New Yorker: How Mathematics Changed Me

The New Yorker headline: How Mathematics Changed Me

Sub-headline: If one is inclined toward mysteries, mathematics can lead one to the conclusion that behind the veil of life there is a structure and an order.…

I have written about mathematics for The New Yorker and, lately, also in my book “A Divine Language: Learning Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus at the Edge of Old Age,” and I thought that I had said everything I had to say about mathematics and my simple engagement with it, but I find I can’t stop thinking about it.

Five years ago, when I was sixty-five, I decided to study adolescent mathematics, because my first encounter with it had left me feeling stupid and defeated. Also unsettled, privately, about my fitness for a successful life, since I hadn’t ever lost so profoundly to anything like I lost to math. It led me to wonder how many more losses might await me and how many might result from similar, not-yet-come-upon insufficiencies.

Studying simple mathematics a second time changed how I apprehended the world, which was an outcome I didn’t expect. I used to feel that I saw something divine in nature, and now I think that what I saw was an intimation of mathematical structure, of pattern and motion and symmetry and scale, among other things, and that these produced a sense of the divine. Is it possible that existence reduces to numbers, that things in themselves are numbers or, at least, can be described by them? It is an ancient conjecture that still has potency. Numbers originally described simple quantities then later showed themselves capable of describing grand aspects of nature intimately—the orbits of planets, for example. Mathematics is the language of science because it is the most efficient means we have for precisely describing complex material and even ineffable things. The theory of relativity can be expressed in prose, but E=mc² is more succinct.


I wonder if the old Atheist Board on Fool ever discussed this topic? I like the highlighted word I just learned: immanence:…

“I seem temperamentally drawn to the idea of a divinity. As a child, I sometimes had the feeling of an accompanying presence, usually when I was by myself in the woods, a feeling of something infinite behind everything. It was an awareness of the world itself as somehow animated. This is a manner of thinking called immanence, in which the divine is believed to be among us, as it were, obscurely present, felt but not seen. I think so many people experience this that it seems quaint to regard it as original or even unusual. I simply add myself to those who have perceived it. There is a period of childhood when the balance between the conscious and the unconscious is not weighted so much toward consciousness, a period when one receives sensations differently and is less inclined to analyze them.”

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I was finishing a book last night that included a similar section:

"Rudolf Otto makes a strong case for the presence in the human mind of something he names the “numinous”, by which, apparently, he means a sense there is in the world a vague, incomprehensible Something, the Mysterium Tremendum, the awesome Mystery, surrounding and enfolding the universe. This is an It, an awful Thing, and can never be intellectually conceived, only sensed and felt in the depths of the human spirit. It remains as a permanent religious instinct, a feeling for that unnamed, inconceivable Presence that “runs quicksilver like through creation’s veins” and sometimes stuns the mind with a supernatural, supranational manifestation of itself. The man thus confronted is brought down and overwhelmed and can only tremble and be silent.

This non rational dread, this feeling for the uncreated Mystery in the world, is back of all religion."

And, of course, there is much more preceding and following.

Former RB and BL Home Fool, Supernova Portfolio Contributor & Maintenance Fool
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