Friday, December 16, 2011

A New (Non-)Proof of the Existence of God

Actually an old one, of eighteenth-century vintage.  Let D. E. Smith tell it (History of Mathematics, 1923, vol. I, p. 523):

Diderot had somewhat displeased the Czarina  by his antireligious views, and so she persuated Eurler to assiste her in suppressing him.
Diderot was informed that a learned mathematician was in possession of an algebraical demonstration of the existence of God… Euler …said gravely, and in a tone of perfect conviction:

     Monsieur, (a + b^n)/n = x, donc Dieu existe; répondez !

Diderot, to whom algebra was Hebrew, was embarrassed and disconcerted, while peals of laughter arose on all sides …

For my own brilliant demonstration that modern syntactic theory implies the truth of the Nicene Creed, click here.

These are, of course, nonsense;  and are offered simply as counter-weights on the other side of the balance-pan, to equally ludicrous (though seriously meant) would-be scientific demonstrations of the opposite (chemicals go sploosh when you think of a tree, therefore we’re all just robots).

Denis Diderot, penning one of his zingers

Kripke offers a useful correction to the hoary anecdote:

In fairness to Diderot, it should be mentioned that the incident surely never took place as described.  In fact  Diderot was the author of several learned mathematical essays. 
If we do not take care, however, some of our philosophical discussions are in danger of coming to resemble the legendary confrontation.  I have seen cases where a very simple, almost mathematically trivial technical trick  has captured a philosopher’s imagination, and been used as if it were the key   that easily and mechanically unlocked  doors that were forever closed to ordinary philosophical investigation.
-- Saul Kripke, “Is There a Problem about Substitutional Quantification?”, in: Evans & McDowell, eds., Truth and Meaning (1976), p. 415.

Keynes makes the same point in some detail in his philosophically-attuned Treatise on Probability.

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