A few weeks ago, I received an email about a new book, “The Faith Equation”, by Marvin Bittinger. Bittinger is an author of math textbooks – including, I think, my first calculus text. The book is supposed to be Bittenger’s explanation of how mathematics validates christianity. Needless to say,
I asked for a review copy – this is something right up my alley.
I’ve taken longer to get around to reviewing it than I intended, but life’s been busy
lately. I’m going to review it in several parts: it’s too dense, full of bad arguments of so many different kinds that I can’t possibly do it justice with only one post.
Today, I’ll cover the introdution and first two chapters: “The Beginning of a Mathematician’s Journey”, “Apologetics and Faith Axioms”, “Paradoxes in Mathematics and Christianity”.
The introduction introduces the eponymous central idea of the book, the faith equation itself.
Bittinger is extremely clear that he intends it to be metaphorical, rather than a really literal
mathematical statement – which is fortunate given how silly it is. The faith equation is: “Faith = Mind +
Heart + Will”. According to Bittinger, this means that really being religious has to have all of those elements. That’s fine as an argument, I suppose.. It’s definitely a Christian version of the idea, but since Bittinger is deliberately expressing a Christian viewpoint, that’s fine. On the other hand – when he’s writing an allegedly mathematical book, to deliberately put a non-mathematical idea into an admittedly meaningless pseudo-mathematical equation seems to be worse that silly. It’s inappropriate. It’s a sign of things to come: a huge part of the book is wretchedly pseudo-mathematical, presenting standard Christian arguments in pseudo-mathematical terms, in order to lend them the
credibility of math.
The rest of the introduction is Bittinger’s explanation of why he wrote the book. It’s pretty typical Christian apologetics. For example, he gives his version of the history of science:
The growth of scientific knowledge flourished; but in the process, humans – carried away with
newfound intellectual power – began to conjure the notion that they could figure it all out by themselves
and no longer needed a concept of God. In effect, science became a god unto itself. Instead of pursuing God, man pursued science; science became a false idol, a false infinite so to speak.
Standard stuff – the good old “science became a false idol replacing god” – how many times have we
heard that argument before? The problem with it is that it’s really meaningless. What does it mean
to say that science became a false idol? As far as I can tell, it means, roughly, that scientists are
very bad for trying to understand the world. Wherever people used to attribute things to God,
if scientists are finding explanations that aren’t “God did it”, well then the scientists are
being bad people, replacing God with science. Seems like a remarkably silly argument: if you use your brain to explore the world and understand how things work, then you’re “worshipping a false idol”.
Moving on… Chapter one. Chapter one has two themes: Bittinger’s explanation of the idea of apologetics, and his attempt to draw a parallel between mathematical arguments and apologetics by way of what he calls “Faith Axioms”.
Apologetics, according to Bittinger, are reasoned defenses of Christianity. This book,
according to Bittinger, is a work of apologetics. He goes on to present an apologetic argument, which is
truly dreadful. He uses, as an example, an examination of the question “Could the resurrection of Jesus
have been a hoax?”. Here’s his argument against it:
Assuming you accept the reliability of the New Testament, let’s look at Matthew 28. Matthew was the
first of the four Gospels written and could be presumed to be the most accurate. In it, we’re told that on
the Sunday after Christ’s crucifixion, Mary Magdalene and possibly other women went to the tomb. They
discover the stone displaced and no body remaining. The discoverer(s) of the empty tomb was a
woman or women depending on which Gospel you read. In the society of that day, women
were held in very low regard. If the disciples were attempting a hoax, wouldn’t they have sent men to
discover the empty tomb? The men would have commanded a higher level of believability.
That is his example of good apologetics. That’s also what’s known as “a spectacular display of ignorance masquerading as knowledge”. Jesus was, supposedly Jewish, living in Israel. Touching
a dead body is a bad thing according to traditional Judaism. Dealing with the dead is
unclean, and anyone who does it becomes ritually impure, and must go through a cleansing process. Most tasks that would involve contact with a tomb are things that the supposedly righteous men that surrounded Jesus would not do. As the authors of the Gospels would have known. Having a prostitute
being the one to do it makes perfect sense in the light of the culture of the time: a prostitute is
already pretty much as impure as anyone could get.
That’s all I’ll say about his introduction to apologetics. From there, he moves on to the
allegedly mathematical part: the idea of faith axioms. He spends a lot of time explaining
the idea of axioms in mathematics, and then goes on to say that religious faith can be based
on axioms as well; and that proofs about matters of faith come down to the faith axioms. The
faith axioms strengthen the mind part of his “faith equation”.
I’m sort-of sympathetic to the basic concept of “faith axioms”. The concept is basically
one that appeals to a mathematical type. If you bore down through your beliefs, whatever they may be,
if they hold together logically, you should come to some fundamental set of basics that define them,
and those are the “axioms” of your worldview. That idea isn’t specific to the religious: any
intelligent atheist, any intelligent agnostic, anyone who’s really thought about things, and
developed a consistent concept of how they think the world works, has some fundamental set of axioms
at the core of that concept. Since he’s writing from a Christian perspective, it’s fine to call them
“faith axioms”, although I’d probably be more inclined towards “philosophical axioms”, or
Unfortunately, it turns out that that’s not what he means. He wastes a whole lot
of verbiage talking about the idea of axioms in math, and their parallels in axioms
of faith. But then, at the very end of the chapter, he includes a “final comment”:
A final comment on the word “proof” or “prove” is in order, especially for mathematicians,
before we continue. The apologetic arguments in this book are not deductions of theorems
from a finite set of axioms as is normally expected in mathematics. Instead, all kinds of
arguments – inductive, statistical, and even metaphorical – will be used to point you towards
a position of faith from a position of non-faith. The theorems we come to will all be
called faith axioms.
In other words: “Please forget the last 24 pages of gibberish. That stuff is all there
just to make it look like I’m being all mathematical, but really, I’m just talking
out my arse, using mathematical terminology to make it look all impressive-like.
Damn, but that paragraph pisses me off. It’s the point where the book moves from
an honest, if annoying, work of christian apologetics, to a dishonest book
that tries to exploit the terminology of mathematics to give its arguments more credibility
than they deserve.
Let’s move on – one more chapter to cover today. Chapter 2, “Paradoxes in Mathematics and Christianity”. This one doesn’t take nearly so long to discuss, because it’s a pile of transparent rubbish.
He wants to use the idea of paradox to build his faith axioms; the idea is that struggling with a paradox can lead you to some kind of enlightenment. Except that he cheats.
He redefines the word paradox – sometimes. He uses it to mean what philosophers
mean by “dialectic”, and he also uses it to mean mathematical contradiction, and he also
uses it to mean arbitrary pairs of things that he’d like to set against one another for no particular reason at all. And he
shifts it back and forth. It’s the same old game: misuse the terminology of math
to try to make lousy arguments look less lousy. To give you an idea of how sloppy this
chapter is, here’s a list of “paradoxes” that he gives in the introduction to the chapter:
- Natural vs. Supernatural
- Deism vs. Theism.
- Believing vs. Questioning.
- Passing a treadmill test vs. five weeks later having a heart attack.
Anyone out there think that any of those are paradoxes?
He moves on to another set of examples: a bunch of people who he asked “What’s the best and worst part of your job?”. He took the best parts and the worst parts from their answers, and said that each
of those was a personal paradox.
Then there’s a bunch of lists of his supposed paradoxes – a discussion of paradoxes in mathematics, based on proof by contradiction, and then a bunch of his cheap apologetic arguments which are
structured to look like the mathematical proof by contradiction, but are really nothing more than
the same old nonsensical hand-waving.
This chapter is painful. It’s sad – Bittinger is (or at least was) a smart guy, who wrote
some good textbooks. That he could write this, and think that he was doing something
worthwhile, that this kind of sloppiness and dishonesty was justified and could accomplish
anything – it’s just pathetic.
Fortunately, later sections of the book get funnier. Not better – just funnier. Wait
till we get to his take on Dimensions and String theory!