Fundamentalist math: another outtake from the Science Cabaret

People are always inventing new ways to tell if someone is possessed by the devil. One way is to catch a grasshopper. We have a lot of them in Kansas. Catch one and count the legs. You count six? It says right there in the Bible that they only have four. Satan is a sneaky guy, always making your eyes play tricks on you. Six legs? Hah. Those huge dinosaur fossils? They’re not really there.

But these methods aren’t foolproof. When somebody looks at a grasshopper and counts six legs, maybe he’s just forgotten his reading glasses.

Counting legs requires some basic skills in math, which people generally learn in school, but a lot of fundamentalist Christians have decided to home-school their kids so they won’t learn a lot of liberal nonsense. In fact, some of these households promote a sort of Neo-fundamentalist version of creation which attempts to reconcile scientific discoveries with the Bible. Doing so requires an alternative form of math.

God obviously counts differently than human beings. For one thing, He really does know what number lies at the end of infinity. Our minds aren’t big enough. Think of the largest number you possibly can, you can still add 1 to it. Our brains just about get there, but we always fall a few numbers short.

God’s infinite Powers also give him the ability to bend time, and to change numbers to mean different numbers. One day a six will mean six, another day it will be 2πr.

Those seven days in the book of Genesis? Everything works out fine if each of those days lasted 500 million years. Years, on the other hand, were a lot shorter in Biblical times. Methuselah lived for 969 years? Without antibiotics? Come on. It’s obvious: One year for Methuselah was ten of ours. The dimensions of Noah’s ark? Just raise all those numbers to a higher power. An ark capable of holding all the species on Earth would have to be roughly the size of Texas.

So God counts things differently than people. Maybe what is 1 grasshopper leg for us is .6666 grasshopper legs for God.

In Kansas people use the grasshopper test to see if you’re possessed by the Devil. But in ancient times there were other tests. During the Middle Ages, for instance, there was the joke test.

The joke test arose from a huge theological debate. It probably started in a bar, as most of these things do. When people have one too many, or ten too many (another example of alternative counting systems), they get philosophical. Somebody says, I wonder if God has a sense of humor?

Back in the Middle Ages you couldn’t just let a comment like that go; you had to look into it. The debate over this issue became an awfully big deal. One faction said, God can’t have a sense of humor because what would he laugh at? He created EVERYTHING, and made it PERFECT. So he couldn’t have created something just to laugh at.

In the Medieval period they obviously didn’t know about the platypus. If Europeans had the platypus, which is obviously ridiculous, they would have known that God has a sense of humor. Why else would You create something that odd?

One faction of Christians had no sense of humor at all and so they decided that God couldn’t have one, either. That meant humor must have been invented by the devil, making it perfect material for a test. If somebody told a joke, you had grounds for burning them at the stake. Which is pretty funny if you think about it. Actually, it’s not funny. It’s ironic. Can God have a sense of irony? I’m not really asking. I don’t want to start something here, particularly if it will lead to a pile of wood and a book of matches.

Eventually the Middle Ages were over. People could finally giggle in public again, which required a new test to detect the presence of Satan. Some brilliant church committee came up with the water dunking test. If people suspected you of being a witch, they tied you to a board and dunked you in the river. After about two or three hours they brought you back up. If you survived they knew, Yup, that’s a witch. If you died… well, experiments sometimes produce negative results. But they’re hard to publish, so people kept using the method for a long time.

That test still exists, by the way, but today we call it the Guantanamo test.

The Renaissance saw the beginnings of modern science, which was pure atheism, so it provided lots of material for new tests. They took you out in the middle of a field and made you look at the sun. Tell us, they’d say, does the Sun revolve around the Earth or the Earth around the sun?

Since your life is at stake, it occurs to you that this might be a trick question. So you stall for time. You say, It depends – are we on Daylight Savings Time? In the process you become blind, but you don’t need eyes anyway. They just trick you all the time.

Even fundamentalist math won’t help you answer questions about planetary motion. That topic belongs to the domains of physics, and geometry, and so we’ll save it for another time.

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I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example

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