Theological Metaphors in Mathematics

Stanisław Krajewski 1
  • 1 University of Warsaw

Abstract

Examples of possible theological influences upon the development of mathematics are indicated. The best known connection can be found in the realm of infinite sets treated by us as known or graspable, which constitutes a divine-like approach. Also the move to treat infinite processes as if they were one finished object that can be identified with its limits is routine in mathematicians, but refers to seemingly super-human power. For centuries this was seen as wrong and even today some philosophers, for example Brian Rotman, talk critically about “theological mathematics”. Theological metaphors, like “God’s view”, are used even by contemporary mathematicians. While rarely appearing in official texts they are rather easily invoked in “the kitchen of mathematics”. There exist theories developing without the assumption of actual infinity the tools of classical mathematics needed for applications (For instance, Mycielski’s approach). Conclusion: mathematics could have developed in another way. Finally, several specific examples of historical situations are mentioned where, according to some authors, direct theological input into mathematics appeared: the possibility of the ritual genesis of arithmetic and geometry, the importance of the Indian religious background for the emergence of zero, the genesis of the theories of Cantor and Brouwer, the role of Name-worshipping for the research of the Moscow school of topology. Neither these examples nor the previous illustrations of theological metaphors provide a certain proof that religion or theology was directly influencing the development of mathematical ideas. They do suggest, however, common points and connections that merit further exploration.

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