Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mathematics is Imaginary and Science is Poetry

 Renée Descartes pointed out a problem with how we know things. He realized that our senses can be deceived, and therefore, we cannot completely trust them. So he tried to find the most basic truth and build a logical paradigm based on that undeniable truth. This led him to write his now famous line, "Cogito, ergo sum;" "I think, therefore I am." We know we exist because we know we are thinking.

But Descartes also assumed the inherent truth of mathematics and logic, which is where I have to disagree with him. Numbers aren't real. They're made up by humans. You will never see a 7 in its natural habitat; it can only exist as a construct in our minds. Likewise, there really aren't five apples on any table. There are individual items on a table that we have chosen to all call apples, and since we have lumped those items into the same category, we might as well assign them the abstraction of being a group of five. But really each item is distinct from the other and from the category of "apple."

Just because numbers don't really exist, however, does not mean they aren't useful. I'm so thankful for numbers. They make life easier and they're handy. But even within the logical system of numbers that we've made for ourselves there are things called "imaginary numbers" because they are illogical. But they are just as useful as rational numbers. Electronic engineers use them all the time.

Now I'm going to talk about science. First, science is not absolute truth. In fact, it's founded on the fallacy that if we observe one repeated action, that action will continue to repeat as we have observed it. But that's okay. There is no system of intellectual inquiry that will perfectly lead us to absolute truth.

Next, science is not impartial. No one impartially decides to become a scientist. They either have a passion for the field, they're pressured into it, or they think they'll make more money from it than from some other career. There is some reason apart form science why scientists decide to do what they do.

Science is also partial when it comes to its application. An acoustician, if she were truly impartial, would not care if a concert hall had adequate echo or enveloping properties. She would just be interested in studying the effects of sound within the chamber. A biologist, if he were genuinely impartial, would not be concerned with conservation, but how all these animals and plants are disappearing just for the sake of knowing.

But doing science is like reading poetry. We take in sensory data, and then apply a meaning to it. We quantify (there are those made-up numbers again) the information available to us, be it a text or "raw facts," then we pass that information through the filter of our culture, ideology, personal history, and methodology to produce an interpretation of that information that stands independent from it.

Once again, this is not to say that science is not valuable. Clearly it is. But we need to be frank with ourselves about the subjectivity of even the "hard" sciences. The earth has no objective value besides what we, as humans, assign it. In the universal scheme of things, it really doesn't matter if we blow it all up or fry it all to ash through global warming. But it means very much to us as humans if the earth passes away. In fact, to us what is the universe without an earth?

In order to approach real truth, science and the humanities need to be informed by each other. If we abandon either field of inquiry, we resign our understanding to chaos.


  1. Hmmm....
    Do we have a little Humean in embryo?
    If so, welcome to the club.

  2. I'm not gonna lie, I'm pretty impressed with how he debunked, you know...thought and inquiry.