Math, therefore God?

“Monsier! (a+bn)/n=x, donc Dieu existe; répondez!”[1]

Thus (allegedly) spoke the mathematician Leonard Euler when, at the invitation of Russian Empress Catherine the second, he confronted Denis Diderot in a (very short) debate on the existence of God. Diderot, who was not very good at math, was dumbstruck; he had absolutely no idea how to even begin responding to such an argument. In fact, he couldn’t even understand the argument, and Euler knew it! The court laughed him literally out of town (he promptly asked the Empress for leave to return to France). The formula, of course, is entirely meaningless, and may have been sleight of hand on Euler’s part (making his argument mathemagical rather than mathematical). Additionally, the anecdote has survived only in sparse notes (of dubious historical relevance) here and there with probably varying degrees of accuracy, so it is anyone’s guess what Euler actually meant. This amusing anecdote does, however, invite us to think about what arguments there could be, in principle, from mathematics for the existence of God.[2] Without offering much commentary on how promising these arguments are, I want to distinguish three viable (or, at least, viably viable) types of arguments which could be constructed.

The Argument from Mathematical Beauty

Although the formula Euler originally spouted off didn’t signify anything of mathematical (or philosophical) consequence, the beauty of Euler’s equation, eiπ + 1 = 0, gave rise to the apocryphal anecdote that Euler argued “eiπ + 1 = 0, therefore God exists.” There is (mathematicians tell us) a sublime mathematical beauty in this equation, and there is no obvious or intuitive reason why it is true. What is so special about this equation? One savvy commentator I ran across online put it so nicely I feel compelled to quote him:

“It’s a sort of unifying identity in mathematics, containing each of the fundamental operations (additive, multiplicative, exponential) and each of the fundamental constants (e, i, pi, 1, 0) combined in a theorem that united trigonometry, analysis, and algebra and geometry. It’s really an amazing identity, and the proofs for it are diverse and fascinating…”[3]

It has, thus, been called the origin of all mathematics. Keith Devlin is purported to have said:

“like a Shakespearean sonnet that captures the very essence of love, or a painting that brings out the beauty of the human form that is far more than just skin deep, Euler’s equation reaches down into the very depths of existence.”[4]

Its elegance cries out for an explanation, but that explanation has proved so elusive that a desperate appeal to God begins to look almost reasonable, even to (some) mathematicians.

What should we make of this sort of argument? It seems on its face to be about as prima facie (in)admissible as any other argument from beauty. However, this argument may have more to recommend it than meets the eye. In particular, mathematical beauty has an uncanny predictive ability, at least in the sense that the more beautiful the mathematical formula, the more likely it is to describe the fundamental structure of the real world. Robin Collins has noted, for instance, that:

“To say that the beauty of the mathematical structure of nature is merely subjective, however, completely fails to account for the amazing success of the criterion of beauty in producing predictively accurate theories, such as Einstein’s general theory of relativity.”[5]

John Polkinghorne, in a lecture I recently had the pleasure of listening to (via podcast), said something similar though with less economy of words:

“It isn’t just [to satisfy] an aesthetic indulgence that theoretical physicists look for beautiful equations; it is because we have found, time and again, that they are the ones which actually do describe… a true aspect of the physical world in which we live. I suppose the greatest physicist I’ve known personally was Paul Dirac, (who held Newton’s old chair… in Cambridge for more than 30 years, who was one of the founding figures of quantum theory, [and] unquestionably the greatest British theoretical physicist of the twentieth century) and he made his great discoveries by a relentless and highly successful lifelong quest for mathematical beauty. Dirac once said ‘it is more important to have beauty in your equations than to have them fit experiment.’ Now he didn’t mean by that that it didn’t matter at the end of the day whether your equations fit the experiments (I know no physicist could possibly mean that), but what he meant was this: ok, you’ve got your new theory, and you use the solution and you find it doesn’t seem to fit what the experimentalist is telling you – now there’s no doubt that’s a setback, but it’s not absolutely necessarily fatal. Almost certainly, you will have solved the equations in some sort of approximation, and maybe you’ve just made the wrong approximation, or maybe the experiments are wrong (we have [known that] to happen even more than once in the history of physics – even in my lifetime I can think of a couple examples of that), so at least there’s some sort of residual hope that with a bit more work and a bit more luck you might have hit the jackpot after all. But, if your equations are ugly, there’s no hope. The whole 300-year history of theoretical physics is against you. Only beautiful equations really describe the fundamental structure of the world. Now that’s a very strange fact about the world… What I am saying to you is that some of the most beautiful (mathematical) patterns that our pure mathematical friends can think up in their studies just thinking abstractly… are found actually to occur, to be instantiated, in the structure of the world around us.”[6]

So mathematical beauty satisfies the empirical desideratum of predictive power in the sense that the more beautiful the mathematical expression, the more likely it is to describe reality.

Interestingly I think this kind of consideration can motivate a scientist (and perhaps even a die-hard empiricist, and/or a naturalist) to believe in the objectivity of aesthetic properties. In fact, unless they find a plausible evolutionary account for why our brains should be calibrated so as to recognize more beauty in the abstract mathematical equations which, it turns out, describe reality, than we find in other equations, there will be a residual mystery about the eerie coincidence of mathematical beauty and accurate mathematical descriptions of physics. An eerie coincidence the queerness of which can perhaps be mitigated by admitting the objectivity of aesthetic qualities.

However, the puzzling queerness of that eerie coincidence can only be (or can most plausibly be) ultimately alleviated if the universe is seen as the product of a (trans-)cosmic artist. If behind the fundamental structure of the universe there lies an intellect with aesthetic sensibilities (in some sense), then that would explain why the world showcases the mathematical-aesthetic qualities it does at the level of fundamental physics even when there is no (obvious?) reason why it should have. That, though, begins to look quite a lot like Theism.

The Argument from the Applicability of Mathematics

This segues into the next kind of argument from mathematics, which concerns the applicability of mathematics to accurate descriptions of the fundamental structure of the physical world. For the purposes of this argument beauty is entirely irrelevant. What is surprising, and in need of an explanation (according to this argument), is that the physical world would turn out to be describable in the language of mathematics (and here we are not simply referring to the basic truths of arithmetic, which are true across all logically possible worlds). William Lane Craig has become the most well-known proponent of this argument, and his articulation of it is relatively succinct.

“Philosophers and scientists have puzzled over what physicist Eugene Wigner called the uncanny effectiveness of mathematics. How is it that a mathematical theorist like Peter Higgs can sit down at his desk and by pouring over mathematical equations predict the existence of a fundamental particle which experimentalists thirty years later after investing millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours are finally able to detect? Mathematics is the language of nature. But, how is this to be explained? If mathematical objects are abstract entities causally isolated from the universe then the applicability of mathematics is, in the words of philosopher of mathematics Penelope Maddy, “a happy coincidence.” On the other hand, if mathematical objects are just useful fictions, how is it that nature is written in the language of these fictions? In his book, Dr. Rosenberg emphasizes that naturalism doesn’t tolerate cosmic coincidences. But the naturalist has no explanation of the uncanny applicability of mathematics to the physical world. By [contrast], the theist has a ready explanation. When God created the physical universe, he designed it on the mathematical structure he had in mind. We can summarize this argument as follows:

  1. If God did not exist, the applicability of mathematics would be a happy coincidence.
  2. The applicability of mathematics is not a happy coincidence.
  3. Therefore, God exists.”[7]

I am not sure of this argument’s philosophical quality, since it seems to me that it may be a metaphysically necessary truth that a logically possible world be amenable to mathematical description of some kind. For instance, it certainly seems true that whatever the geometry of space happens to be, there’s no necessary fact of the matter, but it also seems true that if the geometry of space isn’t Euclidean, it may be hyperbolic, or elliptic, (or maybe something else, je ne sais quoi) but it has got to be something, and what it happens to be may, therefore, not cry out for any more explanation than any other quaint contingent fact about the world.[8] However, maybe I’m mistaken about this; maybe the argument is, in fact, just as viable as other teleological or ‘fine-tuning’ arguments are.

Argument from Mathematical Truth

Finally, the third kind of argument I can think of would go something like this: mathematical truths, like all truths, have truth-makers. These truth-makers will have to be metaphysically necessary on pain of mathematical truths being contingent – but it seems obvious that mathematical truths are necessary truths, that they hold across all logically possible worlds. Now, Nominalism about mathematical objects is incompatible with the commitments we just outlined (unless one adopts Nominalism about modal properties as well), and so seems implausible (or, at least, less plausible than it otherwise would have been in virtue of this incompatibility). Platonism also, however, seems to be problematic. Between Platonism and Nominalism, there is a wide range of views including Divine Conceptualism (according to which mathematical objects exist as necessary thoughts in the necessary mind of God), Theistic Activism, Scholastic Realism[9] and many others besides. In fact, a variety (and perhaps a majority) of the accounts of abstract objects on offer today presuppose the existence of God in different ways.

This opens the way to at least two arguments we could construct for the existence of God. First, we could argue that one of these accounts in particular is most plausibly correct (such as Greg Welty’s Theistic Conceptual Realism),[10] and work our way up from there to the implication that God exists. Second, we could take the disjunction of all the accounts of abstract objects which require the existence of God and argue that (i) if any of them is correct then God exists, but (ii) it is more plausible than not that at least one of them is correct, from which it follows (iii) it is more plausible than not that God exists.

So, there we have it, three kinds of arguments from mathematics for the existence of God; a transcendental argument (from beauty), a teleological argument (from applicability), and an ontological argument (from necessity). Could there be others? Maybe, but I suspect that they will all end up falling into one or another (or maybe at least one) of the general categories I tried to outline here. I admit that I didn’t outline them as general categories very well, but that exercise will have to wait for another day when I have more time to blog to my heart’s content.

As a quick post scriptum; if Euler had any substantive argument in mind and wasn’t merely mocking Diderot for his lack of mathematical aptitude, which of these three kinds of arguments would he most likely have had in mind? It’s hard to say, of course, but my best guess is that if he had anything in mind at all, it would fall into the third category. He may have been thinking that the fact that mathematical and purely abstract (algebraic) ‘structural’ truths exist at all requires some explanation, and this explanation must be found in God. This is just a guess, and I make no apologies for it – I am happy to think that Euler was just teasing Diderot, but I am equally happy to entertain the thought that if Diderot had not immediately asked to leave (because of his embarrassment), Euler may have been able to elucidate his point.

[1] Gillings, Richard J. “The so-called Euler-Diderot incident.” The American Mathematical Monthly 61, no. 2 (1954): 77-80. http://www.fen.bilkent.edu.tr/~franz/M300/bell2.pdf

[2] Notice that these are not to be confused with mathematical arguments per se; they are merely arguments from mathematics, in the same way as you might have arguments from physics (the argument from cosmological fine-tuning, the Kalam, etc.) for the existence of God which are not intended to be scientific proofs of God’s existence, but scientifically informed philosophical proofs/arguments for God’s existence.

[3] Russel James, Why was Euler’s Identity Supposed to be a Proof for the Existence of God, https://www.quora.com/Why-was-Eulers-identity-supposed-to-be-a-mathematical-proof-for-the-existence-of-God; Note that he finishes the quoted paragraph with the words “but It has nothing to do with god whatsoever.” I have left this out not because I think he is wrong, or to misrepresent his position, but because it has nothing to do with the formula and everything to do with the propositional attitude he adopts with respect to the question of whether the formula is any kind of reason to think there is a being like God.

[4] Paul J. Nahin, Dr. Euler’s Fabulous Formula: Cures Many Mathematical Ills, (Princeton University Press, 2011), 1. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=GvSg5HQ7WPcC&pg=PA1&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

[5] Robin Collins, The Case for Cosmic Design, (2008), http://infidels.org/library/modern/robin_collins/design.html

[6] John Polkinghorne, Science in the Public Sphere, http://www.veritas.org/science-public-sphere/

[7] William Lane Craig, Is Faith in God Reasonable? William Lane Craig vs. Dr. Rosenberg, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/debate-transcript-is-faith-in-god-reasonable

[8] I am really, honestly, no more sure of this counter-argument than I am of the argument. For those interested, please do check out the debate between Craig and Daniel Came on the Unbelievable? Podcast, which you can also find here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nn4ocx316dk

[9] J.T. Bridges defends this view: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eFU1BKxJf1k

[10] See: Greg Welty, “Theistic Conceptual Realism,” in Beyond the Control of God: Six views on the Problem of God and Abstract Objects, ed. Paul Gould, (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 81-96.

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