Creationism, geology, and a scientist’s soul
Posted by metaphorical on 14 February 2007
At first, I thought Marcus Ross was an idiot and the University of Rhode Island was wrong to grant his Ph.D. in geosciences. But then I started to think about my mathematical logic professor, Andrzej Mostowski, and I’m not entirely sure.
As described the other day in a NY Times article (“A creationist takes a place in the world of fossils,” reprinted in the International Herald Tribune here):
Ross is hardly a conventional paleontologist. He is a “young-Earth creationist.” He believes that the Bible is a literally true account of the creation of the universe and that the Earth is at most 10,000 years old.
For him, Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young-Earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”
A friend of mine believes this to be possible to do, comparing it to believing “both Euclidian and non-Euclidean geometries as valid in their own contexts.”
Of course, on the face of it the paradigm talk is absurd, and the comparison to geometry inapt. Plenty of people, such as another friend, a retired geology professor in Connecticut, believe the Bible and contemporary ideas of evolution and geologic history to be true, but they believe the Bible to be allegorically true, or true in principle, but not literally. To say you are a “young-Earth creationist” and the Earth is at most 10,000 years old is to believe that the Bible is literally true. And if the Bible is literally true, it’s not just one of several paradigms in the sense of alternate geometries, it’s true, as in a-man-is-on-trial-for-murder-and-you-as-a-witness-have-to-tell-the-truth true.
So really, for Ross only the paleontological paradigm is a paradigm, something that can be supposed for the sake of argument to be true, in the same way that when Hilbert came along with non-Euclidean geometries at the turn of the 20th century, everyone still believed Euclidean geometry to be true-true, while Hilbert spaces were “interesting” and “valid,” meaning self-consistent and internally coherent.
And so I thought the paradigm talk to be bullshit, and a smokescreen, and the university to be complicit and culpable.
But then I remembered Mostowski. When I met him, it was the summer of 1973, between my freshman and sophomore years of college. For some reason I had got it into my head to spend the summer at Berkeley. Mostowski was teaching a math logic class, which I was utterly unprepared for, even more than I knew beforehand. I also signed up for an epistemology class, which I wasn’t worried about it, but the math class had me terrified as well as excited.
I knew that set theory, or “abstract algebra” as it was called at my school, was absolutely required for the class, but in my program it was taken in the first semester of the sophmore year; I was already enrolled in it for the following fall semester. Nevertheless I bought the textbook that was used in that spring and read it in the weeks before Berkeley’s summer term began, hoping for the best. 1973 was still, culturally, the summer of love, for me at least. The day before seeing California for the first time it occurred to me that everyone at Berkeley would have a pony tail and I told my stepmother to cut mine off.
The first day, I figured out I was the lone freshman in the whole class, and when Mostowski asked if any in the class hadn’t had topology, only a few of us raised our hands. I went to see him in his office. He listened patiently and then told me that he would explain all the topology concepts as he used them, and topology wasn’t very hard anyway. I realized almost instantly that he was one of the kindest, clearest men I would ever meet, and I was suddenly filled with confidence that he would make those explanations and I would understand them. I also realized, somehow, without seeing the numbers on his arm, that he had been in a Nazi concentration camp. It didn’t surprise me, even though I knew little of his background.
Mostowski was the youngest of the great Polish logicians, the greatest school of mathematicians of the early 20th century. As a group they took the unfinished science of mathematical logic, as formed by Frege and Russell and Whitehead and Hilbert and others, and turned it into a mature branch of mathematics. One of their number, Tarski, came up with a functional definition of truth that’s still used today. He also worked with von Neumann on applications of these math subjects to physics. The Polish logicians broadened the connections between logic and algebra to include geometry and topology, which was another branch they contributed to greatly. Tarski’s mentor, Stanislaw Lesniewski, invented probability logics, about which I had written a term paper in the spring—which is how I first discovered the Polish logicians.
As it turned out, in 1944 Mostowski was deported, assigned to a concentration camp, and had a number tattooed on his arm, but two nurses helped him escape back to Poland, where he hid till the end of the war.
Rather than hardening his heart, Mostowski’s was as open as an angel’s wings.
Early on in our class, he started talking about the Intuitionists. This was a school of mathematicians that believed in unbounded sets but didn’t, strictly speaking, believe in infinities. Intuitionism is a form of constructivism, in which a mathematical entity can be said to exist only if it can be constructed, so among other things, intuitionists don’t believe in negative proofs. (A negative proof is one in which a theorem can be proven by first supposing it is false and then deriving a contradiction.)
Mostowski wasn’t himself an intuitionist but he was extremely concerned that some of his students might be—even if they didn’t know that about themselves yet. So he carefully distinguished all proofs as being ones that intuitionists couldn’t accept from ones that everyone could. He would sketch out alternative, constructivist proofs, whenever possible. He tried at all times not to, as he put it, crush the intuitionist student’s soul. I will always think of him as a kind of mathematical bodhisattva.
When I think of Mostowski, the Euclidian vs. nonEuclidean comparison to Marcus Ross doesn’t seem so inapt. Mostowski wasn’t an intuitionist and yet was prepared to accept it as true for his students, and not merely as some abstruse theory bearing no relation to reality. Indeed, the intuitionists rather aggressively make existence claims for the entities their theorems describe; they feel entitled to do so by their constructivist methodology.
In the end, I still think very little of Marcus Ross. I don’t trust his motives—I think he will take his degree and wield it as a credential in the creationist war against science, and, indirectly, the university that awarded it to him in good faith. I also think any Bible literalist wanders dangerously on sad and shaky ground, lost to himself intellectually and ethically, because fundamental beliefs about science, reality, and morality are too important to be grounded in the circular logic of believing the Bible is the word of God because God, in the Bible, says it is.
In the end, though, I have only sympathy for the University of Rhode Island. Withholding a degree from someone it accepted into a program, even when the person has fulfilled all the requirements of the program, would be troubling. Perhaps it hopes that Ross will wake up one day and be freed of promises he made to his evangelical family when he was, surely, too young to know any better. Perhaps it took pity on a soul that must be, intellectually, in torment, and decided, like Mostowski, not to be the one to crush it.