Atheist Physicist Roger Penrose on Reality

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts this morning, Unbelievable?, where the two guests were atheist physicist Roger Penrose and Christian theologian Alister McGrath.  In a fascinating exchange, the host, Justin Brierley, asked Penrose if reality could be reduced to matter.

I expected Penrose to say “yes” and was shocked when he said “no.”  In fact, Penrose said that he tends to divide reality up into three realms: consciousness, the material world, and mathematics.  Penrose, if I understood him correctly, said that these three slices of reality are all intertwined but also distinct from each other.  Penrose seemed to be saying that a reduction of all reality to matter was mistaken.

In fact, Penrose went on to explain that as a physicist, the more he discovers about matter, the more it looks like mathematics!

What is so interesting about Penrose’s comments is that he recognizes that consciousness and mathematics are not explained by the material world, which runs very much counter to the standard atheist dogma.  Mathematics, according to Penrose, seems to exist as an objective reality outside the material world.  He didn’t venture to offer a theory as to where mathematics has come from, but he is clearly disdainful of the materialist reduction program.   How refreshing.

  • I had a Math prof many years ago who was a true believer in his field.
    He thought that, no matter what the topic, if one had not reduced the issue to mathematics, then one had not thought the problem all the way through. In his view, “matter” and “energy” were terms we used for sensory representations of the underlying reality, which was mathematics. This was the warp and woof of the universe which dictated what and how the material world was to be.

    Ever since that time, I’ve had a particular fondness for representations of the trancendent Godhead that try to use mathematical concepts to describe Him.

  • Todd

    I tried to find the interview and sadly only found parts of it that were talking about m-theory, and I would agree with Dr. Penrose that it is not yet a theory, or even observable, and therefore not testable.

    I wish I would have heard the part about reality, as I subscribe to the model-dependent realism that I thought was well thought out in Hawking’s book and is a subject in which I find great interest. It would be interesting to see how he separated consciousness from the material world and if it was consistent with my own vision that because there is no reason to believe it survives physical death it is a physical manifestation.

    I’m not certain about the separation of mathematics, but admit I’m not an expert when it comes to equations. I’ve always thought of math as simply an abstract way to define what we observe. For example at a basic level, if you have a two sticks lying on the ground and introduce a third, you can say that 2+1 = 3 to represent it mathematically, but it is still describing what we see lying on the ground. Perhaps more complicated mathematics can be used to describe concepts instead of material, but to what end? Perhaps that is what Penrose explained… Interesting post.

    Does anyone know where to find the full interview?

  • Bill Pratt

    I would have thought they archive the podcasts and that you could hear the whole thing there. Look around the Unbelievable? website for the podcast archive.

    By the way, Penrose was very disdainful of Hawking’s conclusions in his new book and seemed to profoundly disagree with him on many points. Not what I expected to hear when I started listening to the podcast.

  • Sagar Gorijala

    I’m an Atheist too and an Atheist who proved that gods can’t exist and someone who is unknown to the masses. Here is my theory…
    I established the first postulate in January 2000. I’ve ADHD ( Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ) and therefore work under severe limitations. All day goes in daydreaming and doing what I hate to do… I wish someone would come along and lends me a helping hand…
    The first postulate is all Mathematics and it serves logic. It says you can’t divide anything into zero parts or you can’t bring anything from zero. There are people all around the World who thing creation and destruction happen all the time, everywhere and even suggest -1+1=0 and, I refute that and wonder what they mean… Someone actually suggested that +1 is Matter and -1 is Antimatter but, Matter has existence and that means ” plus ” and Antimatter has existence and that means ” plus ” and Matter+Antimatter=Energy and Energy is also ” plus “… All the three have existence and are pluses and there are no zeroes and minuses…
    If you think my theory is wrong then let me know and I will explain why I think it is correct. I just want rest of the World to know my theory. Can you help me with it? Can you please spread the word?
    Thanks for your time, patience and attention.
    Thanks again.
    See you later.

  • Vaclav Chmelir

    “Can you please spread the word?” NEVER

  • way12go

    Okay. Never mind.