Trinh Xuan Thuan writes like someone in awe of the evolving reality around him, in awe and so enraptured that he must share his uncontainable experience of beauty with others. While his title, Chaos and Harmony: Perspectives on Scientific Revolutions of the Twentieth Century, suggests a subject matter that is less accessible to the typical reader of religious texts, quite the opposite turns out to be the case. This book is for those of us who have ever felt challenged unto inadequacy by the self-assured claims of science to have superseded all other explanations for the shape and ways of reality as we experience it.
Each chapter reads like an individual essay, but taken as a whole the work reveals Thuan’s holistic vision of nature in spite of his claims for the value of reductionism in reaching such a vision. The first chapter, Truth and Beauty, describes the splendor of the Theory of Relativity due to its inevitability, simplicity, and intricacy. Each of these three terms is thoroughly defined, like so many others that he employs, in a manner that could prove fruitful for explication of concepts in religion. Thuan uses his second chapter, Contingency and Necessity: The Formation of the Solar System, to tell a story as much as to offer a theory. This story includes multiple acts and actors, but more importantly, it speaks of the elements of structure, pattern, and order just as the Genesis creation account does when relieved of its literal mask.
One kind of feature that is not so visible in many Christian understandings of creation is contingency, chance, or indeterminacy. Thuan delights in these concepts and gives them a fresh look that opens the door of possibility. His third chapter is a thorough example of this. In Chaos in the Cosmic Machinery and Uncertainty in Determinism, the author explains that chaos is not lack of order. Rather, chaos refers to the difficulty of determining outcomes over lengths of time. In this sense, Chaos Theory is more of a challenge of predictability than it is of order. Under the title: The Austere Beauty of Symmetry, Thuan reveals that he is convinced of the unity of nature due to its harmony and symmetry. This symmetry, like so many other seemingly well-known terms, is shown to have numerous meanings including a kind of invariance in space and time.
Thuan attends to even more symmetry in his fifth chapter, The Unbearable Strangeness of Atoms. Here he also asserts that, “We interact with the universe through the interplay of light and matter.”(205) Franciscan and Pseudo-Dionysian inspired spiritualities might find some concordance with this statement. Later he asserts that symmetry appears to be the path to a unified understanding of reality, but he points out that, “Perfect unity, flawless symmetry, and absolute perfection would be synonymous with sterility and death.”(235) These notions might appear to challenge certain ideas about God, but Thuan’s explanation, that differentiation allows for life and all that makes it worth living, is intriguing. He goes on to challenge Darwinism’s failure to account for a systematic progression toward complexity with the contention that there is a growing consensus among scientists that there exists “a principle guiding the evolution of living species on earth toward ever-higher levels of organization.”(284)
In his final chapter, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of the Human Mind, Thuan revels in the mental capacity to make sense of the world and its rules, tendencies, and nature. He is not afraid to toy with ideas of predeterminism in the workings of nature, and he has a holistic perspective of the world through science to make such a claim with comfort. In its entirety, this book is a good place to gain intelligent insight on many of the scientific ideas that are occasionally used against religion. At the same time Thuan raises some very religious topics which he expresses according to scientific understanding, such as stepping out of time, the possibility of experiencing all eternity within a microsecond, the movement to an endpoint, and the reality of mystery. Axel Reisinger’s translation of this work is so well done that it is not recognizable as a translation.