Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition of America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. Here we talk about math and activism, and barriers.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: One of the implicitly inevitable and quietly difficult experiences in the world of activism and, probably, in professional mathematics comes from the quiet suffering of pursuing what seems right in spite of the pushback from special interests, in activism, or from cognitive limitations against the hardness of the problem, in professional mathematics.
Any conjecture as to general emotional advice to overcome the unavoidable barriers in either case? Any relatable experiences as to how both contact points relate to one another in some internal way?
Herb Silverman: First about mathematics, which differs significantly from the world of activism. I’m living proof that you don’t have to be a genius to be a mathematician. Most mathematicians, myself included, specialize in a small branch of mathematics because the field of mathematics is too big to be able to do research in more than one field. By “research” I mean discovering something new in a field that is deemed worthy of publication in a refereed journal. My specialty is known as complex geometric function theory.
Many mathematicians think their area of research is of utmost importance. The same is true in most academic disciplines. This is rarely the case. I was under no illusion that the world would benefit from my research. I enjoyed it, though, and was paid as a professor to do research, in addition to teaching.
While mathematicians often gain insights by discussing problems and concepts with one another, they usually solve problems alone. Now this is important both in mathematics and in life: “belief” is not the same as “proof.” Some beliefs are eventually shown to be false. Weeks of labor might show a particular approach can’t possibly solve the problem you are working on, which might even be false, and a reformulation is needed. Proofs of difficult theorems are usually a combination of insight and luck, along with hours of hard work.
Perhaps my (questionable) claim to mathematical fame is that I published joint papers with someone whose former thesis student was once the most famous mathematician in this country—Ted Kaczynski, discovered in 1996 to be the Unabomber. (Kaczynski was a much better mathematician than I am, but a much worse human being). When Kaczynski was caught, a slightly paranoid math colleague became unnecessarily concerned that there might be an anti-mathematician backlash. It helped that nobody could think of other mathematicians who were guilty of anything more than eccentric behavior.
As I approached retirement, my passion for mathematics began to wane as my passion for secular causes continued to grow. Unlike with mathematics, working on secular causes is by no means a solitary endeavor. It requires lots of cooperation. That’s why I helped form the Secular Coalition for America, which now has 19 national member organizations covering the full spectrum of atheists and humanists. While its main focus is on lobbying in our nation’s capital, it also works to increase the visibility of and respect for nontheistic viewpoints. Unlike with my mathematical research, I think my work on secular causes is helping to improve our culture.
In terms of a relationship between mathematics and secular causes, I acknowledge that a small minority of mathematicians and scientists may believe in miracles, but they recognize them as (by definition) devoid of scientific evidence. They cringe whenever anyone denigrates evolution as “just a theory.” From Darwin on, countless peer-reviewed scientific papers have supported evolution. And mathematicians and scientists don’t use the word theory the way laymen do in casual conversation, as in “I have a theory that the moon is made of green cheese.” This ludicrous statement is a hypothesis, not a scientific theory, and easily dismissed. Scientists elevate a hypothesis to a theory only after using rules of procedure to analyze, predict, or otherwise explain specific phenomena.
As mentioned above, my area of mathematical research was complex geometric function theory. Among the theories of evolution, gravity, and geometric functions, only evolution is sometimes maligned. All three theories are well established, yet incomplete. The religious right doesn’t denigrate geometric function theory because it has no known implications to a biblical worldview. Not so with the theory of evolution.
The religious right has waged a long and somewhat successful media
campaign to persuade the public that the theory of evolution is both
scientifically and morally flawed, and should be taught alongside so-called
scientific creationism. Their manta is that we should “teach the controversy.” But the “controversy” is religious and political, not scientific. Creationism should no more be taught as
an alternative to the theory of evolution by natural selection than “stork
theory” should be taught as an alternative to sexual reproduction. Creationism
is an alternative to Zeus or Krishna, not Darwin.
Some atheists and scientifically minded theists have joined forces to promote science and educate communities about evolution. Though both sides accept the theory of evolution, they dispute its implications. Christian evolutionists try to show the compatibility of evolution and Christianity, fearing that those who are forced to choose will dismiss evolution. Atheists, on the other hand, see evolution as incompatible with the idea that humans are a special creation by a supernatural being. The more we know about evolution, the more it becomes clear that living things, including humans, come about through a natural process, with no indication of, or need for, a benevolent creator.
Over the years, I’ve participated in many debates with theists about the existence of God, when I’m more likely to bring in science than mathematics. So, I’ll close with an exception.
One of the many arguments for God’s existence is that objective morality can come only from God. Countless articles have been written about the meaning of morality, whether it’s objective or subjective, and whether it’s made by God or humans. In response, I won’t give a philosophical discourse, but I will pose a mathematical hypothesis.
There are essentially two kinds of mathematical proofs: constructive and existential. Here’s a constructive proof that between any two numbers there’s another number. We construct the number by taking the average of the two. So a number between 7 and 8 is 7.5. Around 300 BCE, Euclid proved that there are infinitely many prime numbers (a number whose only divisors are 1 and itself). His proof was existential in that it didn’t furnish us with a method to actually construct such an infinite list. We only know in theory that such a list must exist.
It’s not important to understand Euclid’s proof, which relies on the unique factorization of prime numbers, just that it provides a useful analogy for morality. Suppose we could carefully define “morality,” along with a set of axioms on which we all agree. Then we might, and I stress might, be able to show that there must be some sort of objective morality. But it would most certainly be an existential proof, not a constructive proof. In other words, it would be a theoretical objective morality and not one that we could apply to our daily lives.
People have always promoted different constructive moralities that contradict one another, handed down by various gods or religious authorities, all purportedly having the objective Truth with a capital “T.” And deviations from the Truth have often had dire consequences for heretics. Such inflexibility and certainty represent for me the worst form of morality.
Bottom line for me: Mathematics is objective because its conclusions may be logically deduced from its premises. Religion is subjective, and can’t be proved (though science has often disproved religious claims).
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Herb.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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