Saturday, January 29, 2011

On Mathematics as a Language of Faith

You may recall a few months ago when I commented on the language of the New Atheists, and how very like the language of theology it is, both in form and function - how much it is in fact a "language of faith."

Well, I was fascinated by Brian Greene's appearance this past week on "The Colbert Report."  Watch, and see just how much spirit (if not Spirit) there is in Greene's understanding of mathematics (a tone that is not lost on Colbert):

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Now, I'm not suggesting that Greene is one of the "New Atheists."  I haven't heard him on that topic.  Moreover, I'm not rejecting what he's saying.  I think that he's doing his best to describe what he's discerning, and I think he's quite possibly accurate.

However, like many I think he overstates what mathematics is.  It is in fact a language, one that is pretty good at describing concisely some known phenomena, and at speculating about implications of those phenomena.  Theological language does the same thing.  We watch how light changes from a star far away, and infer from those changes that a planet orbits that star.  The math suggests that's how a planet would affect the light of a star.  The thing is, unless and until we can actually send someone to confirm it (something I sincerely believe we will one day accomplish), it remains a faith statement.

I look at how the world operates, in all its consistency, and at how love seems to shape experience.  I see in that evidence of God.  I know it's a faith statement, but it's also based on observations, and the language of theology suggests that's how God will be perceived.

So, let's appreciate all that we can observe and learn that is best described in the language of mathematics.  Let's also recognize that, like any other language, it has its limits; and that, for all our conviction, mathematical consistency is no more "proof" than theological consistency.  Until we can experience things directly, both are essentially faith statements.

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