Giberson: Math works, ergo Jesus

Oh dear.  Like a sufferer who can’t stop worrying an aching tooth with his tongue, I can’t seem to leave Karl Giberson—or HuffPo—alone.  Over at the second, the first has just published an empirical justification for believing in God and for the happy coexistence of science and faith. It’s the old claim about the mysterious effectiveness of mathematics in helping us understand the world:

So why religion?

I want to offer, by way of a short parable, a partial explanation for the religious impulse and why so many of us are driven to embrace realities that go beyond what science can establish with clarity.

Giberson then tells a tale about how unexplained music coming from a dark, impenetrable abyss might lead one to faith.  To Giberson, mathematics is that music:

Nature on the surface is, to be sure, noisy and full of countless interesting things, from planets to people to protons. And we can note the varied flora and fauna of our existence and explain some it to our satisfaction. But as we apply our scientific knowledge to the world and drill down to the bedrock of our understanding, eliminating the noise and complexity of nature, we find something quite wondrous. At the end of the great hallway that takes us from the social sciences to the natural sciences, through biology and chemistry and ultimately to physics, we find ourselves at last in the presence of a most beautiful and unexplained symphony of mathematics. There is a grandeur that comes gradually into view as we get closer and closer to the foundations of our world. Across the dark abyss, this mathematics comes clearly into view, out of nowhere, explaining the world around us while remaining unexplained itself. . . .

The quest for the deepest understanding of the world does not compel all of us to ponder the origin of mathematics. Many of us don’t like math, have no idea what it means to say that “equations rule the world,” and are thus not awed by math. And the quest does not lead all of us who are awed by such mysteries into religion. But those that understand the eternal mystery best impulsively lean over the railing into the abyss because they know in their bones that there is something out there. Whether they encounter something depends on factors that elude many of their less imaginative peers. This is a deeply religious impulse: one that goes beyond science, but not one without motivation.

Let’s put aside the question of whether knowing something “in your bones” is really a good way to find stuff out, and deal briefly with the rest.

Mathematics is, of course, a logical system invented by humans, and so has to “work”. One could equally well ask, “Why does logic work?”  But if Giberson is asking, “Why does math help us understand the world?”, that seems equivalent to asking “Why does nature obey laws?”  One answer is that if it didn’t, we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.  But maybe I’m missing something. Yet consider this: if nature didn‘t obey laws, would we see that as evidence for no God?  Of course not! In fact, the temporary and local suspension of physical law is precisely what a miracle consists of, and miracles, of course, are evidence for God.  So when physical laws are obeyed, God’s working, and when they’re broken, God’s working too.  Perhaps there’s some intermediate degree of lawlessness that would convince the faithful that there is no God?

What really puzzles me about Giberson’s argument is not just his seamless transition from ignorance to God.   It’s his transition to the Christian God, complete with Jesus, virgin birth, Resurrection, and all the accoutrements.  (Giberson is an evangelical Christian.) Now why would math imply Jesus? Couldn’t it equally well imply Mohamed, or Brahma, or Xenu?  Giberson does not enlighten us.

Sometimes parody is better than argument, and Sam Harris does it so much better than I.  Here’s his response to a similar argument for God made by Dr. Kenneth Miller:  why does science work so well in helping us understand the world?

I have often wondered why walking works. Why is the world organized in such a way that we can walk upon it? And why should there be limits to our ability to move about in this way, like those imposed upon us at the highest altitudes? Indeed, I thought the subject fit for my doctoral dissertation, but was cruelly dissuaded by an unimaginative advisor. And yet, I think Miller’s question is deeper still. Clearly, men like Coyne and Dennett have averted their eyes from the answer—an answer that is plainly obvious to over ninety percent of their least educated neighbors. The universe is rationally intelligible because the God of Abraham has made it so. This God, who once showed an affinity for human sacrifice, and whose only direct communication with humanity (in the Holy Bible, through the agency of the Holy Spirit) betrays not the slightest trace of scientific understanding, nevertheless instilled in us the cognitive ability to subsequently understand this magnificent and terrifying cosmos in scientific terms. As to why science has been the greatest agent for the mitigation of religious belief the world has ever seen, and has been viewed as a threat by religious people in almost every context, this is a final mystery that defies human analysis. I have often thought that if God had wanted us to understand the difference between having good reasons for what one believes, and having bad ones, He would have made this difference intelligible to everyone.

_________

In a related HuffPo piece, Matt J. Rossano helpfully explains why it’s futile to look for scientific evidence of God’s existence.  Why? Because God set it up that way:

[The Christian God's] laws are not the laws of physics. One believes in him and follows his laws out of love and gratitude, not because of being compelled by necessity. It’s my choice if I want to hate my neighbor. If I see a greater immediate gain from not doing unto others, then I should be able to do that and God can’t get in my way. But if God is like gravity, then I will suffer the consequences of breaking his laws just as surely as I’ll break my neck if I step off a cliff. Love of God is as meaningless as love of the inverse square law.

Luckily for everyone, scientific attempts to prove or disprove God are all doomed to failure. We live in exactly the world the thoughtful Christian would expect to find. For those who believe, hints of God are everywhere. But none are convincing. Faith remains a requirement and atheism remains an option. A God who values free will would set it up just that way.

It’s almost funny that Rossano, a psychology professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, can proffer such Panglossism as serious theology. (Cue call of the barred owl.)  Is there any possible world that wouldn’t be exactly what “thoughtful Christians would expect”?  I would have thought that a world that contained the Holocaust would be one, but apparently not.

77 Comments

  1. Posted August 10, 2010 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    Nice! d/dx (e^x) = e^x
    Ergo: god exists.

    Funny…I never saw that. :)

    • Jacobus van Beverningk
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 6:55 am | Permalink

      I guess that’s sort of “pulling an Euler”:

      http://tinyurl.com/3945mon

      • Doc Bill
        Posted August 10, 2010 at 7:03 am | Permalink

        He had relatives in Texas, you know.

        What, never heard of the Houston Euler’s?

        • Pete Moulton
          Posted August 10, 2010 at 7:42 am | Permalink

          Edmonton too, eh?

      • Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:22 am | Permalink

        Not that it matters much outside of history, but there’s a fair chance that the Euler-Diderot confrontation never took place. Likely an old rumor…

        • Jack van Beverningk
          Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

          Which is true for most of those kind of anecdotes, but hey, it’s still a nice story!
          Oh wait, no, it isn’t .. it’s STUPID!

  2. GM
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    I’ve had to deal with this argument before, and in a more sophisticated form, by actual mathematicians. It is actually very hard to persuade them that it is flawed because it simply does not follow.

    To their credit, they usually don’t claim that it is Jesus that follows from it, just a “higher power”, not that it makes it a stronger argument anyway.

    BTW, as you pointed out, to hear the “Blah, blah, blah, (generally accurate stuff), therefore Jesus” argument from people, who should know better, totally blows my mind off. Francis Collins makes exactly the same argument “The Universe is fine-tuned, God exists outside of it, blah, blah, blah, therefore I am an Evangelical Christina and we should all repent for our sins an praise the Lord Christ”. A complete non-sequitur, yet people fall for it as it has all this sciency stuff in it and it supports what they want to be true…

    • Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      I suppose the two dominant “world views” in the US are 1) some variation of Christianity and 2) a science-based naturalistic view. The latter is steadily taking ground from the former and shows no sign of giving up, and so most educated religious folks know that their religious view is under serious threat that’s getting worse all the time.

      However, if a way can be found to neutralise — or better yet, co-opt — science and naturalism, the balance supposedly shifts back to “the” Christian worldview. That’s what Biologos and such are all about, IMO.

      In reality, it was never a 2-horse race since there are a great many worldviews, most of them incompatible with reality. Just because there might be some sort of deistic god out there somewhere doesn’t help substantiate the Christian view(s) at all. It has to stand on its own merits.

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 10, 2010 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

        I suppose the two dominant “world views” in the US are 1) some variation of Christianity and 2) a science-based naturalistic view. The latter is steadily taking ground from the former

        What are your data in support of this statement?

        • Posted August 10, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

          Actually, I was just supposing, but here are a couple of relevant factoids:

          76% of Americans self-identify as “Christian”

          Many take Christian mythology as their world view, as shown by the 40-48% who are outright Creationists.

          OTOH, science has always been important in the US, and the US is the leading scientific country by some (not all) measures.

          Various references pop up on Google if you want them.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      Well, it wasn’t always (1) Mystery. (2) Therefore, Jesus. It used to be (1) Mystery. (2) White men have said it’s Jesus. (3) Therefore, Jesus. Seriously. Read your CS Lewis.

  3. Posted August 10, 2010 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    Ok, I’ll help you out. Frank Tippler (who has published in Nature) explains it to you:


    :)

    • Tyro
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      That equation is teh awesome. “Quantum mechanics” (yes, those full words) appeared as a term, right next to a diagram of a conical slice.

      Double great, he says that science proves the existence of God and math proves the birth of Jesus. The soundbite from the minister says it all sounds interesting and he’d like to look into it. Strange that no one argued that science was an inappropriate tool for examining religious claims. Hmm…

    • sasqwatch
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      Pretty goddamned hilarious. First proof that QM + Relativity = God. Then a demonstration at the end of how this god couldn’t give a rat’s ass about some random Oklahoman.

      And no trace of irony betrayed on the faces of the newscasters. I was waiting for one of them to snort and snark. (where’s your god *now*, Mr. physics man?)

      • Posted August 10, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        It is both funny and sad at the same time. Frank Tippler is a smart man (how many of us get published in Nature?). But even smart people can turn into crackpots.

    • Havok
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

      Victor Stenger reviews Tipplers “science” books here and here
      The books (and Tipplers “justifications”) sound positively hilarious!

    • Posted August 11, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Hilarious.

      “For years people have debated whether the existence of God is based on fact or…”

      I completed the sentence in my mind with “fiction” and was a little surprised to hear the reporter say “faith”. A tacit admission that having faith is the same as believing in fiction?

  4. Posted August 10, 2010 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    “equations rule the world”

    See, there’s the problem. Equations do not rule the world. The describe the world.

  5. Tulse
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    You’d think the god that created math would know that pi isn’t equal to 3.

    The issue of what would count as evidence for god(s) is a good one, Jerry. The problem is that the religious are never willing to say exactly what they would consider disconfirming evidence, and so anything gets twisted into something at least “consistent” with the existence of their supernatural entity/entities.

    • What a maroon
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      I’d say that dying and ceasing to exist would be pretty strong disconfirming evidence. Of course by then it’s too late….

      • MadScientist
        Posted August 10, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

        Who was it that wrote something like “how many more must die believing there is a Jesus”? After all, the cults have been saying “He’ll be here any time now” for about 2000 years. Ever since I can remember, the ‘sophisticated theologians’ (true sophists) have been saying that Jesus’ infamous “I’ll be back” statement should not be taken literally – which is really funny, because if nothing in the bible should be taken literally then why do people worship it?

  6. Posted August 10, 2010 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    I thought Bertrand Russell did a good job accounting for logic and mathematics back in 1912 with The Problems Of Philosophy (e-book here). Not much more needs to be added really, mathematics is about describing abstract relationships. If you have 2 apples and put them with 2 more apples, you get 4 apples. If you put 2 bananas with 2 more bananas, you get 4 bananas. While mathematics may be a human knowledge, it’s an abstract relationship that can easily be derived from the environment.

    • Posted August 10, 2010 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      italics fail!

  7. Posted August 10, 2010 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    This type of comment always mystifies me:
    “[...] the quest does not lead all of us who are awed by such mysteries into religion. But those that understand the eternal mystery best impulsively lean over the railing into the abyss because they know in their bones that there is something out there”
    Paraphrasing:
    You have a section of reality that many people are exploring and there are many different opinions about it… but the ones who are doing it right, agree with me.

    The hubris is rattling… I feel it in my bonmes.

  8. Posted August 10, 2010 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Didn’t this get pretty much splatted by Douglas Adams and his puddle parable?

  9. Urmensch
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    Giberson has stared into the abyss and the abyss stared back into him, before quickly looking past him for something more interesting.

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      ROFL! (Horrible waste-of-time comment, I know–but I loved that.)

  10. Posted August 10, 2010 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    “But those that understand the eternal mystery best impulsively lean over the railing into the abyss because they know in their bones that there is something out there.”
    _______

    Or: Those that understand the eternal mystery of fairies impulsively lean over the railing into the abyss of ignorance because they know in their bones that there are fairies.

    Seriously, what is wrong with these people? The only acceptable way is to say that there is so reason why they believe except that they want to and can. Stop pretending circular rationalizations is equivalent to reasoning. Theistic faith is an irrational, non-evidential belief, it is a dime a dozen, and is expressed in a myriad of forms. It is not an absolute grasp of any deeper understanding, it is a cop-out and an inability to say I accept reality, as much of it that we know and can understand.

    And what is this with the abyss? I am struck with awe, but I do not feel this sense of an abyss. I am just small fry, I can feel that, in a big universe that does not care. And in a sense, this lack of conviviality is mutual, I don’t care much about the universe either! Really, what is the big deal with these babies and the abyss? Oh goodness, me, when I walk down the canyons of NYC, I feel so much in an abyss! Such big buildings, and such a tiny me.

    • ritebrother
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      Michelle B:

      I just wanted to say that I love your posts. Smart & straight to the point, with just the right amount of snark.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      “But those that understand the eternal mystery best impulsively lean over the railing into the abyss because they know in their bones that there is something out there.”

      But they’re the humble ones, and we’re arrogant and proud.

  11. Luke
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Mathematics ties in directly with the idea of logical consistency. There is much more to be said on this, but one of the key things always out of this argument is that in order to be said to exist in any meaningful sense, God himself must be constrained to be logically consistent. In other words, the existence of God – and anything else – depends on the logically (i.e. mathematically) consistent nature of reality.

  12. Tyro
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    The early Greeks worshiped (or at least revered) mathematics as a way of contacting the divine. Strange that they didn’t realize it pointed to a personal god who didn’t want gays to marry.

  13. Posted August 10, 2010 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    One believes in him and follows his laws out of love and gratitude, not because of being compelled by necessity

    1) Surely he means love or gratitude, as they are not the same things, and compelling love through gratitude is just emotional blackmail; and
    2) I am pretty sure there are some explicit Commandments that contradict that statement.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      …and that whole threat of everlasting torment thingy…

      • Posted August 10, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink

        Life is full of choices, but you never get any.

  14. Gingerbaker
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    “…But those that understand the eternal mystery best impulsively lean over the railing into the abyss because they know in their bones that there is something out there….”

    Yes! And that ‘something out there’ is obviously Ares, the God of Mathematics. Well done, Giberson!

  15. Tim Harris
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    ‘…we find ourselves at last in a most beautiful and unexplained symphony of mathematics…’ It amazes me both how these tired cliches can continue to be spouted and how people like Giberson suppose that they constitute thought. Music is not a kind of higher mathematics in sound, but it is as Pierre Bourdieu pointed out long ago, is the most corporeal of arts, which is why it seems so mysterious to the intellect and why it moves us so profoundly. My wife is a concert pianist and I spend quite a bit of my time here in Japan teaching singers. Types like Giberson usually have small; feeling for music, only a set of sentimental bedliefs about it.

    And then: ‘We live in exactly the world a thoughtful Christian would expect to find.’ How is anybody, even a thoughtful Christian, in a position to ‘find’ the world? Rossano speaks of the ‘thoughtful Christian’ as of a spaceman happening upon an alien planet. But unless Rossano is going to assert that he is still in adulthood trailing those clouds of glory whereof Wordsworth speaks and has memories of an otherwordly origin that allows him to judge this world as being so satisfyingly up to his expectations, then his assertion simply has no meaning whatsoever.
    And, once again, how pathetically parochial these people are. They appear to have no interest whatsoever in anthropology, in history, in archaeology, in the nature of religions other than Christianity, in any of the sciences, in anything that lies outside their little mediaeval box or, it seems, the Christian portion of the United States of America. What sad individuals.

    • Tulse
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      It’s good to know that a Thoughtful Christian expects to live a world with river blindness.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      That really should read ‘no interest… in the sciences except in so far as they can be abused for the benefit of “faith”‘; and apologies for the typing mistakes.

  16. Tim Harris
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    And shame on Ariana Huffington for publishing them.

    • Jack van Beverningk
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      Hey, come on now: she’s got a reputation to uphold!

  17. Kevin
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    So, Giberson is a Pythagorean, then? I hope he’s following the rules of that particular religion.

    * Don’t eat beans. (This should be the first commandment of all religions.)
    * Never pick up what has fallen. (There must have been dirty socks EVERYWHERE in the Pythagoras household.)
    * Don’t touch a white cock (I’m assuming the male chicken definition, but it was ancient Greece after all, and YKINMK).
    * Adopt a strict vegetarianism (except for the beans, of course).
    * Do not stir the fire with iron.
    * Do not look in a mirror beside a light. (Because everyone knows how useful it is to look at a mirror in the dark.)

    • Tyro
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      Finally someone with the courage to speak the self-evident truths of mathematics.

  18. Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    I remember the existential shock I received when I learned that the self-adjoint operators of a Hilbert space correspond to the observables. The way in which this was taught to me as an undergraduate seemed, in retrospect, to be pure mysticism. I could never get an explanation out of anyone. It was much later that I learned about Stone’s theorem et al., whereupon the connection became “obvious”.

    In high school we learn that e^(i*pi) + 1 = 0. Incredible! God exists! But once we understand the geometric meaning of complex multiplication, it becomes “obvious”. In one fell swoop the mystery is gone, leaving us with a truism presented in a notationally pleasant manner.

    There is certainly an aesthetic root of mathematics, but the superficial mystery-mongering I often hear is not part of it.

  19. Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Gems of thought like

    “When it comes to science and religion, I think the onus is on the religious believer to justify the existence of religion. “

    really don’t inspire much confidence in Giberson.

    His justification seems to go something like

    Math is powerful, beautiful and very mysterious, therefore religion exists.

    I almost feel a sense of pity for the guy.

    Anyway, I can’t completely disagree with him: I do rather like this bit

    Religion, on the other hand, is ambiguous. Intelligent people … argue … that we would all be better off if religion went away. And the arguments are reasonable and provocative. But there are no books by intelligent people (at least that I am aware of) arguing that we would all be better off if science went away.

    ;)

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      It sounds like he is willing to say anything without it affecting his cognitive dissonance. (Certainly not along the lines of Coyne’s “What will disprove your notions?”)

      There are no atheists in “religiously” disconnected mouth holes.

  20. Jack van Beverningk
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Weird how ALL these arguments-for-God, no matter how primitive or sophisticated, ALWAYS boil down to the same old tired God-of-the-gaps argument: It’s TOO beautiful, complex or difficult for me to understand, therefore: God. (or ‘Design’, for the somewhat sneakier ones, as if ‘design’ WOULD explain things that are beyond ones intellectual reach).

    It’s also an incredibly arrogant argument: if ~I~ can’t understand it, then it MUST be “God”. As if divinity is the next step up from ones intellect!

    • Kevin
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      …argument from credulity, as it were…

      They live in the Tinkerbell Universe…if I really, really, REALLY wish it to be true, then it MUST be real!!! (With three exclamation points required.)

    • Tulse
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      It’s TOO beautiful, complex or difficult for me to understand, therefore: God.

      Yep, math is hard, therefore: no marriage for teh gayz!

      • Jack van Beverningk
        Posted August 10, 2010 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        What’s next? No more babies for breakfast?
        I blame home schooling for all this!

        • Kevin
          Posted August 10, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

          My ex-wife preferred her leftover baby cold for breakfast; while I much preferred re-heating it for lunch.

          This is probably why we broke up.

  21. Tim Martin
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    “But none are convincing. Faith remains a requirement”

    Arrrrgh. How is it that so many people can say this? Faith is as nonsensical a concept as free will.

    A: What is faith?
    B: Believing in something without evidence.
    A: So if you don’t have evidence, why do you believe in it?
    B: Because I have faith.

    ::aneurysm::

    A: Why do you have faith in Christianity and not any other religion?
    B: Because Christianity looks true to me.
    A: Looks true to you based on what?
    B: Oh, this and this and this and this.
    A: You realize things that make something look true to you are called evidence, right?
    B: No, it’s faith.

    ::head explode::

    • Jack van Beverningk
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      “Looks true to you based on what?”

      Well, simple! This boos says so, and it also says that everything in it is true, so how can you argue with that? Besides, it also says that if I ever doubt any of it, I’m gonna burn for all of eternity, and that just doesn’t strike me as desirable.
      See .. how simple this all really is?

  22. Posted August 10, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Jerry! Just ignore him! You’ll blow a gasket!

    Heeheehee.

  23. Posted August 10, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    I love Sam Harris’s response to the comments in that “Edge” discussion. He turns the arguments of the non-neo-militant-rational-secularist-atheist-scientism-ists into, effectively, so many lyrics of “Miracles” by the Insane Clown Posse–and his response, of course, is the Saturday Night Live parody thereof. (Aw, yeah, ninjas!)

  24. JeffD
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I bought, read and enjoyed Mario Livio’s book Is God a Mathematician?, which does a good job helping us non-mathematicians explore the “unreasonable effectivness” idea. I wondered whose idea it was to give this book its title. By the time Dr. Livio reaches the end, it’s obvious that the answer is No.

  25. KP
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I would have thought that a world that contained the Holocaust would be one, but apparently not.

    Yes. It is starting to wear me out how when things go wrong, ANY apologetics, no matter how ridiculous, will work, but the hypothesis that just MAYBE there is NO God, never gets put on the table.

  26. Juha Savolainen
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    On the Puffington Host article by Rossano. Doesn´t he know that honest-to-god Christians (and some others, too) are supposed to believe in the general resurrection of bodies? Strange, how can he ignore all those Left Behind movies that millions of Americans are eagerly watching?…:)

    In fact, if all that would take place – and other apocalyptic miracles – I admit that I would probably first think that I am somehow stuck in a very badly scripted nightmare, then I would consider the possibility that some latter-day Frankenstein is experimenting with my brains but I would also consider quite seriously the possibility that the Christians were right, after all.

    You see, if the events I would be “compelled” to witness were as suggestive to the truth of the Christian dogmas as the overall coherence of scientific evidence now suggests a reality of “natural systems” having some very general dynamic laws etc. etc., then I would change my opinion on atheism.

    And why do we need to suffer people who do not know the problems with the “free will” apologies. I have already
    pointed out that Rossana´s view on the neutrality of scientific observations vis-a-vis Christian dogmas cannot be taken seriously. Once we understand this, Rossana´s views start rolling towards the “God is testing our faith” spectrum of apologies.

    But there is more. Pierre Bayle demolished, already in the seventeenth century, the linked, trite and popular, “argument from free will”. He asked sarcastically whether anyone in his or her right mind would call somebody “a loving father” if that somebody would give a small boy a firearm, well knowing that the boy would shoot dead his brother with that gun. Or, and I guess I have to apologize for Bayle´s male chauvinist example, would anyone call somebody “a loving mother” who would send her daughter to dances, all the time well knowing that she would return with her innocence lost…

    Yet that is exactly what the “free will” apology assumes: God gave us, as a gift of supreme Love, “free will” while knowing perfectly well that we would use it to sinful purposes. Rossana´s cheerful appeal to free will completely ignores the gloomier aspect of the story in Christian theology, i.e. the role of the “free will” as something that explains away God´s responsibility for the undeniable imperfections in His Creation.

    Indeed, the whole apology is in complete conflict with the whole doctrine of Heaven: humans are supposed to go to Heaven with their free will intact while losing their predisposition to sin. The whole “free will” apology is a complete failure, which is probably the very reason why it is so popular…:)

    And as for Giberson, well, I think the Wignerian problem of the “Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics”

    http://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Wigner.html

    is an interesting philosophical problem that should not be tried to solved too hastily!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Unreasonable_Effectiveness_of_Mathematics_in_the_Natural_Sciences

    http://www.seop.leeds.ac.uk/entries/philosophy-mathematics/

    Alas, I can understand how someone thinks that Hilbert Spaces point to a world ruled by probabilities, but not how they could point to Christian mysteries…Oops, I knew a theoretical physicist who was much taken by Wolfgang Pauli´s (later) forays into esoteric speculations and claimed that
    the determinism we can observe in the physical universe shows the Dayside of God while the indeterminism of individual atomic particles shows His Nightside….I did not have a heart to tell him that this seemed heretical to me…:)

  27. Brian
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I take it you’re not a Platonist Jerry? ;)

  28. Deepak Shetty
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    “So when physical laws are obeyed, God’s working, and when they’re broken, God’s working too”
    This (in its various forms) is one of the frustrating attributes that even otherwise moderate/reasonable religious people have.
    Prayers are answered – Therefore God, Prayers are not answered – Therefore God. There is happiness , therefore God, there is sadness , therefore God.

  29. MadScientist
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    That’s nothing; according to Rene Descartes, we can imagine a triangle therefore god exists.

  30. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Mathematics is, of course, a logical system invented by humans, and so has to “work”.

    Exactly, or more pertinent, it is used by humans because it works. If anything, it is proof of Man.

    This, either version, in all its simplicity, avoids the whole platonist question. (Which I see already is levered.)

    Platonism in math is nevertheless problematic.

    From outside, platonism is non-parsimonious when applied to physics as a substitute for realism. It is in conflict with QM especially, which predict characteristics of physical reality distinguishable from platonist non-predictions. (That we can’t “hide” variables, in the active realistic sense.)

    From inside, proof ideas are stumbled on and proof methods are developed heuristically. This makes math empirical long before mathematicians such as Chaitin came up with quasi-empirical mathematical objects. (Chaitin’s number, where the last bit can be set by a 50-50 % random number generator.) Or before computer scientists introduced proofs too long to be manually checked, so putatively more error prone than shorter proofs.

    Despite all that math as a whole is a human invention, algorithmic methods do seem to be the way nature work, as we have learned by physics. The same amount of computational resources are required for theories as well as for actual physics to converge on a result. It is a “convergent evolution”, but likely no coincidence, by way of that “it works”.

    If it is naturally likely, math and theories mapping to actual physics not only externally but internally in specific aspects, is it really a mystery? Wigner’s sentiment worked before the computer science era, but I don’t think it looks all that healthy today, its time has passed.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      I should also add that “proof methods are developed heuristically” includes that what mathematicians agree on is a valid proof (valid math) is an heuristic. There is little or no “proof proofing” et cetera, ad infinitum. (And well is that. :-o)

  31. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Gnu Atheist sez:

    “Gnu Accommodationist sez math in science is good, therefore religious impulse.
    Scientists sez science is good, therefore atheist impulse.

    Gnu Atheist listens to scientists – they on the point.”

  32. Posted August 10, 2010 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    “Perhaps there’s some intermediate degree of lawlessness that would convince the faithful that there is no God?”

    That’s a great line. Made me laugh.

  33. Todd
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    “Luckily for everyone, scientific attempts to prove or disprove God are all doomed to failure.”

    Yes, luckily for everyone indeed. It constantly amazes me that Teh Religious so charitably extend their woo to encompass “everyone,” regardless of what “everyone” believes.
    That God cannot be “proven” to exist doesn’t seem to diminish Giberson’s certainty that it does.

    • Posted August 10, 2010 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

      It probably is lucky for everyone, as the people on the inside of religion know what a bunch of ass-holes a lot of them are, and it is only their irrational fear of the all powerful imaginary sky-daddy that will smite them down that keeps them from looting and killing with abandon.

  34. qbsmd
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    People seem to be making the argument that mathematics exists as it does because it’s useful for analyzing the universe.
    I would have argued that mathematics is versatile enough to be useful analyzing any possible universe. Or in the Socratic form: what would a universe look like where mathematics would not “come clearly into view, out of nowhere, explaining the world around us”?

    • GrueBleen
      Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. For eaxample, Paul Davies (another Templetonian) who frequently waffled on about how amazing it was that mathematics could describe the universe.

      Well, if that’s the case, he should have no problem at all in describing a universe that can support life which mathematics couldn’t describe. Should be a doddle, non ?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 13, 2010 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

      Those possibilities aren’t exclusive, more’s the better.

  35. Marella
    Posted August 11, 2010 at 1:28 am | Permalink

    while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases caused by malnutrition

    If this is your idea of a world run by a loving deity it certainly isn’t mine! Any god prepared to condone the things that go on on this planet has no right to the title.

  36. TheBlackCat
    Posted August 11, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Engineers think that equations approximate the real world.
    Scientists think that the real world approximates equations.
    Mathematicians are unable to make the connection.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 13, 2010 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      I will so steal that! (^3^)

  37. stvs
    Posted August 12, 2010 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    Feynman is your point man on answering this silly argument.

    Download Microsoft’s Silverlight and watch Feynman’s lectures on the nature of physical law (“Project Tuva” — haha), in which Feynman injects a number of wonderful anti-religious jabs while discussing the mathematical nature of physical law. Here’s one from the first lecture:

    Feynman (pointing to a picture of a Keplerian orbit near 16:00): “The problem of what drove the planets around the sun was answered by some people by saying that there were angels behind here [the planet], beating their wings and pushing the planet along their orbit. As we’ll see that answer is not very far from the truth, the only difference is that the angels sit in a different direction and there wings point there.”

    Also, if mathematics was invented by humans, where do Keplerian orbits come from? Most of us are de facto Platonists.

    • stvs
      Posted August 12, 2010 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      One more Feynman quote with direct relevance to the post [1st lecture 38:00]:

      Feynman on physical law: “That’s the strange world we live in, that all the advances and understanding are used only to continue the nonsense which has existed for 2,000 years [laughter from audience].”

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 13, 2010 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

      Also, if mathematics was invented by humans, where do Keplerian orbits come from? Most of us are de facto Platonists.

      Surreal, your question got a really good and LOL answer by TheBlackCat immediately before. Computer science tells us we and the world have the same locally finite computational resources. So how could we and the world not come up with useful algorithms?

      Then platonism isn’t more than a failed mapping, besides being a non-parsimonious idea.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] and religion Well said, Professor Coyne: Mathematics is, of course, a logical system invented by humans, and so has to “work”. One [...]

  2. [...] 10, 2010 par Oldcola Via Jerry Coyne’s WEIT, starting with the title (« Giberson: Math works, ergo Jesus« ), I knew it would be fun. So I jumped directly to Giberson’s article before [...]

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