Can Mathematics Shake Your Belief in God?
Maybe so, but everything depends on what your faith is grounded on.
Begin by recalling the thought experiment English theologian William Paley proposed in 1802: while traipsing across a field, you trip on a stone and find yourself wondering how the stone got there. “I might possibly answer...it had lain there for ever,” Paley wrote. But if you came across a watch in that meadow, you’d have a different answer: “the watch must have had a maker,” according to Paley, “an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer: who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.”
The intricacies of the mechanisms that enable a watch to function are a clear giveaway: someone put those gears, springs and glass together in a neat package to create a device to keep track of time. If you find a snail next to the watch, or see a dragonfly whiz by, you would find even more complex creations. Where there is design, Paley concluded, there must be a designer. And don’t get Paley started on the wonders of the eye, an organ he dwells upon for paragraphs; an “examination of the eye,” he says, is “a cure for atheism.”
But is it? In his fun and fascinating new book, How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, Jordan Ellenberg pours some doubt upon the argument from design. Just because an explanation leaps off the page, as adherents to the notion of Intelligent Design like to say, you can't conclude that it's correct. Many other explanations that do not occur to us in the moment are also possible. If you live in Los Angeles and feel the ground shake, you might think an earthquake has begun when in fact it’s just a giant truck rumbling up the road. Your kid’s toothbrush is dry and you yell at him for not brushing his teeth; turns out he used another one. I once saw a frail-looking, elderly neighbor shoveling her sidewalk in a blizzard and dashed out in my parka to the rescue; but when I offered to help, she responded in a surprisingly strong, gruff Brooklyn voice that she was just fine, thank you.
We make incorrect inferences all the time, and the inference from design is hardly sure-fire. We cannot jump from marvelling at the wonders of the natural world to concluding that the creation story in Genesis must be correct. Ellenberg points out other possible accounts. What about not a single God but gods, he writes, “where the world was put together in a hurry by a squabbling committee?”
Many distinguished civilizations have believed as much. And you can’t say there are aspects of the natural world—I’m thinking of pandas here—that seem more likely to have resulted from grudging bureaucratic compromise than from the mind of an all-knowing deity with total creative control.
And polytheism is just one alternative. Drawing on the work of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, Ellenberg notes that it’s wrong to dismiss a “bizarre” but not implausible theory that “we’re not actually people at all, but simulations running on an ultracomputer built by other people.”
If SIMS is true, and the universe is a simulation constructed by people in a realer world, then it’s pretty likely there’d be people in the universe, because people are people’s favorite things to simulate!
These rival explanations of the origins of life do not disprove any particular religious view, but they cast doubt on the binary choice usually on offer in the impressively long-running debate over the origins of life: if it’s not blind, agentless natural selection, it must be God. There are other possibilities, and as crazy as it sounds, mathematically speaking, the scenario in which we are simulated beings in a giant holodeck beats Genesis for probability.
Ellenberg climbs down from this perspective in his next breath: “I don’t actually think this constitutes a good argument that we’re all sims, any more than I think Paley’s argument is a good one for the existence of the deity.” Reasoning about metaphysical properties through simple observation of the empirical world is dangerous—and probably a good bit more dangerous than making inferences about the tougher-than-you-imagine little old lady next door. Ending the argument with a bit of a whimper, Ellenberg concludes this way:
As much as I love numbers, I think people ought to stick to ‘I don’t believe in God,’ or ‘I do believe in God,’ or just ‘I’m not sure.’...On this matter, math is silent.
The upshot is broader than that. It’s not only math that’s silent on the question of God’s existence, or God’s role in the universe. It’s human reasoning itself that lacks access to the ineffable. So the creationism-vs.-evolution debates, like the one held earlier this year between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, are ultimately fruitless endeavors. One side divines divinity in nature, the other side grounds its view on empirical evidence. Nobody has any proof to convince the other that God does or does not exist. Mathematics can shake your belief in God only if your beliefs are grounded on inferences from observed reality. Beyond that, it’s all a matter of faith.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com
Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.
No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.
Is it "perverseness," the "death drive," or something else?
She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.
- For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
- These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
- Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
It's up to us humans to re-humanize our world. An economy that prioritizes growth and profits over humanity has led to digital platforms that "strip the topsoil" of human behavior, whole industries, and the planet, giving less and less back. And only we can save us.
- It's an all-hands-on-deck moment in the arc of civilization.
- Everyone has a choice: Do you want to try to earn enough money to insulate yourself from the world you're creating— or do you want to make the world a place you don't have to insulate yourself from?
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.