The Intelligible Universe

In the atheist’s imagination, all of reality is reducible to matter and energy and time. Science, the study of that matter and energy and time, is thought to render it intelligible. This is a mistake of thinking, however.  Intelligible order existed in the universe before the first scientist began to inquire into it. Science is merely the intellectual process whereby mankind gains understanding of that order.


It is the order of the universe which renders it intelligible to science. It would be un-intelligible if there were only chaos. Science reveals the mechanisms of the universe, by which it is made intelligible, but science does not explain the origin of that intelligibility.

Imagine the scientist out there with his microscope, or his telescope, or his mathematical analysis, or his agile mental theorizing. He is applying his intellect to the project of explaining the natural world. He is only studying the mysteries that are already there, however. He is not explaining how the natural world originated. He is not explaining how its ordering principles originated.  He is not explaining how there is something to be studied, rather than nothing. And, he is certainly not explaining the why of the universe.

It’s easy to forget this, when we’re caught up in the awesomeness of what science reveals to us about nature. We can easily be confused between the process by which we learn about material reality, on the one hand; and the features of material reality that cause it to be presented intelligibly to us, on the other.

God of the Gaps

One way to become thus confused is to fall prey to the “God of the gaps” argument. The “God of the gaps” argument would hold that whatever science does not explain, God does. Theists in ages past have resorted to this, when their understanding of the natural world was slight, but it was always a weak supposition.

Now atheists use it as a handy container to hold all theist perspectives; as if every argument for God could somehow be reduced to that God of the gaps assertion. The God-of-the-gaps argument is the best thing that ever happened to atheism advocates. It allows them to deflect attention from the bigger questions behind the facts of matter, energy and time; as if the only project in front of us was the explanation of material reality. It’s a way to avoid the philosophical questions that go beyond empirical study of nature–questions like how and why there is a material reality in the first place.

In fact, materialists turn the argument on its head.  We’re expected to conclude now that anything not already explained by science, including questions of ultimate reality, will in due course be explained within the materialist paradigm.  This is a materialism-of-the-gaps argument, and it is just as incorrect.

The Explanation Behind the Explanation

The way to redirect attention on this point is to answer as Richard Swinburne does:

I am not postulating a “God of the gaps,” a god merely to explain the things that science has not yet explained. I am postulating a God to explain why science explains; I do not deny that science explains, but I postulate God to explain why science explains.

There is, in short, a rationality to the universe that pre-exists scientific inquiry. Considering the universe as one entire system, one defies that rationality by suggesting that the universe is its own author. One can demonstrate this through mathematical principles, as with Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems. It stands to common-sense reasoning, as well. The system which is the universe is not rationally explicable purely on the basis of self-reference. It cannot be self-caused, and the laws of physics by which it operates and can be observed cannot be self-caused. The universe does not explain itself.


Many scientists believe that the rational design of the universe suggests that it was prepared for us. “It almost seems as if the universe in some sense must have known we were coming,” (Freeman Dyson); “We are truly meant to be here” (Paul Davies). They draw these conclusions from the exquisite design of the universe.  Albert Einstein found the rational intelligibility of the universe to be astonishing: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe,” he said, “is that it is comprehensible.” In fact, one could say that the fact of the universe being capable of being understood suggests that it was designed for beings with that capability.

Transcendent Ultimate Reality

For philosophers down through the ages, the idea that the universe originated in some transcendent reality seemed fairly obvious. Physical things, and energy, and time, are not self-explanatory. The universe requires some explanation beyond itself. It is only in recent days that matter, energy, and time, and the order imposed upon it, have been considered by some to have come about spontaneously.




2 thoughts on “The Intelligible Universe”

  1. Dear Mr. Norton: You may know that at the turn of the century the most prominent Anglophone philosopher in the world was FH Bradley. His principal work was (and is!) Appearance and Reality. Having looked at some of your comments I am led to wonder if you’ve familiarized with his arguments concerning the intelligibility of the ideas and categories by which our world is sought to be understood. I realize in online discussions largely aimed at young learners one cannot present very complete analyses and scholarly discussions. But it seems to me that omitting a thinker of Bradley’s stature leaves a pretty big hole in the subject. What say ye?

    1. You’re right, I’ll endeavor to repair this omission. I’ve got a book coming out around first of the year, tentatively titled Dangerous God/A Defense of Transcendent Truth. It’s languishing with the publisher at the moment but I’m going to look at the manuscript again with your comment in mind.

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