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.