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Confessions of an Adventist Mathematician


If I am to share stories of lived Adventism I might as well start with my own. Over a decade of specialized training and I am just at the beginning of my mathematical career. Such is the life of an academic. It’s hard to tell people that I’m a mathematician without sounding like I’m bragging, and people often react with contempt, intimidation, or just plain horror. And what if someone asks me to tell them about my research? Mathematics is so specialized and abstract that it can take some creativity to describe research mathematics to non mathematicians without making them feel stupid or spoken down to. I try to avoid these social liabilities by telling people I am a math teacher. That’s more accurate anyway. I have chosen a teaching-oriented career path, and I don’t claim to be a stellar researcher.

But there is something to the notion that mathematicians are “different.” We have a love-hate relationship with our eccentricity. We often wear it with pride, yet we may become quite defensive if we perceive ourselves the object of contempt or alienation. In this way I suppose we are just like everyone else. I think part of it is the experience of graduate school. Grad school can be long, lonely, and saturated with failure. And the subject material, you are just awash in it, and it seeps into every area of your life–including your religious and spiritual life–and makes changes both subtle and dramatic without your permission. It can be unsettling. It can be beautiful.

My mathematical training has influenced my religious thinking in more ways than I could possibly describe here. It has influenced my religious thinking in more ways than I even know. People make the reasonable though largely incorrect assumption that the advanced math I know has direct application to theological questions, questions like, What does it mean for God to be infinite? In truth, the more math I learned the more I realized that the facts of mathematics were not so much directly applicable to theology as much as they were a rich source of analogies with which one may describe otherwise quite complicated religious ideas.

Like the mathematical notion of infinity. There are several distinctly different notions in mathematics to which we attach the label “infinity.” (For this and other reasons, it is a mistake to read a mathematical meaning into the phrase, “God is infinite.”) For example, the size of things (the cardinality of sets, in mathspeak) can be infinite. It is a surprising fact that, as it turns out, there are several different “sizes” of infinity! In fact, there are infinitely many different sizes of infinity. You can see why we math people are fond of the old saying attributed to mathematician John von Neumann that in mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them. It hardly takes an expert theologian to see how that chestnut might be applicable to religious life. Or try this: One might reimagine the biblical Job as a weary math grad student–a stretch, I know, but work with me–who’s wife has divorced him, who’s friends have abandoned him, who’s grad student health insurance is woefully inadequate. And then in comes von Neumann, a mathematical god if ever there was one, to whom Job implores for understanding. This scene may be ridiculous, but is not part of the lesson of the last few chapters of the Book of Job that in life we humans don’t understand things? That there are mysteries we might try to get used to?

Let’s return to infinity. Here’s an elementary result from Set Theory: Suppose you have a set named A. Then make a new set called B that contains all possible subsets of A. Then the size of B is strictly larger than the size of A–even if A was infinite to begin with. Nevermind what any of these words mean, the upshot is that if you have an infinity already, this result says that there is an even bigger infinity. I wonder, can you see an analogy to God in this? Personally I instead apply this mathematical idea by analogy to my theological understanding: Out of our theological understanding, no matter how sophisticated it may be, will always emerge far deeper mysteries to be explored.

By far the most significant religious lesson my mathematical training has taught me has been about belief and certainty. And it has also been the most difficult to swallow. Doing math involves breaking arguments down into their smallest possible logical units. Sometimes an idea even as small as 1+1=2 needs to be broken down further. But math education by its nature means being wrong far more often than being right. These two facts create a situation where you can be wrong about the simplest, most obvious facts. You can be so absolutely certain about a fact, and then your classmate questions a step or presents a counterexample and your certainty vanishes in an instant. It can be a hard blow psychologically, to be so certain about something that looks and feels like 1+1=2 and to be wrong. It makes you question yourself, your intelligence, your abilities. It can be embarrassing. Some people never get used to it. But it’s part of the training of every mathematician. The fact is, the conviction of being right, the feeling of certainty, has little to do with what is actually true. It is a psychological fact about us, not an ontological fact about the universe.

Our feelings of conviction have no necessary connection to how much evidence we have, how accurate our argument is, or what is actually true. Our job in math is to make feelings of conviction and actual fact agree, but it is a profoundly difficult task that often fails even in the simplest cases. Ignorance, distraction, optimism, pessimism–so much human psychology works against us when it comes to logical argument. And here’s the thing: this is true whether we’re talking about mathematics or politics or theology. It doesn’t matter.

This fact that it is so easy to be wrong while being convinced of being right even about the simplest facts collides catastrophically with a certain way of doing Adventism that fuels our psychological feeling of certainty at full throttle. If we are just manipulating our own psychological facts, our own feelings of conviction, then we are merely increasing the distance between our psychology and the amount of justifying evidence and accurate argument we have for believing that something is true. What’s more, this distance serves as a barrier to reevaluating old evidence and challenging assumptions. The greater this distance becomes, the more difficult it is to correct our mistakes.

This isn’t merely a practical problem in that it makes it harder for us to believe true things. There are ethical consequences as well. We claim to be after the Truth with a capital T. Believing that we are right is very different from actually being right. If we spend all of our energy bolstering this feeling of conviction in ourselves and others, then what we are really after is the belief that we are right. It’s a form of deception, self-deception and deception of others. It is an issue of integrity.

An antidote for this integrity issue lies in a deep magic from before the dawn of Adventism, to paraphrase The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. In some sense Adventism was founded on a form of skepticism. We have a deep love and respect for education and study stemming from before the dawn of our denomination. Education, study, and reasoning not just in solitude but together as well–these are the tools we need to be using to discover the Truth.

Because He is who we are really after.

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