I’m in a mood to reach across the aisle today. Always in search for common ground with my Christian counterparts, I’ve decided to give an ecumenical public service announcement: Christians… read your bible! Read it all. Cover to cover. Take it in. Engage with the text and really solidify your Christian bona fides and show your Lord and Savior that you mean business. I believe this is a message that will easily be endorsed by clergymen and laymen alike — of all Christian stripes: from the most fundamentalist fire-breathing pastor, to the most liberal wishy-washy believer out there. Simply read the Bible.
I’ve always been so curious as to what % of “Christians” who are out there professing “Christianity” have actually read the thing — the whole thing. I would wager a lot of money — and souls — that it is a miniscule minority. So many vociferous Christians, so little Christian education.
I have personally read the good book cover to cover twice — once as a Christian, and once as an atheist. I believe so much in the value of everyone knowing what is in this very culturally significant book that I think I’m going to make a new policy for myself: Christian arguments will not be recognized by me from anyone who has not slogged through the whole mess that is the Christian bible. Look, Christians, I’m not trying to be harsh here, it’s for your own good. You really need to read the thing. Your pastor/priest and fellow Christians will most certainly agree with me.
So, read the Christian bible, read the whole thing, engage with it, and let me know what you think. I’ll make a friendly wager — just to make it interesting — that at the end of it, you’ll be less Christian and more Atheist. This is a bet worthy of Pascal: if you read the bible and remain Christian, you’ve only educated yourself and brought yourself more into the faith that you so cherish; but if you read it and recognize it for the jumbled, incoherent, fairy tale that it actually is, you can then start leading a wonderful, productive life bathed in the warm comfort of reality. What’s there to lose?
This has been your public service announcement from Skeptical Music. Have a wonderful day!
For the purposes of this post I’m lumping theologians in with religious intellectuals of all stripes: Paul Tillich, Karen Armstrong, Shelby Spong, Alister McGrath, Marcus Borg, Chris Hedges, David Brooks, etc. Essentially, all those who keep claiming that atheists are only attacking the low-hanging, fundamentalist fruit of religious thought and ignoring the Sophisticated Theologians (as Jerry Coyne likes to call them). This is done to expedite the dismissal and not for lack of understanding or ignorance of your positions.
Sorry all you deep-thinking religious people, but it’s not that we are so incapable of engaging with your mind-crushingly profound thought — it’s that you are so easily dismissed. I actually have read your works, I’ve heard your arguments, I’ve engaged with your thought, so please quit making the facile, baseless argument that atheists are ignorant of your great insights. Most of us have engaged (though we often wish we hadn’t — there are certainly better uses of one’s time), but other atheists who have chosen not to engage, should not be shamed into wasting hours of their lives trying to digest your nonsense. Here is why you literally and figuratively “mean nothing” to me as an interlocutor, and why you are dismissed with and without prejudice:
1) What you espouse is simply not as profound, insightful, nor interesting as you like to think.
2) Theologians do not represent the prominent religious culture that concerns atheists. You are dismissed within your own religious milieu; why in the world should atheists care what you have to say if your own community doesn’t take you seriously?
3) For every theologian, there is a different theology. You guys love having it both ways.
4) Theology is purposefully opaque; anything can mean ANYTHING.
5) You have a premise problem which allows dismissal of anything that follows.
6) If you are looking to engage with atheists, you are barking up the wrong tree. You have millions of “choirs” to convince before you get to us.
7) Nearly everything you say is simply an expression of the human condition and your “other”, your “ground of being”, your “mysterious”, your “ineffable”, your “numinous”, are all perfectly fine discussions to be had among humans without invoking some superfluous supernatural component to these thoughts. Get over yourselves, you’re not that special.
8) You guys think you are engaging in and exercising humility while you prostrate yourselves before the ominous, mysterious, object of your existential yearning — but you are really just smug assholes.
9) You are utterly, completely, irrefutably, and irreconcilably boring.
For these 9 reasons I dismiss you. Except dammit, I just wasted my time enumerating reasons why I dismiss you. Oh well, from here on out, consider yourselves dismissed. Until you bother me enough to foolishly engage with you again, when I will probably break down and expand on the 9 reasons why you should be dismissed. Crap, this is reason #10 you should be dismissed, because you put me in the Catch-22 paradox of the theological dismissal by engagement. At least now I have a nice, round top ten list.
That’s essentially the depth of the argumentation in the book, The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy by Fern Elsdon-Baker. It’s been a fun bathroom book (flagged!), but I’m afraid the content should be flushed with the other waste. This book is definitely one that can be judged by its cover: a caricatured, petulant looking Dawkins, shouting from a bullhorn. I’m not the first person to point out that many of Dawkins’ critics both religious and non-religious have caricatured him in such a way: “militant”, “strident”, “dogmatic”, “scientistic”, “atheist/scientific orthodoxy”, “heavy-handed”, etc. You’d think this guy was always engaging in extreme hyperbole at the top of his lungs at every turn — some kind of Morton Downey Jr. meets Rowdy Roddy Piper scientist (yes I’m a child of the ’80’s). I’m also not the first to point out that this caricature never matches Professor Dawkins actual demeanor.
In this book, Elsdon-Baker page after page caricatures Dawkins in this manner, except there’s one problem: no examples of such behavior or even quotes of his actual language are ever given in support of this caricature. It is simply declared and assumed by fiat. In a particularly galling example of the vilification of Dawkins, Elsdon-Baker accuses Dawkins of un-scientific-like behavior in his speech and tactics:
However, what is fine for the theatre critic trying to sell newspapers with his entertaining rants or a politician touting for your vote — or a fire-and-brimstone preacher trying to frighten the vulnerable into church — is surely not so acceptable for someone who promotes himself as a spokesman for science… Using intemperate language or shock tactics in this context only serves to further entrench people’s positions rather than encouraging them to become involved in open discussion.
~ The Selfish Genius p. 152
This guy sounds horrible! What quote got the author so riled up? What is this shocking language and scientific heresy that Dawkins engages in? What atrocious behavior causes such criticism? I have no idea, the author never says. Certainly such a public figure as Dawkins who is so ubiquitous on television and in print, one could find a slew of examples which would be readily available to anyone wishing to support such a position. I’m still waiting.
I have yet to see a criticism of Dawkins that is an actual criticism of Dawkins and not same made-up, mythical Dawkins-Creature built of straw: The evil, mythical “Strawkins”. This is so lazy. A hack blogger — like myself — I can see not making the effort to build a solid, well-researched, academic case, in some off-the-cuff opinion piece, but Fern-Elsdon is an academic and this is a published, supposedly researched and edited book. For shame!
Even I was able to manage to dig out a stupid quote from the book I was criticizing and 1) I’m not getting paid 2) I don’t pretend this blog is anything but the equivalent of a layperson’s rant diary and 3) I actually am a bit strident.
Faitheists are annoying. <—————– Strident.
Okay, to be fair Elsdon-Baker finally does get around to quoting Dawkins in the book to prove her point, here’s Dawkins:
I am trying to call attention to the elephant in the room that everybody is too polite — or too devout — to notice: religion, and specifically the devaluing effect that religion has on human life. I don’t mean devaluing the life of others (though it can do that too), but devaluing one’s own life. Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end.
She then quotes Dawkins comments on the awful practice of female genital mutilation, and argues that he’s being silly, because of course it isn’t a religious practice, it’s a cultural one. Right. A culture which is instructed, informed, entangled and born of religion.
Here’s another quote by Dawkins that Elsdon-Baker says “Dawkins’ spleen was not just vented on accommodationists, however. His double-barrelled shotgun opened fire on much bigger targets — creationists themselves”. Whoa! That sounds serious. Can’t wait to see what Dawkins said, he must have really brought the hate:
Get the bishops and theologians on the side of science — so the argument runs — and they’ll be valuable allies against the naive creationists (who probably include the majority of Christians and certainly almost all Muslims by the way).
My goodness that’s some invective!
The book goes on to completely conflate Dawkins as a scientist and as a public advocate for atheism. Funny how female genital mutilation can’t be religious, but must be cultural and political, but when Dawkins is clearly being cultural and political in advocating for atheism and against religion, he’s being a scientist. Wow, is that ironic.
I love it when I find agreement with Christians, even if it is for completely different reasons and from polar opposite viewpoints.
Here’s an article by a Christian, properly placing blame on Christians for not keeping “Christ” in Christmas. It’s pretty typical “reason for the season” drivel and admonishing Christians for allowing so much commercialization of the holiday, blah, blah. There is a lot about the article that isn’t relevant to me as a non-believer, but in the spirit of the season, I’ll point out an area of major common ground: Christians’ “war” with non-believers during this time of year is small potatoes compared to the worldview-war they should be having in their own community concerning the “true” meaning of Christmas.
For whatever reason, the Bill O’Reillys of the world think they are in a battle with secularists over the holiday. To some small degree that is true, but not in the way they think. Bill’s culture war should be with his fellow Christians, because the war with non-believers is mostly on constitutional grounds — and much less so about the culture (although I certainly wouldn’t mind convincing the culture not to be Christians).
The culture war surrounding the holidays is a much bigger “war” in scope, but that’s a battle that Christians need to have with themselves, not with secularists. It’s really easy for a non-believing 1st Amendment-lover like me: I don’t believe any tenets of the Christian faith, the Bible holds no value for me, and I certainly don’t think that religion of any sort should be anywhere near the state, the government, nor any public policy. Christmas, or any celebration around the solstice, is simply a celebration of humanity and a recognition of the good things in life. The line for those who are religious gets a lot fuzzier. Christians are confused and disjointed as a group as to where religious/secular line lies, and how it should be toed.
Christians lament the fact that Christ is a minority role player in the theater and pageantry of Christmas. I agree, Christ has almost nothing to do with the modern celebration of Christmas. Christmas is better for it. So, in this very narrow way, I absolutely agree with the author of this article: Christians should whine to each other and try to keep each other in line about “keeping Christ in Christmas”–just keep it off my lawn, away from the courthouse, and leave me out of it — you’ll find much greater disagreement amongst yourselves than you will with me as to what Christmas means to Christians.
Half the time when you meet people who say they are churchgoing Christians, they don’t know what they’re supposed to believe, they don’t believe all of it, they have a lot of doubt, and they go to church largely for social reasons.
~ Christopher Hitchens “Christmas with Christopher Hitchens,” A.V. Club 12/20/07
Give me a good old Christian or Muslim fundamentalist any day. I think this is why atheists are often accused of being the mirror of fundamentalists, because we actually want religious people to believe in something rather than constantly abusing language, abusing text, and moving the goal posts. No wait, moving the goal posts doesn’t quite describe what religious people do, they change stadiums and start playing a different game with different equipment.
David Brooks has a column on “faith” in the NYT Op-Ed section today that simply redefines “faith” and “religion” into something that can sit well with his modern sensibilities. It’s what Karen Armstrong does and it’s what all the woo-peddlers out there do. Don’t like the meaning of a word? Don’t like what your holy book has to say? That’s okay, words can mean whatever you want them to mean both individually and as a collective. Translation: “You stupid atheists, you’ll never understand the ineffable and numinous because you’re so inflexible and don’t realize that words can mean anything we want them to mean. The sooner you learn that, then, well… GOD!” I think they are simply being precious, and religion and faith allows them to wall off their sacred notions of sacred.
David Brooks starts the column right away by redefining faith in quite a circular way:
It begins, for many people, with an elusive experience of wonder and mystery. The best modern book on belief is “My Bright Abyss” by my Yale colleague, Christian Wiman. In it, he writes, “When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never?”
Who buys this stuff? If you feel overwhelmed or inadequate by life experiences this equates to religion? It is so obnoxious to have someone redefine the term religious to include everyday life experiences, and then tell the non-religious that if they have ever experienced anything whatsoever, then they are by definition religious. How does David Brooks and Christian Wiman put forth such an argument with a straight face? He continues:
Most believers seem to have had these magical moments of wonder and clearest consciousness, which suggested a dimension of existence beyond the everyday. Maybe it happened during childbirth, with music, in nature, in love or pain, or during a moment of overwhelming gratitude and exaltation.
What he says in this paragraph is a key difference between believers and non-believers: once you take out the silly word “magical” from above, he is not describing anything outside normal human experience, and yet he wants to claim for religion (and faith) absolutely everything that doesn’t belong to religion, it belongs to humanity.
It’s all very solipsistic on the part of the believer to think the range of human experience and emotion simply belong to religion — but it’s actually worse than that: David Brooks (and Wiman) are claiming these experiences, can only be the domain of the religious. They put aside human experience into this little “other” category which they dub “religious” and stake claim to it as solely something experienced and appreciated by believers. It doesn’t make such experiences any more special, I think it actually cheapens them. Most believers cannot see outside their own head and realize that nothing described above (again, except magic) cannot be fully experienced and appreciated by a non-believer. I would dare to argue that such experiences are enriched by non-believers, as these experiences are seen as a beautiful part of the human condition in this world; they are experiences that we can share together and not just sprinkled onto us by a magical fairy-dusting.
He goes on about religion in faith in a completely incoherent manner:
These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.
Leave it to the religious to think they are so special because they are gifted with internal magical powers. Yet they think humans are not special for the reasons we are actually special: humans have ideals, dreams, emotions, senses, consciousness, etc. Notice again how he uses “faith” in a way that is unrecognizable. Faith in this paragraph is a longing. What? He not only redefines “faith” yet again, but also extends the definition and makes it more vague by saying “it’s also not a single emotion, it encompasses many emotions”. So now “faith” has been redefined, the definition has been extended to encompass multiple emotions, and it’s vague and opaque. He’s not done, it’s also a “state of motivation”, a desire associated with moral beauty, and also the act of incorporating all this gobbledygook into life. Congratulations David Brooks, you have just rendered the word faith utterly meaningless.
Up to this point I just considered this another horrible column on faith. Let them have religion, I say, I think it’s silly, but if they want to do it, let them have their toys. But then David Brooks has to go and do something really stupid as he starts the ridiculous attempt (it’s always ridiculous) to reconcile his weird definitions of faith and religion with reason. Yes reason.
Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason…
In his famous fourth footnote in “Halakhic Man,” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes, “The individual who frees himself from the rational principle and who casts off the yoke of objective thought will in the end turn destructive and lay waste the entire created order. Therefore, it is preferable that religion should ally itself with the forces of clear, logical cognition, as uniquely exemplified in the scientific method, even though at times the two might clash with one another.”
Or as Wiman puts it more elegantly: “Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.”
I should have known there couldn’t be a religious article without having it both ways. Reason needs faith and faith needs reason. Neither of these premises is true, reason does not indeed need faith, and faith vanishes with reason. Don’t try and tack your religion on to reason and scientific method. Seriously, scientific method??? I cannot for the life of me comprehend how any religious definition of faith has anything to do with the scientific method. It’s simply another way for people like Brooks to feel better about that nasty little word “faith” and be able to live with himself and accept reason and science also. One needs to go and I’m glad he recognizes that it can’t be reason or science, so he has abandoned faith without knowing it. It has been obliterated by Brooks and any discernible definition of the word is lost in his re-branding — and it most certainly doesn’t coincide with reason. Why not drop it altogether? Religious people are so clingy about words like faith, they are willing to rob them of all meaning before they will stop using them.
But he’s not done. That little 5 letter word still has some stretch left in it, so he will go to the well yet again to slap another definition onto faith. “All this discerning and talking leads to the main business of faith: living attentively every day.” Again, living attentively every day is not magical, nor spiritual, nor religious and it certainly isn’t faith or “the business of faith”. Living attentively does just fine as a human endeavor. More unnecessary mysticism where real life is more than sufficient to speak in these terms.
I love the way he ends the column too. The column insults my sensibilities as a non-believer, who I thought his piece was addressing, but he ends it with a dig to his fellow believers:
Insecure believers sometimes cling to a rigid and simplistic faith. But confident believers are willing to face their dry spells, doubts, and evolution. Faith as practiced by such people is change. It is restless, growing. It’s not right and wrong that changes, but their spiritual state and their daily practice. As the longings grow richer, life does, too. As Wiman notes, “To be truly alive is to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence.”
So, according to Brooks, non-religious people are actually religious if they simply have emotions. Also, believers are facile and aren’t doing religion correctly. Way to start the column off by condescending to non-believers and end it by condescending to your fellow faith-heads. David Brooks wins the gold for condescension. Good job!
Since I have ceded the War on Christmas to Bill O’Reilly, and since I have confessed my allegiance to Christopher Hitchens as the closest thing to a deity that I’ll likely admit, and since I feel like celebrating this holiday season, and since I’m a person of the 90’s and a heartfelt Seinfeldian, I’m going to combine my interests and make up my own holiday (see Festivus). My holiday will be Hitchmas, and to celebrate, I will spare you my thoughts on topical matters and view them through the Atheist Prophet’s eyes since he could say it more eloquently from the grave than I could hope to while alive and kicking. It works out nicely in this case, because Christians are often so predictable that their miserable history just keeps repeating itself.
“Nothing optional — from homosexuality to adultery — is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting (and exact the fierce punishment) have a repressed desire to participate.”
~ Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great)
The general topic at hand is Christian hypocrisy and the specific event is that of the pastor, Gaylard Williams, of Praise Cathedral Church of God in Seymour, IN, and his alleged gay-sex proposition. I do not mention, as most articles do, that this pastor and his church are “anti-gay”. This, to me, is just superfluous language. Any decent church-folk who profess to following the “Good Book” know from Leviticus 20:13 that homosexuals should be killed. Anti-gay is inherent in Christianity and if you don’t believe that as a Christian, then you are doing it wrong. I know, that’s the militant, fundamentalist, atheist in me caricaturing Christianity. I simply can’t bring myself to ignore the actual words that are contained in the book Christians hold in such reverence. You call it theology, I call it hypocrisy: Tomato/Tomahto.
Anyway, back to Hitchmas. In this wonderful time of year, I invite the Reverend Williams into the fold, invite him to drop that nasty book that tells him he can’t be gay, and wade in the warm waters of Freethinking. He will have much less cognitive dissonance and much more gay sex. I will leave the good Reverend Williams with true prophecy from someone with actual predictive ability:
Bishop Eddie Long of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia preaches that Bayard Rustin was a vile sinner who suffered from the curable ‘disease’ of homosexuality. I have a rule of thumb for such clerics and have never known it to fail: Set your watch and sit back, and pretty soon they will be found sprawling lustily on the floor of the men’s room.”
~ Christopher Hitchens [“God’s Bigmouths,” Slate 9/27/10]
Bill O’Reilly considers himself a culture warrior. Grossly overstated metaphor aside (subtlety does not exist in the No Spin Zone), he definitely engages in battles of words daily. A particular battlefield during the month of December gets him going like no other, his beloved “War on Christmas”. You can Google it to find over a decade’s worth of clips and commentary on his Christmas Crusades. Recently he declared victory for his side. He is literally on the side of the angels and baby Jesus (non-existent as they may be) – it is the little tot’s birthday after all. So in the spirit of the season, I’ll cede the war to Bill, so all that is left is to draw up the treaty.
Bill and Baby Jesus get to have and celebrate the following Christmas items:
Creepy nativity scenes, gold, frankincense, myrrh, crosses (burning optional), church, Herod, donkeys.
The “losers” of the war on Christmas are stuck with the following to celebrate only if they so choose:
Decorated trees, pretty lights, PEACE [Bill doesn’t want this because a) he’s a warrior and b) Jesus came not for peace but with a sword], presents, stockings, Santa, reindeer, secular Christmas songs, Dickens, candy canes, eggnog, snowmen, holly, wreaths, merry bells, snowmen, feasts, JOY, family (Jesus ain’t too big on family values), cookies…
So to Bill and other Jesus warriors: I promise not to go to church but we get Rudolph and for Kris Kringle’s sake keep your hands off my figgy pudding!
Happy Holidays Everyone!
I mean, I get what it is so far as you can understand a moving target. Like with any other ideology, it seems there are as many forms of communism as there are communists. I simply mean – I don’t get the appeal of communism. On its face it doesn’t seem to make sense as a system in our current times.
I get communism in the 19th century. I get why Marx’ powerful ideas about the control of the capital by very few caused atrocious human rights conditions. The debasement of workers globally during the industrial age needed a voice – a strong voice – to swing the economic pendulum at least a tick in the direction of the laborers. So, I suppose I get communism as an advocacy movement, but I don’t get it as a state or governmental institution.
Communism as governmental policy, to me, seems antithetical to what the spirit of communism is actually about – giving resources and power to the people. This has always been the problem with communism: that it does not translate from a cultural, grassroots, ideological movement into governmental policy. Somewhere in that journey it goes from a necessary liberal voice of the people and turns into right-wing ideological suppression machine.
Yes, I said that, communism as a state policy is completely right wing, as much as the terms left/right mean anything politically. Never has the “old boss is the new boss” cliche ever been so apt as when a group of leftist radicals in the name of communism turn into right wing ideologues stepping on the same people they purported to to be advocates for. It seems rather self-evident that communism is a right wing ideology once it’s institutionalized, but I never hear it condemned as such from the left.
Communism finds itself in this Catch-22 because to have common property among the people, there has to be a mechanism to distribute and control such property. By definition, if that mechanism is the state, then there is longer an even distribution that communism seeks, because the value of power can’t be overlooked in the distribution of property. Control from the state level inherently forces a secession of power from the people to the state as it controls and distributes common stock which is supposedly owned by the people. Once this move is made then the communist ideal crumbles in practice. Not only does the equal distribution ideal disappear, but the people find themselves in less of a power situation than when they started!
Communism has been a valuable tool for conscious raising on socioeconomic issues, and has, at its best, politically fought for human rights. But it is effective as only that: a tool to keep the powers in check. Once communism becomes the power structure itself, the whole ideological purpose reverses itself and the people no longer have advocacy against the state. The communist states cannot be omniscient in the complexities of economics nor what constitutes “fairness” or “justice” from the top down. It’s absurd on its face to think that a minority of people in the power at the top can properly distribute property and the idea that this is possible has been proven to be miserable time and time again in practice.
State Communism seems to suffer from two inescapable faults I abhor as someone who is pro critical thinking, skepticism, and anti-ideology and anti-totalitarianism: 1) There is no mechanism for distribution of property in communism and so the state claims itself as the final solution with the knowledge of what is “fair” and “good” and “just” for all. This is untenable and disastrous in practice. 2) Instead of empowering people – which I think is a maximally worthy ideal – communism robs people of power and freedom because of the inherent problem with converting from a social theory to state control.
Here in the U.S. we do not live in a libertarian situation – what I would consider the communist inverse. We are not purely capitalistic, we are not purely anything. There is a hodgepodge of governmental structure that makes a complex system that pushes and pulls over time. Over the last century and a half communism has effectively crept in to how the U.S. government functions. In this sense we are quasi-communist in nature and the ideological victories of communism are seen in practice every day in our labor laws, our shared investment in public education and public works, and in our welfare and social programs. The communist ideal is alive and well in our country, but try and keep that under wraps because communism is a nasty word around here.
Despite my vilification of communism as a state practice, I value it as a social tool that should be continually advocating for workers’ rights and all human rights, and we effectively have many shades of communism running through our current system. I say, keep communism as a strong tool and principle for the people while keeping it far away from a state institution which will inevitably lead to less freedom and totalitarianism.
Looking forward to those Cuban cigars…
The anniversary of his death has recently passed and I’m reminded daily that his voice is needed more than ever. Fearless yet eloquent, I’m sure if he were here he would take pleasure in eviscerating lazy thinkers on the subject of ISIS and North Korea. I want to witness the verbal assault he would inflict on authoritarian regimes and those that would defend or apologize for their disgusting anti-humanitarian, anti-freedom world views. I know humanists, atheists, secularists, et. al. are not big on “leaders” nor “heroes” nor “representatives”, but he was all those things, not by fiat or by design, but by virtue.
I miss his writings and his repartee on television. He was a visible, accessible representative of many of the thoughts in my head, and while there are still those on my “side” who manage to make it on TV and press now and again, he was a rare intellectual public fixture and put the “vocal” in “vocal minority”.
Luckily he was prolific and admirably worked until his dying breath, and I often go to sleep to my “Hitch-a-by”: my nightly reading of his brilliant writings and sometimes the soothing lullaby of a YouTube Hitchslap of what is always an unworthy debate opponent.
Here’s a particularly noble performance of Hitch smacking down the Catholic Church:
As poor as I am at math, I certainly hope the answer to the question of “Is math real?” is an emphatic “no”.
This, my first in what will certainly be many attempts to make a fool of myself on weighty philosophical topics, I want to discuss the nature of mathematics and its relation to the “real” world. I want to preface this post by saying I’m not apologizing for this Promethian action: a layman with an average education discussing a subject that belongs only to the Olympians of Academia.
I do not, however, take up themes like this lightly, and hopefully I do so with a humility that would invite those with more profound understanding of these subjects to condescend and engage in the discussion. It is my naive dream that such subjects might eventually become commonplace themes of discussion, open to the laity that might be interested in such subject matter. If I’m really pushing the reality of this dream, I hope that those of us with interest in these topics may even be able to eventually contribute to the conversation. These posts are not intended to be exhaustively researched nor particularly conclusive, just open-ended thoughts of discussion that might invite a conversation over a beer perhaps.
The question at hand for today: Does math constitute an underlying “true fundamental reality”? Is math simply a very useful tool for us to construct a logical, descriptive representation of “reality”? At the risk of setting up a false dichotomy, these are essentially the two questions I will explore, and I answer the former question in the negative and the latter question in the affirmative. Also, for the sake of simplicity and brevity, please forgive the somewhat whiggish and linear historical approach to math and science.
Let’s look at four major revolutions in science and mathematics, which are all related, but I believe support the idea that we change mathematical concepts to fit our description of reality rather than vice versa: Euclid’s geometric world, Newton’s (Kepler’s) calculus world, Einstein’s relative world, and the spooky mathematics of quantum theory.
Take the essentially two-dimensional, plane-driven reality of the ancient greeks and Euclid; the math behind these Greek systems wasn’t simply an abstraction to them, or mathematical tool, it was math revealing ultimate reality. So much so that mathematicians such as Pythagoras developed mythical math cults that truly believed they had tapped into the secrets of the universe and numbers were the underlying reality “behind” this world. They thought this world was the abstraction of the math and not vice versa. Plato certainly believed this to more than a large degree and goes into detail in his origins stories in Timaeus about his math/atomic structure of the world.
But a deeper understanding of reality was needed when Newton was prompted to invent his calculus to account more for moving objects, adding an element of time and space as necessary to be more accurate and mathematically descriptive of Newton’s reality. I think by the time of Newton and certainly later by the time of Einstein, it clearly can be shown that Euclidean geometry really doesn’t have the kind of basis in reality the Greeks understood. Once time and space (and certainly time as a 4th dimension and the curvature of space) are added as variables, Euclidean geometry becomes a neat little exercise in logic and perhaps carpentry, but is no longer useful in any descriptive sense of our reality. It certainly seems goes by the wayside as any underlying universal truth revelation.
Once again, when general and special relativity is stumbled upon by Einstein, the calculus of Newton, still works in a Newtonian sense, and in a Newtonian descriptive analysis of the world, but a deeper, more thorough mathematical representation of time and space is necessary in the math of relativity. So goes it for subatomic particles in quantum mechanics, and I predict a new sort of math will be invented to solve the next level of micro and macro investigations in the future. Do we yet know the mathematics behind dark matter and dark energy? Some may claim so, but it seems to me it is just as likely that these are placeholder ideas that are awaiting a new view of the universe and therefore a new mathematical paradigm to be descriptive of our new universal realities.
I think these examples show that we use math as a descriptive tool in each instance, rather than a revealing of an underlying mathematical truth in which the universe is constructed. Other than the examples used, I also believe this is the case because of the nature of numbers. I think that infinity exists in just the space between 0 and 1, or just in the space between 0.0 and 0.1 ad infinitum (if such a concept has any real meaning). This leads me to believe that math is infinitely malleable to use as a tool for any descriptive abstraction of our past, present, and future representation of reality.
So, I do not believe that numbers “exist” in any Platonic sense, or that we are revealing deep universal secrets through math. I come down on the side that math, like science, is a very powerful tool that is unbounded and therefore can be used for any description of our understanding of reality – even when our reality changes.