Why math can’t predict the extinction of religion, or rainfall
Math cannot predict the extinction of religion any more than it can predict when and where the next rain drop will fall.
We are right to be indignant when researchers use mathematics improperly to assume they can predict such things as is the case in this research paper about religion being driven to extinction. It is possible for academics throw a bunch of Greek letters at an audience with the sole purpose of intimidating them to accept the premise because they don’t think people are smart enough to figure out what they really mean. Some people are too happy to lazily accept the conclusion because it’s what they want to believe.
A number of Catholic writers picked this up. I saw Christopher’s post on it at Christopher’s Apologies and he and his wife point out that the researchers had a predetermined conclusion. Stuart at Theology in the News mentioned it and linked to Joe Carter’s article via Rod Dreher at First Things. He points out that the conclusion can be turned on it’s head. If religion can become extinct, then it can also become 100% pervasive.
I want to add to these astute comments a broader explanation about why mathematics cannot prove such things so that when this stuff pops up, it can properly be smacked down. It’s not only offensive, it’s potentially dangerous. Science has become the marketing wrap for ideas in secular culture. My husband has advanced degrees in applied mathematics and numerical theory and he has worked in the financial industry for over 25 years. He spends his life modelling human behavior and trying to predict what people will do, but not so he can publish papers with predetermined conclusions funded by people with agendas. In his field, he has to be objectively right or people become unemployed, including him. He knows very fundamentally what people sometimes try to get us to deny:
Humans and natural systems are inherently unpredictable.
Any prudent, rational, responsible and honest researcher must keep this truth before them at all times because mathematical models can be manipulated to deliver any outcome one wants to make. If the foundational assumptions are wrong, the conclusion will be unreliable…or, if done intentionally, the conclusion will be what you want it to be. That’s why in the scientific method forming the hypothesis is so critical.
For example, it’s rather straightforward to design an experiment to correlate violent death with eating french fries, and then warn people to never eat them again. However we all know instinctively that any such model would be utterly incapable of predicting what will happen the next time you eat a french fry. You don’t have to be able to rip through formulas to know it. The math in the correlation may be perfectly correct, but the hypothesis is flawed. Here’s one sentence to remember whenever any research references a mathematical model.
Models that explain past behavior can only reliably predict future behavior if the component parts 1) behave according to the laws of physics, and 2) the conditions can be controlled.
Anyone who’s baked more than a few loaves of bread knows this from experience. You more or less know what will happen if you cut the quantity of an ingredient in half, and all other things being equal, it’ll happen that way every time. In this case both rules apply. Food follows the laws of physics and the conditions for cooking can be controlled.
Now consider rain. In a parking lot it would be possible to mathematically model why all the raindrops hit the ground when and where they did during the last shower. It would be a massive thing to model, but it could be done. This is somewhat how weathermen predict the weather, but we all know from experience that they are often wrong about the prediction. Why? Because there are endless factors we cannot account for that cause rain to fall or not fall. Back to the parking lot, there are almost endless factors that affect when and where a single raindrop will hit the ground. This is why predicting where the rain drop will fall, even if you have a good model about the past, is utterly impossible. Water molecules follow the laws of physics, but the conditions for rain fall cannot be controlled.
To know scientifically why the rain drop hit when and where it did, one would literally need to ask a series of “what caused this” questions all the way back to the beginning of time and space. This is what St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Aristotelian epistemology, meant by God being the “first cause” of all things.
Now consider human behavior. Humans are not just physical, like the water molecules in a rain drop predictably affected by the movement of other molecules in the environment. Humans are spiritual, and they have free will. It should be glaringly obvious by now why it is impossible to predict human behavior, no matter how mathematically savvy any model that explains the past may appear.
Karl Marx based his “cultural materialism” on the idea that humans were objects that followed physical laws and he constructed social systems with controlled conditions. Communism didn’t work precisely because people denied that humans are spiritual. Let that sink in.
To repeat, humans and natural systems are inherently unpredictable. If it really and truly were possible to model and predict human behavior…the stock market would not exist, insurance companies would not be necessary and raising kids would be like turning on your computer. And George Soros would be mowing my lawn.
When you consider the reality of our universe, math and science properly viewed direct us to the existence of God Almighty. When people deny that, the utilitarian outcomes can be destructive. Maybe this paper about religion becoming extinct doesn’t seem so offensive as to deserve accusations of dishonesty or social engineering, but to people who devote their lives to math, science, and first and foremost to family and God, the paper deserves an honest light of exposure. Any perversion of math and science to promote an agenda deserves a righteous smack down. If anyone can lay claim to math and science, it’s the faithful believer who does so in humility.