John Allen Paulos – Irreligion

January 25, 2008

John Allen Paulos is Professor of Mathematics at Temple University. He has been celebrated as a writer and speaker about the importance of mathematical literacy, although he is also drawn to other related subjects, such as the mathematical basis of humor. He is the author of Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, as well as A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper and A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market. His latest book is Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, John Allen Paulos explores some classical proof of God’s existence, and why he discounts them. He criticizes some mathematical proofs for theism, including those based on statistics, and explains how free market economics might challenge Intelligent Design theory. He also details why it is important for the non-mathematician to know math, and how mathematics might be beautiful.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, January 25th, 2008. 

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I’m pleased to have John Allen Paulos on the show this week. He’s a mathematician at Temple University and a bestselling author. His new book is Irreligion. A mathematician explains why the arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up. And he’s the author of The New York Times best selling book, Innumeracy. Also, a mathematician reads the newspaper. A mathematician plays the stock market. He’s also written scholarly papers on probability, logic and the philosophy of science, as well as scores of OP Ed’s book reviews and articles in publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Nation, American Scholar, The London Review of Books and on and on. He’s a monthly columnist for ABC and also The Guardian, and he joins me today to talk about your religion. Welcome to Point of Inquiry. John Alan Paulos. 

Pleasure to be here. Good to be talking to you, Professor. 

Before we get to your new book, Irreligion, I want to talk with you about popularizing mathematics. You’re really talented at it. I mean, you had this New York Times best selling book, Innumeracy. You’re celebrated for math like Sagan was for astronomy. Dawkins is for biology, maybe. Do you really think mathematics kind of you know, the math that you learn in college, is that really for everyone or is it just for those fit, though few who are good at math? What I’m getting at is I know a lot of really smart people, educated, literate people who say almost proudly. Well, they’re just not good at math and they leave it at that. 

I think to some extent, mathematics is very least should be for everybody. I mean, there is a tendency to say that it should be reserved for people who are especially talented in the subject or have a facility for calculation or whatever. But I mean, no one makes comparable claims in the case of, let’s say, English. I mean, and nobody says, well, unimportant to study literature because you’re not going to become a novelist or a journalist yet. They tend to make that claim that you just mentioned when it when the topic is mathematics. And I can be a mathematician and I can be a physicist. Forget about mathematics. An analogy I like to use is that people who studied in English class, in middle school, grade school, high school, diagraming sentences and nothing else would not have to keep an appreciation for literature when they got to college. And likewise, people who are exposed to stultifying programing, mathematics involving long division, thousands of problems or factoring polynomials or taking derivatives of hundreds of functions are not going to have a keen appreciation for mathematics or for its applications. 

So the way it’s taught is sometimes a problem. But the mathematics, the beauty of mathematics, the relevance of it, particular probability that this X but all kinds of mathematical ideas have relevance to today’s world. And if these ideas are communicated in an in an intriguing, compelling sort of way, I think to that extent mathematics is for everybody. 

I want to turn to irreligion. I loved this new book. I’m a little biased. It’s my kind of book. It was really funny even while talking about such a heavy topic. I especially liked your instant messaging chat with God. But you’re a mathematician, not a theologian. What authority do you have treating these deep theological questions? Your. You talk about your mathematical temperament in quotes, but you don’t really say that you’re an atheist because of your deep expertize in mathematics. That mathematics leads you to Athie ism NIJ in the book. 

I don’t use formulas or equations or technical mathematics. It’s informed perhaps more by a mathematical logical sensibility. So in that sense, mathematics is at least marginally relevant to the charge that I am theologically innocent. I, I plead innocent, but I’m not quite sure it’s all that compelling criticism. I mean, I imagine an astronomer critiquing astrology, it wouldn’t be that compelling to say, well, look, this astronomer can’t even cast a horoscope. 

It’s true. Maybe he can’t. But that doesn’t in no way vitiate his criticism of astrology. And perhaps to a somewhat lesser degree, I think the same is true with mathematician or anyone else taking on what are generally considered theological issues. I mean, as you might infer, I’m not keen on intellectual content of most theology. 

I was fascinated a few years ago to discover that the National Academy of Sciences came out with a study that said that mathematicians in general are believers more than double the number that biologists are. Why do you think that is? Obviously doesn’t follow for you. 

Well, it’s not a novel, but it’s still very low. 

I mean, if you look at members of National Academy of Sciences, for members in general, maybe it’s five percent for mathematicians. It’s somewhat higher, 10 percent or twelve percent. 

But nevertheless, the percentage is higher. 

Well, mathematicians do tend to, at least in an uncritical sense, think of mathematical entities is residing and cavorting in some platonic realm and therefore kind of used to dealing with such invisible entities. They’re also accustomed to picking axioms more or less on faith in some sense and saying, OK, if we accept this, what follows from it? So if you accept certain basic pauses, then you can develop a whole kind of religious construction of one sort or another that perhaps someone who is not so adept at dealing with both deduction and ethereal entities would be less so. 

Whereas biologists, for example, do neither of those things as frequently, both as a mathematician who does real math at a university, publishing papers, et cetera, but also as a science popularizer, a mathematics popularizer for the general public. You’ve developed prestige in the science community, public at large. Do you think it hurts your reputation or could hurt it now that you’re coming out against the central belief that everybody holds that God exists? 

No, I first of all, I don’t think it is a central belief that everybody holds. I mean, despite surveys would suggest that I’m inordinately high percentage of Americans believe in God. I have my doubts about that. I mean, if if you ask people about certain sensitive topics affects religion, I mean, people tend to supply the conventional answer. What’s the point of incurring possibly incurring somebodies wrath or whatever by saying? I don’t think I believe any of that. So first, why I think the percentage who actually do believe in religion is smaller. Certainly peer people who are literal believers. I think it is much smaller, although those people are quite vocal, as we’ve learned. But now, I mean, so some people will no doubt take it as more evidence for my depravity or whatever. 

That’s the way it works. 

I’m interested in your take on a claim made by our, in quotes, cultural competitors. Religious political extremists say that the universities are ripe with atheistic professors who are seeking to inculcate their students in the religion of Athie ism or maybe the religion of secular humanism. Here you are, a professor at Temple University. Is that your impression of university life? You’re an atheistic professor writing a book against God. 

I focus in the book is primarily on the arguments for God’s existence and not on the balance of good and evil that can be chalked up to religion. And and I point out that these arguments suffer from gaping wound. I don’t hold any water, but I don’t do this in my classes. I don’t mention religion in my classes at all. And I don’t know colleagues who do. And furthermore, I mean, it seems that religious discourse, statements of assertions of religious belief are equities. And people always point to these neo atheist books as constituting some kind of wave or torrent or whatever. But they’re a small trickle compared to religious books, to the statements. I mean, every presidential candidate, for example, particularly Romney and Huckabee, I mean, Romney says, you know, liberty requires religion. Huckabee doesn’t believe in evolution as kind of a literal fundamentalist. But even many of the others can’t seem to answer a question about. I don’t know, the Federal Reserve Board without invoking their religious beliefs. So it’s not clear that if he is monopolizing the airwaves or print media or the blogosphere, it’s just. What’s new is that they’re even there at all. 

You mentioned the new atheists. Do you think you would have written this book had there not been all these other vocal scientists who turned into very public atheists? 

Perhaps not. 

But I had an idea for this book for a long time ago. Ever since I read Virgin Russel’s Why I’m Not a Christian. I had the idea of know, kind of updating it in a sense, making it a little more topical, a little more modern sensibility. But the proximate cause. The only cause. But the way was the publication of these books since this had been on my kind of informal agenda for a long time. OK, I’ll do it. It’s a somewhat different take. As I said, it has a kind of, although devoid of real mathematics, to have the kind of mathematical logical sensibility to it. And there are lots of like quirky digressions and so on. I mean, the primary focus is on the arguments and what’s wrong with them. But there’s things in there about know so-called bright, an imaginary dialog. You mentioned or tie for wrong relations or, you know, all kinds of somewhat bizarre topics that are one extensor and other relevant to the main thrust of the book. Jim Underdown. 

Yeah, very entertaining in that way. Let’s get to some of the fresh arguments in the book. You sidestep the old atheist versus agnostic label and you say it’s possible to be both an atheist and an agnostic at the same time. For years I thought the most agnostics are actually atheists without knowing it. In that they simply lack a belief in God, which is a fearsome without theism, without belief in God. Is that what you’re aiming at? 

Well, I mean, to speaking somewhat simplistically in atheist doesn’t believe in God and agnostic either doesn’t know or thinks that we could never know. And there’s no inconsistency between those two positions. There are all kinds of events or personages in history in whom we don’t believe about whose existence we’re not absolutely certain. 

And so I think it’s possible to be both atheists and agnostics. I mean, if you and also our course is very dependent on one’s notion of God. If the notion is somewhat conventional as a sort and all knowing all powerful entity that has something to do with the creation of the world, then it seems like AP ism is is more natural response that are if you define God in a much more nebulous sort of way as some vague thing out there and draw no inferences from it or define it in some bizarre way like complexity or science or strawberry shortcake or whatever, then of course you have to be agnostic. 

Well, if you define strawberry shortcake, I suppose I’d be happy to take on the argument from design in the book. In, I think, a really original way. You talk about market economics in that context. 

Yeah, it’s always struck me that there are some analogies between people’s belief in market economies, free market economies combined idly with steadfast disbelief and in evolution. I mean, I ask the question, how is it that modern free market economies are as complex as they are? You can go into almost any drug store. You find your favorite candy bar, any supermarket has your favorite spaghetti sauce and. And how does that come to pass? Standard reason. I mean, it’s kind of an idealized reason that these systems of exchange that develop in the complexity of economic interactions grows, interactions that facilitate people’s desires or whatever become entrenched. 

Those that don’t work drop off and economic complexity evolves. And the so-called invisible hand sees to that. And even though it’s kind of an idealization. Many people buy into it and often the same people who buy into it decry evolution. And they ask, how could random interactions lead to the complexity of the AI or are living beings in general? But it’s the same sort of gradual process Jim Underdown. 

Right. There’s no grand intelligent designer in the free market. No central planner. And you think it shouldn’t be that big of a leap for creationists to look at creation like they do? The free market, which they’re Bulley for and draw the same connection. 

Exactly. And ramming care. People sometimes say yes, but the human agents are intelligent and molecules are blind. But you can get the same model, the same sort of complexity with all sorts of automata. I mean, John Conway’s game of life is one of the earliest incarnations. I mean, simple computer programs based on very simple rules of interaction that require no insight, no intelligence, whatever. You just build in certain assumptions and you’d soon develop in this program the same sorts of complexities that you see in real economy. So it’s not that human intelligence is needed. I mean, of course, it’s it’s assumed when you’re dealing with other agents, but you can model them with mindless agents. And that would give rise to. Same sort of economy, and as I said, I mean, what would you think of someone who studied economics for years at modern Free-Market economies and insisted they were the consequence of some all powerful, deep, detailed upsets, economic lawgiver? You might think he’s a conspiracy theorist. Likewise. Or do you think of someone who studied biological processes and insisted that despite a perfectly reasonable Darwinian account, that they were the consequence of some all powerful, detail obsessed biological lawgiver? I think in both cases you be unimpressed with people who made a lot of fundamentalists. 

Professor Polo’s, they use something of a mathematical argument when showing how really unlikely it is that we got here through evolution as a person who loves a deck of cards. I loved your response to that coming from a shuffled deck of cards. 

Right. I mean, you shuffle a deck of cards, 52 cards, shuffle it continually, and then look at what you got. And the likelihood of your getting a particular sequence of 52 cards is miniscule. It’s one in 10 to 68 is your probability, one at one with 68 zeros by one due to shuffle the cards over and over again and then fill them out and look at the particular particular sequence that you got and saying, well, I couldn’t have got this particular sequence. It’s much, much too unlikely. But, you know, something’s got to happen. And I mean that there is always a fantastically huge number to get back to evolutionary fantastically huge number of evolutionary paths that might be taken by an organism or a process or whatever, but there’s only one that actually will be taken. So if after the fact we observe the particular evolutionary path that’s actually taken and then calculate the probability apriori probability of its having been taken. We’ll get these miniscule probabilities that creationists mistakenly attach to the process as a whole. So, I mean, something’s got to happen and whatever happens is gonna be unlikely. You can’t say, well, it didn’t happen or the process is is dubious. I mean, this is a misreading of the probabilities in this case. 

Still, on the subject of mathematical odds, coincidences, a lot of people believe in whatever supernatural claims they have, God or, you know, some paranormal claim because of coincidences happening in their life, that too many things have worked out or they look around either at the world or their life specifically, and they make meaningful connections between things. And you kind of take that on by looking at nine one one coincidences. 


I mean, I just picked nine 11 because it’s only emotionally fraught. But any kind of event is going to mean odd things are going to happen there. And they’re an indeterminate number of things that happen. You’re going to notice the things that are somehow remarkable for one reason or other. And you can say, well, how likely is that pose the same problem as with a deck of cards? How likely is that? The answer is almost always extremely unlikely. But it’s not the right question. The right question is how likely is something that general sought to come to pass? And the answer to that is really quite likely. I mean, that’s the problem with the so-called Bible codes as well. People look at equidistant letter sequences in the Bible. Here’s a letter P. Here’s a letter, a 18 letters down his letter U. Other 18 letters, L. O. S, each separated by 18 letters. How likely is Pollos to appear in the Bible? And the answer, of course, is is quite small. But if you look hard enough, you’ll find all sorts of equidistant letter sequences that seem if you’re of a certain mindset to predict or forecast future events. But the right question, again, isn’t what’s the likelihood of these particular letters in the Torah which seem to have some some predictive power? What’s the probability of something of that general sort occurring? And you don’t have to go ahead 18 letters between letters that you’re going to look at. You could go ahead. Twenty two or twenty eight, whatever you want to go forward. You could go forwards, backwards, diagonally. You can. There’s all kinds of plasticity in what you look for. I mean, if you don’t define it clearly, anything near by anything nebulously related is going to be taken as a hit. And then you say, wow, look at me. I use it to show that in the US Constitution there are codes that that foretell the Clinton sex scandal and you could find few there. 

You could look for forbid the equidistant letter sequence for Bill and then you could look for equal. Letter sequence for Monaco, where you can look for Paula or Kathleen or Jennifer or whatever. So with all these degrees of freedom, it’s not surprising if you look for very hard, very long time, you’ll you’ll you’ll find something. But it doesn’t necessarily mean what they in fact, that doesn’t mean what the proponents of Bible codes so think it does. I mean, the standard English translation of war and peace, they’re equidistant letter sequences for Jordan Bulls, Chicago, and certainly Tolstoy didn’t know anything about English or about the Chicago Bulls. Hmm. 

One of the things Richard Feynman. I think it was Feynman talked about, if you define a miracle as a once in a million occurrence, something that’s very unlikely, you know, not that it’s supernatural, but that it’s very, very unlikely. Well, there were about a million occurrences in a person’s life each month. Something, in quotes miraculous happens pretty frequently. Therefore, you pray for something, you know, all month, you or you, you have different prayers every day. And and, you know, one of them is going to come true or you’re thinking about someone. And at that very moment, the phone rings. And you were talking about how people remember the hits and forget the misses. 

Exactly. And so so-called actually so-called by me, Jean Dixon effect. I mean, you made the complex predictions and the ones that come through that came true were trumpeted on all the tabloids and the know incomparably. Many that failed can be easily forgotten. But anytime you have a huge number. I mean, even to get back to the deck of cards, I mean, no matter how you fill out the deck, you know, what’s going to result is going to be extremely unlikely. I mean, that that’s another thing connected to the creationist misuse of probability. They said, well, you have to go from A to B from this biological entity to this one. You’d have to have this mutation, which has a certain probability that one which has a certain probability. And so on this whole sequence of probabilities, the likelihood of all those mutations occurring is assuming independence is the product of those probabilities, which is extremely low. So they say, OK, well, that couldn’t have happened. But again, something’s got to happen. And the fact that any particular thing is unlikely doesn’t mean that the whole process is therefore dubious. 

Your line is and I loved it. The most amazing coincidence of all would be the complete lack of all coincidences or something like that. 

Right, exactly. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can purchase a copy of your religion. A mathematician explains why the arguments for God just don’t add up through our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. Professor, you’re admittedly not engaging theologians in the book. You mentioned that as we began. You’re looking at the matter of God from a more commonsense perspective. But doesn’t it kind of weaken your position if you admit from the outset that you’re ignoring all the work, all the thinking done by really bright minds who wrestled with these questions before you, even if they were doing it from a theological point of view? 

Well, I mean, something a outright dismiss all theology. 

I mean, I do talk about the ontological arguments and anthropic principle, but much theology. And I might be accused of being reductionist or narrow minded. I mean, most theology, I would say, is not all that impressive. I mean, it seems like a logical abracadabra, verbal sleight of hand. I mean, it’s easy. They can come up with arguments that, you know, superficially seem appealing. I mean, no one I like is the following. Consider the following two sentences. The first one is God exists. The second one is both these two sentences are false. So sentence one, God exists sentence to both. These two sentences are false. Now, look at the second sentence. If it’s true, what it says is the case. It says they’re both sentences are false. Particular second second sentence is false. The only way the second sentence can be false is if the first sentence that God exists is true. So God must exist or if the second sentence you assume is false directly, then then what it says. 

It says both sentences are false. Again, the only way that can happen is if the first is true. So I prove God exists. I don’t think too many people would be convinced by that. But I don’t think the so-called ontological argument for God is always been looked at by people for centuries is any more compelling. I mean, even girdle. I looked at a version of it, but the ideological argument is, I mean, very roughly speaking, a very simple, simplified version is God is the most perfect being imaginable and possessor of all possible positive traits. And certainly existence is better than nonexistence. So God must possess that trait as well. So therefore, God exists, so God exist. Bye, Crystal. Bye bye. By definition, again, I don’t think that’s all that impressive. And even though they’re tomes and tomes of theology devoted to it, I think most of them are more or less valueless. 

Jim Underdown you admit in your book that you yourself, you never had a religious phase of your life. Can you see how your dismissal of other people’s arguments for their belief in other people’s religiosity may be a function of your just not knowing their deeply felt and lived experiences? I had a phase in my life early on when I prayed many times each day to Jesus, I felt his presence. I actually cried when I felt him in my heart. Are aren’t you overlooking these kinds of real experiences when you treat God mathematically or with your mathematical temperament? 

No, I can understand that it doesn’t offend me. In fact, I mean, I, I, I don’t. 

For example, if they agree with Christopher Hitchens that religion is the source of all evil. I mean, I’m not angry. Arrogant. I don’t think intolerant. I mean, I agree that religion can be the source of ideas and metaphors and narratives that that are in life. And it can and can be the source of ideals and values that are inspiring. And it can also be the source of rituals. Traditions that are binding and satisfying, unfortunately, can also lead to hatred, cruelty, superstition and fanaticism. But but a simple yearning and no yearning for God, yearning for for love. I mean, I can understand. I don’t want to dismiss. In fact, I’d tell you an anecdote in a book that’s perhaps a stretch. But that was in Thailand a couple of Christmases ago. And I was in a beach town and it was Christmas Day. And as I said and I was at the edge of town and no one was around. And I went into this Internet cafe to check my email and get a Diet Coke or whatever. And there were these girls running around. There were nine or 10 computers, an Internet cafe, and they were sitting down writing messages and they were webcams on the picture. And soon enough, I figured out that they were communicating with their their boyfriends, Feron boyfriends, foreigner boyfriends who had been there and back home in some snowy land, and they’d answer each other a picture of them and go on to the next one. Each of them had had a number of boyfriends. 

And then they started asking me what certain words meant and I said, I’ll pine for means. He misses you a lot, obsesses over means he’s always thinking about you. 

Then I started contributing lines and the lines got great responses and it was fun. And then it but after a while I was thinking of these, you know, in a way I felt a little bit guilty since I was doing the opposite of what I usually do, which is try to spell dispel what I think are illusions here. I was kind of furthering an illusion, although it was an illusion of about love. But perhaps I just believe in love even of the deluded sort. No, I don’t believe in God, but I could recognize the yearning of these these guys overseas and then the girls as well, even though they acted kind of mercenary. They I mean, the idea was to extract money from them. The Western Union based on the park. But nevertheless, I mean, there was a kind of strange instance of of yearning that that I that I understood and that, you know, is is just one of very many different kinds of yearning for God is one. And I don’t want to scoff at that, even though, you know, I’m in parts of the book might be interpreted that way. I mean, I don’t want to scoff at people’s needs or yearning or what difference to the night. I just don’t like when they go from there to certain conclusions about the everyday world and try to impose certain beliefs on public matters and public policy and claims to be talking to God and God tells them how to the bomb a certain country. I’m much less sympathetic to such a directive sort of notion of religion. 

I want to wind down discussion of your book by asking you about a religion you do propose. And that’s yeah. ISM. 

Yeah, yeah, as am I thought of. 

Is there some kind of religion that’s devoid of dogma that still somehow captures the odd majesty of the universe, people, entities, whatever, and the religion, if you want to call it that? I don’t know if you can see. 

You’re playing tongue in cheek there. Yeah. Playing tongue in cheek. 

I mean, did the religion I propose is the religion. You look at the universe and you kind of say, yeah, I accept it. You don’t have to sign onto any dogma. You’re not saying yet any entity. It’s just kind of an openness and acceptance and glorying in the world, which is devoid of dogma and doesn’t require that you sign on to very dubious propositions, but makes you open to the world to the certainty of uncertainty and let you go on. Hmm. 

Professor Paulose, you cover a lot more ground in the book Arguments for God based on morality across cultures. The argument that God exists because there’s like this God shaped space in our heart that God put there as a place for him, even how some have argued that the beauty of mathematics is proof of God’s existence. But to finish up our conversation rather than talking about God, I want to talk with you. Get your take on what many mathematicians treat as God. And that’s the beauty of mathematics. I’ve gotten to know a Nobel Prize winner, a mathematician, Herbert Houtman. And when he would speak about math, certain aspects of mathematics, his eyes would actually tear up and reverence for how beautiful it is. Is that unique to mathematics? I mean, you don’t see geologists getting emotionally moved about plate tectonics or something? 


I mean, the mathematical propositions do have a certain kind of ethereal or maybe austere beauty about them. I mean, to use Bertrand Russell’s phrase, that cold, austere beauty are frozen music, whatever other phrase it used. Eugene Wagner’s so-called unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. But there is an alternative explanation that doesn’t involve any platonic entity. I mean, we evolved in this world and and grew to appreciate whatever structure or symmetry there was in the world and developed the mathematics that it was consistent with it. And we measure things. We put things together, collections together. So the ideas of additions come to us. The ideas of measurement come to us by putting branches together. I mean, just various everyday sorts of activities. And after a while, we abstract them, codify them, call them axioms, use logic to develop consequences of them that are less likely. But the original motivation is ideas suggested to us by the world. And so we adapt to the world. It’s not necessarily that we’re dealing with these platonic entities, but they just kind of abstraction of everyday processes that we have evolved to instantiate and to play with. But nevertheless, I agree that mathematics, I think, is does have a higher beauty quotient and geology. My apologies to geologists, but it isn’t necessarily the case. I don’t think it’s an argument. Sometimes people have talked about universal or so-called universal morality as an argument for God again. I think an evolutionary explanation for most people’s notions of morality. And I think there is an evolutionary explanation that’s somewhat similar for the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics, which I think is not unreasonable. 

Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Professor John Alan Paulos. 

Thank you very much, T.J.. I enjoyed it a lot. 

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DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.