Added note. This is a note added for readers in the Oxford area.
I am giving a lecture at Headington Baptist Church on 12 September. Doors open at 7:30pm; talk from 8:00pm, with questions and discussion afterwards. The subject is basically the theme of this blog and my book of the same name. The venue is the church building at 78 Old High Street, Headington, Oxford OX3 9HW; click here for a map.
Reading New Scientist magazine this week I came across a statement I very much like:
“Mathematics is not as much about finding proofs as it is about finding concepts.”
So says Georges Ganthier of Microsoft Research, Cambridge, UK, quoted in a well-written article by Jacob Aron on the use of computers in mathematics in the August 29 edition of New Scientist. Although I am regularly dismayed by the appallingly low level of its understanding and treatment of religious thought (see for example Humpty Dumpty), New Scientist maintains a better standard when it handles pure science and mathematics, and this is an example. The statement from Ganthier will be recognised immediately by most scientists and mathematicians. Although proof is important in mathematics, it is not the heart of it. At the heart of mathematics is finding insightful ways of thinking, such as the differential calculus, and the calculus of variations, and group theory, and the theory of knots in topology, etc. etc. Proof is a tool, an aid to help us get confidence that our ideas cohere together, but it is the ideas themselves that we are after. Similarly, in theoretical science, what one is searching for are the concepts that make sense, not just the ones that generate a curve that matches some data.
It is only once one has the right concepts that one can begin to assess whether or not they make sense, and often the former makes the latter fall into place. Similarly, the work involved in coherent religious thought is not firstly about showing whether a concept makes sense. It is mostly about grasping the concept in the first place. Only once you have done that can you begin to ask whether it makes sense. And the most penetrating ways of thinking often go a long way to offering the sense they make by also offering the language in which that sense is to be most cogently expressed.
Something similar goes on in the arts. Here is a famous statement made by William Wordsworth in the context of poetry:
“Every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.”
In the case of good religion, or reconnection, or recognizing (I am using these three words as loose similes), the language in which the ideas are expressed is the language of the way we live. The value of an idea such as that existence is a gift, not an accident, is seen partly by the arguments that connect it to other ideas, so that we know it is not an irrational idea, but chiefly by the way it makes us live. Our reaction is to see both ourselves and others as valuable, and to become more giving in our turn.
When we say the universe is the physical expression of an absolute uncreated reality, we are probably saying something like a tautology: something which has to be true. It is when we go further that we enter into things not subject to logical or mathematical proof, but which can be ‘proved’ in the sense of tested by living by them. An example is to assert that absolute uncreated reality is very much about trust, kenosis, mutual recognition of persons, and the triumph of love over hate. There is some work for reason to do, to check that a thought like that is not demonstrably irrational, but then we ‘prove’ it by living in the light of it. But the work I gave to reason here, the check to avoid irrationality, is mostly about getting the concept right. Once you have grasped it correctly, its truth shines through; but you can’t grasp it without living by it, and you can’t grasp it without being grasped by it, and anyway this is not about an ‘it’. This is not, in the end, about a mere abstract idea, a servant you can employ, a tool you can use. If absolute uncreated reality is about trust and kenosis, love and mutual recognition, then this is not about an ‘it’, it is about a ‘thou’.