Aug 23 2004
|How God led me to mathematics and then made me an atheist|
My two earliest cerebral interests were theology and mathematics. I was born a Jew and as a child enjoyed the study of Judaism, an absorbing, intellectually closed system. I was fascinated by an infinite God with infinite power who had lived an infinite time. Yet I was perplexed by a God who created everything. Could God create himself, I wondered, and if He didn't create Himself, then just who created God? When I asked my Rabbi, he told me to concentrate more diligently on the study of Torah (the Bible).
After getting nowhere, I began to feel that studying "infinity" rather than Torah was a better means to understand God. I became enthralled with Zeno's Paradox (300 B.C.), an updated version of the tortoise and hare fable of Aesop (600 B.C.). A descendant of the rabbit asked a descendant of the turtle for a rematch. The turtle agreed, with the provision that he be given a 100-yard head start. The turtle reasoned: "When the rabbit gets to where I just was, I will have gone farther. If I keep doing this, the rabbit will never catch me and I will surely win." Of course, the rabbit easily avenged the humiliation of his ancestor, leaving the turtle and lots of Greeks befuddled.
When I heard that this paradox as well as many other puzzles of the infinite could be resolved mathematically, I became a devotee of mathematics. I continued to equate the mysteries of "infinity" and "God." I learned that infinity was not sensible (known through the senses) and that there was more than one infinity. Were there also many gods?
The most important lesson I learned was that infinity is a theoretical concept created by humans, that it does not exist in reality. Infinity is a useful notion because its abstract behavior gives us insight into properties of ordinary numbers and helps us understand and solve problems otherwise beyond our comprehension. "Infinity" could just as well replace "God" in a remark of Voltaire that "God does a lot of good in the world, even if He doesn't exist." Of course my students often falsely think they can treat infinity as if it actually existed as a real number, and such misuse gets them into a lot of trouble.
I don't claim to have mathematical proof that God does not exist. There is a wide range of religious beliefs among mathematicians, though the value placed on reason makes for fewer believers among mathematicians than among prisoners or politicians. I'm just happy to be in a time, place, and occupation where I can freely discuss my views without meeting the same fate as Giordano Bruno in 1600 A.D. He taught that the universe was infinite with an infinite number of worlds like ours. It was considered heretical at that time for finite man to discover the nature of the infinite, which was so clearly allied with the nature of God. Bruno was burned at the stake, one of the last victims of the Inquisition.