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Posted Apr 24, 2022 by Ray Patrick

If God is Real, then Why Does Math Work?

This argument is a complete non-sequitur, but that hardly stops allegedly educated people from using it. The more astute ones usually dress it up a little bit to make it seem more nuanced than it is. For instance, sometimes they substitute “science” in the place of “math,” so that the question becomes “If God is real, then why do the empirical sciences turn up so much useful information?” Come to think of it, it’s still manifestly silly when you state it plainly. It indicates a mind given over to scientism:

Scientism, n. From “science” (any branch or department of systematized knowledge considered as a distinct field of investigation or object of study; as, the science of chemistry) + “ism” (a doctrine or theory, esp. a wild or visionary theory).

  1. Science applied in excess; as, the improper usage of science or scientific claims.
  2. The belief that the methods of natural science form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry; that natural science alone is the source of true knowledge.

Conversation with a Scientism Cultist

One of the most unintentionally hilarious discussions of this nature that I can remember happened while I was in college. This guy brought up Euclid’s Algorithm, which computes the greatest common divisor of two integers.

“It’s the oldest algorithm ever written,” he declared, as if lecturing me.

“That’s really interesting,” I replied. (Of course, the Babylonians were factorizing numbers and computing square roots 1300 years before Euclid, but I didn’t point that out. No one likes a nitpicker.)

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Imagine how much further along we’d be today if we had printed Euclid’s Algorithm instead of the Bible!”

I was too flabbergasted by this ridiculous statement to even form a response. I’m pretty sure I initially thought he was kidding, but the look of smug triumph on his face told me he was all too serious. The man actually, wholeheartedly believed that Euclid’s Elements were comparable to, of the same department of inquiry as, and indeed better at communicating the truths of life than the Bible! Talk about a category error. As if mathematics would show us how we should live and die, our duty to God and to men, or even what constitutes the good life? If that’s the case, we don’t even need the Constitution or the United States Code - let’s just replace them with the multiplication table and the trigonometric identities!

Math is Only Math

It took that goofy conversation to show me the epiphany that I, too, had fallen into a mild scientism regarding that most “pure” science: mathematics. I won’t bore you here with my experience regarding mathematics education. Let’s just say that I figured I was pretty smart for having advanced so far in the subject.

However, when you get down to it, tensor calculus is not that much more impressive than balancing a checkbook. Of course, it’s more complicated than basic arithmetic, but the difference is fundamentally a difference of degree, not a difference of kind. Tensor calculus is like balancing a checkbook in that it’s just an empirical symbol-shuffling skill, not anything to write home about. Sure, it’s abstract and takes a little skill and care, but hey: if somebody with a high-school education can learn how to do it within four years, how hard can it really be?

So it is with all mathematics, and indeed all natural science. It generates useful information, but, after all, it’s a systematized procedure for doing so. You’d have to be an idiot to follow a recipe and not come up with something useful.

Another Silly Worldview Kills Itself

I’ve written about how atheist-materialism logically self-destructs when it attempts to moralize, and here we see that scientism, too, is a logical non-starter. Consider that its precepts:

  1. No statements are true unless they can be proven logically (scientifically), and
  2. No statements are true unless they can be shown empirically to be true,

… cannot themselves be proved logically or scientifically, or empirically. C.S. Lewis would call them “proofs that there are no proofs.” They should conjure up images of Wile E. Coyote sawing off the limb he’s sitting on. Unless they’re willing to obstinately accept these ridiculous consequences, as do children who stubbornly persist after being caught in a lie, anyone who believes the two above statements ought to be given great pause when they take them to their logical conclusion.

That conclusion is this: there are other fields of inquiry besides natural science: philosophy, for instance. The very underpinnings of natural science are themselves philosophical, after all: before we can do any science, we must accept on faith that:

  1. There is a real, external world, independent of any human mind.
  2. Our senses provide at least a partially accurate representation of this external world.
  3. The properties of this external world are such that events happen with regularity and are explainable via laws of behavior, etc.

Science is a very strange activity. It only works for simple problems. Even in the hard sciences, when you move beyond the simplest structures, it becomes very descriptive. By the time you get to big molecules, for example, you are mostly describing things. The idea that deep scientific analysis tells you something about problems of human beings and our lives and our inter-relations with one another and so on is mostly pretense in my opinion—self-serving pretense which is itself a technique of domination and exploitation and should be avoided.

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Topics: epistemology theology