Professor Stokes on Where the Classical and the Christian Converge
It is commonly understood at New Saint Andrews College that as students take courses, they are really taking the professors who teach them. One of those professors is Senior Fellow of Philosophy Mitch Stokes. Dr. Stokes has been with the college since 2005 and has taught a spectrum of courses within the disciplines of math, philosophy, theology, and apologetics. Prior to his distinguished academic career, Dr. Stokes worked as a research and development engineer. It is fitting that he was chosen by Oxford to participate in a two-summer-long project to focus on bridging the gap between science and religion among professors across the globe. He has traversed this gap in his own professional life and has much to offer his students as a result.
Dr. Stokes provides his students a rare and remarkable opportunity to look at science, math, and religion from the perspective of an engineer-turned-philosopher. As higher education across America increasingly focuses on hyperspecialization, New Saint Andrews College prizes professors who can bridge different fields of knowledge. Thankfully, this concept of applying knowledge across domains embodies the classical liberal arts. Interestingly, it is gaining traction and is featured in contemporary books such as Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, as well as You Can Do Anything, and In Defense of a Liberal Education. Dr. Stokes is just the sort of seasoned mentor who can guide students through courses that bridge difficult topics in science and philosophy.
One such topic is the study of physics. Physics is fundamentally about invisible forces and particles that humans cannot observe with the naked eye and consequently must be explained using the gift of mathematics. Thus, Dr. Stokes refers to mathematics as “a seeing-eye dog which leads us to truths that we never would have guessed.” He adds that there has been one book-length treatment of the almost magical way that mathematics serves to understand physics: The Applicability of Mathematics as a Philosophical Problem by Mark Steiner. The thesis of Steiner’s book is that “the success of mathematical physics appears to assign the human mind a special place in the cosmos,” a view which Steiner calls “Pythagoreanism.” Dr. Stokes says that Steiner’s thesis is essentially that the world is “user friendly.” Pythagoreanism is the view that the universe is divinely designed mathematically, allowing humans to use reason to understand that divine order. Stokes adds, “Even though today’s physicists are Pythagoreans in Steiner’s sense, lots of them have dropped the ‘divine’ part of Pythagoreanism. They don’t really pursue the question of why mathematics works so well because they’ve dropped the idea of divine design. And so, of course, it’s a mystery to them.”
It doesn’t have to be such a mystery, though. Dr. Stokes continues, “At NSA, we obviously don’t drop the divine part; in fact, we assume it, just as the Pythagoreans and Plato did. People are surprised that Plato actually took his most important ideas from the Pythagoreans. So, Pythagoreanism (understanding the universe via mathematics) lines up really nicely with our year-long math course, which is not only the history of Pythagoreanism from ancient Greece to today’s string theory, but also the story of Western philosophy in general. As Lord Whitehead famously said, the history of European philosophy is really just a series of footnotes to Plato.”
On the other hand, Christians do have revelation of the perfection of the divine order. To Christians, it makes sense that God would design a gift such as mathematics which unlocks and explains the workings of the universe. Christians receive that gift with gratitude (usually) rather than with skepticism. Dr. Stokes summarizes with this epiphany, “ We have such a great opportunity here at NSA: because we have this liberal arts classical Christian education, we understand Pythagoreanism. We understand the divine gift of mathematics, knowing that it ultimately depends on Jesus Christ, in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17).” Stokes continues, “In fact, the idea of a classical or liberal arts education ultimately comes to us from the Pythagoreans (through Plato’s Republic). And Christ holds this Pythagoreanism together. It is at this point that the classical and the Christian come together.”
But what does this meeting of the classical and the Christian signify for NSA students? How does the understanding which Dr. Stokes unveils aid our students? According to senior Luke Deacon, who is president of the college’s Science and Religion Club, “Dr. Stokes has changed my entire paradigm of thinking, not only about subjects like science and religion, but also about how I understand, interact with, and debate with people. I now question everything with an attendant sense of humility.” Not only are Luke’s argumentative and conversational skills deepened, but he also sums up a major takeaway for all students considering NSA who have a math/science bent: “As a result of taking Dr. Stokes’s classes, I have what I think is an absolutely necessary foundation in order to understand the assumptions of different scientists. When we’re in high school, we learn the math; we learn the physics; we learn the equations. We never stop to ask, ‘Why does this match the world?’” So, for NSA students, this is a time for asking questions. Luke Deacon summarizes his experience as a student of Dr. Stokes, “Our sense of wonder is increased, which leads to a more intellectually-fulfilled life, richer in terms of wonder and praise for the Lord, which is what it should all come back to anyway.”
Indeed, it does all come back to that. And New Saint Andrews College thanks the Lord for blessing us with broad-thinking and biblically-driven faculty, such as Dr. Mitch Stokes, who invests in the lives of our students. In academia, he is a rare individual; likewise, in academia, the college is a rare institution. It is, indeed, a place where the classical and the Christian not only converge but also advance Christ’s kingdom, to bless future generations.