You and Euclid

  Find "the ideal mate of your dreams," promised a flyer that came in the mail. Just fill out the enclosed questionnaire and our computerized dating service will find you a perfect match. Isn't it amazing what mathematics can do? The computerization of courtship is just one way modern culture has become dominated by mathematics. In science, industry, and even social policy, every operation is quantified and subjected to mathematical treatment. Is there a Christian view of mathematics? Most of us would say no. After all, 2 plus 2 equals 4 no matter what we believe about God. Yet there are very different ideas about what kind of truth mathematics gives. Think back to the scientific revolution. The early scientists--Copernicus, Galileo, Newton--were Christians who believed that God created the world on a mathematical pattern. As mathematician Morris Kline explains, "The search for mathematical laws of nature was an act of devotion which would reveal the glory and grandeur of [God's] handiwork." But science proved so successful that scientists began to think they could get along without belief in God. Enlightenment philosophers declared that science alone, armed with the tools of mathematics, would lead mankind into all truth. Of all the branches of mathematics, Euclidean geometry seemed the most certain. For two thousand years, its theorems had fit perfectly with physical facts. Its deductive structure seemed to provide absolute truth. Euclidean geometry was set up as the paradigm for all fields--even the study of ethics, law, and society. Mathematics became nothing less than an idol. But in the nineteenth century disaster struck. Mathematicians were shocked to discover other kinds of geometry--non-Euclidean geometries--which are equally valid. Which one was true? Suddenly the most absolute form of human knowledge turned out to be relative after all. It was as though truth itself had shattered. Today many mathematicians don't even describe math as "true" any longer. Instead they speak of it as a game--like bridge or baseball. The rules of mathematics are not considered "true" anymore; they are merely arbitrary conventions to make the game work. Is mathematics just a game? This revolution in mathematics had an enormous impact. As Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton explain in The Soul of Science, non-Euclidean geometry became a metaphor for sweeping away all established truths. Professors of ethics denounced Christian ethics as "Euclidean" and old-fashioned. Professors of law dismissed traditional legal theory as "Euclidean." Political scientists denounced the American political system as "Euclidean" and called for new systems. For if there was no single truth in mathematics, there seemed to be no truth anywhere. Non- Euclidean geometry became a symbol to promote radical relativism across the board. The history of mathematics shows what happens when we try to find truth apart from God. As Pearcey and Thaxton show, mathematics was elevated into an idol-- and when that idol fell, it created waves of relativism that swept across the entire intellectual landscape. This is a powerful example we can use in defending our faith in a secular world: If we separate any area of life from Christianity--even mathematics--we cut it off from truth itself.


Chuck Colson


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