Were numbers created by God?

At this point, presuppositionalism has basically taken over popular Christian apologetics as we know it. We are confronted at all levels with Christian “thinkers” declaring that one thing or the other can only make sense if we presuppose the Christian god. This process is revolting but not overly surprising: apologetics is such a desperate field that anything that works must be constantly used and reused.

However, some Christians distinguish themselves by the depth of stupidity they marshal and the esoteric topics they exploit. Jason Lisle, of the ICR (Institute for Creationist Research), is a good example of that. He is actually the Director of Research. Don’t ask me what the hell that means for a Creationist to direct “research.”

In this article, Lisle is way out of his field, which is astrophysics (he is most notably responsible for his “research” on the Creationist ad hoc rationalization of the speed of light, called anisotropic synchrony convention). He explores mathematics and its connection with evolution. What could possibly be the connection between mathematics and evolution, you say? Well… first Lisle needs to convince us that numbers are some sort of supernatural entities:

Numbers are concepts. Thus, they are abstract in nature. They exist in the world of thought and are not material or physical. You cannot literally touch a number, or even see one, because they are not made of matter.

Anyone who knows presup tactics knows where this is going: numbers are immaterial, therefore humans can’t create numbers, therefore they must have been created by God. And yes, you’re right:

Some people might think that only physical things can exist—that matter and energy comprise every real thing. But, of course, in the Christian worldview we can have non-material entities that do exist. God is an obvious example. He exists, but is not made up of matter or energy. So the Christian worldview allows for numbers to have real existence, even though they are not material things… Other examples include logic, love, and laws.

Yes, Lisle is so unsophisticated that he thinks using love as an example of an immaterial thing is not completely laughable.

It seems that again and again presups confuse “physical” with “objective.” I do not know if this confusion is deliberate or the result of stupidity. Logic, love and laws come from human minds and are dependent on human minds, but, just like human minds, they are very much physical. If they were not, we would be unable to perceive them, let alone make arguments about them.

To finish on the first quote, we can’t touch or see individual numbers. We also can’t touch or see individual electrons or photons, distant galaxies, or pieces of data on a CD or DVD, yet all these things are clearly physical.

Now, what does it mean for numbers to be non-material? Well, the analogy with God gives us an answer: God is supernatural, and presumably so are numbers. How can a defined concept be made of an undefined substance?

But putting that aside, how could God possibly create numbers? We didn’t have the number zero before the 9th century CE; if God created numbers, then how did we not know about zero from the beginning? What about negative numbers? Irrational numbers? Complex numbers? If God created those, why didn’t we already know about them? Why is it that the pattern of history looks exactly as if humans are creating numbers, not God?

Laws of mathematics are discovered by people and written down by people. But they were not created by people. As discussed above, laws of mathematics do not change with time. Therefore, they existed before people existed. So they obviously cannot be a creation of man. The equation 2+3=5 was true long before any human being thought about it, realized it, or wrote it.

One has to wonder why Lisle would even state such an obvious falsehood. What does it mean for an equation, a man-made statement which uses man-made concepts, to be evaluated as true without the existence of human beings?

And without human beings, who is making this evaluation? Keep in mind that Lisle is not stating that 2+3=5 is true in the present, but that it was true even without human beings. But I assume that Lisle also believes, like YECs in general, that humans were a special creation of God and that humans alone are capable of complex reasoning. Logically, then, before human beings existed there could be no true or false statements because no one existed who could make such an evaluation (God, being omniscient, has no need for mental evaluation).

Lisle also wants to have his cake and eat it too. His argument rests on the proposition that, while the way we express mathematical concepts changes constantly, those concepts themselves form an absolute and unchanging reality that underlies our mathematical equations. So for instance “2+3=5” uses Arabic numerals (which were invented around 500 CE) and a relatively new mathematical symbol (the + sign was first invented at the end of the 15th century); but, according to Lisle, each of these elements expresses some transcendent “mathematical reality.”

What is this “mathematical reality”? Lisle does not tell us what it is, but from a secular standpoint it seems obvious that what he’s referring to the underlying concepts. The numeral “2” is the symbolic expression of a concept, just like any other symbol or word. But concepts, while they are generally universal, are not absolute, unchanging or transcendent; they cannot do what Lisle wants them to do, be God’s special creation and herald of absolute truth.

The symbols in the equation “2+3=5” refers to the concepts of twoness, threeness and addition. We acquired these concepts through observation and then learned the symbols and words to which they correspond. The sum of our observations about twoness, for example, represents the total content that could possibly be contained in our concept of twoness. Of course this includes observations of what other people have explained to us about the concept: we have never observed an imaginary number of anything, but we have observed what other people have discovered about imaginary numbers. We can retrace their steps and observe the coherency of our numerical system.

Again I want to point out that nothing of this is absolute, unchanging or transcendent. This “mathematical reality” exists only in our heads and written down as information in various forms; it does not exist outside of human action, and nothing about it is unchanging. The various ways in which people have grappled with the concept of “god” is a perfect demonstration on how concepts are changing and relative.

A Christian may reply that we do form the same concepts insofar as numbers are concerned. They may want to agree with mathematician Leopold Kronecker when he said:

The natural numbers were created by God; all the others are the invention of humans.

Certainly a better case can be made for that, especially since a great number of animal species are able to count small numbers. God could have “engraved” numbers in the heart of living beings, or some sentimental crap like that. But that would imply Creationism, a fact which of course would not stop Lisle. And it still relies on a “mathematical reality” that is nothing like what Lisle wants it to be. Cormorants can count to seven, but that doesn’t mean they’re somehow extracting numbers from some mystical realm.

Lisle then tries to end his article by debunking “evolutionary mathematics”:

If we applied this concept to mathematics, we would ask, “From what did numbers evolve? What were numbers before they were numbers? When did the physical universe begin obeying mathematical laws?”

Just take one number as a token case. From what simpler number did the number 7 evolve? Was 7 once 3? Did 3 have to transition through 4, 5, and 6 before it became 7? When did the negative numbers evolve? Or how about the irrational numbers? When did these numbers begin obeying mathematical laws? Did laws of mathematics evolve first, and then numbers later? Or was it the reverse?

If these sorts of questions sound silly, it is because they are. The evolution of numbers makes no sense whatsoever. 7 has always been 7, just as 3 has always been 3. Likewise, the expression 2+3=5 was as true at the beginning of time as it is today. Mathematical laws and the numbers they govern are invariant—they do not change with time and, therefore, cannot have evolved from anything!

I quoted this in full because it’s pretty hilarious that Lisle, in trying to make a funny argument from absurdity, actually reflects the ignorance of Creationists themselves. “Was 7 once 3” is like Creationists demanding how a crocodile could be born from an ant. “Did 3 have to transition trough 4, 5 and 6” is like Creationists who still think evolution is about a ladder of life that goes from bacteria to humans, and that species go through all these “stages.” “Did laws of mathematics evolve first, and then numbers later” is similar to the arguments Creationists make against the evolution of various organs (such as whether the eye or its neuronal pathways “evolved first,” when in fact they evolved concurrently).

“How numbers evolved” is a stupid question and no one is making such a claim. What evolution does say is that the human brain, like every other physical organ, is the product of a long process of adaptation, starting from the simplest and (usually, but not always) tending towards complexity. It is not numbers but our understanding of mathematics which has evolved. To explain this simplistically, we understand numbers better than cormorants do because our brain is more complex.

The number 7 is not an organism, therefore it did not evolve in the biological sense, but it did evolve in a memetic sense. Lisle probably ignored that fact because it didn’t fit his pet theory.

So we come to Lisle’s final “stumper”:

So how can a conceptual entity like math exist before any mind is around to think it?

The answer is simple: mathematics never existed, and cannot exist, “before any mind.” Not even Christians believe this, since they believe God’s mind always existed. Lisle fails at science and theology.

One thought on “Were numbers created by God?

  1. Miep December 18, 2013 at 21:07

    Math is just a language. I was wondering just the other day what a person with mathematical talent would do in a culture that did not have mathematical language. Would she invent her own? Would she make observations of relationships between things and express conclusions without having a language to discuss what she was seeing and thus how she came to these conclusions? Would this be seen by others as magic?

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