A few weeks ago I spent a day at the Virginia Home Educators Convention in Richmond. These are the religious home schoolers we are talking about, meaning creationism was very well-represented indeed. Ken Ham gave several keynote talks. Yay!
I never got around to doing a proper write-up of the conference, but I do want to tell you about one of the talks I attended. It was called “Math From a Biblical Worldview?” Indeed, it was when I saw this talk advertised in the program that I knew I had to attend.
The speaker was Katherine Loop, author of a number of math education resources for home schoolers. She made it her task to refute the false and pernicious notion that our understanding of mathematics was independent of our views about God. She used a number of quotations to illustrate the basic problem, such as this one from physicist Heinrich Hertz:
One cannot escape the feeling that these mathematical formulas have an independent existence and an intelligence of their own, that they are wiser than we are, wiser even than their discoverers, that we get more out of them than was originally put into them.
“Where is he giving the glory?” she asked. After being greeted by silence she prodded us by emphasizing the phrase, “that they are wiser than we are.” A few people caught on at this point, but I was not one of them. Then came the dramatic answer. “To the math itself,” she said sadly, to grumbles of approval from the audience.
I would have thought Hertz’s statement, a straightforward expression of mathematical Platonism, could more plausibly be seen as supportive of God than as a repudiation of Him. Loop’s style of argument here is a commonplace of fundamentalist discourse. Omitting direct reference to God in some domain of human inquiry is treated as equivalent to rejecting Him.
After the talk I purchased a copy of her book Beyond Numbers: A Practical Guide
to Teaching Math Biblically. As a math teacher myself I am always interested in novel
approaches to the subject, but much of what I found in Loop’s book struck me as very odd, to put it kindly. For example, in a chapter entitled, “Harm to the Heart,” Loop writes
I remember the confusion I felt as I entered high school. Math seemed like a big mystery to me. Why did math work? Where did math come from? My textbooks never really told me. I found myself memorizing rule after rule without really understanding how that rule came about. I began losing sight of the purpose behind learning math. How would I ever use exponents and algebraic division/graphing in my own life?
Had I understood the math was not neutral — that math merely records the order God created — math would not have been a mystery to me. I would have realized that the rules in math are merely ways of writing the complex principles by which God holds everything in the physical universe in place. Had my textbooks presented math biblically, they would have taught me how exponents and algebraic division/graphing are useful, God-given tools. They would have shown me that math has a meaning and a purpose.
The frustration of not understanding the reasons for a given mathematical rule is one known to all students of the subject, and I certainly agree that textbooks routinely do a poor job of explaining matters. That said, it is hard to understand what mystery encountered in a math class is resolved by invoking God’s handiwork. If you are theistically inclined you may view the general orderliness of the universe as a reflection of divine grace. You might find in this a satisfactory answer to the question of why there are effective mathematical rules at all. I am sure you will be shocked to learn I find that view a bit silly, but I do not care enough to make an issue of it.
But invoking God certainly will not tell you the reasoning behind the specific rules we use, or how those rules are applied in practical situations. I have been teaching college-level mathematics for over a decade, and during that time I have been asked a great many questions by confused and frustrated students. I cannot think of a single one to which it would have been helpful to reply, “Because God willed it to be so.”
This is merely an item. On virtually every page I found evidence of an overly simplistic understanding of mathematics. For example, she writes, “God’s faithfulness in holding this universe together ensures us that objects always add the same way and that the equation “1+1=2” will always work.” But the statement 1+1=2 is a logical truth. It is a consequence of the
definitions of numbers and addition, not an empirical discovery about the physical world.
Even God, after all, is subject to the laws of logic. To the old chestnut,
“Can God create a rock so heavy even he cannot lift it?” the standard reply is, “Even God cannot do what is logically impossible.” Likewise, even God cannot create a universe in which 1+1=2 fails to hold.
During the Q and A I asked her specifically if God could create a universe in which 1+1=3, but I do not think she understood the question. Interestingly, after the talk a man approached me. He introduced himself as a math professor at Liberty University. We chatted pleasantly for a few minutes. He mentioned to me that at Liberty they have annual meetings to discuss how to integrate a Biblical worldview (as they call it) into the curricula of their various disciplines. He told me that math tends to fly under the radar at these meetings, since no can really figure out how to combine math and the Bible. All in all, he did not seem any more impressed with the talk than I was.