Let There Be Numbers

In the film Contact, an astronomer picks up radio signals being transmitted from outer space aliens. The signals are mathematical formulas because, as the astronomer points out, mathematics is the only universal language. And the reason it is universal is that it describes the most fundamental order of the cosmos. At least, that's what science has always taught. But a new crop of books has come out claiming that mathematics is not necessarily true at all—that it's merely a convention, a set of rules, like the rules that govern baseball. One of the new books is called What is Mathematics Really? by mathematician Reuben Hersch. Hersch claims that math does not correspond to any transcendent reality; instead, he say, it's just a human creation, much like a novel, a symphony, or a painting. Similarly, in his book, The Limits of Mathematics, mathematician Gregory Chaitin says the traditional idea is that mathematicians have some kind of direct pipeline to God's thoughts, to absolute truth. But Chaitin urges his colleagues to abandon this way of thinking. He says we ought to view math as just another messy empirical science. This is a stunning change. Up until the turn of the century, no one thought to challenge the truth of mathematics. At the time of the scientific revolution, most of the early scientists were Christians, who said that a rational God created the universe with a rational order—a mathematical order. As mathematician Morris Kline says, for Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, "the search for mathematical laws of nature was an act of devotion which would reveal the glory and grandeur of [God's] handiwork." But the new view says there is no God—and that mathematics is merely something the human mind has invented. In other words, we made up rules about how to combine numbers just as we made up the rules of baseball. But if math is simply a human creation, how do we account for its uncanny success in describing the fundamental laws of the universe? For instance, if you add five marbles to seven marbles and come up with an answer of eleven, you don't decide the mathematics was wrong; you assume you made a mistake. We all function as though mathematics is a necessary truth about reality. But without God, there's no way to explain why. In fact, Hersch calls this dilemma a major "embarrassment." Physicist Eugene Wigner says the "enormous usefulness" of mathematics is "something bordering on the mysterious. There is no rational explanation for it." Physicist Paul Davies calls it "a deep mystery." The lesson for us is that with the decline of Christianity, everything once considered true is up for grabs—even something as apparently secure, stable, and timeless as mathematics. How long will it be before these ideas filter down into the elementary classroom? I watched a television program recently about an experimental class in which kids were told that finding the correct answer to math problems is not important; all that matters is that students learn a process. It's a way of saying that absolute truth doesn't matter. We need to teach our kids that Christianity is a comprehensive worldview that gives us an answer for everything. It underlies the truth of mathematics and therefore the truth of all modern science. You can't even really say that mathematics is true apart from Christian principles. The "universal language" of the cosmos is the Word God Himself spoke in creation.


Chuck Colson


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