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Mathematics: Human or Divine?

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[Originally published as Evolutionist Math part 2]

A Human Invention?

Some people have claimed that mathematics is a human invention—that human beings have invented numbers and are ultimately responsible for laws and properties of mathematics. No doubt, people invented the various notation systems we use express mathematical truths. But we are not here talking about notations. Rather, we want to understand the origin of the mathematical truths themselves.

Can people take credit for the existence of mathematical laws and properties?

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Such a position is very difficult to reconcile with the properties of mathematical laws. Such laws are invariant—they do not change with time.

But manmade laws often change with time. There was once a law setting the national speed limit in the United States to 55 miles per hour. That law has been repealed and is therefore no longer binding.

Imagine if mathematical laws were like this

Today 2+2=4, but tomorrow, we might decide that 2+2 = 27.
Would that really make it so?
Somehow, we know that mathematical truths are not subject to human whims.

Furthermore, manmade laws differ from country to country—each as deemed best by their respective leaders.
Are laws of mathematics like that? Does 2+2=4 only in the United States, but in Europe 2+2=38?

If mathematical laws had been invented by people, then we would expect different cultures to have different laws.
But they don’t.
Laws of mathematics are universal.

The notion that people invented mathematics is simply not true to the history of mathematical discovery. Mathematical laws are not determined by people; rather, they are discovered by people. And to be discovered, something must already exist in advance of its discovery.

Hence, human beings did not create numbers nor the relationships between them

Sanzio Plato's painting of Aristotle and discipledThe ancient Greeks, for example, discovered the so-called “irrational numbers.” These are numbers that cannot be expressed as the ratio of two integers (a/b).

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One interesting thing about this discovery is that the Greeks were not seeking it and really didn’t want it to be true. It was contrary to their expectations and made their exploration of mathematics much more difficult that they would have preferred. This refutes the notion that such numbers are a creation of mankind.

Clearly, irrational numbers were not invented by humans; rather they were discovered. And hence, they already existed before the Greeks discovered them.

Another way we know that people did not create math is because numbers and the relationships between them existed before people existed.

Consider Kepler’s third law of planetary motion. This law states that the period (in years) of a planet’s orbit around the sun squared is equal to its distance to the sun (in “astronomical units”) cubed. Succinctly, p2 = a3. This mathematical truth was discovered by Johannes Kepler in the early 17th century, but it was true long before that. In fact, the planets orbited perfectly well before people even existed.
Clearly, mathematical truths do not depend on people since mathematical truths existed before people.

Whose Mind?

Brain illustration with ideas floating aroundHow then do we account for the existence of numbers and the relationships between them? Numbers are defined as a concept of quantity. A concept is a mental construction and as such it requires a mind in order to exist. (If there were no minds, there could be no concepts).  So whose mind is responsible for numbers?

Although human beings can think in terms of numbers, we have just seen that numbers existed before people.

Numbers require a mind, and yet existed before human minds.

This puts the secularist in a dreadful bind

The secularist wants to believe that the universe originally had no minds, and that the human mind evolved over time. In his view, the planets orbited the sun for millions of years before minds evolved. And yet, the planets orbited according to laws of mathematics which are conceptual and thus require a mind.

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Hence, the secularist must both reject and accept the existence of minds before people, which is contradictory.

Conversely, the biblical position is rational because the Christian understands that there has never been a time when no minds existed. The mind of God has always existed because God is eternal. God’s mind is ultimately responsible for the existence of numbers and the relationships between them, which we refer to as mathematics. We can account for the orbits of the planets before people existed because God’s mind was in control of the universe then as it is now.

Notice that the Christian position makes sense of the laws of mathematics and their properties. We saw previously that laws of mathematics are universal—they work everywhere. This makes sense because God is omnipresent and sovereign over the entire universe (Jeremiah 23:24; Psalm 139:7-10; Hebrews 1:3; Isaiah 46:10-11).

Furthermore, we saw that laws of mathematics are invariant—they do not change with time. This logically follows because God does not change with time (Malachi 3:6). He is, after all, beyond time and is in fact the Creator of time. As an eternal being beyond time, God’s thinking does not change with time. We can rest assured therefore that laws of mathematics will be tomorrow and forever just as they are today.

In the Christian position, we can make sense of the fact that there are patterns in numbers, and laws that describe such patterns.

God’s thinking is rational and orderly, and hence the way He thinks about numbers will be logical and orderly. We can make sense of the fact that mathematics is infinite, because the mind of God is infinite (Psalm 147:5).

We can make sense of the fact that human beings can systematically discover some of the laws of mathematics. This is because we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and therefore have the capacity to think, at least in a finite way, after His character (Isaiah 1:18, 55:7-8).  And God has revealed some of His thoughts to us. We have revelation from God and can therefore discover at least some of God’s thoughts.

In the Christian worldview, we can make sense of the fact that mathematics has application to the physical world. 

We expect physical reality to obey mathematical laws, because the mind of God is responsible for both. Mathematics is the study of the way God thinks about numbers, and the physical universe is controlled by the mind of God (Hebrews 1:3). Hence, the physical universe will obey mathematical laws. Yet, the secular worldview cannot account for this. Mathematics is rooted in the Christian worldview.

Notice that this argument will not work for other gods

It is the Christian God who is omnipresent, sovereign, unchanging, beyond time, and who has revealed Himself to mankind. Only the characteristics of the biblical God can make sense of the existence and properties of mathematics. Any other hypothetical god would have to have exactly the same characteristics of the biblical God, and yet this other god has not revealed himself in the Bible. Without revelation, we couldn’t actually know anything about God.

How do we Know?

The secularist is unable to make sense of mathematics. He can do mathematics only because he too is made in God’s image and must rely upon biblical principles. But he cannot make sense of what he is doing based on his professed secular worldview. The secularist accepts that laws of mathematics are universal, but how could he possibly know that on his own worldview? After all, he doesn’t have universal experience. On the contrary, all human experience is limited to one tiny solar system, and most people haven’t even left the one planet. Yet astronomers assume that laws of mathematics work in the distant universe just as they work here on Earth.

Why is that?NASA-galaxy NGC 1052 DF2

The secularist accepts that laws and properties of mathematics will work tomorrow just as they worked today. But how does he justify that assumption? It won’t do to say that they worked in the past because many things are true of the past that are not true of the future. For example, I have never died in the past; can I therefore conclude that I am immortal—that I will never die in the future?

How can a secularist possibly know anything about a future that he has never experienced? And yet he banks on laws of mathematics working in the future as they have in the past. Why?

And apart from the Christian worldview, why expect the physical universe to obey mathematical laws?
Every scientist does.
But what is the basis for such an expectation?
After all, mathematical laws are conceptual, but the universe is physical. Why do physical atoms respond to conceptual ideas?

The Christian worldview expects this. The secular worldview cannot.

In fact, the Nobel-prize winning physicist Eugene Wigner documented and explained the fact that his (secular) worldview could not account for the success of mathematics when applied to the physical world.¹

But why do secularists accept truths that only make sense in the biblical worldview?

The answer is found in Romans 1:18-25. The Bible teaches that God has made Himself inescapably known to all people. The Lord designed us in such a way that when we look at the world, we immediately recognize it as the creation of God. Even unbelievers cannot escape this knowledge, but they suppress it (Romans 1:18). They do not want to believe in the biblical God. They would prefer to make up another god more suitable to their preferences, or to have no god at all—effectively making themselves a god. They work very hard at this, attempting to convince others and themselves that they do not believe in the biblical God. Yet, they cannot suppress their knowledge of God completely. It is revealed in their behavior, such as their confidence in mathematics.

When it comes to biology, geology, or astronomy, secularists can delude themselves into thinking that evolution can somehow account for the patterns we see in nature.

But numbers do not evolve.

When it comes to mathematics, everyone must think as a biblical creationist.

Footnote:

  1. Wigner, E., “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, Vol 13, No 1, February, 1960.

Dr. Jason Lisle

Written by Dr. Jason Lisle

Dr. Jason Lisle is a Christian astrophysicist who researches issues pertaining to science and the Christian Faith. You can find his ministry at Biblical Science Institute.com.
Dr. Lisle double-majored in physics and astronomy with a minor in mathematics at Ohio Wesleyan University. He then went on to obtain a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in astrophysics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. There, he used the SOHO spacecraft to analyze the surface of the sun, and made a number of interesting discoveries, including the detection of giant cell boundaries.
Since then, Lisle has worked in full-time apologetics ministry. He wrote a number of planetarium shows for the Creation Museum, including the popular “Created Cosmos.” Dr. Lisle has authored a number of best-selling books on the topic of creation, including: Taking Back Astronomy, Stargazer’s Guide to the Night Sky, the Ultimate Proof of Creation, Discerning Truth, and Understanding Genesis.

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