God and Math Don’t Mix

Jimmy at Fluid Faith asks an interesting question:

Why doesn’t anyone pray for God to suspend or violate the Laws of Math?

People always pray for God to intervene in scientific realms like helping a patient deal with a biological disease, but they never pray for the rules of math to be broken. For example, Jimmy writes, you would never hear the following prayer:

“God, we pray that these Ds and Fs that Sean has earned in his classes will add up to a 3.5 GPA so that Sean can avoid academic suspension. We pray that when his instructors compile his grades for the semester they’ll discover that these low scores on tests and assignments average out to an ‘A’ on his grade reports. And that these [instructors] will be amazed by the work you’ve done on Sean’s grades and praise you for this miracle. Lord, we don’t care how you do it, we simply ask that it be done and we pray trusting that you have the power to make it so.”

Is there a reason people don’t do such a thing?

If the rules of Math are simply the way things are, and prayer will not change that, why is that not the accepted case for other areas in life? If there’s a car accident, why do people feel prayer will make a difference in the passengers’ outcome? Why do people think a virus’ course of action in the body will change if they ask God for it to do so?

(Thanks to Brett for the link!)


[tags]atheist, atheism, math, Fluid Faith, God, Biology, GPA[/tags]

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    If the rules of Math are simply the way things are, and prayer will not change that, why is that not the accepted case for other areas in life? If there’s a car accident, why do people feel prayer will make a difference in the passengers’ outcome? Why do people think a virus’ course of action in the body will change if they ask God for it to do so?

    This is the kind of question we covered in freshmen level philosophy in college. The usual answer is that God can do anything that is logically possible but not things that are logically impossible. There is nothing logically impossible about car wreck victims healing or viral infections going away. It happens all the time. Thus there is nothing logically contradictory about asking God to guide that process in a particular case.

    However, mathematical rules are logical necessities. It’s just nonsensical to think that they could be different. You can say the words “two plus two equals five” but that doesn’t mean they have any meaning. It’s just a nonsense phrase. Theists don’t believe God can do things that violate the basic laws of logic. That’s why we wouldn’t pray for God to change mathematical rules.

  • Richard Wade

    And that’s why atheists like logic so much.

  • http://jewishatheist.blogspot.com JewishAtheist

    Along the lines of what Mike C wrote, people do pray for God to interfere with math, just not to break the rules. For example, people pray every day to win the lottery. I think it’s actually the same in other fields. People pray for their cancer to go away, but they don’t, as far as I know, pray for virgin births.

  • http://fluidfaith.org Jimmy Shaw

    Mike C and JewishAtheist, you’re both correct, I think. Certainly math is comprised of logical necessities which are logically inviolable. Of course, 4 cannot equal 3, no matter how much we pray. I was being intentionally obtuse.

    Another way to put it might be (and I’m still thinking about this) that Laws of Math are descriptive whereas Natural Laws govern the mechanical workings of the universe. A Creator (if there be one) could then be imagined to suspend or alter the latter but would be bound by logic in the former. I’m not exactly sure this is a thorough answer to the problems of God, but I think this is how most believers would respond to my query.

    What concerns me is that American Christians (and I am one) seem to want a world that is governed by predictable laws — math, physics, medicine — except when they don’t. So they work constantly under the assumption of a world built on stable laws, then ask God (on occasion, when it suits them) to suspend the stability of those laws.

    My question then is, If the laws are not stable what makes them laws at all?

    There’s more, but I’ll stop. I wrote more about all this in other parts of a series of posts on Faith & Science … starting w/ What would Sam Harris say?

  • http://fluidfaith.org Jimmy Shaw

    Hemant — thanks for stopping by Fluid Faith. I had been lurking here for a few weeks after Brett mentioned your blog. I really enjoy the dialogue you’ve got going on here and I appreciate you including some of my random ramblings.

  • Stephen

    I think that phrasing it in terms of “logical necessity” is overstating the case. What it comes down to is that while theists claim to believe in an all-powerful god, they actually don’t. There are plenty of things they rarely if ever pray for, simply because they know perfectly well they aren’t going to happen:

    - their small wooden house to be replaced overnight by a three-storey stone-built palace;
    - their Ford Escort to metamorphose into a Ferrari;
    - an amputated limb to regrow;
    - a warm meal to materialise out of thin air on their kitchen table.

    All of these would be peanuts to a god who can create a planet teeming with life – but they just don’t happen.

  • Susan

    The thing about “mathematical laws” is that they are very different from physical laws. Any mathematical system is built on some number of axioms that are assumed to be true, and the theorems that can be derived from them. When those axioms match our intuitions about the real world, the results also reflect the real world. For instance, in number theory, there is an axiom (if I recall correctly) that says that no number is equal to its own successor. Therefore, since 4 is the successor of 3, it can’t be equal to 3.

    But you don’t have to use those exact axioms–you can use any set of axioms that are logically consistent (that’s a technical term; meaning for any statement you can prove in the system, you cannot prove its negation). So it seems to me that if god could change which axioms reflect the real world, then sure, he could change the “laws of math”. For instance, in geometry, we can remove the parallel postulate and replace it with a variation, and suddenly we have a consistent system in which there are triangles whose angles add up to more than 180°. So god could change the shape of space from a plane to a sphere to make the parallel postulate no longer apply, and then the laws of math would have changed. (Although physicists are already figuring out that space isn’t Euclidean to begin with, so I guess god would have to change space back to being Euclidean.)

    There’s actually a whole branch of mathematics that deals with exactly the question of “What axioms are required to prove a particular theorem?”

    The other way I could see god changing the “laws of math” would be to change the way we think about logic in our own minds. There are a set of rules of logic that most of us agree on (though there is plenty of debate even there) that define how we can derive theorems from the axioms we start with. In formal systems, they are rules of symbol manipulation, such as the fact that you can remove ¬¬ (a double negation) or add it any time you like. It’s a lot harder to accept, but you could view these rules as meta-axioms, and they themselves could be changed so that we produce different theorems from the same axioms. So god could tinker around in all of our heads and make us believe a different set of rules of logic, and thereby cause a different mathematical statement to be “true”.

    Of course, then you’d have to get in to meta-meta-rules, and meta-meta-meta-rules, and at some point I’d say it gets too complex even for god to deal with (he seems more of a practical-minded guy).

    Now maybe you can see why when people ask me what my religion is, I sometimes answer “mathematics.”

  • http://fluidfaith.org Jimmy Shaw

    Dang it! I knew this post would lead to a Math Quiz … and I would fail it!

    I think it’s true, of course, that a God who could create this present system of logically consistent laws would also have the power to hypothetically alter that system to create a newly coherent system of logically consistent laws. But that would still be a logical system. Ultimately, my point was (or I think it was) that we do not believe that within one particular system God may suspend the axioms or temporarily alter them and still maintain the coherence of the system.

    So, why do we believe that the physical laws of the universe are somehow more malleable? Aren’t they also bound by the mandates of a logical coherence? Don’t they also hang together in a way that is fundamentally consistent? Or are they free from the constraints of coherence and logic in ways that math axioms are not?

    These are my questions. But, if calculus is involved in the answer, I’ll have to revert to ancient superstition.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Hey Jimmy, good questions,

    My question then is, If the laws are not stable what makes them laws at all?

    Are they “stable”? I mean, isn’t the term “laws” when applied to physical science really a misnomer? Science is changing the rules all the time, constantly revising the “laws”, discovering new ones, and, more recently, discovering that despite all the laws there is still a huge amount of uncertainty, unpredictability, and probability at work in the natural world. Maybe under a Newtonian view of the world the entire natural universe could be described by absolute mathematical laws, but as I understand it (and my knowledge of this field is admittedly limited) quantum theory pretty much blew that mechanistic view of the world out of the water. Natural laws (as opposed to mathematical laws) are for the most part logical and consistent, but they are not absolute in the same way that math is. There is too much based on probabilities. And they really are more malleable, open to revision as new observations are made about how the world works. (Not saying this is a bad thing, just the way it is.)

    And besides, asking God to intervene doesn’t have to mean suspending any natural laws. God often works within nature, in harmony with the laws he himself set up to bring about miraculous results. I’ve blogged more about this here.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Wow Susan! You are way more knowledgeable about math than I will ever be. Thanks for the intriguing insights.

  • Brett

    And besides, asking God to intervene doesn’t have to mean suspending any natural laws.

    I guess that’s the whole question. If God is working “within nature,” is that really “intervention”? That leads to a whole discussion of what people mean by nature, laws, and miracles. If speaking of miracles refers to divine intervention in the natural world, then any of those other things (like healing an amputee) would be just as possible as others, if God willed it. If, however, you take a more nuanced view that sees miracles as God working “within nature, in harmony with the laws he himself set up to bring about miraculous results” how can one tell the difference between a miracle and a normal happenstance? Wouldn’t it completely be in the eyes of the beholder whether one sees something as merely unusual or a miracle? After all, improbable things happen all the time…

  • Brett

    Mike,
    After reading the blog entry you linked to, I see you’ve answered some of the questions I raised. You definitely seem to use the latter approach, seeing ‘miracles’ as often inevitably intertwined with common events.

    But that approach doesn’t jive with my knowledge of many Biblical miracles- healing the lame, the blind, raising the dead, the Resurrection, etc.

    Also, if “In a Hebraic worldview there is not “what nature does” and then “what God does”, nature is what God does.” (as you stated on your blog), then how can one discern any separation between what God does and what Nature is? If there is no distinction, it seems that the God you believe in is awfully similar to Einstein’s, or Spinoza’s. The Hebrew God, is described as quite anthropomorphic, showing jealously, love, hatred, mercy, and a propensity to “intervene”- hardening people’s hearts and impregnating virgins. Are all of those examples of miracles in the Bible that defy the natural order lies? Does the Hebrew scripture really describe a deity inseparable from the natural world?

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    But that approach doesn’t jive with my knowledge of many Biblical miracles- healing the lame, the blind, raising the dead, the Resurrection, etc.

    …Are all of those examples of miracles in the Bible that defy the natural order lies?

    Brett, good questions. I’ve answered most of them already in this comment.

    Short answer: it’s a both/and.

    Does the Hebrew scripture really describe a deity inseparable from the natural world?

    I wouldn’t say “inseparable”. I would say “intimately interconnected but not identical.”

    IMHO, God is not identical with nature, s/he is the Creator of nature. So when I look at nature I see the work of God. It is itself a miracle.

  • Craig

    Why doesn’t anyone pray for God to suspend or violate the Laws of Math?

    Lots of my former calculus students prayed for God to suspend the Laws of Math. It never worked.

  • Brett

    Mike,
    Let me paraphrase the “both/and” answer, and lemme know if I get it wrong: Miracles can be both working ‘within’ the laws of nature and exceptions to the law.

    With the former, I’m still wondering how it can be called a miracle at all. Can anyone tell the difference between a normal event and a miracle, unless someone writing scripture describes it as a miracle?

    And with the latter, it still raises the question of why God would make laws that She will have to suspend (not whether she could, but whether She would).

    If our understanding of those laws is merely insufficient (as science, as you rightly noted, is constantly revising its laws to get a “best fit” with reality) then maybe all of the miracles fit into the former category, which brings me back to the first question.

    Also, “intimately interconnected but not identical” as a descriptor for God still sounds like a Deity. If those connections occur at a constant level, then they would basically be part of natural processes. If they occur irregularly, when God chooses, then I would see them as “interventions.” So in my view, God is either the same as nature (pantheism?) or is on some level separable from it. I mean, if God created the universe, doesn’t that mean the universe must be in some sense separate from God as an entity? Can God create Herself?

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Let me paraphrase the “both/and” answer, and lemme know if I get it wrong: Miracles can be both working ‘within’ the laws of nature and exceptions to the law.

    Yep, you got it. That’s what I’m saying.

    With the former, I’m still wondering how it can be called a miracle at all. Can anyone tell the difference between a normal event and a miracle, unless someone writing scripture describes it as a miracle?

    Well, I think I said this before, but it seems to me that the miracle is often in the timing and the results. There may be a natural cause for the parting of the Red Sea, but the fact that that cause happened right when the Israelites needed it to still makes it a miracle in my book.

    And with the latter, it still raises the question of why God would make laws that She will have to suspend (not whether she could, but whether She would).

    I think it comes down to what I was saying in my comment about how miracles aren’t mere magic tricks, they are “Signs” – i.e. dramatic displays intended to communicate a deeper theological message. Think of it as a divine version of performance art. :)

    In other words, God doesn’t have to suspend the laws She created, but does anyway in order to get our attention and communicate a message.

    If our understanding of those laws is merely insufficient (as science, as you rightly noted, is constantly revising its laws to get a “best fit” with reality) then maybe all of the miracles fit into the former category, which brings me back to the first question.

    Yeah, that’s a possibility too. I can’t say for sure that all of Jesus’ miracles don’t have some previously unknown natural explanation. But again, it wouldn’t bother me if they did. The fact that he could harness that natural power at will is still miracle enough for me.

    Also, “intimately interconnected but not identical” as a descriptor for God still sounds like a Deity.

    Yeah, I still believe in a Deity. Did I give the impression that I didn’t?

    If those connections occur at a constant level, then they would basically be part of natural processes. If they occur irregularly, when God chooses, then I would see them as “interventions.” So in my view, God is either the same as nature (pantheism?) or is on some level separable from it. I mean, if God created the universe, doesn’t that mean the universe must be in some sense separate from God as an entity? Can God create Herself?

    I do believe that God is still to some degree separable from Her creation. I don’t think She is just identical with the universe. (I admit that it’s a possibility, but for me at least, the problem of evil still prevents me from wanting to say that everything in the universe is just part of the divine.) In fact, to me one of the most amazing things about God is Her ability to create things not herself. That, to me, is a demonstration of Her infinitely self-giving love.

    As for how God directs those “miraculous” events and makes those “interventions”, I suppose there are any number of possibilities. On a more mechanistic view of the universe, theologians have long supposed that God, as the first cause – the originator of the Big Bang – arranged everything at the moment of creation so that nature would unfold in such a way that all the necessary miracles would naturally arise at the proper moments. In other words, he foreknew that he’d need a parting of the Red Sea sometime around 1500 BC, so he adjusted a few particles of energy in the Big Bang that would put into motion the chain of natural causation that would eventually lead to the big wind or tsunami or earthquake or whatever it was that caused the seas to part.

    However, on a less mechanistic, more quantum view of the natural world, I suppose it’s easy enough to locate God’s possible interventions in the midst of all the probabilities. If there are all kinds of that could possibly happen in nature with varying degrees of probability, maybe God brings about natural miracles simply by choosing to actualize one particular set of possibilities.

    Frankly, I really don’t know. I just see the results in this world and say, “Hmmm, I wonder if there’s someone behind that, directing these events in some way? It sure seems like it sometimes.”

  • Brett

    Mike,
    Thanks- I think you’ve cleared up what you believe and the areas in which you are comfortable with uncertainty. I hate to “side with the fundies,” but it often seems to me that their interpretation of what the Biblical authors are describing when they talk about different ‘miracles’ is more similar to what I think those authors really meant than more ‘liberal’ interpretations. While your approach is certainly more intellectual, and leads to more tolerable results (not just on miracles but on other issues as well), the more it does so, the further it seems to get from an honest/ reasonable interpretation of what Scripture says and what it means to be a Christian, at least to my mind.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Well, I guess it just depends on how you think Scripture should be interpreted. One of the most revolutionary moments in my own faith was when I realized that the Bible was a work of literature and should be read as such – i.e. with attention to context and genre and symbolisms and culture, etc.

    We don’t need to get too much into it here, but I’d encourage you not to always equate “literal” with “honest/reasonable”. If the Bible was never meant to be read as a “literal” text in the first place, than that approach is actually rather unreasonable, and unfaithful to what God (or the authors) really intended in the first place.

    But on the other hand, I’m not sure why you think my explanation of miracles is a “liberal” interpretation. I still believe that miracles are possible, that they do happen, and that most of the ones recorded in the Bible probably did happen too. I don’t know too many liberal Christians who believe any of that anymore. They’re usually more concerned to read them all as merely figurative stories that didn’t actually happen. My views would place me in the “fundy” camp according to most liberals.

  • Richard Wade

    Most of you may have seen this classic cartoon, but it’s worth posting just for a chuckle again. Click here.

  • MTran

    One of the most revolutionary moments in my own faith was when I realized that the Bible was a work of literature and should be read as such – i.e. with attention to context and genre and symbolisms and culture, etc.

    Sometimes I think that more personal acrimony against belief develops from those who were never exposed to a religion that taught the Bible as literature with an “emergent” celebratory message rather than a static, literal, and largely condemnatory one.

    Many of my atheist friends (who come from families that were Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Jewish faiths) often don’t believe me when I tell them that the loonies on “Christian” tv gimme-money shows are nothing like the main line Protestant faiths that I grew up with. I attended Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and a few Unitarian and Episcopalian churches while growing up. There was never a hint of the radicalized fundamentalism we see today in the news media.

    If I had never been exposed to the thinking that is characteristic of believers such as Mike C., I might tend to question how typical his views are among Christians. Well, they are pretty representative of what I saw among most of the Protestant denominations that I had a chance to encounter.

    Although I eventually realized I was an atheist, it was in spite of, not because of, the positive experiences I had with those denominations. I just can’t be a hypocrite. I’m an atheist and want to be honest about it and not hide behind some religious facade.

  • Rotceh

    I bet somebody, sometime already did it… :^(

    But anybody considering such a pray,
    has no idea about praying.

    On the other hand, some pray “against a virus”,
    for the same reason others drink milk.

    R.

  • Richard Wade

    Driving through downtown Los Angeles yesterday I saw an enormous sign painted on the blank wall of a large building. You can read it from over a mile away. It said, “The algorithm constantly seeks Jesus.” What the hell does that mean? I never could remember what an algorithm is but it has something to do with math. Maybe even though God leaves math alone, math won’t leave God alone.

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