William Lane Craig on the unexpected applicability of mathematics to nature

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

You might remember that Dr. Craig used a new argument in his debate with Lawrence Krauss in Melbourne, Australia.

My notes on the debate record it thus:

The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics:

  • The underlying structure of nature is mathematical – mathematics is applicable to nature
  • Mathematical objects can either be abstract objects or useful fiction
  • Either way, there is no reason to expect that nature should be linked to abstract objects or fictions
  • But a divine mind that wants humans to understand nature is a better explanation for what we see

And now Dr. Craig has expanded on it in the Q&A section of his Reasonable Faith web site.

The question:

Dear Dr Craig

Firstly can I thank you for all your work. My faith in Christ has been enormously strengthened through studying your work in apologetics in particular and I have grown in confidence in my Christian witness.

My question relates to numbers and mathematics as a whole. On the Defenders podcast you state that as God is the only self-existent, necessary being, numbers and mathematical objects, whilst being useful, don’t actually exist as these too would exist necessarily and independently of God. If this is the case, how can it be that mathematics is so easily applied to the natural world? Surely if mathematics only existed in our minds, we would expect to see no correlation between it and how the physical world actually is?


United Kingdom

Excerpt from the answer:

As philosopher of mathematics Mary Leng points out, for the non-theistic realist, the fact that physical reality behaves in line with the dictates of acausal mathematical entities existing beyond space and time is “a happy coincidence” (Mathematics and Reality [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010], p. 239). Think about it: If, per impossibile, all the abstract objects in the mathematical realm were to disappear overnight, there would be no effect on the physical world. This is simply to reiterate that abstract objects are causally inert. The idea that realism somehow accounts for the applicability of mathematics “is actually very counterintuitive,” muses Mark Balaguer, a philosopher of mathematics. “The idea here is that in order to believe that the physical world has the nature that empirical science assigns to it, I have to believe that there are causally inert mathematical objects, existing outside of spacetime,” an idea which is inherently implausible (Platonism and Anti-Platonism in Mathematics [New York: Oxford University Press, 1998], p. 136).

By contrast, the theistic realist can argue that God has fashioned the world on the structure of the mathematical objects. This is essentially what Plato believed. The world has mathematical structure as a result.

This argument was also made by mechanical engineering professor Walter Bradley in a lecture he gave on scientific evidence for an intelligent designer. You can read an essay that covers some of the material in that lecture at Leadership University.


The physical universe is surprising in the simple mathematical form it assumes. All the basic laws of physics and fundamental relationships can be described on one side of one sheet of paper because they are so few in number and so simple in form (see table 1.1).

[…]It has been widely recognized for some time that nature assumes a form that is elegantly described by a relatively small number of simple, mathematical relationships, as previously noted in table 1.1. None of the various proposals presented later in this chapter to explain the complexity of the universe address this issue. Albert Einstein in a letter to a friend expressed his amazement that the universe takes such a form (Einstein 1956), saying:

You find it strange that I consider the comprehensibility of the world to the degree that we may speak of such comprehensibility as a miracle or an eternal mystery. Well, a priori one should expect a chaotic world which cannot be in any way grasped through thought. . . . The kind of order created, for example, by Newton’s theory of gravity is of quite a different kind. Even if the axioms of the theory are posited by a human being, the success of such an enterprise presupposes an order in the objective world of a high degree which one has no a priori right to expect. That is the “miracle” which grows increasingly persuasive with the increasing development of knowledge.

Alexander Polykov (1986), one of the top physicists in Russia, commenting on the mathematical character of the universe, said: “We know that nature is described by the best of all possible mathematics because God created it.” Paul Davies, an astrophysicist from England, says, “The equations of physics have in them incredible simplicity, elegance and beauty. That in itself is sufficient to prove to me that there must be a God who is responsible for these laws and responsible for the universe” (Davies 1984). Successful development of a unified field theory in the future would only add to this remarkable situation, further reducing the number of equations required to describe nature, indicating even further unity and integration in the natural phenomena than have been observed to date.

The whole paper that started this off is called “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics”, and it is a must read for advanced Christian defenders. You can read the whole thing here.

One thought on “William Lane Craig on the unexpected applicability of mathematics to nature”

  1. There’s a lot of reflection on mathematics from a Christian point of view in John Byl’s book, The Divine Challenge: On Matter, Mind, Math & Meaning. (2004)
    It’s well worth reading. The first half is a very thorough dissection of the materialistic worldview. The second half examines Christianity as an intellectual point of view (looking at presuppositions) but at a certain point Byl brings in a hyper-calvinistic perspective. Byl does get bogged down in a discussion of God’s sovereignty vs free-will. While I do accept the doctrine of God’s sovereignty I don’t accept Byl’s interpretation as his view paints God into a corner which makes God the originator of the Fall and EVERYTHING that followed. I reject such an Idea as it make the whole idea of the Judgement in the last days a perverse joke. If Free-Will is in fact just an illusion, then logically God would have to judge himself… Scripture tells us clearly that God is NOT tempted by evil nor does he tempt with evil. (James 1: 13)

    In any case the first half fo this book was excellent and anyone involved in apologetics will have bumped into condescending atheists insinuating that Christianity is anti-intellectual and anti-rational. After getting through the first half, one comes to the conclusion that the OPPOSITE is true…. Just to avoid any misunderstanding, this is NOT a light read. Byl’s last chapter does a good job summing things up.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s