Math, Reason, & Civilization

platonicElements
-Platonic elements

revstephenfreeman

-by Rev Stephen Freeman

“If math should suddenly disappear, it would set physics back – a week.”
Nobel Prize Winner – Richard Feynman

Mathematician’s response: But that week would be the one in which God created the universe.

Galileo is said to have remarked that the universe is a wonderful thing, written in the language of mathematics.

“There is a remarkable correlation between things as we see them and math. Particle physicists have managed, on occasion, to predict the existence of new particles purely on the basis of math – and later have their predictions upheld through experimentation.

The ancient Greeks marveled at the relationship between math and reality and even suggested a relationship between certain geometrical shapes and fundamental reality. Plato posited that the “four elements” each had a primary geometrical shape. Fire was a sharp-pointed tetrahedra; Air was a smooth-sliding octahedra; Water was a droplet-shaped icosahedra; Earth was an easily compactable cube. To this, Aristotle added a fifth element, the Quintessence [“fifth element”], which was the ether, the stuff that filled all of space, thought to be the breath of the gods. Indeed, it was posited that that universe itself had the shape of that element, a dodecahedra.

Modern physics has more detail and more math, but the same intuition about how things are. This system of elements believed by Greek philosophers, is repeated in the writings of the early Fathers. It was the common, educated understanding of the world at their time. And, as I have noted, though geometric shapes have given way to quarks and charms and gluons, the fundamental intuition has not changed.

It is appropriate to look towards math when considering creation. And this correlation between math and creation also gives rise to the use of reason. If mathematical rules accurately measure and predict the movements of the heavens, then the same principles apply to all things. Logic is simply the application of mathematical principles to ideas and words. This intuition has not changed over the course of the centuries. Just as our math is more sophisticated than the math of Euclid, so our logic is more sophisticated than that of Plato and Aristotle. But it is still the same math and the same logic.

What has changed over the centuries, however, is the relationship of all of this to culture itself. Modernity (a movement and set of concepts born in the late 18th century Enlightenment) extended reason in every direction. It was assumed that the power of math, demonstrated through repeated and successful experiments, could be directed towards everything with beneficial results. And so were born new “branches” of knowledge, such as Political Science (the application of rational logic to the problems of the State), Sociology (the application of rational logic to social behavior), etc. Every branch of science in the modern world shares the common assumptions of the Enlightenment. Reason and experiment will tell us everything.

There is, however, a limit to this wonderful correlation – and it is this limit which is often forgotten within Modernity. The Fathers recognized that God Himself is not subject to these rational, mathematical principles. This is not to say that God is irrational, but that He transcends the categories and principles of creation. In a similar manner, the soul itself cannot be subjected to these principles.

The soul is not “stuff.” Rather, it is regarded as the “life” of the body. Instead of being a data point of metaphysics, the affirmation that we have a soul is an affirmation that when all the math and rationality of our existence is finished, there remains something to be said. Regardless of our materiality, we are more than numbers and reason. The “life” of a man is, like God, not subject to measurement or definition.

A strength of the modern project has been its use of reason and math. With careful application we have seen amazing advances in science and technology. But the same strength has also been its greatest weakness. For we have tried to reduce everything to science and reason (with increasingly bogus versions of both). The more purely “reasonable” and “scientific” revolutions were all abject failures and the cause of untold misery (cf. France and Russia). Though democracy found its way across many other nations, most sought to balance pure reason with the wisdom of inherited tradition. It remains the case that solutions based on pure reason fail at the human level.

All of this is true because the soul (and thus human behavior itself) remains not subject to reason or math. It stands as a boundary to our arrogance and a point where trespass happens at our peril. That quality is present elsewhere as well. For though many aspects of human existence can be measured and quantified, they cannot be reduced to their quantification. There is always a remainder that cannot be accounted for, other than by a recognition that we are in the presence of life itself. Of course, much of modernity will often choose to ignore the remainders of our existence, seeking to force life into quantifiable boundaries. Such efforts must be cataloged as examples of arrogance and the danger of modern hubris.

A life rightly lived must be lived beyond measure. Beyond the math and reasons that predict the progress of economies and weigh benefits and boons, the soul yearns for what cannot be seen, measured or reasoned. And that yearning has drawn grace down from heaven through the ages and transfigured the merely mathematical.

The intuition of the early philosophers went beyond what they could measure and see. Earth, air, fire, water – theses are obvious elements to be measured and considered. But they understood that the fifth element was something apart. It was always the point where philosophy stumbled. For though it rightly recognized “something more,” it could not itself be successfully known. But at least they recognized that not everything can be known. In that sense, our modern world has forgotten the quintessence of created existence.

Of course, our struggles today are not with the rationalists of the late 18th or 19th centuries. For today, reason itself has become suspect. There has been a shift in popular consciousness in which the will has triumphed over reason (something that was inevitable). Today, what is true is what we want to be true. It is the final victory for consumers. Not only are we able to choose anything we want, but we are also able to will what is.

Justice Anthony Kennedy articulated this with great succinctness in 1992 in the opinion he wrote for Planned Parenthood vs. Casey:

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

That “liberty” now justifies fundamental realities such as the relations between male and female to be subject to change, because some want it. Reality has become plastic and subject to redefinition. This is an anti-science and an anti-math, just as it is anti-reason.

The mathematical reasonableness of creation is an important feature of creation, recognized both by the fathers as well as modern science. In that sense, true science is in no way the enemy of the Christian faith. It has its limits, and must stand respectfully silent before the quintessence of existence. Reason and Math have classically been limited by reality itself. The will, however, seems to know no limit. With its triumphant rise, civilization has passed over into barbarism.”

Love,
Matthew

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