How monotheism prompted the quest for scientific discovery

An extract from the new book, A Guide for the Jewish Undecided, on why Orthodox Jews have reason to believe


Man walking on ground full of math formulas . Education and problem solving concept . This is a 3d render illustration .

At the heart of the scientific endeavour is an unexplained mystery, a mystery that science cannot truly hope to explain but seems compelled to embrace. The mystery is why the language and conceptual scheme of mathematics should prove so exquisitely apt for framing the laws of nature.

Scientists approach the natural world with the assumption — or should we call it the hope — that the world will reveal to them a deep underlying order, an order predicated upon mathematical structure. Albert Einstein expressed his wonder at this in the following words: “The very fact that the totality of our sense experiences is such that by means of thinking… it can be put in order… is one which leaves us in awe, but which we shall never understand. One may say, ‘the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility’.”

Another Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Eugene Wigner, framed this wonder in terms of The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. He writes: “The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.”

Philosopher Mark Steiner documents a number of important scientific discoveries that simply wouldn’t have been made had the researchers not been entertaining, from the very outset, the thought (or hope) that the world was structured in ways that would allow for scientific discovery.

It is as if the fundamental regularities of nature, and the deep structure of the universe, are carefully calibrated so as to be amenable to minds like ours to uncover, using mathematical concepts that come naturally to our way of thinking.

It is almost unthinkable that science should ever be able to explain why this is so, because science only gets going once you assume that it will be so. This is why Einstein and Wigner express themselves in tones of awe and mystery.

Many of the founding fathers of the scientific method were unapologetically open about the fact that their theism is what justified their most basic assumption— an assumption that underlay their methodology — that the world has a systematic order to it that can be discovered and described by human minds.

For example, Robert Boyle claimed that, through experiment, the patient scientist would be able “to read the stenography of God’s omniscient hand”.

And Isaac Newton explained why he thought it proper to assume that, beneath the chaotic appearance of a world in flux, we should be able to find simple mathematical regularities and laws. He wrote: “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things. As the world, which to the naked eye exhibits the greatest variety of objects, appears very simple in its internal constitution when surveyed by a philosophic understanding, and so much the simpler, the better, it is understood, so it is in these visions. It is the perfection of all God’s works that they are done with the greatest simplicity.”

Boyle and Newton, and their contemporaries, knew that it was wise (at least in general) to keep God out of the laboratory. But they were convinced that God was propping the laboratory up from outside. If there were no intelligent designer, then there would be no reason on Earth to assume that the world should conform to elegant mathemati­cal regularities and laws; there would be no reason to assume that the scientific method should bear fruit; there would be no reason to enter the laboratory to begin with.

The great philosopher and historian RG Collingwood put it as follows: modern science rests on the assumption that “nature is one and science is one”. Every pocket of nature is bound by the laws of math­ematics.

In addition, each pocket is bound by “special codes” that don’t differ radically from pocket to pocket. The various realms of nature, the realms of chemistry, biology, and physics, for example, don’t give rise to independent sciences. They interact. An expert in one field will have useful insights to bring to bear in another field. All of the specific fields of science are really modifications of “one and the same thing, a single thing which we call by the name of natural science”.

For this reason, Collingwood thought it no surprise that the evo­lution of the modern scientific method required the prior evolution of monotheism. The contemporary scientist proclaims, together with the monotheist, that the universe is bound by one law. The scientist calls it the law of nature; the theist calls it the will of God (but, in a sense, this is just semantics). The polytheist, by contrast, denies this foundational assumption of contemporary science: the world is governed by numer­ous, conflicting forces, or gods.

In a time when everyone was polytheistic – Collingwood sug­gests — the science of water would have been studied in the temple of the water god, and the science of fire would have been studied in the temple of the fire god. It took a monotheist to say, “Hang on a minute, there’s only one set of rules that governs this world. That’s what we should be studying!”

Certainly, once we had taken this leap forward, science no longer needed theology. And, today, many scientists are atheists or agnostics. But one can see Collingwood’s point. The emergence of modern sci­ence owes a certain debt to monotheism. And once you’ve gotten rid of God, the conviction that we will find order in the world becomes noth­ing more than a mystery; a mystery that makes sense only to the theist.

Extracted from ‘A Guide for the Jewish Undecided — A Philosopher Makes the Case for Orthodox Judaism’, Rabbi Dr Samuel Lebens, Maggid Books, £22.99

Rabbi Lebens will be discussing his new book with Rabbi Joseph Dweck at the London School of Jewish Studies at 8pm on Sunday February 5 (online and in-person); and with Rabbi Raphael Zarum at Jewish Book Week, at 10.30am on Wednesday March 1 (online). Details from and

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