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Karl Giberson, Ph.D

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Mathematics and the Religious Impulse

Posted: 08/08/10 12:38 PM ET

The most trivial part of the relationship between science and religion, and yet one that generates lots of debate, is the simple question of compatibility: Can they co-exist? I have written a bit about this, but I have to confess that this question is boring. Establishing that two things can exist at the same time is not an engaging enterprise, because it leaves unanswered the question of whether either of those things should exist at all. Pornography, as we know, is compatible with unbridled free enterprise (yawn). But should either, or both, of those things exist? Now that is a real question.

When it comes to science and religion, I think the onus is on the religious believer to justify the existence of religion. Science, while not without its warts, has done so much good for the human race that it gets a pass on this one. Nobody wants to go back to the good old days when human life expectancy was 30 years and infant mortality was 50 percent. Religion, on the other hand, is ambiguous. Intelligent people like Sam Harris can argue, as he did in The End of Faith, 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.

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.

Imagine that a friend is taking you on a stroll down a long, seemingly endless, incredibly noisy hallway. As you enter the hallway the noise is deafening, a combination of explosions, crumpling metal, loud music from incompatible genres, babies crying, talk show hosts yelling, and so on. As you wander down the hallway, your friend explains that his company can make filters that eliminate any kind of noise, as long as they know exactly how those noises are produced.

He demonstrates the technology for you. As you cross a line marked "10" he turns on a filter that eliminates the sound of explosions. At 9 the crumpling metal disappears. By 5 there is just loud talking, babies crying, and discordant music. At 1 there is nothing but beautiful music and a talk radio host yelling something about his taxes being too high. At 0 the talk radio noise is gone. You have come to the end of the hallway and are standing on a balcony on the opposite side of the building looking out into a dark abyss. The beautiful music seems to be coming out of the darkness.

"Impressed?" says your guide, to which you answer, "Of course." But you can't help but wonder about the beautiful music. Where is it coming from? How is it being produced? Can the high-tech filters shut it out?

"We don't know anything about this music," says your friend. "And our filters won't work on any sounds unless we know exactly how they are produced. Our technology is based on understanding the production of the sounds, not the sound itself." He turns to leave. "But aren't you puzzled by this music?" you ask. "Surely you must have some explanation for it."

"Nope," he says. "I used to wonder about the music but, as you can see," he gestures into the abyss, "there is nothing there. I am a scientist, not a mystic. I will agree that there is indeed music there, but that is as far as I am willing to go. If you want to believe in some 'invisible orchestra in the abyss,' go ahead."

I use this example because we can all identify with music, and few of us would be satisfied with the parsimonious worldview of our friend. Our impulse would be to go further, to find some way to understand, even if the evidence seemed entirely inadequate.

Now, replace "noise and sounds" in this parable with "nature," and replace the beautiful music coming from the abyss with mathematics. 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.

Contemplating the mystery that is mathematics led the Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner to pen a provocative and widely reprinted essay about the "Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics." It has led Sir Roger Penrose -- one of our greatest living mathematicians -- to postulate the existence of a non-physical "Platonic realm" beyond the physical to make sense of the world. Einstein once commented, in reference to the power of mathematics, "The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility."

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.

 
 
 

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