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In Memoriam: George Boole

Commemorating George Boole

Commemorating George Boole

  • 03 Dec 2015

The bicentennial year of celebrations in honour of George Boole at University College Cork begins and ends with moving sermons in tribute to this devout genius.

As the bicentenary year of events draw to a close at University College Cork, it is impossible to overstate how much his reputation has grown internationally in only twelve short months. This year of events in Cork, Lincoln and around the world has taught millions about the legacy of George Boole, in Boolean mathematics, computer science, engineering and the humanities.

George Boole, the first Professor of Mathematics in University College Cork (then Queen’s College Cork), sadly passed away from ‘effusion of the lungs’ on December 8th 1864. While walking to the university from his home in Blackrock a few days earlier Boole was caught in a heavy rain storm. He lectured all day in the university in wet clothes and became ill, dying soon after.

This time last year the George Boole 200 Bicentenary began as we marked the 150th anniversary of his death at his own parish church. Community members gathered at St. Michael’s Church, Blackrock to hear Dr. Mark Hocknull, Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral give a guest sermon at a Choral Evensong in memory of Boole. Commemorations of a spiritual nature are a fitting tribute to George Boole, who was a devout and humble man.

On Boole, Logic and Faith 

Boole, Logic and Faith
Canon Dr Mark Hocknull, Lincoln Cathedral

A binary system

Since the 19th century when, in the Anglo-Amercican context at least, science broke free of the framework of natural theology, it has been almost a given of popular culture that science and religion are locked in a mortal combat, which only one of them may win and that inevitably the victor will be science. Embracing the binary system, but rejecting the conflict thesis many, especially scientists embrace a dualistic approach to science religion relationships. This time though not either/ or but how/why.

A little while ago in London and across Britain there was an advertising campaign as atheists and theists waged war with slogans pasted to buses. Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists ran the slogan “There is probably no God so relax and enjoy your life.” In response some Christian groups ran the slogan “There probably is a God so come and join the Christian party.”

At the risk of sounding grandiose, our concern this evening is with the search for truth and not with slogans on buses or polemics. A religious belief can do lots of things for us. It can sustain us in life and in the approach of death, it can provide a thread of meaning in what might otherwise be an inane labyrinth of life. But it can only do these things if it is true. Many who write about science and religion from both sides of the discussion do so in terms of polemics. They want to win the argument for their side. Such an approach has left the true path of human inquiry it seems to me. The true religious believer, like the scientist wishes to be found in the company of honest inquirers after truth and understanding and not of polemicists for a cause.

Some lessons from Boole
At first glance, Boole’s binary system of on or off, yes or no appears to sit very comfortably with much of the public debate between atheists and theists (or religious believers). The idea here is that one must choose. Either we say no to God and are atheists or we say yes and become believers. But, Boole would I am sure have had no truck with polemics, from either side. Nor did Boole think in this binary way about religion in general or the relationship between science and religion in particular. We know from Des MacHale’s excellent biography of Boole that he was a deeply religious man, even though the exact content of his religious views remains something of a mystery. We know too that as a teenager, walking in Lincoln he had an experience which gave him a sense of divine call to explore and explain the mathematical laws of thought. No doubt this is the reason that the passage from 1 Samuel which we heard read tonight was Boole’s favourite passage of Scripture.

Boole included in his Laws of Thought a chapter on the theistic arguments of Samuel Clarke and of Spinoza. He concluded his analysis with “the deep conviction of the futility of all endeavours to establish, entirely a priori the existence of an Infinite Being.” Not that such an infinite being did not exist but merely that logic was of no use in establishing its existence. In an unpublished essay, now held by the Royal Society, Boole explores the relationship between understanding and belief. One of the things that is remarkable about the essay is its almost casual remark that scientific discourse and religious discourse alike participate in the same laws of thought. Both must conform to the same grammar. Both in effect are aspects of the same thing. The never ending quest to comprehend the world in which we live, beyond mere comprehension to understand- to grasp the meaning of- the world and our place in it. Boole goes on in the Laws of Thought to say of the possibility of the existence of God- an Infinite Being- must be granted if any solid ground can be established for knowledge. Science and Religious belief belong together - I would want to claim Boole for the company of honest inquirers after the truth.

Beyond the Binary System
Often in the search for truth, we have to risk an initial commitment to what seems to be the case if we are ever going to find out what is actually real. It is rational to trust our experience unless or until it proves to be misleading. This is more rational, and more scientific I would suggest than the sceptical approach which refuses to believe experience until it is proved not to mislead. Of course there are experiences which we are right to be sceptical about. If my neighbour tells me about a flying saucer he saw hovering in his garden, frankly I’m not likely to take him at face value. But there are times, even in science when understanding can outstrip explanation. in the middle of the 19th century, Charles Darwin felt that he understood the evolution of life on earth, though he lacked the genetic understanding of his theory that is made possible by modern molecular biology.

This ability of understanding to outstrip explanation is closely connected to religious faith. It points to our ability to grasp things in their totality, without being dependent upon having all the details worked out. It is the leap of faith, not into the dark, but into the light.

We human beings have an innate capacity to see patterns in nature, in history and politics and in our daily lives. It is one of the distinguishing characteristics of being human. We look for the meaning and significance, the pattern in the data, from which we form our initial understandings and which we test out.

A good analogy here is the autosterogram. Those two dimensional, apparently random images which when viewed in the right way disclose a three dimensional image hidden within it. The patterns are not random at all of course but consist of a carefully calculated set of horizontally repeating patterns. This makes use of the differing horizontal alignment of our eyes. A difference which enables us to perceive depth and judge distance. The mathematics and the science of these images is fascinating in its own right. But its only when we look beyond the code, beyond the meaningless pattern of data, that the hidden image and meaning emerges.

Albert Einstein once said that the most incomprehensible thing about the world is the fact that it is at all comprehensible. The fact that the world makes any sense at all is science’s biggest assumption. It is an assumption that can never be proven experimentally. It can only be embraced. Taken on trust.

Nothing in what I have said tonight in any way demonstrates the truth of either religion in general or of the Christian religion in particular. What I hope I have done though is to draw attention to a basic similarity between both science and religion. Both entail an act of faith both in there basic ideas and in their methods of knowing. Both involve a leap of faith beyond what we can be certain about. But it is a leap of faith not into the dark, but into the light of greater and deeper understanding. Science and religion then are not mortal enemies, locked in a fight to the death, but partners in the human enterprise of making sense of the world in which we find ourselves.

In an appropriate bookend to this bicentennial year, the celebrations for George Boole Day also included a special commemoration of George Boole at St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral led by Reverend Adrian Wilkinson. These thoughtful reflections on the relationship between religion and science honour the memory of George Boole.

Honoring George Boole

A Special Commemoration of George Boole at St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral
Revd. Adrian Wilkinson

I wonder what George Boole would make of this service today? I suspect if he could join us he would slip in just after the service had started, having removed his top hat. He might choose to occupy a seat at the back so that he could participate from the periphery. After all, though he was a deeply religious man, George Boole had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with formal liturgy in general and with the Eucharist in particular. He would no doubt look around and admire a cathedral building very different from the one he knew. Would he appreciate the architectural sleight of hand making this building appear much larger than it is? Would he have approved of the way William Burges, the inspiration behind this cathedral, emphasises the role of symbols and the place of the mysterious and numinous in the Christian Faith? Would the juxtaposition of a service recalling his life and contribution to mathematics and a service as we celebrate All Saints have made him a little uncomfortable? Perhaps we will discuss these matters later.

Boole was a man of faith and it is important that today we see him in the context of the broader theme of the communion of saints, a concept in which he firmly believed. Boole was not only a mathematician but also had an interest in literature and poetry. Indeed ‘The Communion of Saints’ was the title he gave to one of his poems and during the Holy Communion we will hear a piece of music by Robert Creed inspired by this poem.

One verse reads:
‘Seeker after Truth’s deep fountain,
Delver in the soul’s deep mine,
Toiler up the rugged mountain
To the upper Light Divine,
Think, beyond the stars there be
Who have toiled and wrought like thee.’

In common with many of the great saints and figures of faith, George Boole was a ‘seeker after truth’. He did not take things at their face value but was prepared to probe deeply until he got an answer, even a provisional one, that made sense to him. He regarded his intelligence as a gift from God and it was to be used in the pursuit of truth.

Boole was very inclusive in spirit. While still a young man working in Lincoln, he turned to a Jewish friend to help him understand and gain new insights into the Hebrew Scriptures. The rise of religious fundamentalism in the world today is a cause of concern for many. We have to be the first to admit that Christianity is not immune to this affliction either. While Christianity may have unique insights which are rooted in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, any religion that claims an absolute monopoly on all truth does not do justice to the God of the infinite. There is an ancient prayer which goes ‘From the arrogance that thinks it has all the truth; from the laziness that settles for half-truths; and from the cowardice that fears new truths, Good Lord, deliver us.’ The Christian Faith has always held to view that God is the God of all truth. Throughout history time and time again, saints are those who have come to see that there is nothing to be feared from the pursuit of that truth.

For Christians, coupled with this quest for deeper insight under God, there is also a commitment to the pursuit of justice. Intellectual enquiry that turns a blind eye and a deaf ear to the suffering of others is pure self-indulgence. Jesus summed up the purpose of life with the golden rule – love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself. The love of God and neighbour go hand in hand.

This was a position which George Boole held to throughout his life. Even in his earliest days, he did all in his power to improve the social and educational conditions of those around him. He was heavily involved in the Lincoln Mechanics’ Institute while still a young school master and he was one of those responsible for the foundation of a Female Penitents’ Home in Lincoln in 1847. In Cork, he was called upon to use his mathematical talents to analyse the particularly high infant mortality statistics at the Workhouse in this city. His interest in the plight of students from less affluent backgrounds was also widely acknowledged.

Of course the canvas today is much larger than any one individual. All Saints Day is about all the saints of God throughout history. It is not just about extoling the virtues of the intellectually gifted, or the particularly pious, or the generous benefactors of the past, though they are included. It is also about that ‘great company which no one can number’ of all the good and faithful, though imperfect people who have passed through this life and gone ahead of us. Most will be known only to God and will have left no memorial by which we can remember them.

One of the readings appointed for today is a portion of the penultimate chapter of the Revelation to St. John the Divine. As a work, Revelation with its emphasis on symbols, numbers, imagery from the Hebrew scriptures and hidden codes would have appealed to the mathematical interests of George Boole. However, these features also make it a rich quarry for every odd ball religious group who want to peddle a particular apocalyptic message to frighten people into their version of the Christian faith. It has been used to promote a view that the real church is a community of ‘world-escapers’.

As we enter Revelation 21 everything has changed. With John we see both a new heaven and a new earth. A holy city descends from heaven, resplendent with gold, jewels, and divine light. After chapters of trauma and conflict on a cosmic scale, everything has become new. Two features of this passage, often overlooked, provide resources that may renew our imaginations. First, the new creation features no sea. The sea’s absence may trouble us at first, particularly those of us in Cork with its world famous harbour. Almost all of us love water. But for Revelation the sea’s absence belongs with the eradication of death, mourning, crying, and pain. In Jewish literature of the period, the sea is where evil empires operate. In the great war Satan takes his stand alongside the sea, and the wicked beast arises out of that very same sea. The beast makes war against Jesus’ followers and kills many of them. Here the sea’s absence is part of Revelation’s condemnation against an empire that uses war and commerce to oppress ordinary people.

Second, the new city comes down to us from heaven. We do not go up to it. Revelation does not imagine the saints escaping this world for a heavenly reward. On the contrary, the saints inhabit a brand new world created right where they live. The loud voice proclaims, “These peoples will be God’s”. Revelation envisions a renewal, not an escape. It is ‘world-affirming’. So this passage is about resisting the forces of oppression and making God’s kingdom come ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. The saints are all those who have been caught up in this process down the generations. So we are confronted with the question, what we are doing in our time to further this agenda? What gifts have we been given and how are we using them?

Today, on All Saints’ Day, we acknowledge that though we are temporal beings, limited by time and space, there is a bigger picture. The saints are those who remind us of this and widen our horizons. I have a vision of a great company forming a procession and the west doors of this cathedral being opened to let them in. They process up the aisle past us and out beyond the altar and ambulatory and disappear through the east wall and continue beyond our sight. Some of these figures we may know, most will be unrecognisable. I would like to think that should such a procession form, George Boole might stand up, collect his top hat from the seat beside him and slip into that procession as it winds its way towards the infinite love and mercy of God.

As legacy projects at George Boole 200 explore Conversations on Boole and Restoration at The Boole House of Innovation, it is clear the bicentennial year is far from over. International screenings of the Boole documentary The Genius of George Boole are scheduled to take place in Asia, London and the United States in the spring.

Furthermore, throughout 2016 University College Cork and MIT will host the Boole/Shannon Celebrations. Claude E. Shannon was born 100 years ago and the UCC/MIT partnership will explore how both men had a major impact on the future role of communications. An inaugural lectures series on the theme Compute & Communicate was launched on George Boole Day at UCC by Professor Anant Agarwa (MIT, edX) and continues throughout the coming year. An exhibition on the Boole/Shannon celebration will open in April at the Boston Science Museum. As you can see, exploring the legacy of George Boole has just begun.

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