill.”[2]

Furthermore, evolutionary theory offers no rational explanation for how such an ability could have developed. Dr Thomas Nagel, Professor of Philosophy and Law, Emeritus, at New York University, made just this point:

“Darwinism may explain why creatures with vision or reason survive, but it does not explain how vision or reasoning are possible … The possibility of minds capable of forming progressively more objective concepts of reality (i.e. of decoding Nature) is not something the theory of natural selection can attempt to explain.”[3]

Nowhere is this inexplicable aspect of the human mind more obvious than in the area of mathematics. Astrophysicist, Dr Paul Davies, Regents’ Professor and Director of the Beyond Centre for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University, in his book, “Are We Alone?” explains perhaps the most puzzling aspect of human cognition. He writes:

“The most striking product of the human mind is mathematics. This is a baffling thing. Mathematics is not something that you find lying around in your backyard. It’s produced by the human mind. Yet if we ask where mathematics works best, it is in areas like particle physics and astrophysics, areas of fundamental science that are very, very far removed from everyday affairs. In fact, they are at the opposite end of the spectrum of complexity from the human brain. In other words, we find that a product of the most complex system we know in nature, the human brain, finds a consonance with the underlying, simplest and most fundamental level, the basic building blocks that make up the world. That, I think, is an astounding and unexpected thing, and it suggests to me that consciousness and our ability to do mathematics is no mere accident, no trivial detail, no insignificant by-product of evolution that is piggy-backing on some other mundane property. It points to what I like to call the cosmic connection, the existence of a really deep relationship between minds that can do mathematics and the underlying laws of nature.[4]

In other words, the inexplicable ability of the human mind to engage in abstract mathematical thinking is made doubly inexplicable by the fact that the abstract concepts that we formulate accurately reflect the fundamental forces of nature and provide a meaningful explanation of them. Thus, not only is intelligent design obvious in the existence of the logical, orderly universal constants and fundamental forces of the universe, but also in our ability to decipher and quantify them. The hand of an intelligent Creator is evident in both the fundamental codes of the universe and in our ability to decode them. As theoretical physicist Dr Sir John Polkinghorne states, “The reason within matches the reason without.”[5]

This is what Einstein was referring to when he remarked that “the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility”.[6] Indeed, it is a great mystery for naturalists and evolutionists, because this profound intelligibility of the physical universe cannot be accounted for by natural selection. Our ability to construct abstract formulae to understand and explain the universe offers no logical benefit for our survival as individuals or as a species.

This particular argument for God’s existence may seem, on the surface, a little esoteric but those who follow it through to its logical conclusion find it extremely convincing. For instance, Roy Williams, author of God Actually, writes that this evidence of mankind’s ability to engage in abstract thinking in order to understand the universe “played an important part in my passage toward belief in Christianity … because the theistic implications of this argument seemed to me inescapable, and still do.”[7]

The inability of natural selection to provide an adequate explanation for the link between ‘the reason within and the reason without’ leads many, like Roy Williams, to believe in a supernatural Intelligent Designer. It is this same link that led theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne to conclude that God is the most logical explanation for these two phenomena, stating, “there is some deeper rationality which is the ground of both, linking them together.”[8]

The confluence of our finely tuned, mathematically precise universe AND mankind’s ability to perceive and quantify these abstract principles argues powerfully for the existence of intelligent design. To suggest that these two interconnected things developed by pure chance is to stretch the bounds of credulity to breaking point. In his book, The Mind of God, astrophysicist Paul Davies states,

“In the end, Occam’s Razor compels me to put my money on design.” [9]

Davies is right to invoke Occam’s Razor: the principle that if two or more explanations can account for all the facts, the simpler one is more likely to be correct. In this case, the simplest and most logical explanation of this unexpected and extraordinary link is the existence of a supernatural Intelligent Designer. This is what led astrophysicist, Dr Paul Davies, to conclude:

“It may seem bizarre, but in my opinion, science offers a surer path to God than religion. People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature – the laws of physics – are simply accepted as given, as brute facts. Nobody asks where they came from; at least they do not do so in polite company. However, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as law-like order in nature that is at least partly comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.”[10]

Of course, you don’t need to be a scientist to discern the evidence of God’s existence. It is clear and evident to anyone who has an open mind.

In this eighth edition of “The Clues of God”, let me hark back to the statement by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. Speaking of God as the most obvious explanation for all that we see and perceive in this amazing universe, he writes:

“What may be known about God is plain to them [us], because God has made it plain to them [us].  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19-20).

(For a more detailed discussion of the impressive evidence for God’s existence, see my book, “7 Reasons to Believe”).


[1] Roy Williams, God Actually, ABC Books, Sydney, 2008,  p.69

[2] Roy Williams, God Actually, ABC Books, Sydney, 2008,  p.69

[3] Quoted in Peter Watson, A Terrible Beauty: A Cultural History of the Twentieth Century, Phoenix Press, 2000, pp.673-4

[4] Paul Davies, Are We Alone?, Penguin Books, 1995, p.84

[5] John Polkinghorne, “God’s Action in the World”, J.K. Russell Fellowship Lecture, 1990, pp.3-4.

[6] Albert Einstein, “Physics and Reality”, Franklin Institute Journal, March 1936.

[7] Roy Williams, “God Actually”, ABC Books, 2008, p.68

[8] John Polkinghorne, “God’s Actions in the World”, J.K. Russell Fellowship Lecture, 1990, p.4.

[9] Paul Davies, “The Mind of God”, Simon & Schuster, 1992, p.220.

[10] Paul Davies, God and the New Physics, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1983