The Troubling Mathematics Of Belief  

The Troubling Mathematics Of Belief   March 2, 2020

 

Editor’s Note:  For a guy who barely passed high school algebra, this Clergy Project member has a pretty good mind for math – at least as applied to religion. To me, it seems clearly thought out and presented – and I aced Algebra! /Linda LaScola, Editor

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Scott Stahlecker

This post was inspired by a short video I put together on YouTube called Apocalyptic Thinking.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying,

“Since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do not understand it myself any more.”

Einstein also said,

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

(One can always tell the difference between a wise person and a fool. Smart people know that the more they know, the more there is to know.)

As far as math goes, it’s a subject my brain has had a tough time computing since high school. I barely squeaked through Algebra II. To my credit, though, I knew I’d never, ever, under any circumstances, use Algebra in real life. And I was correct!

While studying for the ministry a few years later I had a similar epiphany about the limits of human intelligence. You see, one of the tenets of my former religion, the Seventh-day Adventist church, is the belief that Adventism represents the truth for the “end of times.” Sure, the church also recognizes the validity of other faiths. It’s just that these churches aren’t as relevant, because they possess only partial bits of the truth. Upon realizing that only my church taught the truth, I headed off to the university where I could acquire this wisdom in the short span of four years. Everything was going fine until my third year, when I realized there were so many religions in the world that it was going to be impossible for me to verify how the truth of my religion compared with the truth represented by all the other religions.

As Max Tegmark, MIT physicist and cosmetologist, said in a 2014 Scientific American article:

“There’s something very mathematical about our universe, and that the more carefully we look, the more math we seem to find.”

It’s a humbling statement for lesser minds like myself, but I can understand Tegmark wanting to quantify the wonders of our world in mathematical terms.

I may not be able to visualize the acute or obtuse angles in a perfectly symmetrical budding flower.

I may not be able to predict when the next comet will do a flyby around planet earth, since I can’t calculate the orbits of interstellar objects.

But I know enough to ask this question:

If truth represents a singularity—a concise body of information provided by a religion or philosophy that can’t be disputed—then why are there so many different versions of the truth?

A quick Google search reveals that there are about 4200 religions and 37 million churches in the world. If you’d like to know how many philosophies there are, brew a pot of coffee and take a morning to review Wikipedia’s list of philosophies. (I stopped analyzing the differences long before the jitters set in.)

Expressed in an equation the mathematics of belief looks like this:

        4200 religions + 37 million churches + lots of philosophies = 1 version of the truth?

Granted, these numbers seem exorbitant and beg to be verified. If you head down this investigative rabbit hole, however, you’ll discover the sources for these numbers are respectable. Regardless, these stats need not be too accurate. My point is that even if we take an extremely conservative number, say there are only 100 different religions, philosophical schools of thought, or gurus, and you had to choose only one, then the odds are 99/100 that you’re not going to discover the truth.

The French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal should have waited until Encyclopedia of Gods went to print to challenge us with his wager, because this book notes there’s been more than 2500 gods throughout history. Pascal’s wager, you recall, basically states that if given the choice to believe in God, you should choose to believe. Because, if you believe then you’re prequalified for heaven. Conversely, if you believe in God and it turns out God doesn’t exist, you lose nothing (save enjoying a few vices). It would be a wager worth considering if there were but one god, but for the sake of our equation it adds another 2500 variables to picking the right truth.

What’s obvious at this point is that we as a species are desperate to know the truth, but our arrogance and pride blinds us from thinking rationally. For knowing full-well that there are so many gods and religions and churches to choose from many think they’ve discovered the truth simply because they belong to a particular religion or denomination. No religion, philosophy, or person offers a singular and comprehensive version of the truth. If anything, the plethora of belief systems available indicates how intellectually unsatisfying these systems are.

Those of you who have left religion or dabbled in philosophy understand that while no system of thought offers the “whole truth and nothing but the truth,” there’s still a lot of truth to be found in the universe and everyday life.

**Editor’s Request**  Please share your own thoughts about what you found to be truthful and meaningful in life beyond religion. 

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Bio: Scott Stahlecker was raised a Lutheran but converted to Seventh-Day Adventism in 1980. After serving the church in both lay and professional capacities, he left the church in 1990. He identified as an agnostic until 2004 and has been an outspoken atheist ever since. Throughout his life he and his wife have owned many businesses to include hospice agencies in Texas and music stores in Alaska. He is the author of the novel Blind Guides and Picking Wings Off Butterflies, a memoir about raising a child with a traumatic brain injury. He continues to write extensively about the benefits of living life as a freethinking individual. Learn more about him at www.scottstahlecker.com

>>>>>>Photo Credits: By unknown; a copy of the painting of François II Quesnel, which was made for Gérard Edelinck en 1691[réf. nécessaire]. – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12193020 ; By Ferdinand Schmutzer – http://www.bhm.ch/de/news_04a.cfm?bid=4&jahr=2006 [dead link], archived copy (image), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34239518

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