Lincoln on Euclid

by Brian 13. May 2013 21:50

I recently saw Lincoln share his philosophy on equality. In the latest movie bearing his name, I watched Daniel Day-Lewis make the argument men are equal because a two-thousand-year-old Euclidian law reveals the truth of our equality. My jaw dropped at this point in the film. Lincoln may have had high regard for Euclid, enough to keep a copy of his work in his saddlebag, but I am fairly certain nothing like the account in the movie was ever a basis for Lincoln’s view on equality. If Lincoln had operated within a worldview of mere mathematics, mechanics and physical laws, he might have reached a very different position – and most likely not the one presented in his Gettysburg Address. (1)

So what was the argument Lincoln presented in the movie? Well, it is difficult to state clearly because the line of reasoning was disjointed. If there was a reasonable argument to parse from the script, I could not find one. The following lines are Lincoln’s (verbatim) from the movie:

Euclid's first common notion is this: "Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other." 

That's a rule of mathematical reasoning. It's true because it works; has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is "self-evident."

You see? There it is, even in that two-thousand year old book of mechanical [sic](2) law: it is a self- evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. We begin with equality. That's the origin, isn't it? That’s balance, that's fairness, that's justice.

Starting from the top: Lincoln, by way of Euclid, tells how we may determine if things are equal. For example: If each element of the set {P1, P2,…,Pn} is equal to Q (such that P1=Q, P2=Q,…,Pn = Q) then one can infer each element in the set is equal to the other elements in the set. This much is obvious. But if people, men and women of all creeds and races, are members of the set {P1, P2,…,Pn}, then what is Q? Here Lincoln has nothing to say about Q. He simply moves straight to the conclusion “We begin with equality. That’s the origin isn’t it?” Yet without addressing Q, he has proven nothing by way of Euclid. I challenge the reader to come up with a suitable Q – some entity all men are equal to other than themselves. In the absence of a suitable Q, on Euclid alone, we are left agnostic on the matter of our equality.

Then there were the two references to “self-evident,” both irrelevant at best and misleading at worst. Upon hearing the lines in the movie you are likely taken back a few score, as I was, to: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I can’t help but think the authors of the movie were trying to conjoin in the minds of the viewers the self-evident quality of Euclid’s principle with the use of “self-evident” in the Declaration of Independence. Ironically, the modern secular mind may agree with Euclid’s principle being self-evident, but I seriously doubt it would find certain unalienable Rights, endowed by the Creator, to be self-evident.

It is no surprise as a Christian theist I find common ground with Lincoln on the issue of equality. We agree with Scripture that God created man in his own image. Our intrinsic value, whatever it is, is established by the Creator and we, the created, have not been given a means to discern the difference. And that of course is assuming there is any. So when Lincoln in the movie said “we begin with equality,” he at least got that right. You just don’t get there from Euclid.

I suppose there is little doubt as to why Lincoln believed all men are equal. The movie’s portrayal of his philosophy was an irrational fabrication. If we take Lincoln out of his theistic worldview and drop him into one appealing solely to mathematics, mechanics and physical law, he might have sided with the Confederates. Given the philosophical influence of natural selection a few decades later, I think such a man would have fit in nicely with the Eugenicists. Survival of the fittest hardly supports equality. The only thing we can draw from nature and Euclid is inequality. I did not see the real Lincoln of history the other night, at least not in this segment. The movie simply got it wrong.


[1]Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

[2] Yes, he said “mechanical” and not “mathematical.”

My Testimony

by Brian 26. December 2012 02:09

My worldview has seen considerable change. I grew up in a home where faith was never discussed or practiced. I hung around mostly irreligious friends. I practically never went to church. Raised in a single-parent family, my grandparents were prominent role models. Grandmother loved to play chess and I have many fond memories of our time together. But we never dug deep into any topic. My grandfather was a staunch pragmatist who introduced me to science on Christmas day at the age of ten. From that day forward, it was a primary indoor pursuit. As for the outdoors, there were no role models or rules. As a young man I had my last conversation with Granddaddy at a St. Petersburg, Florida diner. He emphasized that morning the importance of being practical and taking charge of one’s future. Sadly, he died not long afterwards from cancer, having rarely discussed with me anything beyond the tools of worldly success. But I could not have agreed with him more at the time about the value of practicality and expediency. It was upon this foundation my worldview was built.

During my childhood I was also introduced to Christianity. I don’t recall the details, but I joined my best friend for a few Sunday morning services. It shouldn't surprise anyone a handful of hours in church do not stack up against years of secular pursuits and influences. By the time I reached my mid-twenties, I had shed most of my openness to anything supernatural. In my late twenties I was firmly nontheistic. I was never an activist who promoted atheism. I did not go around claiming God’s nonexistence. This may be due to doubting the rationality of such an unsubstantiated position. I was more of a condescending weak-atheist. If asked to summarize my position, I would say: God probably does not exist, but whatever works for you makes little difference to me. Though I could describe the Christian Gospel in theory, I believed it was a harmless delusion in reality.

I did not expect the extreme worldview makeover on my horizon. I thought things were going exceedingly well. My career in software development was taking off. I met my wife and married her at the age of twenty-eight. We had just built a new house together. Surely this was what my grandfather meant by “being in charge.” No question as to what I believed at the time: I was the master of my fate; I was the captain of my soul. So when I began to have troubles in marriage, I did not view it much differently than running up against a defect in software - I just needed to fix things and move on. With enough skill, intellect and effort, I thought I could face any problem and solve it. But it did not turn out that way. I reached a point at the age of thirty-one when I knew my marriage was terminal. I could not undo the damage. I believed divorce was inevitable and this change in perspective opened the door to a wider view.

My rebirth happened one night as I was contemplating the sale of our house. My wife had moved out and I was at home alone. A Florida thunderstorm rolled in that evening as I was lying in bed brooding over things. Suddenly a nearby lighting-strike knocked the power out. As I lay there I began to realize how much of my life was really beyond my control. The notion of being in charge of one’s destiny seemed utterly foolish as I stared into the dark that night. I thought there had to be a greater purpose which transcended my matter-of-fact life. I thought back to my childhood on the Christian message of the sacrifice of Jesus and the reconciliation with God for those who believe. While I dwelt on that thought, it was like a light switch turning on. It happened that fast. What seemed untrue and irrelevant before was now true and momentous. As quickly as the lightening had taken out the power, I was transformed. The words of Paul reflect my experience well: If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.

With transformation came a mission. I went to a nearby church and met with the pastor. I did not know at the time he would become a mentor to me over the next decade. He explained some of the basic tenets of Christianity and we prayed together. I also tracked my wife down and brought her home. We spent the next year rebuilding our relationship. More than twenty years later our marriage is as strong as ever and full of blessings including two beautiful daughters. But returning to just a few months after becoming a follower of Christ, my wife and I joined a study group together. One evening we were talking about faith and reason and I emphatically proclaimed they were utterly incompatible. I half-jokingly professed how my left brain would handle reason and the right half would be in charge of my new faith. At the time I honestly believed the two domains did not intersect. What I omitted that evening was how unsatisfying this arrangement was for me. I thought it was just a burden I would have to carry. Yet I was on a mission, a path with Christ I had no intention of deviating from. A little intellectual dissonance was something I thought I could work out later.

A book by C. S. Lewis was a young woman’s response that night to my proclamation of the incompatibility of faith and reason. It was titled The Problem of Pain and looking back it hardly seems like a proper first-choice. But it did the trick. After reading Lewis and several other excellent writers, I was excited to learn of the congruity between Christian truth-claims and a reasoned view from science and philosophy. My previously perceived conflict was a matter of ignorance. This was so liberating that I dove head first into further study to unite the true aspects of my previous worldview with the Christian faith. The book Reasonable Faith, by William Lane Craig, was a significant growth point. It not only dealt with many of my misunderstandings, but it also helped me put faith and reason into their proper role. I also learned about the reality of doubt. The truth is; anyone with a substantive worldview will encounter epistemic tension and conflict. I certainly had to deal with this as a nontheist and I still do as a Christian. But today I enjoy a significant unity between how I see the world through the special revelation of the Christian faith, and how I see things through the deliverances of reason. I have learned there is compatibility.

It is a misconception to think apologetics is only good for pre-evangelism: Tear down the roadblocks to the Gospel and more will be saved. Remove the obstacles at the doorstep and the door will be opened. To be sure, this happens. I have met several Christians over the years where apologetics played a significant role leading up to their conversion. But my testimony tells of another aspect of the apologetic enterprise. You may have heard the parable of the sower in Mark 4 where some of the seed fell on rocky soil. In such conditions the roots cannot take hold and the plant dies under the slightest environmental pressure. The same goes for a faith that is not integrated well into one’s worldview. Here apologetics helps to till the soil and tear down the fictions which prevent the flourishing of our faith. In the same parable, other seeds fell among the thorns which choked the plants springing up. I believe today the thorns are not just worries and temptations, but ideas. The cultural milieu we find ourselves in today, with its books, movies, social media, and education, is full of thorns contrary to the Christian worldview. Again, apologetics plays a critical role in clearing away falsehoods so our faith can grow with less impediment.

In conclusion, I offer a warning. As much as I appreciate the benefits of philosophical study over the last fifteen years, I also recognize some pitfalls. As a new apologist I was enamored by the ability to annihilate atheist arguments. But I have since learned nothing ever good comes out of a heated engagement. Today I rarely debate staunch unbelievers unless there are third-party observers who may be persuaded by cordial and rational discourse. Merely winning arguments is not profitable. On the other hand, discussing philosophical issues with honest seekers using 1-Peter-3 gentleness and respect has proven beneficial. All of this being said; we ought to consider our dedication. Spending a disproportionate amount of time in apologetic activities, neglecting other Christian disciplines, is a mistake. It has in the past taken me out into the arid desert for a dark night of the soul where one yearns for a single draft of living water. We should not neglect meeting with the Saints for encouragement and worship. Wrapping up a debate online or posting a blog is incomparably disappointing to one moment in the still presence of God. But if God occasionally chooses to use an apologetic approach through me, I'm good with it.  




by Brian 12. June 2012 00:36

My expectations were fairly high. I was anticipating a lot from Prometheus being a fan of Ridley Scott’s films, especially the 1979 classic Alien. Prior to seeing the movie I read several negative opening reviews. These reviewers were irritated and even livid over certain theological and philosophical concepts presented in the film. In other words, I had to see it! Sure enough, there were a few interesting tidbits worthy of a blog or two. A scene in the movie reminded me of how the typical proponent of unguided Darwinism has a real problem with ultimate origins. But before I expand on this, a disclaimer is in order. Even though the movie trailer would reveal to the astute what I’m about to disclose, the content of this post may be considered a spoiler.

The story is about a team sent out to an unexplored world to investigate the possibility of extraterrestrials who allegedly visited the Earth long ago. Two scientists on the mission believe these visitors seeded life on Earth and thus were responsible for our existence. Called Engineers in the movie, these aliens were essentially Intelligent Designers. After the scientists presented their theory, one of the biologists in the audience seemed rather put off by the whole idea. He raised the following question: So are we just going to discount three centuries of Darwinism? Apparently he was ready to defend Darwinian evolution from these IDers who were introducing a discordant concept. On the surface, I’m not sure there is any incompatibility between the visitation of the Engineers and unqualified Darwinism. Perhaps the biologist was smuggling in an assumption or two. I will elaborate shortly.

The central theme in Prometheus is fairly new to Hollywood even though it was served up in the 2000 movie Mission to Mars, albeit then with a bit more lactose. But exogenesis, the idea life on Earth came from outer space, is nothing new. The more refined theory of Directed Panspermia really introduces the engineering element we see in the movie Prometheus. This idea was popularized by 20th-century scientists including Carl Sagan and the Nobel Prize winning molecular biologist Francis Crick. Crick’s exposition of the DNA led him and others to conclude there is a significant bootstrapping problem. Abiogenesis, the emergence of living organisms from nonliving matter appeared too improbable to some and they wondered how it all got started. Well, they surmised basic life was seeded here by extraterrestrials. Of course this does little to resolve the problem – it just pushes it further into space and into the past. If life cannot begin sans intelligence on our privileged planet, why should we think it would happen elsewhere in the universe?

So where is the rub for the Darwinist? What's wrong with an intelligent origin of life given Darwinism? The heavily tattooed bong-hitting character Fifield seemed to find the whole idea incredible in the movie. When it comes to Directed Panspermia, I would have to agree. On the other hand, maybe he and others are carrying a hidden assumption: Darwinian evolution is unguided and its explanatory scope will eventually extend to origins. On this view, we will discover life began by material processes without the benefit of any kind of intelligence. Now this is where I think some Darwinists have backed themselves into a corner leaving only two options, neither of which are tenable:

  • We don’t know how life started, but give science enough time and it will find it to be an unguided and purely material beginning
  • We don’t know how life started, but an unguided and purely material beginning is no big deal and is so highly plausible science need not take it too seriously

The first option is a fallacious appeal to ignorance. Science of the gaps is no better than god of the gaps when it is used to assert one’s position. It is one thing to say science has been fruitful and given time it will reach a verdict (P or ~P). It’s quite another thing to say the verdict will be that P. The second option conjures up images of folks like Michael Ruse hand-waving stories of life beginning on the backs of crystals. Can a rational proponent of unguided Darwinism really just ignore the immense challenge abiogenesis theories face? I guess some can. Others end up holding out for science to fall favorably on their faith. The rest are left to fantastical ideas like Directed Panspermia which make for a good movie, but not something I have enough faith to believe in.


About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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