George Boole at the intersection of science and faith
The research of the ‘father of pure mathematics’ was significantly motivated by his faith
The former home of George Boole in Cork. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
The famous mathematician George Boole (1815-1864) has been variously called “the father of pure mathematics” and “the father of the computer age”. The native of Lincoln in England was appointed the first professor of mathematics at University College Cork (then Queen’s College Cork) in 1849. UCC has arranged a programme of events (georgeboole.com) to commemorate Boole over the year leading up to the bicentenary of his birth in November 2015. Canon Mark Hocknull, chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral, gave a sermon called Science, Religion, Boole and Logic and Faith on December 8th, the anniversary of Boole’s death, at choral evensong at St Michael’s Church, Blackrock, Cork, where Boole is buried.
Boole’s primary insight was the idea that logical relations can be expressed symbolically in algebraic form, thus making it possible to draw logical deductions by algebraic calculations. Boole went on to explain the process of human thought in mathematical terms, and his magnum opus, The Laws of Thought, was written during his time at UCC.
Boole’s work was “blue skies” research, done without any prevision of particular practical applications the work might have. Practical applications were not realised until the digital computer was invented in the 1930s, when it was seen that Boole’s symbolic logic was eminently suitable for digital computer and digital circuit design. The principles of Boolean logic underpin the modern computer.
Boole was an intensely religious man and his mathematical research was significantly motivated by his faith. He had a spiritual experience as a teenager, which he interpreted as a divine call to explain and elucidate the mathematical laws of thought.
It is widely assumed that science and Christianity are necessarily at war with one another; that Christianity, operating on “blind” faith, is losing the battle; and that science, relying on objective evidence, will soon win out entirely. In my opinion this assumption is mistaken.
Science and religion have distinctly different functions, and, so long as each sticks to its last, there is no need for conflict between them.
The function of science is to provide natural explanations for the natural world; to answer “how” questions. But there is much of importance that lies beyond the competence of science, such as ethics and values. Religion’s job is to explain the significance of the bigger picture – to answer “why” questions, such as “why are we here?” Science and religion can therefore be partners in the search for truth because, if we are to understand the whole picture, we need to know both the “how” and the “why” of it.
Mark Hocknull pointed out that faith cannot be used to sharply distinguish science from Christianity, because science also relies on faith. The biggest act of faith made by science is the assumption that the world is comprehensible. This assumption, without which science would not even be possible, cannot be proven: we just have to accept it. The faith element involved here was acknowledged by Albert Einstein, who said: “The only incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible”.
Thoughtful Christian faith, motivated significantly by rational examination of the world, believes that the big picture is held together by an infinite being (God), although the mechanism through which this might work is not fully understood.
But, as Canon Hocknull pointed out, it is not unusual, even in science, to commit to what seems to be the case even when a full explanation is lacking. He pointed to Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who believed that he understood how life evolved even though he had no genetic understanding of how evolution worked. Such genetic understanding did not come until the 20th century. Nevertheless, Darwin had faith that his theory was correct.
Canon Hocknull proposes that the faith of the thoughtful Christian, like Darwin’s faith, is no blind leap into the dark, but a confident leap into the light of fuller understanding.
A final thought. Mathematics is the language of science, the language that makes the natural world understandable. Yet, amazingly, Science Foundation Ireland, the body that funds Irish research, has stopped funding mathematics because it believes such work cannot reliably lead to early economic payback. Apparently SFI has never heard of George Boole and the digital computer.
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC. understandingscience.ucc.ie