Nov 14 2011

Gospel Disproof #11: Rabbit math

In the world of Watership Down, the largest number in rabbit language is five, because rabbits can only count to four and thus anything more than that is “five.” The author doesn’t go into rabbit math in detail, but if we think about it, this is really a pretty simple mathematical system. The sum of anything more than 2+2 is five, the product of anything more than 2×2 is five, five minus anything is probably going to be five, and there is no division because rabbits can only multiply.

This strikes me as resembling certain modes of thinking. The whole appeal is its simplicity. Anyone can do it. Granted, there are some drawbacks: if all you know is rabbit math, most of real math will be incomprehensible to you. But rabbit math has a way of dealing with that incomprehensible complexity. It’s all just “five.” That’s all you can say, and in rabbit math that’s all you need to know. Much better than real math, which gets notoriously harder the farther you go. Even people who like math are going to have to do considerable work to master more than the basics. Rabbit math is easier.

You’re right, I’m thinking about religion. Granted, there are a lot of people who think religiously without going all the way to rabbit-math-level oversimplifications. But that’s the limit towards which religious thinking tends. Its appeal is that it simplifies things, and has a place to stick the incomprehensible. Magic (or miracles, if you prefer) covers everything beyond a certain level of understanding, and in religious thinking that’s all you need to know.

I remember sitting in church one day, back in my evangelical days, listening to a guest speaker explain the infallibility of the Bible. We know the Bible is infallible because the Bible tells us that it is infallible. That may sound like circular reasoning, but it isn’t (he assured us). And the reason it isn’t is because we’re not just trusting on human reasoning and on the testimony of men. God Himself has revealed the Scriptures to us, and therefore our conclusions are not fallacious, they’re founded on the infallible revelation of God Himself.

This was not a dumb guy. He had a college degree, and I believe a masters as well. He understood secular logic well enough to see that his arguments didn’t add up, and that he was basing his conclusion of Biblical infallibility on the assumption of Biblical infallibility. “Real math” was giving him a sum that was more than four, and he didn’t like it, so he reverted to rabbit math, and that solved his problem. Now it was all so simple once again. It was just “five.”

There’s a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin’s mom accuses him of having no common sense, and he retorts, “I have plenty of common sense. I just choose to ignore it.” That’s the problem with a lot of religious thinking. You can see the fallacies and other problems with your religion, you just choose to ignore them. Rabbit math is easier, and therefore better. And for anything you can’t understand, there’s an easy answer: God did it. It’s just five. And that’s all you need to know.


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  1. 1

    There’s also Terry Pratchett’s Troll math, “One, two, many, lots.”

    1. 1.1
      Atomic Z

      Except Troll math isn’t like that, Martha. In the Troll language “many” and “lots” are defined numbers. “Many” literally = 3 and “lots” = 4. “lots, lots, lots, many” = 15. It’s a quaternary number system.

      Troll math is a commentary on the how people tend to see “others” as inferior and “us” as superior. Everyone else see the Trolls as stupid, but they know exactly what they are talking about. It’s about prejudice not simplified thinking.

      Certainly a good source for an interesting blog post, just not this one.

      1. martha

        Well, that certainly sounds like Terry Pratchett. I must have missed that wrinkle.

      2. Avicenna

        And remember trolls are slow, not stupid. And Mr. Chrysoprase meets people in cold storage rooms for a reason…

  2. 2

    Yep. Here are some observations about rabbit math. First, it’s not just fundamentalists who practice it. The more sophisticated believer who reads the Bible more flexibly still practices rabbit math, just at a different point in their explanation. Second, this gets to why there is a conflict between religion and science. It’s not the conclusions — it’s the math. Third, there’s no point in arguing with rabbit math. Once you reach the point where someone practices it, the most you can do is point it out.

  3. 3

    Must re-read Watership Down one of these days!

    There’s lots of “rabbit math” going around in politics these days, as well. Such as pretty much anything on Faux News. Or the right side of the aisle in Congress.

  4. 4

    Yes but Troll Math is really just binary :)

  5. 5

    Loving this.

  6. 6
    Phillip IV

    The US Cavalry sometimes encountered a similar problem when relying on reports by Native American scouts – for some of them “numerous as the grass on the prairie” started at about 50, with 6,000 possibly still being covered by the same phrase. Not a meaningless difference when concerning the number of hostiles.

    Asides aside, I think the approach religion takes is slightly more subtle than offering a simple solution from authority, it actually works by defining their solution in a way that simply defies the (and any) question. God’s existence is defined as being both unprovable and not requiring a cause, his reasoning and behavior is defined as inscrutable and the way to arrive at such statements is defined as not requiring any substantiation. So it’s less a case of saying anything beyond 2+2 is 5, it’s more like saying “anything beyond 2+2 is yellow, and the laws of Mathematics are not applicable”.

  7. 7
    RW Ahrens

    Simply brilliant!

    I will remember Rabbit Math, as it is a wonderful method of illustrating simplistic thinking.

    Thank you!

  8. 8

    And of course 2+2 does equal 5, for sufficiently large values of 2.

  9. 9

    We know the Bible is infallible because the Bible tells us that it is infallible. That may sound like circular reasoning…

    And the worst of it is, the Bible doesn’t even tell us that it is infallible at all.
    The most commonly used proof text is the Timothy one; “All writings …(so we capitalized the word and construed it as meaning “the Bible”, which didn’t exist for centuries after this was written)… are inspired … (and what, precisely does that mean? Not necessarily “infallible”) … and are useful …” (So is a cake recipe; so what?) There’s no infallibility even implied there.

    Put it in a letter claiming to be from a man long dead, and you’ve got bean all.

    Circular reasoning, using as proof a vague statement in a counterfeit book; even a rabbit would do better.

    1. 9.1

      Eh, what’s up Doc?

  10. 10
    P Smith

    You’re reminding me of Rick Santorum’s nonsensical remarks of a few weeks ago. He said (I’m paraphrasing) people have a “right to believe things that contradict the facts”. Worse still, he advocated a “right” to make decisions based on beliefs instead of facts.

  11. 11

    That reminds me of an exchange I had with a preacher (who also holds a master’s degree) in which he made a claissic circular argument for the truth of scripture and then said: “Now, some may call that circular reasoning, but I call it supporting my premise with my conclusion. And that is the beauty of it. The premise and the conclusion support each other.”

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