Boole, Science, and Faith

Boole, Science, and Faith March 8, 2019

Recently I talked about Charles Babbage as a pioneer of modern computing, and as someone whose brilliant scientific ventures were explicitly designed to support belief in the existence of God, His power, wisdom and goodness. This is only one of many examples we might look at to refute the idea of religion, and specifically Christianity, being anti-science and anti-progress.

One excellent book on this theme is Daniel J. Cohen, Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007). Cohen’s work “shows how philosophers and mathematicians seized upon the beautiful simplicity inherent in mathematical laws to reconnect with the divine.” Among his prize examples is George Boole (1815-1864), whose innovations and insights you use pretty much whenever you go online. He has been called “the father of pure mathematics” and “the father of the computer age”.

To quote a recent account, “A prodigy with a penchant for self-education, Boole was a teenage schoolteacher who rose to become the first professor of mathematics at what is now University College Cork, in 1849. Along the way he penned two seminal books: The Mathematical Analysis of Logic in 1847 and later, in 1854, An Investigation of the Laws of Thought. While his work has contributed to many branches of mathematics, arguably his greatest achievement was devising an algebraic approach to logic, using a system based on the numbers 1 and 0. More than seventy years after his death, the method was used to develop electronic switching circuits for telephone exchanges and Boolean logic is now at work in everything from smartphones to smart cars.” His Boolean Logic is “a form of algebra which is centered around three simple words known as Boolean Operators: ‘Or’, ‘And,’ and ‘Not.’ ” In computing, you come across it through Boolean Searches. You can find an excellent summary of his ideas here.

So why was he doing all this? It was a matter of faith, and of vocation. “Boole was an intensely religious man and his mathematical research was significantly motivated by his faith. He had a spiritual experience as a teenager, which he interpreted as a divine call to explain and elucidate the mathematical laws of thought.” To quote English scholar Canon Mark Hartnell: “He felt called by God to explain mathematically the laws of the world… [In the Laws of Thought] he wants to prove logically the existence of God.” In fact, he felt that God had directly revealed to him the idea of mathematical logic. Originally a firm Anglican, he later moved to theistic Unitarianism.

You can find an important lecture by Canon Hocknull online.

After Boole’s death, his wife wrote about him:

The hope in his heart had been to work in the cause of true religion. Mathematics had never been more that a secondary interest for him; and even logic [was] a means of clearing the ground of doctrines imagined to be proved, by showing that the evidence on which they were supposed to rest [did not] to prove them. [Instead he wanted] to give a more active and positive help … to the cause of pure religion.

I wonder: when atheists go online to seek evidence of the primitive and unscientific nature of the Christian faith, of the inevitable struggle between faith and science, do they use Boolean searches? Are they aware of the irony?




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