Sunday, June 05, 2016

What do Evolution, Same Sex Marriage, and Abstract Set Theory have in Common?

(This post is based on articles from 2012 so it may no longer be true. Also- to be fair- I tried finding stuff on the web BY the people who object to our children being exposed to abstract set theory but could not, so this article is based on hearsay.)

Louisiana has a voucher system for poor kids to go to other schools, including religious ones. I am not here to debate the merits of that or the state of US education. However, from this article it seems that they are learning some odd things.

As you would expect, some Christian  schools teach that Evolution did not occur, same sex marriage is wrong (actually their opinion of gay people is far more negative than just being against same sex marriage), and that Abstract Set theory is evil.(Note- Catholic Schools have no problem with Evolution, in fact, the catholic church has never had a problem with it.)

Come again? Yes we would expect these opinions on evolution and same sex marraige, but  Abstract Set Theory? Why? Its explained in this article but I'll say briefly that they don't like the post-modern view of mathematics where anything goes.  The coherent version of their point of view is that they are Platonists.  A less charitable view is that they find Abstract Set Theory too dang hard.  I've also seen somewhere that they object to Cantor's theory since there is only one infinity and it is God.

The book Infinitesimals: How a dangerous mathematical theory shaped the modern world is about an earlier time, around 1600, when the Catholic church thought that using infinitesimals was... bad? sinful? contrary to the the laws of God and Man? (I reviewed it here) I though we were no longer living in a time where religion had an influence on Mathematics. And, to be fair, we ARE past that time. But this voucher program worries me. And I haven't even got to what they do to American History.


  1. Can we stop using "religious" to mean "Christian"? Let's not tar all religions with the brush of craziness.

    1. I replaced one use of `religious' with `christian' in the post.

      You raise the question- do other religions interfere with science teaching and results now? in the past? I ask non-rhetorically.

    2. No idea, but can you imagine Hinduism or Islam as practised in Asia, say, to be any less meddlesome in science teaching?

    3. I can answer for India. While we do have a lot of kooks as politicians, the battlefield here is mainly over the history textbooks. Science as a subject is left alone. Evolution is taught without any bias, and I have never heard of anyone, parents or religious fundamentalists, protesting over it. It also helps that for most schools, the syllabus is decided and defined by a central board. Science just is, and no one thinks of bringing any politics into science education (Note that this hasn't stopped many of our politicians from making extremely stupid statements about science - just that this hasn't influenced the education system so far).

      With regards to the social sciences, if anything, the complaint now is that it is too critical of Hinduism, and doesn't "glorify" it enough.

    4. At any rate, a Hindu mathematician named Madhava and his disciples came up with a specific case of the Gregory series, as well as Taylor expansions for sin, cos and arctan two centuries before their European counterparts. See here:

      Also, some Indian contributions to Trig:

      Furthermore, look at Sushruta's achievements - he's the father of Plasic Surgery - here:

      These are sadly not taught to Indian kids in school, and very few people even know about the Kerala school of math. You could also read a nice book called 'The Crest of the Peacock' about it.

      That is what 'not glorified enough' means.

      As for same-sex relationships, well, the Kama Sutra itself talks about them. Also, the Babur-nama(of the Moguls) mentions Babur's attraction to a young boy.

  2. One cannot speak for all individuals, of course, not even a mere billion; Be that as it may, the Catholic Church as such isn't against any living humans of any description, but is only against particular acts and particular ideas, such as the proposition that the acts defining gay relations could ever be harmless.

    And incidentally, yes, GASARCH, several other religions do interfere. Some reject the very proposition that the order of the natural world is either knowable or a worthy object of study; some, when they try to express themselves in european languages abuse such words as "force" and "energy" and their relatives, which confuses a good many european-language-speakers in turn. And then there's the way Communism fundamentally ignores easily-observed facts of human society.

    But if you do meet any of those Christians objecting to set-theoretic infinities (or evolution), you might try to comfort them with the fact that all the set theorist's infinities are bounded --- there can always be a bigger infinite set --- which certainly cannot be the sense by which they mean God to be infinite; or you might ask them why they think God would create only a small world with a short history, or whether biologically resembling an ape is really less dignified than being formed of mud, or "slime" as some translations make it.

  3. Well, it's important to keep in mind that many organized religious don't have central bodies that define policy for the religion.

    For instance, I know of some right wing religious schools that do teach evolution and others that do not within the same religion.

    So it's more nuanced.

  4. Knuth is a Christian and he does not believe in set theory (he is agnostic about it).

    I changed my mind about set theory after reading Shelah's logical dreams.

  5. The ancient library of Alexandria was destroyed by the Romans a christian and a muslim army. The Romans didn't care much about it but the other two armies thought that the scientific books in it were signful. All fanatics in all religions interfere in science as they have the arogant believe that they know everything about the world, its creation and the meaning of life in general, so who needs sciensts and their heretic theories?

    1. Pantelis, is your definition of religious fanatics simply those who "interfere in science" and identify with a religion?
      (If not, how do you make such a claim about ALL religious fanatics?)

    2. @Anonymous Pantelis Implies the opposite of your statement. I.E., All religious fanatics interfere in science (and NOT if you interfere => religious fanatic)

  6. I think there is a clear distinction between a believer and a fanatic. Many important people in history were true believers and religious persons, some of them where also scientists. On the other hand I am not aware of any fanatic who ever did any good to the world.

  7. A few thoughts inspired by the comments here

    1) There have also been non-religious barriers to science- the one that is best know is Lysenkoism

    THere are likely others.

    2) I used to think `Gee, I want to MEET one of these people who believe that abstract set theory is evil, and NOT for sophisticated reasons like the Banach-Tarski paradox' But alas, I have too often been burned- thinking that a conversation with someone who thinks something absurd will have SOMETHING enlightenting in it, but it does not (most common- papers that claim to resolve P vs NP).

  8. You would benefit from reading more on history of science.

    Christian churches were where many scholar-scientists worked. Many scientists were devote Christians. The current universities evolved from Christian schools. There are lots of myths about what happened at the time. It is a modern anti-religious myth that Church opposed Sun-centered system because it was against the Bible. They opposed it because it was against the teachings of Greek philosopher Aristotle, moreover the arguments were not very convincing, you might not have accepted Galileo's arguments if you lived at the time. The decline in scientific activity happen not when Christianity took over, it was centuries later. Claiming that Christianity was the reason for scientific decline in Europe cannot explain why scientific decline did not happen up until centuries after Christianity dominated Europe.

    Regarding Muslims, Muslim world were the center of world scientific activity from 800 AD to 1300 AD. The Europe coming out of dark ages has a lot to do with translation of science work by Muslims. Muslim scientists were very active during Islamic Golden Age, from mathematics to medicine to architecture to literature to philosophy. Up until 1700 AD our universities were still using Avicenna's book (980 AD -- 1037 AD) as their standard text.

    Blaming religion for every evil that has happened in the world is itself a dogmatic view not supported by the facts. It is like blaming liberalism and American democracy for dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    1. Mostly agree but disagree on one thing.

      AGREE that to single out religion is wrong. Any time that science is guided by non-science reasons this is bas science.
      The following have been asserted by a variety of reasons, some relgious, some not:
      Lysenkoism, denial of Evolution, Denial of global warming, anti-vaxers, anti-GMO, astrology, other superstitions.
      Some of the companies that off-shorted jobs to save money never did the calculations to see if it really would save money (and in some cases it didn't and they are moving back
      to the USA).

      And thats just science- certainy Nazism and Communism have been terrible forces in the 20th century and are not religious (at least not in the usual sense.)

      So where do I disagree?

      Galileo- Okay, lets say that at the time the arguments about the earth or the sun being at the center favored the earth. Fine. Lets have a debate about it, scientific papers, etc. To put Galileo under house arrest for what he believed about science is absurd and does impede progress. (Read the book on Infinteismals references in my original post.)

      Another thing that is not quite a disagreement but a thought- so the people pushing the bad science NOW and claiming its for Christian reasons they SHOUDL disgust YOU more than they disgust ME since they PROMOTE the myth that Religion is anti-science. Do they disgust you?

    2. I don't see much disagreement between us. Censorship never bodes well for progress. However the affair was more complicated than narrated. The heliocentric view was not banned before Galileo's trial, it was banned as a result of the trial. I see it as a fight between two groups of scholars, not much different from the fights in modern scientific community that leads to some views being shunned and defunded (fights in the theoretical physics community comes to mind). The consequences of defeat were harsher then than now, but punishments were generally harsher then. In ancient China which lacked any organized religion it was a common practice to not only behead people perceived as traitors but also to slaughter all members of their household and clan including children. Authors prefer clean narratives to messy ones. They like to present one clear cause for historical events whereas the reality is way more complicated.

      I would not use the word disgust. I view them as misguided people who believe that their faith depends on defending positions that their faith doesn't really depend on defending. Here are what I would ask them: what is the purpose of this endeavor of fitting science to literal reading of religious texts? Is it not a sign of lack of true faith that derives one to do so? Did Jesus spend his life arguing with people about the age of the world or did he spend his time asking people to be generous and kind and forgiving specially towards weak and poor and marginalized in their society and criticizing the religious leaders and their religious dogmas?