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What if six did turn out to be nine?

September 7th, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

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What if we did math the way we do democracy?

Perhaps it is symptomatic of the post-modern condition that facts have lost some of the exalted place they once held in the Western mind. One of the outcomes of the Enlightenment – the “Age of Reason” — that created the modern world, was the elevation of rationality over superstition. In effect the basis of what could be considered “true” changed over the course of the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, from religious truth supported by scripture and apostolic authority to scientific truth supported by mathematics. To the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, the fact that math was knowable and indisputable made it a far better measure of truth than the competing religious notions that had plunged Europe into decades of religious wars.

But the science that brought comfortable certainty and optimism to the Enlightenment philosophes also produced the most horrific era in history in the Twentieth century. After World War II the widespread faith in the inevitability of progress through science and education that had accompanied modernity faltered. Determining truth became more problematic as monolithic surety gave way to an atomizing impulse driven by competing points of view. If we cannot agree that one thing is absolutely true, can we agree that anything is true? Hence the relativism of post-modern Western society.

But what about math? Mathematical truths are still true. That was the foundation of modernism. 2+2 is 4 in every time place and language. Although the 2016 election cycle has produced some unbelievable moments I don’t think we have yet reached a point where you will find rival candidates arguing over the result of adding two and two, at least not directly. Mathematics can be made to distort the truth like the manipulation of other factual data, and politicians do this all of the time. But what if we took the next step and reached a general consensus that there are no irrefutable proofs in mathematics? What if someone could say, with a straight face, to educated people, that the sum of two and two is unknowable, or that it is whatever seems most convenient to an argument? Six, for example.

Of course we would rebel against that! So you say. But this is what we do with facts in history and politics. We have become conditioned to act as if facts don’t matter. What is true is what I just heard on the radio or read on Facebook. How do I know? Rush Limbaugh said it. Must be true. I don’t need to fact check. Of course we don’t admit that on the surface. We base our conclusions on what we think are facts, but often those facts are either deliberately altered or even made up. They are not facts at all. And, we all know  this, but somehow miss the inevitable outcome of treating facts as inconsequential: an insane civic life. A civil society in which we cannot even agree on the facts.

We can argue about the effects of 2+2=4, but we would not argue about the basic fact. What if competing groups of scientists working on the Apollo project decided that the sum of two and two could be whatever seemed the most convenient in context? Sometimes it is four, sometimes six, sometimes seventeen. In some ways this probably would have made their work less challenging, but it is doubtful whether anything they produced would have put a human on the moon. Unless their mathematical creativity ended up blowing them sky high.

It is true that conclusions derived from historical data are more complex and less certain than mathematical truths, in part because the facts are not always completely evident. We might know, for example, that one of the factors is two and that the outcome is six, but there’s no record of the process of arriving at six. You can argue it might have been the addition of a four, or two twos, or a one and a three. But you can’t say with a straight face that the outcome six was based on the addition of two and nine. And yet this is what we do in our popular discourse. Falsehoods are presented as facts and readily accepted because they conform to what we wish were true. And we vilify anyone who challenges our conclusions. Is this any way to run a democracy?

Just as young children are taught the basics of arithmetic and mathematics, citizens in a democracy, who are charged with the gravity of maintaining a just and viable political state, should be taught basic historical facts and the rules for critical thinking. We should be taught by professionals dedicated to the discipline, not lunatics and partisan fanatics. If we fail to do this we will continue marching ignorantly, but apparently happily, into a nightmare.

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