Atheism, Autism, and the Abstract Mind

By Jin-yeong Yi

Richard Feynman

From my notebooks:

Vox Day once wrote that atheism would be harmless if limited to an “abstract-minded elite.”[1] (He also claims that there is a correlation between atheism and autism[2], but I won’t go into that here.) I find this statement interesting, because it seems to imply that abstract-minded people tend to be atheists, or at least that there are many abstract-minded people who are atheists.

Indeed, a cursory survey of many great abstract-minded intellectuals throughout history appears to confirm this notion, or, rather, something close to it. I suspect that the most brilliant mathematical minds either believed in an impersonal God or no God at all. Descartes was a deist, or was at least accused of being one by Pascal[3]. Spinoza was a pantheist. Gauss was a deist. Leibniz was a theist, but apparently not far from deism (as he did not believe in miracles). One suspects the same of Newton. Pierre-Simon Laplace was an agnostic. Max Planck was a deist. Henri Poincaré, Alfred Tarski, Bertrand Russell, and W. V. Quine were atheists. Richard Feynman[4] was also an atheist, apparently a positive atheist at that. William James Sidis was supposedly an atheist from the age of 6. Albert Einstein has been called just about everything from an agnostic to a deist to a pantheist to an agnostic theist, but whatever he believed in, I think it’s probable that it was something without personhood. Stephen Hawking is an atheist, as is John Forbes Nash, Jr., Marvin Minsky, Noam Chomsky, and Steven Pinker. I’m sure many more examples can be named, such as Isaac Asimov (atheist), Mario Bunge (atheist), Ted Kaczynski (atheist), Daniel C. Dennett (atheist), and Christopher Langan (deist).

Even if it were false that the most brilliant mathematical minds were nontheists, the prevalence of this viewpoint seems significant enough to suggest a possible correlation between it and this type of intellectual makeup.

Notes

[1] See “The illogically optimistic atheist.”

[2] See “The socially autistic atheist.”

[3] From Pensées: “I cannot forgive [René] Descartes; in all his philosophy, Descartes did his best to dispense with God. But Descartes could not avoid prodding God to set the world in motion with a snap of his lordly fingers; after that, he had no more use for God.”

[4] From the divorce complaint of Feynman’s second wife: “He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.”

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