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Philosophical Grounding: A Parable

God's existence doesn't seem likely.  Why imagine that Jesus is real?Consider this parable:

A certain mathematician, in a philosophical mood one day, wonders what grounds his mathematics.  The math works, of course, but he wonders if he’s missing something foundational.

He consults a friend of his, a theologian.  The theologian knows almost nothing about mathematics, but he knows his Christianity.

The mathematician says, “Mathematics is like an inverted triangle with the most advanced math along the wide top edge.  The top layer is grounded on the math below it, which is grounded on what is below, and so on through the layers, down to arithmetic and logic at the point at the bottom.  And that’s where it stops.”

The theologian nods his head wisely.  “I see the problem—what does the bottom rest on?”

The mathematician was silent.

“In your view, it rests on nothing,” said the theologian.  “It just sits there in midair.  But the problem is easily resolved—mathematics and logic comes from God.  There’s your grounding.”

“Are you saying that I need to convert to Christianity to be a mathematician?”

“No, just realize that you are borrowing from the Christian worldview every time you make a computation or write an equation.”

Satisfied that this nagging problem has been resolved, the mathematician returns to his work and thinks no more of it. 

The End.

So, is the mathematician any better off?  Is he faster or more accurate or more creative?  Do his proofs work now where they hadn’t before?  In short, did he get anything of value from the whole episode?

I’ve heard this “grounding” or “atheists borrow from the Christian worldview” idea many times, but I’ve yet to discover what this missing thing is that is being borrowed.

“God did it” is simply a restatement of the problem.  “God did it” is precisely as useful as “logic and arithmetic are simply properties of our reality” or “that’s just the way it is” or even “I don’t know.”  A curious problem has been suppressed, not resolved.  In fact, the theologian himself has his answer resting in midair because he provides no reason to conclude that God exists.  His claim is no more believable than that of any other religion—that is, not at all.

The person who stops at “God did it” has stated an opinion only—an opinion with no evidence to back it up.  It doesn’t advance the cause of truth one bit.

Mathematics is tested, and it works.  Scratch your head about what grounds it if you want, but God is an unnecessary and unedifying addition to the mix.

About Bob Seidensticker
  • http://squiznit.wordpress.com squiznit

    thats not to say that it isn’t true, its just that this cant b e proved on stopping there, you’d have to go further to prove it.

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      But you’ve got to stop somewhere, right?

  • Bob Calvan

    The person who stops at “God did it” has stated an opinion only—an opinion with no evidence to back it up. It doesn’t advance the cause of truth one bit.

    No, that is not true ( as usual?) misrepresents Christianity again ( as usual?). We do not just give our subjective opinion. Our standard of truth is the Scriptures. The Word of God. You mat not like that or agree with it, but we have a standard. You may use the old argument so do other religons. But when one does an internal critique of those books the Bible refutes and shows the contradictions in them.
    The Triune God is the precondition for math, science, morality, logic, reason, and human dignity. It is not to say God did it. It is to say these are the nature of God’s being.
    The proof that the Chrsitian God exist’s is without Him you can not prove anything. The proof is the Impossibility of the contrary.

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      We do not just give our subjective opinion. Our standard of truth is the Scriptures.

      And how do we know that the Scriptures are objectively true, the Word of God, besides your saying so?

      You do realize, I hope, that just your saying so is uncompelling?

      But when one does an internal critique of those books the Bible refutes and shows the contradictions in them.

      … and do they, in turn, reject the Bible? If they each dismiss the other as mythological nonsense, which one do I believe? The American religion??

      The proof that the Chrsitian God exist’s is without Him you can not prove anything. The proof is the Impossibility of the contrary.

      Tell me more. Imagine a world without God and show that it’s impossible.

  • Rick Townsend

    Let’s grant your contrived parable and assume that mathematics does not necessarily prove God nor require His existence to still work and be true. What does that prove? Does this position eliminate the possibility of other disciplines still being reasonable in supporting the existence of being greater than anything we can see that created everything that exists?

    Let’s try this parable. Suppose there was a really smart person in NASA that proved that orbital mechanics had nothing in common with microbiology. He then concluded that microbiology didn’t exist.

    Sounds very similar to your parable. Lack of evidence in one discipline for another totally different one doesn’t eliminate the possibility of the existence of the dissimilar area of science. It just proves they are dissimilar.

    So just what does your parable prove, even though you didn’t prove it to be true? If we grant you the parable’s accuracy, where would you have arrived with that logic?

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      Let’s grant your contrived parable

      I’m not sure why it’s contrived (except that it didn’t happen). I’ve heard this kind of argument from Christians many times.

      Does this position eliminate the possibility of other disciplines still being reasonable in supporting the existence of being greater than anything we can see that created everything that exists?

      Are you asking if this proves that God doesn’t exist? No, it doesn’t. I’m simply saying that this grounding argument does little to prove that God does exist.

      Sounds very similar to your parable.

      ?? I think you need to reread my parable!

      If we grant you the parable’s accuracy, where would you have arrived with that logic?

      You do understand that I’m rejecting the moral of the parable, right?

      Perhaps you’re asking, “If we grant the point of the post, what would you have arrived at?” I’m not imagining that I’ve proven God doesn’t exist. I’m simply trying to undercut the (common) argument that God grounds mathematics, logic, and other things that the rest of knowledge is built upon. We may indeed have a puzzle here (the repeated “But what grounds that?” questions will eventually push up against the boundary of our knowledge), but “God did it!” doesn’t help.

  • RandomFunction2

    Hi Bob,

    You say that logic and mathematics may be properties of reality. Do you realize how vague such a statement is? How does logic bear on the physical world, with its atoms, space, time and energy? If logic exists, somehow, outside of our brain, what is its ontological status?

    Also, it’s true that Descartes said that God created logic and mathematics as he created the world. But many other philosophers disagree and hold that in fact, logic and maths are eternal truths rooted in the very essence of God. In other words, logic and mathematics are aspects of God, not created things.

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      How does logic bear on the physical world, with its atoms, space, time and energy? If logic exists, somehow, outside of our brain, what is its ontological status?

      I don’t know. Don’t much care, either. That’s the point of the post: the Christian is in the same boat. It’s not like the Christian has any better answer than the naturalist. Insist on finding the grounding for logic if you want, but don’t imagine that “God did it!” helps.

  • Pingback: “God Did It” Explains Everything … or Maybe Not | Cross Examined

  • Pingback: “God Did It” Explains Everything … or Maybe Not | Cross Examined


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