Infinity and Divinity

Every math student has run into the problem of the infinite regression. Divide 100 by 3 and you get 33 and a third. That is good enough for most of us, but the purist who insists on sticking to the decimal system will pursue an exact answer and never get there. 33.3333333 will suffice for most of us but no, he has to keep going, like a Crusader looking for the Holy Grail, and eventually he’ll have a string of 3’s that will stretch on past the moon and into outer space. What does that prove? To me, it suggests that he is on a fool’s quest.

Those philosophers and others who insist that since everything has a cause there is no such thing as free will seem to me to have embarked on a quest that is just as foolish as that silly fellow who is addicted to the decimal system. Sure, everything happens for a reason, and that reason was caused by some antecedent cause or causes, and so forth, on and on back into the history of everything. OK, but at what point do you draw the line and say enough with the theorizing and let’s get on with the job? If I need to know the value of pi, I just take three and a seventh and that’s good enough for me. A machinist may need to take it to 3.141592, and an astronomer may need to take it a dozen or more decimals beyond that. Very few of us will need to go that far to arrive at sensible answers to the questions we face in our lives on Planet Earth.

I divide humanity into two categories, the pragmatists who seek answers good enough so they can get along, and the fussbudget Cartesians and other philosophical types who insist there must be an answer to everything that is pure and solid. People in the second group may do all right for a while, until they run up against some kind of infinite regression. That presents a quandary: do they just keep on digging, or do they find some way to saw the issue off without compromising their precious principles? There are various ways to weasel out of this pickle, but probably the favorite one is to invoke divine authority which allegedly knows the answer even if mere mortals are unable to grasp it. God, in his infinite wisdom, giveth and taketh away, and so forth.

The infinite regression is not the only problem that has caused people to reply with this cop-out to questions they can’t answer. Any ignoramus who has memorized parts of the Bible can find passages authorizing him to pass the buck when other questions arrive for which he or she has no answer. But passing the buck to God when you don’t know the answer yourself has to be counted among the more important reasons why religion has been so important a part of our lives for the last thousand generations.

For further discussion of this issue, see my new booklet, “A Short History of Evolution”, especially the next to last chapter. It is available as an e-book on and elsewhere.

Carl Coon

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2 Responses to Infinity and Divinity

  1. john says:

    Or alternatively, a person recognizes the limitations of the human brain/mind and accepts infinity as a concept beyond full understanding, similarly accepts god as an idea to explain that which exceeds human’s capability to conceive. Is it wrong to stop dividing by 3 or counting past “gazillions” and assigning a representations of those concepts? Why is it then wrong to assign God to the ideas beyond our conception?

  2. Carl Coon says:

    Good point. When you assign God to ideas beyond our grasp you kind of sign off, say there’s no point in exploring further. The alternative is to say we don’t know what lies ahead but dammit we’re curious and we want to keep exploring.


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