Monday, October 22, 2007

God and Math

I recently came across a calculus course syllabus for the Castle Hills Baptist School in San Antonio, Texas (my own backyard!) It states the following:

Students will examine the nature of God as they progress in their understanding of mathematics. Students will understand the absolute consistency of mathematical principles and know that God was the inventor of that consistency. Mathematical study will result in a greater appreciation of God and His works in creation. The students will understand the basic ideas of both differential and integral calculus and its importance and historical applications. The students will recognize that God created our minds to be able to see that the universe can be calculated by mental methods.

Gustave Flaubert once quipped, "Le bon Dieu est dans le detail," In the same spirit as Luther's "sola fida" interpretation of the Romans 3:20-28 in the St. Jerome's Vulgate, this aphorism now apparently translates two different ways into our English language: "God is in the details" or "God is in my calculus class." As a calculus teacher, I have to admit that I'm kind of intrigued with the class described above, and I am actually of the opinion that the beauty and utility of math give evidence of some divine creator.

Although I could never get away with teaching my calculus class from this angle in public school, nor would I necessarily want to, I respect the private school for approaching the study of this beautiful mega-structure we call mathematics from this perspective. Here's why.

If you studies the history of mathematics, you might find yourself falling asleep repeatedly, but if you manage to stay awake, you will discover that there has always been a close connection between brilliant mathematicians, mysticism, and religion/theology.

The Pythagoreans, led by their fearless leader, Mr. P, believed in the divinity of numbers so much that their entire existence was based on the trenchant tenet that "all was number," and by number, they meant rational number. They believed that the world was created in such a way that everything was in perfect harmony with each other, or mathematically, that measurements of natural objects always were in a perfect integer ratio to each other. For example, the perfect toga wrap was exactly 1.5 times longer than it was wide, or in a perfect ratio of 3:2. Unfortunately for them, by their discovery of one of the greatest mathematical relations of all time, the theorem bearing their name, actually tore at the very rudimentary fabric of their entire belief system. When the unit square was looked at, they discovered that the diagonal was the irrational number, the square root of 2, which CANNOT be expressed as a ratio of two integers. Consequently, they were the first group to collectively exclaim the word, "CRAP!" in unison. As any good secret mathematical cult would naturally do, they tried to keep a tied lid on the square root of 2, denying its existence. But . . . . you cannot keep a good number down, and it eventually got out to the public. The Pythagoreans quickly crumbled and were ridiculed by all the populace proletariat. To make themselves feel better and perhaps show the public that they weren't just toga-wearing, wimpy, shallow, superficial math geeks, they murdered the mole who leaked the truth, after which, they went to confession and took up croquet.

Even Gottfied Leibniz, a Lutheran Deist and one of the co-founders of calculus along with Newton the Great, had a small following of religious math fanatics with big hair. He built an entire binary theology based on the numbers 0 and 1, where 0 represented the null (Satan) and 1 represented the infinite (God). A less popular tenet in his mathematical dogma was that the 5.5 represented "Bimbo" the clown.

The great Leonhard Euler, the most prolific mathematician in the history of prolific mathematicians, discovered a beautiful equation that, to this day, many argue is a concise, teleological proof of God's existence: e^(pi*i)+1=0. This beautiful equation is not only true, but it contains the 5 basic, ubiquitousness numbers in mathematics. And WHO invented this consistency?????? "God was the inventor of that consistency," Euler only "uncovered" or "discovered" it.

Even Newton, has intimate ties to religion and theology. Born prematurely in Christmas Day
in 1642, sharing a birthday with another famous, influential man in history, Newton survived his entry into this world against the odds. Being so tiny, his mother purportedly kept him in a small cooking pot as an incubator. Some observers believed that Newton thought himself to be divinely inspired. This is a polite way to say he had a "God complex." But who can blame him? He had a relevant birthday, he was amazingly brilliant (pardon the extreme understatement.) A scribbled note on the bottom of one of his math papers is a translation of an anagram of his name: "Isaacus Neutonus--Jeova sanctus unas" or "God's holy one!" Throughout his career he spent much of his time writing about theology, church history, and labored over a meticulous exegesis of the Bible, leaving behind 4 million words on the subject. He was probably a teleologician, believing that the nature and design of mathematics and the natural world itself gives proof of God. He spent his entire life trying to find the Divine Creator of the universe, and even mused on his deathbed that he was "but a little boy, playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself, in now and then finding a smooth pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

So whether you do or don't believe in the divine manifestation of mathematics or whether you agree or disagree with the curriculum at a private, Christian school, if you wake up and do the research then wake up again, you will see that history is replete with unconventional ideas and viewpoints, which although unpopular if not blasphemous at the time, are part of our mainstream accepted beliefs today.

Preach on, mathematicians!!

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