Dr. Wilson has been thinking long and hard about how the mathematical structure of the world points towards God's existence and beauty. in this interview, he explains how his understanding of math drives him to worship God more deeply and how math should motivate Christians to care about doing good in the world. And for fun, he even offers some reflections on the movie Moneyball and how statistics can help in baseball.
More About Our Guest
Jason Wilson oversees the statistics service courses in the Department of Math and Computer Science at Biola University. Giving students a vision of how the natural laws of the world described by mathematics reflect the nature of God (Romans 1:20), and how that nature empowers them to live for Him (2 Peter 1:4) is a theme of Wilson’s courses. He also enjoys baseball statistics and debunking books such as The Bible Code.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: And I'm your cohost Scott Rae, the dean of the faculty, professor of Christian ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology, here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: Before we dive in today's conversation, we want to just remind you that the “Think Biblically” podcast is made possible with the support of Talbot School of Theology. We would love to have you consider joining us to be trained how to study Scripture, experience spiritual transformation and bring God's truth to a world in need.
Now, today's guest is from Biola University. When we get a chance, we really like to highlight our faculty, just the people they are and the excellent work that they are doing.
Jason Wilson is the chair of mathematics and computer science. Now I know right away you're thinking, instantly in the back of your mind if you're listening is, "Math. Is that what we're going to talk about on the podcast today?"
Now, Jason, I'm probably giving you a hard time because my wife is a high school math teacher, so she majored in math in college, and the moment she tells someone she teaches math, there's this obligation for somebody to tell her how far they made it in math, and that they try to find it interesting but didn't really enjoy math class. For some reason, they have to tell her that. Why do you love math? Where does that come from in your life and experience?
Jason Wilson: Well, Sean, there's a lot of things that I could say with that, but recently, the number one thing that I would just say is that in math I see how the world is so profoundly ordered and structured, and the mathematics that we do and we use that touches so much of our technology today, is really a pointer to something beyond. What is its origin? Where does it come from? And that points us right to God. And so just more and more I see that greater sense of what it's coming from, and it helps me to worship him, actually, somewhat directly.
Sean McDowell: Well, that's amazing. You don't often hear people talk about how math leads them into worshiping God. That's awesome that that's your experience. We want to get into some of that, but I noticed in your bio, you talk about how you are into baseball statistics. Have you seen the movie Moneyball, where they really start talking about how applying statistics and analytics to the game of baseball, and how it's really transformed — we see it in basketball, see it in football — how helpful really are statistics in baseball success?
Jason Wilson: Yeah, I have seen Moneyball, and it did have a big effect on the baseball world, and actually, I've come to experience some of that effects through my research.
When you think about statistics, I would categorize two different aspects of statistics. One, if you just pop up a app and look at the latest stats on how the pitchers are doing, what their win-loss records are for the teams and so on, those kind of stats have been with us a long time and are used in other sports. There's a newer thing called sabermetrics, which is a deeper dive into the more technical information, which would be things like the trajectory of the pitches, the exit velocity of the ball off of the bat, and this kinds of information.
Now, baseball is the sport that's been leading the way in that kind of study, and I've done some of that with my own quality of pitch research. And so baseball, it turns out, is uniquely positioned for that kind of analysis because it has this discretized nature. Everything starts with a pitch, then it goes to the batter and then the batter hits, and then you have gameplay, and then it stops. And then it repeats. Because of that structure, there's a certain amenability.
There's attempts made to apply it into basketball and football and other things, but it's a lot more dynamic, at least, I guess, say like with basketball, where you just have this free-flowing action, the players moving around. Football, you do have a bit of a restart, but it's not quite as fixed. But that's where the analytics is going these days.
Scott Rae: And I was hoping the analytics could have helped my jump shot.
Sean McDowell: It's going to take a lot more than analytics.
Scott Rae: Yeah, a long time ago. Hey, I was actually looking forward to talking about differential equations and advanced calculus and ...
Sean McDowell: There you go.
Scott Rae: ... things like that. I was hope we'd get into that. But Jason, which came first, your interest in math or your commitment to Christ as a believer?
Jason Wilson: Yeah, that's a good question. I actually attended Biola as an undergrad. I came here in 1992. And coming at the end of my high school time, had a rocky upbringing, and I was really torn between, “Hmm, I hear this Christian story in church, but I understand that they know how the world was created and kind of got it figured out from my high school classes, a secular humanist public high school upbringing. And I'd really like to sort that out in college.”
And so I came with questions in mind. So, I had some nominal faith, got into Biola, and came in as a math major. I felt led to teach, and once I got to Biola, the Lord answered my questions about faith, not in a dramatic way, but just the totality of the experience with the real authentic community.
At the same time, I was exposed through professors at Biola having an integrative approach to seeing how the infinity that we talked about in math points to God, and there's some profound stuff there. The beauty in math, beauty like I had never seen or thought of before. I just thought math was pretty cool, and I kind of attracted to it just intellectually. And so, there was really a bit of a convergence I think of those two things in my story.
Scott Rae: So, would it be fair to say that studying math had a pretty significant influence on your own spiritual journey?
Jason Wilson: I think that it wasn't heavily conscious, and I wrestled with, do I want to study math, or do I want to study Bible and become a Bible major? And I weighed the two out, and I almost chucked the math major, actually. And I wound up getting a double degree, but there was a little bit of resentment about math because it pulled me from studying the word at that time.
Sean McDowell: Interesting.
Scott Rae: Yeah. It's quite a dichotomy. Of course, we would argue is an unnecessary one.
Jason Wilson: Indeed.
Scott Rae: Now, most people think of math as this totally objective, it just is what it is. How do you do Christian faith and mathematics integration? Would you say there's a distinctly Christian approach to mathematics? I think the idea for a lot of people that you would integrate faith with mathematics, and you think, "Well, how would you do that? How have you done that?"
Jason Wilson: Yeah. As far as the integration part, it depends on which context I'm in. If I'm in a secular context, for example, I've taught in SAT prep contexts, so high school students, and I would write on the board a question, "Do you believe in numbers?" So they walk into the room and they're just thinking about that question.
And then I'll ask them, and invariably most of the students say, "Well, yeah, yeah. We believe in numbers. That's what we're doing, right?"
Well, as soon as you believe in numbers, then you're believing in this abstract thing that has no material substance. And you're already pretty much believing in an absolute truth. And so, there's this path that you can just go right there. If it's something with a service class, where this is a group of students that are here, maybe intro to prob and stats or biostatistics or something, then what I like to do with them is give passages, and like I'll throw out Romans 1:20. It's a common theme verse for my classes. It says, "Since the creation of the world, God's invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen through what has been made so that they are without excuse."
Okay. Invisible nature, eternal power. Okay. These again are things that we don't see, but yet they're there. And those are manifested, not only in the physical world through the sciences, but in this abstract world of the math, that we're doing math and it works. And that again points to this God that has this invisible nature.
So, if I go to a course for my math majors, I like to give them some readings, and so we'll give them some essays. And so we just start to go deeper into some different topics. And then we'll have some class discussions.
Sean McDowell: You mentioned at the beginning that understanding math drives you to worship God. Now, could you unpack this a little bit for me? Now, on one sense, is that like while you're worshiping, you're thinking of the quadratic equation or math, or is it that you understand the structure in the world, and it drives you to realize how big and grand and infinite God is? What is it about math that connects to worship for you?
Jason Wilson: I'd like to bring that back to the Romans 1:20 again, in that, God is omnipresent, right? He's always there. And he's always there, I think, in multiple senses. And so thinking about math helps me have another sense in which he's there. It's like there's these divine fingerprints on the world. And so even just looking around the room with the technologies here, I'm thinking about the natural law that's there in order for all these things to be working out with the microphones and the sound waves and all this kind of stuff.
And if I think about maybe some more abstract mathematics, you mentioned the quadratic equation, or any mathematical model that we might put together, a spreadsheet that a person might be using at work and calculating numbers off of that, that has a profound order. And when you do that, you're going to get a certain result. And that result teaches you something about the world. And God made the world that way. It could have been a different way, but it's not. And so that again, points to a designer in my mind. And so I just keep seeing that design lurking in the background.
Sean McDowell: That's awesome. Now, I think you've maybe shared some of these already, but are there any other aha moments in your whole journey of studying math, where you're just studying a certain, again, an equation, or something within the math world, where you stopped and just had that moment of like, oh my goodness, the existence of an infinite points towards God who's infinite, or order points towards there being a God who's orderly? Are there any other aha moments in math that just caught you, that either want to make you worship or pause and just reflect upon, wow, this world is unbelievable?
Jason Wilson: In that undergrad period that I was talking to you about, I had an aspiration to have an experience like Kepler or Newton or these scientific revolution era scientists. They were doing their work out of a motivation to bring glory to God and discover more about God. And though I aspired for it, I don't feel like I really attained to that level of experience.
At a later time, I came to teach at Biola in 2008 and was thinking about these kinds of things. And there was a time when I was sitting on my in-laws' sofa, and I was pondering the bell curve — very famous mathematical model used in statistics. And I just had this experience where for that particular thing, I was contemplating just how beautiful it was and why is it beautiful? Why do many statisticians consider it beautiful?
And I just saw this realization between the x-axis on the curve, if you can just imagine that the bottom of that curve, it literally goes off infinitely, both to the left and to the right. But the area under the curve, it's one. That's kind of a weird thing, that you have an area that's finite, it's area of one, yet the object itself, it has an infinite length.
So there's a certain profundity there, and there's a paradox actually contained in just that, this infinite finite coming together. And that caused me to just think about this whole path of these analogies in mathematics to spiritual things. And so there was a pivotal thought point there.
Scott Rae: Jason, let me take this in a little different direction. You made reference a couple of minutes ago when we first started talking about the connection between beauty and mathematics. Could you unpack that a little bit more for us, because I think probably for most of our listeners, that connection probably isn't particularly obvious? So, what's that about?
Jason Wilson: Interesting. If you were to read in a lot of mathematical literature, you will find mathematicians using language like, “This is beautiful” and “That proof is elegant.” And, “This equation, it captures this great balance between simplicity and complexity.” And, “This proof is very concise and elegant.” You'll just find that language used all over the place, and you can have an equation that maybe is really ugly. You can perform certain simplifications and then it becomes simpler up to the point where it's very elegant. And when you look at its parts, each of those represents a particular thing, and we all have this sense that you get things into these beautiful forms.
And so we're just accustomed to working with that, thinking of that all the time. In fact, mathematicians will write that the beauty of some of these different properties of beauty sometimes guides the research. Like, "That just seemed like a nasty path to go down, so I chose this simpler, more elegant one, and then the result came." You'll also hear that language used in scientific theories as they're trying to form them, but of course they wind up getting formed in the language of mathematics.
Sean McDowell: Do you have any thoughts on why that is? Is it just because God is good and he's true and beautiful and wants us to look for beauty in the world? Why do you think there's this connection between beauty and between a mathematical, objective truth?
Jason Wilson: Yeah. For me, the reason that I think it is, is because the mathematics, it's originating in God's nature. And so he is beautiful. And so it's stemming back to the one who is beauty.
Scott Rae: That's really helpful, especially the historical background to know, for one, how many of the earlier mathematicians were actually believers, but who caught that connection between the beauty that's intrinsic to who God is and mathematics for being intrinsic to how he's made the world. Would you say if that same thing would be true in relationship to goodness? Could you make that argument too that there's something about the way math works that reveals or exposes part of the goodness of the world?
Jason Wilson: I think so. I don't know if I would put it in just the directly related category, but one thing in the last time I taught a class, it's a biblical integration seminar called “God and Math,” and we were getting into beauty, it really emerged that there's not only beauty, but there's other things in the world that point to God. And the existence of goodness itself, I think, it's probably one of those things. If you adopt a different worldview, let's say just a naturalist materialist worldview that all there is is matter and particles, then goodness doesn't have a good explanation. Yet we all have this sense that there is a thing called good and there's a thing called evil. But to explain that, it makes perfect sense if there's a design where there's a good designer and then you have good design, and then when that design is somehow marred or flawed then it's bad or evil. That becomes clear. So, mathematics in the same way, there's a certain goodness about these kinds of properties of it or its inherent nature that I was talking about.
Now, with the math, we develop things, let's say a particular mathematical model that's used to develop this particular microphone. Okay, that's good. Someone could also use mathematics and maybe develop something, and then use it for an evil purpose. So I think there's something about what do you use things for? That would be another dimension to that discussion.
Sean McDowell: You've talked a couple times about how math itself points towards a design and order in the world as a kind of natural theology that we can just reflect upon the world and see it's not chaotic, but that there's purpose and design built into the way that things are, and we can't change this. I'm curious how far this takes us towards the Christian worldview. So correct me if I'm wrong, I would think that this would challenge a naturalistic worldview, challenge a pantheistic worldview, but not get us all the way to the Christian worldview. So from a natural theology standpoint, how far can math take us towards the Christian faith?
Jason Wilson: I completely agree with you. I think that a pretty good argument can be made for theism. To pass from theism to Christianity, there's just a gulf, and I've thought about this question quite a bit. There's an author by the name of Alvin Plantinga, wrote an essay called “Theism and Mathematics,” and he makes an interesting point. He says that there's perhaps four different kinds of world that we could conceive of.
One would be atomless gunk, is pretty static. You could have mathematical descriptions; they'd be boring. Number two, you could have this chaotic world that, I mean I'm talking full-on chaos. You could just imagine maybe the lights just go out, maybe ID materialize, maybe show up part of me across the room, I mean full-on chaos. There's no order whatsoever, no mathematical description possible. Again, that's just weird.
You could have another world where it appears chaotic like I just described, but there's a deep underlying order that's impenetrable to humans. Again, that's not going to be interesting to us. Or you could have a world that is dynamic, but yet there is this underlying order that can be understood. And that's the one that we live in.
Now, a theistic worldview explains that well because there's a design. The naturalistic worldview has trouble explaining why that particular one. Plantinga is going to point out another argument that he calls accessibility. And that is, why is it that humans can penetrate some of this underlying order, but yet it takes a full effort. There's a search required. It's at the upper limit. It's taken us centuries to get where we're at.
So he makes an accessibility argument, and then there's a third argument that we've alluded to, which is just the nature of the mathematics itself. It's unseen, it's abstract, it's immaterial. So a naturalistic materialist worldview, if you go with an evolutionary perspective, and you use that to explain the matter that was here, that doesn't do a good job of explaining math, because it's inherently ordered. See? So how do you get math on an evolutionary view?
Sean McDowell: Couldn't you argue that you need some math for there to be an evolutionary process in the first place? Right?
Jason Wilson: Because there's structure. Macroevolution would be a natural law. Okay. Where do laws come from? Again, you need a designer and you describe them with math.
Scott Rae: Jason, I suspect you've come into contact with others in your field who see mathematics really differently, or come from more of a naturalistic worldview. What's some of the pushback that you get from some of those conversations with skeptics or naturalists when you talk about math and this intrinsic order to the world that it illustrates, things that point to God? How do they push back with you on that?
Jason Wilson: Yeah. Good question. Formally, I'm a statistician. My Ph.D. is in statistics, and so I really am most familiar with the statistics community. And to be quite honest with you, the statistics community is pretty Christian-friendly.
Sean McDowell: Really? Interesting.
Jason Wilson: Yeah. We believe in absolute truth. We're trying to do good in the world by examining data and answering people's questions. It's a service-oriented discipline. And so, I've gotten little bits of pushback that was largely just kind of an, "I'm offended that you might say such things" type of view, but no intellectual substance.
The pushback that I get when I engage in those kinds of conversations, it's going to move into really the whole evolution-creation debate, and you get people that want to try to buttress the problems with the mathematical arguments, why the origin of life is effectively impossible using calculations and probability, and they'll try to critique assumptions or somehow attack it there, not particularly effective, in my view. But that'd be a big place.
Sean McDowell: Why do you think the statistical community is so friendly to theism? Is it just the nature of those drawn to statistics, you think?
Jason Wilson: There's probably something to that. It is a really service-oriented discipline. And so you are interdisciplinary, you're trying to help people answer their data. So there's a collaborative dimension. And then, also, both with math and statistics, we are trafficking in absolute truth. Right? That's what we're doing all the time.
Sean McDowell: It makes sense. Are there any mathematicians in particular that have been influential in the world, maybe Christians or not, that you've just been drawn to, maybe inspired by, motivated by or they've just shaped your thinking. They could be alive now or it could be somebody as far back as Pascal or all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Are there any mathematicians or statisticians in particular that have just motivated you? And if so, why?
Jason Wilson: There's a lot that I've thought upon at different times. Isaac Newton is a particular inspiration to me for, obviously, his profound discoveries with physics and The Principia, developing calculus. So he really is this pioneer, there is a profundity there, yet he gave the last half of his life to studying theology. I might not agree with all of his theological convictions, but he was brilliant and just made a lot of headway, and yet was willing to just tell the world, "You know what? This is more important, and this is how I'm going to be spending my time,” even in the face of the criticism that he took from that.
Sean McDowell: And he wrote a lot on that, didn't he?
Jason Wilson: He did, yeah. Prophecies of Daniel. Yeah.
Sean McDowell: That is really fascinating, that some people would say one of the most brilliant scientists, mathematicians ever, spent that amount of his time studying theology.
Speaking of theology, I have one last question for you. Probably eight or 10 years ago, when I was teaching high school full time, the high school math teacher, who was not my wife at the time, gave a devotional on Ephesians 3:18–19. And I had read this passage dozens of time, but never thought about it from a math perspective. And we just read it. It's clear that Paul's using an analogy of math to make a point about God's love. And it says, "That we may have the strength to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth to know the love of God that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." And she pointed out how breadth and length and height and depth are these mathematical terms talking about how big and wide and just impossible to grasp, God's love is. Do you have any passages that you've read as a mathematician that just have been important to you, significant to you, throughout all the Scriptures from the Old Testament to the New Testament?
Jason Wilson: I do have some passages. Going even one higher level of abstraction, if I may, from a passage to theological concepts, I think infinity is a phenomenal source, where mathematics brings theological insight not only to this passage, but others as well. And so in mathematics, it was the late 1800s that a guy named Georg Cantor felt led by God to study infinity. And the results that he came up with were so shocking to the math community that he was spurned for a lot of his life because of that work. Today, it is the thing. We all believe it, buy it. It's just part of the mathematical package.
Theological motivation. So the one big thing that I think people would do well to really come to know is that there are two different orders of infinity. If you take the counting numbers — one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine — off to infinity, we think of that as infinity. That's infinite. Yet, if you take the real numbers, which includes all the fractions and all the possible decimals, even if you just look at the interval from zero to one, there are more numbers in that interval than you can count — one, two, three, four, five, six, up to infinity.
And so this can be proven rigorously mathematically. And what that shows us is there are different orders of infinity. And so it's not merely unbounded or unlimited. That's too vague of a concept. So when it comes to God, then, this passage looks at four dimensions, right? And being filled with the fullness of God. Well, there are different even senses of infinity, like fullness of God must have some form of infinity. But from a mathematical perspective, you could distinguish between different orders of infinity that could be obtained. And that can be applied to the Trinity, to the two natures of Christ and so on to actually give insight into theological paradoxes through this mathematical paradox.
Scott Rae: That's fascinating.
Sean McDowell: Oh my goodness.
Scott Rae: And we are way out of our depth here.
Sean McDowell: I am absolutely intrigued, and I can't wait for my wife to hear this podcast because I'm going to see her be drawn to the same kind of worship that you're talking about here. My goodness. Thanks for your work in the world of statistics, just professionally, but it's clear you're putting a lot of effort in, which we value deeply at Biola, to make integration between a discipline and between the faith. And you're doing this really in an exemplary way. So thanks for doing that, and thanks so much for coming on the show, Jason.
Jason Wilson: Well, thank you so much, Sean and Scott. God bless you.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” To learn more about us and today's guest, Jason Wilson, and to find more episodes, but a biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, and share it with a friend.
Thanks for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.