Tag Archives: rationality

Book Review: A Mathematician Reads The Newspaper by John Allen Paulos

This has been my latest coffee table book that I dip into a few pages at a time. The premise is that maths is not well understood, but that it’s all around us. Paulos’ plan then is to educate us through a number of examples, which run to just a few pages each.

From the start, though, one is struck by a very heavy American bias. I think he tries to name drop by using examples of people he thinks his readers will know, but outside of the USA, names of the justices of the US supreme court are not commonly known pieces of trivia. That left this UK-based reader a little nonplussed, as it could have been made far more inclusive.

It’s a real shame, particularly as I read through the first part, which was on the subject of politics, its relentless US-centricism detracted from some otherwise very good prose. Paulos doesn’t really go into much mathematics here. His focus is more about rational thinking and how that can apply to things of a mathematical nature. So do not expect a particularly pedagogical text or worked examples. Numbers are fairly thin on the ground. As such, some who, like me, picked up the book expecting a book primarily about mathematics might be left wondering if the title wasn’t a little misleading.

In truth, it’s much more about general rationality than it is about maths. Given the expectations generated from the title, this inevitably left me rather disappointed. I know it was a follow up to an earlier book of his, entitled Innumeracy, which may have been closer to a better title for this work than the one it has.

The way the book is supposed to be structured is meant to roughly mirror a newspaper. So the front part of the book has more politics, the middle is more ‘lifestyle’ and there is a bit about sports (almost invariably US-based sports) towards the end. At times, the link to the typical newspaper seems rather tenuous, even if the general thrust of the argument is sound. Yet for a science writer, Paulos just seems to lack any great level of enthusiasm. Many of the best science writers (I think here of the likes of Feynman, Dawkins, Penrose and Sagan) have an attitude of “[isn’t this brilliant? Come, let me show you]” whereas Paulos is more towards the brow-beating end of the spectrum. There is little joy to be found, with an air of despondency at other people’s lack of nous.

The other fact that cannot be avoided is that, though it was only written in the mid 1990s, it hasn’t aged well. Any talk he has of computers or the possible threat the internet would be to the newspaper industry seem rather dated. That cannot be a criticism against the author, though, as one cannot expect him to be a prophet. Rather, it is a word of caution intended for any potential reader. Though I cannot say I would be in a great rush to recommend this book to anyone. The material covered here may be found in many a popular level book on mathematics and are dealt with in more detail and with a greater level of engagement than may be found here.

Foolish christianity

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’

This was Jesus’ encouragement to his listeners, as we have it recorded in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s account of the gospel. Interestingly, there is a footnote in most bibles over whether the “falsely” was included in the original text, as some early manuscripts have it, whilst others don’t. I’ve erred on the side of inclusion, though I admit I’ve not looked into the textual criticism on this matter.

I had a discussion a while ago where an atheist friend was mocking fundamentalists who wanted to celebrate “being fools for Christ” by holding onto some absurd views and then claiming they were persecuted when they were ridiculed for doing so. Such a portrait is not wholly unfamiliar as most churches I have been a part of have harboured a small clutch of such people. My aim here is not to ridicule, I love such people dearly, even if it’s not always reciprocated. But I would lovingly correct them as I really don’t think that holding onto conservative ideas such creationism or intelligent design (see here for more on these) really add much credibility to christianity. There are plenty of other ideas that are often claimed by christians which do little to make us appear credible witnesses; I’m sure you can think of some others.

To many people, there are at least some aspects of christianity which may be deemed absurd. What aspects, and to what degree, will vary from person to person. Some might reject christianity in nearly its entirety, others may pick at bits of various creeds, others may criticise what various christians say or write. Others I know have rejected christianity because they’ve been hurt by christians acting insensitively, though that I’ll save for another time.

When I asked the question, “How do you define a christian?” I looked a little at a creedal definition. Now when it comes to the question of the virgin birth, I don’t consider this to be a core part of my faith. Though I don’t denounce the idea, I remain strongly sceptical of its historicity and do not affirm its truth. Likewise, if you read my rather tongue-in-cheek take on The Purpose Driven Life, you’ll see that I don’t refrain from criticising other christians. Does this make me a bad christian? Maybe. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

My point is this: even if we regard the core claims of christianity to be true (aka the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, along with the subsequent implications of the existence of God, the nature of sin and the narrative story of the covenantal restoration of humankind, etc.), not everything that is written it its favour is necessarily correct. You might even take issue with my carefully worded parentheses in the preceding sentence. I freely admit that there are aspects of christianity which run counter to our intuition based on everyday experience, probably none more so than the resurrection. Yet I would contend that to dismiss the claims on the basis of its counter-intuitive nature would be a mistake. There are many other things we know to be true in spite of being counter-intuitive. To pick from my own educational background, I would cite the dual slit experiment of quantum mechanics and Noether’s theorem as examples.

But it would fly in the face of rationality to suppose that anything and everything counter-intuitive is true. There is good reason why some things are counter-intuitive, they are just plain nonsense. It does no one any good to claim that holding foolish ideas is a credit to the Church and the message it proclaims. Yet the apparent foolishness of some aspects of the gospel can be a source of embarrassment (something Paul wrote far more eloquently about than I could in 1 Corinthians).

I have read many supposed refutations of the resurrection, yet none that I have encountered take into account the belief in resurrection. i.e. why, given the difference between the christian view of anastasis from that in the contemporary Judaism and paganism, would a belief in a Jewish messiah having risen with a transformed body begin in the first place and become so uniform and widespread within a generation. Yet even this might not be the most “foolish” aspect of christianity. For me, the dichotomy between the idea of a God who is at once just and merciful is one of the greatest paradoxes – certainly one that I would make no claim to fully understand. The notions of grace and forgiveness run against a common human desire for punishment and retribution. You may think of other aspects, but to my way of thinking, these are the most dazzling. Yet even I cannot focus my eyes on the sun, I do not deny its power – so it is with these follies of the christian faith.

After I wrote the first draft of this, I heard a sermon at church which went in a very different direction. The preacher stated that she claimed she had been healed, only to be told by the doctor that there had been a misdiagnosis. By stating this, the doctor was somehow robbing her of her testimony of healing. I sat and listened, but couldn’t help but be sceptical.

I quite like hearing testimonies of healing, but I would really like to see some evidence to back it up. If christians can’t back up the claims in their personal testimony, I wonder how they expect others to believe anything else they might say. If we’re to be mocked or even persecuted, let it be for telling awkward truths, not just for being fools.

Derren Brown, confirmation bias and the need for religious education

On the evening of Friday 16th of November, Channel 4 aired the 2nd of a 2-part programme entitled “Fear and Faith” which was hosted by one of Britain’s foremost entertainers, Derren Brown. In the first part of the programme, Derren explored the placebo effect, giving various different groups of people a very well-crafted placebo to “cure” their different complaints, though the programme predominantly focused on those who had certain fears, such a woman who was trying to make a career in theatre but who was afraid of singing in public, a man who was so afraid of heights he had difficulty walking over a bridge which safely carried road traffic across it every day and a man who was very shy, fearing new social interactions, especially conflict.

In this 2nd part, Derren looked at the idea of “God” being the ultimate placebo. Rather than recount a blow-by-blow account of the programme, I’d recommend you try and find it online to watch again or wait for a repeat. What I found most interesting was the reactions on Twitter. I was following the #FearAndFaith hashtag and making a few posts myself (apologies to anyone who follows me and thought I was spamming).

The climax of the programme, which was being built up to, was trying to give an atheist a “conversion experience”. Much of the response on Twitter echoed the idea of @evertoniandy when they wrote:

Derren Brown was brilliant. Fascinatingly interesting. Turns out God is probably imaginary. Who knew? #fearandfaith #atheism

What is particularly interesting about this is the phenomenon of confirmation bias. The programme didn’t really examine religious belief at all. It focused on the idea of an emotional experience. This is something Charles Foster looked at in his book, Wired For God. Yet the conclusions that were made by the viewers far outstretched what could reasonably be made from the evidence presented. There is an earnest desire among some atheists to disprove the existence of any kind of god, so what happens is that anything which vaguely hints in that direction is taken as a confirmation of their own (lack of) belief.

Having spotted the sleight of hand that the programme creators were using, I posted the following message on Twitter:

#FearAndFaith Interesting to explore the emotional aspect of belief. Is Derren going to explore rational bases of belief too?

This prompted as response from an account called Godless Spellchecker, a fairly relentless account (it averages 60 posts per day) which has around 16,000 followers.

@GSpellchecker
“@TheAlethiophile #FearAndFaith Is Derren going to explore rational bases of belief too?” + They don’t make 10 second TV shows.

Because I was quoted rather than having a straight response, this prompted a flurry of other replies which I transcribe for you below:

@cheesymondo
@TheAlethiophile Taking all scientific reasons behind it.

@martarama
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile I’d have thought there wasn’t enough to put into such a tv show….

@DanielWalker319
@GSpellchecker @TheAlethiophile He already has. Fear and it helped us get laid.

@stuhowling
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile Haha brilliant. Another brilliant put down from GS

@glenn37smyth
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile LOL

@ogoffan
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile 10 seconds – must include an advert break then.

@JosianeGrignon
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile lol I just choked on my candy

While the Godless Spellchecker account may believe it made it a witty response, what it really did was betray an underlying problem with some modern critiques of religion. It presupposed, without evidence, that there cannot be a rational basis for faith. Indeed, the last decade or so, led by the New Atheists, has seen an increasing use of language whereby atheist is made synonymous with rationalist. Yet I have come across many atheists who could not reasonably be called rational, given their views on atheism are based very much on an emotional level, prejudiced and hateful of anything resembling what they perceive as ‘religious’. Equally, the increasingly tiresome canard of ‘science v religion’ betrays the fact that there are a great many scientists who hold “religious” beliefs and many “religious” people hold no objections to scientific ideas or the evidence or proof which uphold them.

Sticking to christianity, I know some people who believe for primarily emotional reasons, maybe based on an experience such as that which Derren attempted to recreate. Yet many I know, myself included, believe for much more rational reasons. For me, while the existence of God is vitally important, it’s not the most helpful way to approach a critical examination of christianity. Rather, the historical basis of christianity has to be the first thing examined. In other words, looking at the person of Jesus. For Islam, one would need to examine the life of Muhammad. On these subjects, there is much to be examined, evidence to be pored over and ideas to be discussed.

What is most concerning is the belief, in the teeth of the evidence opposing it, that there is no rational basis for belief. It demonstrates a very clear lack of education on matters relating to faith/belief/religion, however you want to word it. While some of this may be the result of poor religious education in the state system, I don’t think all responsibility can be taken away from the church. As christians, we have a duty to explain clearly what we believe. If people’s religious education is sourced from the naysayers then the view the public will get will be grossly skewed, a distortion of what christians believe. Hectoring the close-minded is not the answer; engaging with the open-minded is. The question then is, how to do this faithfully, rationally and with all due respect for those who hold different views from ours?