God, Mathematics, and Beauty

I’ve wondered recently about beauty. Why are some things beautiful and other things aren’t? Why is it that a thing can be beautiful to one person, but hideous to another? Why is it that beauty often defies definition, yet we know exactly what it means? How come immaterial things can be beautiful?

One oft-cited immaterial bearer of beauty is mathematics. Physicists and mathematicians reportedly wept over the beauty of Einstein’s proofs. Paul Erdős, the late mathematician, has said, “Why are numbers beautiful? It’s like asking why Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is beautiful. If you don’t see why, someone can’t tell you. I know numbers are beautiful. If they aren’t beautiful, nothing is.”

The sublime beauty of mathematics is lost on those of us who have not paid the high price of admission to join the elite fraternity that includes men like Isaac Newton, John Nash, and countless others you’ve never heard of. This makes me sad, because it doesn’t take long before mathematicians turn into theologians when they behold the elegance of the way numbers relate to one another.

Exhibit A: Euler’s Identity. It is simply this: eiπ+1=0. Impressed? Are you slack-jawed at the astonishing beauty of this equation? Few people are, but blessed are those who “get it,” I say. A mathematics professor at MIT, an atheist, has said of Euler’s Identity, “There is no God, but if there were, this formula would be proof of his existence.” I wish I could appreciate that. I feel like I’m missing out.

Erdős, also an atheist, said, “God may not play dice with the universe, but something strange is going on with the prime numbers.” Here’s what he means: look at this picture of the prime numbers, plotted graphically. The white dots are primes; the black dots are non-primes. Notice a pattern? Click the image to see all the primes from 1 to 1,299,827 plotted like this.

Prime Numbers

Why should prime numbers line up like this? When numbers—which are uncreated and necessary (in the sense of “it could not be otherwise”)—exhibit an aesthetic like this, I can understand why mathematicians turn into theologians. Galileo reportedly claimed that “mathematics is the language with which God wrote the universe.”

I have a faint idea of why he might say such a thing. But I daresay a musician could say the same thing about his art; C.S. Lewis had Aslan sing Narnia into existence. Similar claims could be advanced by a programmer or a painter or any manner of craftsman, I suppose. Whatever form beauty takes for a person, it stirs within the soul a desire for the One who possesses beauty without limit.

(Before we leave Galileo, let me digress from mathematics into astronomy to present Spiral Galaxy IC342. As @BadAstronomer put it, “If that doesn’t impress you, close this window, shut down your computer, go find a nice hole in the ground and lie down. You have no pulse.” And Yuri Gagarin went up there and claimed he didn’t see God. Like Ellie Arroway said in Contact, “They should have sent a poet.”)

Spiral Galaxy IC342

Spiral Galaxy IC342

In the end, I think beauty is an apologetic for God’s existence, a signal of transcendence that leads us home. As Lewis reasoned, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” We desire beauty and we never tire of it; we never have our fill. Our appetite for beauty is never satisfied in this world, so the most probable explanation is that the beauty we desire resides elsewhere.

Augustine knew where to find it: “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

See also: God by the Numbers

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One Response to God, Mathematics, and Beauty

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