It is well known that the Greeks elevated mathematics to a cultic level, bestowing number with divine properties. The integration of mathematical concepts with spiritual principles and religious doctrines was also common amongst modern mathematicians up until the mid to late 1800s. Mathematics in the 20th century, however, took a predominantly secular perspective. As others have argued elsewhere, the Foundational schools of thought of Hilbert, Brouwer, and Frege were partially a response to this divergence of the theological and mathematical. But what caused this shift? What historical, cultural, and political events enabled or motivated such a transition?
In Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith, Daniel J. Cohen provides a significant piece of this puzzle. Situating Benjamin Peirce, George Boole, and Augustus De Morgan in the increasingly sectarian culture of the British and American Academies, Cohen explores the roles that each man perceived for mathematics in relation to his faith. Tracing the influence of Unitarian theology and Kant’s transcendent idealism on these Victorian mathematicians, Cohen presents an evolutionary path that begins with hope in mathematics as a unifying ecumenical force, and ends with the separation of theology from mathematics and of mathematics from theology.
Daniel Cohen, an historian from George Mason University, has written an engaging, carefully researched book, accessible to a general audience and appropriate as an undergraduate resource. Given its unique focus on the religious views of select 19th century mathematicians, it should prove to be of eminent interest to mathematicians curious about the larger historical and cultural context of their discipline. Equations from God, the initial offering of the new series Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Mathematics, is just one of a growing number of exciting texts in the history and philosophy of mathematics from Johns Hopkins University Press.
David J. Stucki teaches computer science and mathematics at Otterbein College, in Westerville, Ohio. His most recent interests are in the history and philosophy of mathematics, and computer science education, although he also maintains an interest in artificial intelligence, theory of programming languages, and foundations/theory of computation.