Mathematics and religion?

A few weeks ago my daughter sent me a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. The dialogue went like this:

“You know, I don’t think math is a science. I think it’s a religion.”

“A religion?”

“Yeah. All these equations are like miracles. You take two numbers and when you add them they magically become one new number. No one can say how it happens. You either believe it or you don’t. The whole book is full of things that have to be accepted on faith. It’s a religion!”

“And in the public schools no less. Call a lawyer.”

“As a math atheist, I should be excused from this.”

At first, it is funny because it lampoons such a badly misguided attitude. Mathematics is the opposite of revealed religion because you are required to take nothing on faith: something only becomes a mathematical truth when a proof is found, and each individual mathematician is responsible for following the proof to the point of becoming convinced of the truth. The only major religion which seems in any way similar is Buddhism, whose founder told questioners (perplexed about the multiplicity of religious teachers at the time) to examine what they said; accept what is good, and reject what is not good.

One can see shadows of the attitude among some students, simply because mathematics to them is a complete mystery. Lacking the attitude that they should only accept it if the proof is convincing (most likely, like Calvin, their teachers never told them this), it all becomes rather mysterious, and there is a human tendency to put the mysterious, the supernatural, and the religious in the same mental box.

But perhaps, like all good jokes, there is some element of truth in it. Perhaps it is something like this. Mathematicians create their own mental universes, after all; maybe there is not so much difference from an algebraist beginning a lecture with “Let G be a group” and the God of Genesis saying “Let there be light”. The second statement, we are told, called light into existence in the real world; the first calls a group into existence in the mental universes of the lecturer and audience.

Mathematicians, for example, are one group of people who are (mostly) quite comfortable with the notion of infinity.

A few years ago the BBC World Service made a programme about infinity, to which I made a small contribution (a half-hour interview was reduced to three short soundbites in the final programme). After my last appearance, the psychiatrist Raj Persaud came on to explain that in his clinic he sees many people who have gone mad thinking about infinity; the clear implication was that the crazy mathematician who has just been talking is likely to be one.

But in fact most mathematicians work with the infinite every day, and as far as I know, we don’t have a higher rate of madness than any other profession. (It is true that Georg Cantor, who devised the theory of infinite numbers we use now, went mad; but this was perhaps partly because implacable opposition to his ideas from conservative mathematicians such as Kronecker essentially destroyed his career.) We devise ways of thinking about, and making mental pictures of, infinite sets in the same way that we do for numbers or groups.

An excellent recent book, Naming Infinity, by Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor, describes the founding of descriptive set theory in the first half of the twentieth century. Part of their story revolves around the fact that, while the French mathematicians Borel, Lebesgue and Baire drew back from the implications of their discoveries, the Russians Egorov and Lusin pressed boldly on (even despite ideological opposition to their views from Stalin’s regime, which caused them enormous hardship). Their boldness sprang in part from the influence on them of Pavel Florensky, who was both a mathematician and an Orthodox monk, a leader in the “Name worshipping” movement in the Russian Orthodox Church. They were not afraid to name God, and likewise to name infinity; and once named, it could become the subject of mathematical analysis.

Does mathematics combine the mystical and the rational, as no other subject can? Maybe.

Or maybe not. I had a student in Oxford who read Mathematics and Philosophy because he had read Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and decided that he would find the answers to the ultimate questions in the region between mathematics and philosophy. What he found, of course, was a very substantial dose of logic!

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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9 Responses to Mathematics and religion?

  1. Sometimes it just seems that math can be a religion of sorts for a certain class of people, but as you have mentioned, we don’t deal with faith, we have concrete facts. For example many people say that the digits of $latex\pi $ execute a kind of mystical aura, but for me personally its just something which is part of the exquisite beauty of the world of mathematics.

  2. Narayanan says:

    What you have said about Buddhism is also /even more true for Hinduism if one can consider it as a religion. For example in Bhagavad gita, Krihsna after telling him about his views on Dharma and Karma, finishes with the statement
    that you should carefully and critically think about what I told you and do what seems right to you. Similar is the views that one can see in Upanishads and the like texts of Hinduism. In fact if you look at the development of Indian philosophy itself, you can see that this view is present in Vedic period itself as nyaya (logic), sankya (observation, enumeration and deduction), mimamsa (investigation) tries to analyse critically the vedic/later knowledge in different ways. Unlike in most other religions, these were accepted to be part of Hinduism itself.

    In fact in Buddhism after the time of Buddha, there is not as much freedom as in Hinduism to decide for yourself what is right and what is wrong.

    Of course Hinduism is not a religion in the sense of western religions. In fact most of Indian origin religions are not comparable to western religions.

    • Yes, I completely agree. The debate about science and religion is in my view badly distorted because people take “religion” to mean one of the “religions of the book” and fail to notice that there are more open and accepting ways to relate to the transcendent.

  3. If you put anything on the web, you expect that it will be copied. I already told the story of Neill’s illustration for the story about R. C. Bose working in the fields.

    You might like to take a look here:

    http://mum-anu.in/my-blog-2/

    You will find this post, with minor modification (“my daughter” has become “my little cousin”), even using my banner and claiming to have taught the Oxford student referred to in the last paragraph.

  4. Ross Graham says:

    Religion is based on faith, correct? So what is an axiom if not an article of faith? It cannot be proven, but is instead accepted as true and used as a tool for proof of theorems, etc.

    #3 below is the key one here, since without it one can of course prove that “1” is equal to “0” (and by induction that all numbers are = “0”).
    E.G.
    1. “There is a number “0” such that 0*a = 0 for all a an element of the Reals”
    2. “There is a number “1” such that 1*a = a for all a an element of the Reals”
    3. “0 and 1 are not equal”

    • I’m afraid I disagree. I have many reasons, which I might write up at some point; here are two.
      First, if (say) the axioms of group theory are articles of faith, and so group theory a kind of religion, then semigroup theorists (who deny the inverse law) and quasigroup theorists (who deny the associative law) would be regarded as heretics. On the evidence of the reaction of the Catholic church to Arians, Pelagians, Cathars and Protestants (among others), the group theorists would use all possible methods (not excluding war and torture) to suppress them. When I think of myself, Joao Araujo and Michael Kinyon discussing mathematics together, it is clear that nothing is further from the truth.
      Second, if the axioms for a group were articles of faith, surely the person who brought the stone tablets down from the mountain would be revered? This is what Alexander Masters thought, when he wrote his biography of Simon Norton, “The Genius in my Basement”. He was amazed and disappointed that Simon didn’t know when and by whom the axioms for a group were first written down. But that, as Norton and every group theorist knows, is not how you do group theory!

      • Ross Graham says:

        I am not certain I understand enough about religion OR group theory to fully understand your answer. But I will take it on faith that you are correct :)

  5. Sattar says:

    could one not say that due to the use of zero in mathematics that there in inherently faith as zero does not actually exist in our real world. In our world we have Infinitesimals but no zero its use in mathematics makes maths a faith.

    • Zero doesn’t exist in the real world? How much did you pay me to approve your comment then?
      Seriously, though, I don’t need to believe in zero in order to reason about it. Euclid proved that there are infinitely many primes by supposing that there are only finitely many and reasoning about the finite list of primes.
      And furthermore, saying that there exist infinitesimals in the real world is a much more drastic act of faith. Many cosmologists now think that the universe is discrete!

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