Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"Sir, (a+bn)/n = x, hence God exists. Reply!"

Which math-phobic among us has not beseeched God for help with another colon-clenching algebra or calculus exam? Had we heeded the words of the German mathematician Leopold Kronecker, perhaps we would have realized we've been talking to the wrong person: "God made the integers; all else is the work of man."
What is it with God and mathematics? Even as science and religion have quarrelled for centuries and are only recently exploring ways to kiss and make up, mathematicians have been saying for millennia that no truer expression of the divine can be found than in an ethereally beautiful equation, formula or proof.
The New York Times reported recently that mathematicians believe in God at a rate 2 1/2 times that of biologists, quoting a survey of the National Academy of Sciences. Admittedly, that's not saying much: Only 14.6 per cent of mathematicians embraced the God hypothesis, versus 5.5 per cent of biologists (versus some 80 per cent of Canadians who believe in a supreme being).
Count John Allen Paulos among the non-believers. A mathematician who teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia and who has popularized his subject in bestselling books such as Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, Paulos's latest offering is a slim but explosive volume whose title is self-explanatory: Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up (Hill & Wang).
Deploying "a lightly heretical touch," he dissects a playlist of "golden oldies" that includes the first-cause argument (sometimes tweaked as the cosmological argument, which hinges on the Big Bang), the argument for intelligent design, the ontological argument (crudely, that if we can conceive of God, then God exists), the argument from the anthropic principle (that the universe is "fine-tuned" to allow us to exist), the moral universality argument, and others.
The famous Pascal's wager – that it's in our self-interest to believe in God because we lose nothing in case He does exist – is upended as logically flawed, based on what statisticians call Type I and Type II errors.
His arguments notwithstanding, Paulos concedes that there's "no way to conclusively disprove the existence of God."
The reason, he notes, is a consequence of basic logic, but not one "from which theists can take much heart."
As for the problem of good and evil, he defers to fellow atheist, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg: "With or without religion, good people will do good, and evil people will do evil. But for good people to do evil, that takes religion."
Or as Paulos might say, no mathematician has ever deliberately flown planes into buildings.(from Star)

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