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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 explanationleaps 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 worldI’m thinking of pandas herethat 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.

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