Wednesday, November 30, 2005

How is math different from religion?

I made the mistake of repeating the best math joke ever to a table of humanities majors:
Why did the math grad student drop out to become a poet?

Because s/he wasn't creative enough [to do math].
I like it because artsy-fartsy people have this self-image of being so creative and interesting, especially as compared to those boring science types. Well, math ain't exactly memorization and is remarkably pretty.

This launched debate about the epistemological status of mathematical knowledge. The claim, to which I had no real counter-argument, was that math is no different from religion. Theologians start from the axiom that, say, god exists and can do such and such, and then -- somewhat rigorously -- derive a whole theory about how the world works. Mathematicians start with some axioms about how sets fit together and then build up a rather interesting edifice. What's different?

A couple counter-arguments seem tempting, but ultimately not useful. One is to assert that, well, physics describes the world (is a successful science) and is based on mathematical ideas, so something must be right. But I don't think an argument from pragmatics is what we want. Another is to say that math is rigorous and deductive and theology is not, but that begs the question of the status of our axioms.

This really reveals why I ought to take philosophy of math next semester. Sadly, I won't. Suggestions?

3 Comments:

Anonymous dick said...

One who married math and religion was athiest Betrand Russell. Perhaps a study of his life and writings might substitute for the Philosophy of Math course?

12:32 PM  
Blogger Claudio Tellez said...

The aprioristic method of Mathematics puts it closer to religion, but there are some significant differences.

Mathematical axioms are not arbitrary "selv-evident" truths, they must be consistent (i.e., we cannot reach a conclusion and its negation from the same set of axioms). Theological dogmas, which come from revelation, don't need to be logically consistent.

At the same time, like Carol Schumacher says in "Chapter Zero" (a nice book for stimulating math students), "definitions, like axioms, are devised to capture useful notions while conforming to standard practice". There is a connection with subsequent developments, the aims of the mathematical activity have to be well-defined.

Best wishes!

10:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi. my name is sasha and i go to art school and henry knows me. next time some art fag tells you what you're doing is souless and useless and uncreative, ask them when they are going to paint the painting that ends world hunger, decreases the national debt or cures cancer. just put it out there.

1:16 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home