God, Mathematics, and Intelligent Design in Antiquity

For the past few months, I’ve been engaged in some of the most fascinating and intensive research I’ve ever undertaken. A major element of my exploration has been the question: What did the great thinkers of Greco-Roman antiquity have to say about the nature of the cosmos, particularly the applicability of mathematics to the natural world? In canvassing mathematicians, engineers, philosophers, and theologians from Plato to the fall of Rome, I learned a great deal about the brilliance of these men and why Western thought is so indebted to them.

One figure that I found particularly interesting was Nicomachus of Gerasa (60-120 AD), a Neo-Pythagorean who was trained in mathematics and philosophy in Alexandria, the epicenter of scholarship and home of the most famous (but tragically ill-fated) library in history. He wrote an Introduction to Arithmetic that became enormously successful, enduring as a standard textbook for the remainder of Antiquity and (in Latin paraphrase) throughout the Middle Ages. He also penned an Introduction to Harmonics that still survives and an Introduction to Geometry and Life of Pythagoras that, sadly, have been lost.

Nicomachus was not a Christian, but in reading his work it is evident that he perceived intentional design in nature, and saw mathematics and philosophy as partners in illuminating higher truth about the world.

In Introduction to Arithmetic chapter three, he offers an elegant metaphysical statement on the mathematical nature of the intelligently-designed cosmos:

All that has by nature with systematic method been arranged in the universe seems both in part and as a whole to have been determined and ordered in accordance with number, by the forethought and the mind of him that created all things; for the pattern was fixed like a preliminary sketch, by the domination of number pre-existent in the mind of the world-creating God, number conceptual only and immaterial in every way, but at the same time the true and eternal essence, so that with reference to it, as to an artistic plan, should be created all these things, time, motion, the heavens, the stars, all sorts of revolutions.

If you are familiar with Plato’s Republic, you will notice the similarity of language.

This is such a fine example of how beautifully integrated higher learning was during that time. Scholars recognized and embraced the fact that the various branches of learning interact with one another, and believed that the philosophical and theological inferences that naturally flow from the sciences shouldn’t be omitted from academic discussion.