The background for this book (now in its second edition) is the whole debate which has centred around Christian education for the last few decades.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, it went something like this:

A few centuries ago, most education came out of the church.  But with the increasing secularisation of society, religion was pushed to the side – it dealt with the spiritual side of life, and science dealt with the “real world”.

The upshot of that was that when education moved from being something provided by religion institutions to public schooling being provided by the government, by that stage, most people (Christians included) didn’t think this would be such a bad idea.  After all, education is education, right?  It would really just be a difference in who paid for it.

But the, out of the 60s and 70s, the Christian school music started to take off in America.  (It took a bit longer to take hold in Australia.)  And the basis of that movement was this idea: All knowledge that we can understand is ultimately God revealing Himself to us in the world.  Jesus Christ is Lord of all things.  And therefore, in every area of knowledge – whether it be science, history, music or whatever – can be and should be taught from a Christian perspective.

You would have thought most Christians would have got pretty excited about this idea.  However, old ways die hard.  To this day, there are still Christians who can’t see much difference between a Christian school and a public school, except that the Christian school might have more Bible classes or might teach the kids “good morals”.  In fact, I even heard a Christian schoolteacher say on one occasion that what Australia really needed was for all the Christian schools to shut down so that all the Christians could move into the public schools and be a “witness” to the non-Christians in the school.

So, for some reason, the Christian vs public education debate has kind of ended up with two broad camps – one, who want to send their kids to Christian schools so they don’t have to hang around with any of the bad kids and bad behaviours at government schools (you might call this the School as Bubble approach) and those parents who want to send their Christian kids to public schools because a) it never did them any harm when they went there and b) their kids can be witnesses to those around them (you might call this the (Public School as Mission Field approach).

All of this has gotten away from the main question: is there a difference between the way a Christian should view knowledge and learning and the way a non-Christian does it?  The answer is a definite yes, but sadly, a lot of Christians don’t take the time or the effort to learn how their faith applies to various areas of life, which effectively means that they’re proving the point of the Enlightenment thinkers, who were quite happy to have religion as long as it didn’t impede into the real world in any way.

So this book, Mathematics: Is God Silent?, was written by a Christian maths teacher who several times found himself being handed this dilemma by non-Christians: well, you say that everything needs to be taught from a Christian perspective – but what about maths?  Surely, 2+2 =4 regardless of your religious persusasions, right?

So James Nickel has set about doing the Christian world a favour with this incredibly detailed treatise on Christianity and mathematics.  He traces the history of mathematics from its earliest days right up to the current dilemmas being dealt with by mathematics (well, at least up to 10 years ago, which was when the book was written).

This was all fascinating stuff, because I don’t remember being taught at any stage of my school or university career (I have a degree in mathematics, believe it or not) anything about the philosphical and religious implications of mathematics that have gone hand in hand with the study of mathematics throughout the ages.

Nickel argues quite convincingly that, in fact, people’s religious and philosophical views have had a huge part to play in their scientific endeavour and the way they use mathematics.  For instance, the Greeks made many of the original breakthroughs on mathematics, but because their view of the world really didn’t place much value on the real, physical world (to simplify it a bit), they weren’t that interested in using their mathematics.

Also, many cultures of the past believed that history moved in cycles rather than in a straight line, and so there was no real reason to put much effort into science, because the world wasn’t going to change that much.

So once the world scene settled down a bit in the first milennia after Christ, in Europe, where Christianity had taken hold, we started to see a new rise in scientific and technological advancement.  Certainly, the faith back then had many faults and nobody was perfect.

But the idea that there was a personal God who had created the universe (which meant that scientists could expect to see the order and pattern of a divine Being behind it, not a chaotic collection of stuff) and the idea that history was moving from a beginning (Creation) to an ending (the return of Christ) meant that there was a philosophical foundation for improving things, getting better at science and technology.

And by the time you get to the great scientiests of the 16th, 17th century – Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, etc. – their faith just drove them to incredible heights of discovery.  But all based on the assumption that there was a God who had made this world, and they could find out more about Him by studying the world.  And mathematics was the language that described that world.

However, once we arrive at the Enlightenment era, and man no longer believed in a personal God who had created and was keeping the world running, strange little problems and quirks start to arrive.
Mathematics could now no longer be “God’s secret language” that describes the world.

So what was it then?  Was it a logical construct that man had thought up and then managed to get the world to match up to it?  But if that was the case, why on earth did it work so well?

And so many scientists set about to prove that mathematics was just something that could be completely derived starting with your own mind and man’s logic – but none of those efforts seem to have paid off.

That said, I think the people who tried to divorce mathematics from the real world eventually won – at least as far as the educational system went.  After all, go to any school or university, and there are students being given maths problems with no real context for where we got these principles, why they work, what they’re used for or anything.  It’s just all abstract scratchings on paper.

This book is far more mind-expanding than that.  I’m sure that many non-Christians in the scientific community may disagree with the book – that’s fine.  At least it’s good to know that a Christian has bothered to think about these things.  At its height, Christianity was a religion that spoke to all areas of life and we’ve lost a lot of that.  If more Christian scholars took their faith to different fields like James Nickel has done in this book, I think we’d look a lot less silly to ordinary folks on the street.

Note to interested readers:  this book, while it claims to be written for laypeople, is kind of tough going if you’re new to mathematics or philosophy.  I’d say you’d want at least Year 12 maths down to understand everything in the book.  (Only because Nickel likes to have little mathematical interludes where he shows you fascinating mathematical insights from nature.)  But then again a book with the word “mathematics” in the title is probably going to limit itself to readers who like that sort of thing anyway, so I’m sure it’s not that big a deal.


5 thoughts on “Book Review: Mathematics – Is God Silent? (James Nickel)

  1. Mmmm … interesting, Matt. I just can’t resist throwing in my two bob’s worth – even if we’re not quite in the world of Tolstoy now (although, are we ever really totally out of it?). I do find it interesting to ponder questions about the relationship between the “pure sciences”, such as mathematics and logic, and the world of spirituality, morality and so on. Can the two be reconciled? Are they different sides of the same coin? Or different coins entirely? While I am not exactly a Christian, nor am I an athiest and i certainly seems conceivable to me that even the things we think of as pure science – and unrelated to spiritual values – might not be quite so pure as they are sometimes framed to be. I think, to bring things down to an over-simplistic basis, mathematics and logic are ultimately based on a very simple premise: it is not possible for something to eist and not exist at the same time. That very simple premise ultimately becomes the basis for all logical and mathematical reasoning, although it is not typically framed in that way. But, as I remember it from my long years of philosophy at university, the claimed absoluteness of mathematics and logic derives from the way that, if you try to argue the opposite of a logical and mathematical axiom, you end up with a self-contradiction, that is, with something both existing and not existing. We used to use this approach in Logic classes – we would be given a proposition, and we had to provie it by demonstrating that arguing its opposite led to both “A” and “not A” existing. It’s an approach that, in theory, would work as much for arguing the irrefutable truth of “2 = 2 = 4” as the most complex logical formula.

    That all seems well and good, until you begin to question, or even examine, its very basis – the notion that something cannot both exist and not exist at the same time. Other branches of philosophy, stemming from the likes of Kant and even back to Descartes, would argue that this is really more a comment on the way human minds reason, rather than on what the world, or the universe is actually like. We conceptualise the world in a certain way to make sense of it,but that doesn’t mean that’s how it is (actually – as I write this, it occurs to me that I might already have babbled on with this stuff in reply to one o your earlier posts about Tolstoy’s view of history). Anyway, if you accept that view of things, then it seems to me that the quest for spiritual enlightenment becomes all the greater – because you recognise that the powers of reason are limited, and that the universe might include mysteries that are not only beyond our knowledge, but beyond our capacity. But if that’s the case, then what IS the role of reason, logic and mathematics – is it a reflection of something bigger? Or, if its basic premise that things cannot both exist and not exist at the same time is wrong, then isn’t the entire system flawed? But then that very queston is itself an attempt to apply the rules of logic to something which might not follow those rules at all. So it becomes all very circular and perplexing, but fascinating nonetheless.

    So what does this all mean for education? To me it can only mean that a good education system is one that exposes children (and adults) to all these concepts and ideas, so that kids can ponder them and make their own decisions about how best to assimilate it all. I, for one, believe kids are nevertoo young to think about these things – in fact they think about them and question them regardless of what their parents or teachers put before them. The challenge becomes a matter of working out how to frame the issues in ways that are comprehensible and meaningful for kids at different ages.

    Sorry for going on so much here. I have no idea if this is even vaguely related to your book review – but somehow, I got on a roll!!

  2. Actually, no, many of these issues are discussed at length in the book, but I left them out so I wouldn’t overwhelm readers.

    Certainly, yes, there are a lot of philosophical underpinnings that govern our use of science. You get the impression nowadays that science kind of dropped from the sky, but there are certain assumptions that it relies on, and certainly the laws of logic are something that apply.

    I believe you’re correct when you say that “you recognise that the powers of reason are limited, and that the universe might include mysteries that are not only beyond our knowledge, but beyond our capacity”. I kind of hold to the belief which people like Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler used to take. They knew that they were limited in what they could understand, but they believed the Bible when it said there was a God who revealed Himself in the world.

    So by studying nature, they were sure that they would find patterns and laws, because they believed the universe was constructed by a personal, orderly God.

    Certainly, ideas have consequences and I hope that as I grow older and get more time for thinking and reading, I can grapple with more of them.

  3. Sounds like a good book…. maybe not the best thing to read on a Sunday afternoon when I feel dozy, but interesting nonetheless…. gee, that gives away my mathematical bias doesn’t it? 😉

    On the topic of philosophy, have you read “Does God Believe in Atheists?” by John Blanchard? It’s a pretty big read, but he starts with the old pagan/animist/spiritist religions and works through history, past the greeks and romans, the enlightenment, through to current day (early 2000s iirc) discussing the significant worldviews of the time and how they compare with Christianity in answering the “why are we here?” “what’s the meaning of life?” questions.

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