Only God Knows


Robert Bolger reviews Nathan Schneider's God in Proof : The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet, in the LA Review of Books:

In a culture that worships scientific progress, we often act as if acquiring faith is something of an intellectual transaction: the proof is presented, we process it rationally, and, voilà, belief sprouts forth from the fertile ground of a well-functioning mind. As Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, philosophers “constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the way science does.” This, for better or worse, has been the fate of the proofs for God’s existence. We aren’t usually drawn to the truths of science because we fear death; science is too hard-nosed and rigorous for such subjectivity. “Scientific” proofs for faith, then, are taken to be at their finest when they are separated from the whims, fears, and desires of human existence. Nothing less than theintellect’s best work is acceptable if our faith is to be given recognition in a culture that tends toward worshiping at the altar of science.

In his recent book, God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet, Nathan Schneider recognizes the strangeness of the proofs for faith, which are ripped from human life:

The proofs show up in textbook after textbook, torn away from the flesh from which they came. They’re taught, argued about, and forgotten, sometimes saving a person’s particular faith, sometimes eroding it, and usually neither. There’s no surer way of knowing than proof, by definition, and it’s hard to imagine any more enticing knowledge than that of a God. Still, the world goes on in disagreement, in belief and unbelieving, with so many forms of each.

This is not an insignificant point. If proofs for God don’t work like “proofs” in general do, then they are either not proofs at all or function in a really unique, even queer way. It is the latter suggestion that God in Proof seeks to present and defend. In a sense, the book offers a “grammar” of proofs; that is, a way of showing their meaning without diminishing their importance.God in Proof aims at bringing proofs back home and covering their nakedness with the garb of human flesh. Schneider breathes life back into proofs, the life they once had in the heady days before “knowledge” became synonymous with “scientific knowledge.”

More here.