28 August 2008

The poet and the mathematician

It is the mathematician, not the poet, who can come closest to that shy, elusive creature Truth. The mathematician, unlike the poet, the mystic and all those who use language, is unfettered by cultural subjectivity and linguistic limitations. While wordsmiths (yours truly not exempted) depend on a generous fairy-dusting of glamour and sentimentality to woo an audience, mathematicians, and their cousins mathematical logicians, engage in an unselfconscious attempt to understand the fundamental laws of all things, laws expressed as numbers and their relationships bound together by the glue of logic. If the poet is music’s pretty poster child of romantic pop, then the mathematician is the hoary classical theorist with a command of music’s very building blocks.

Without mathematics – and the mathematicians who elucidate its contained knowledge – there could be no scientific advancement. And with no scientific advancement, humanity would have had to content itself with a civilisation built mainly by the poets, the mystics, the impotent idealists who lack the tools to make their dreams a reality.

It is quite revealing that mathematical laws are said to be 'discovered' and not, as is the case with language and the social context that shaped (and still shapes) it, invented or created. This suggests that mathematics as an element of existence exists independently of human creativity and, like gravity, simply presents itself for our study and scrutiny yet pre-existing us. "Mathematics," wrote Galileo Galilei, "is the language with which God has written the universe." Reference to an almighty creator aside, the eminent astronomer pronounced a scientific truism. Yet to metaphorically speak of mathematics as a language is to debase mathematics. Language is burdened with historical, cultural, social and psychological baggage that mathematics is happily free from. In a reality where to call anything 'pure' is to do so with a cynical wink, mathematics is arguably the only truly pure knowledge accessible to humanity.

A secular perspective on the universality of mathematics comes from the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who supplied me with my starting point for this essay. Writing on the philosophy of realism in his essay Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, Russell – who co-wrote with Alfred North Whitehead the Principia Mathematica, a 3-volume work on the logical foundations of mathematics – observed that "if (realism) is dry and technical, it lays the blame on the universe, which has chosen to work in a mathematical way rather than as poets and mystics might have desired." For all the pretense of these poets and mystics, it is the mathematician who truly possesses an esoteric knowledge that offers a window into the mechanics of Existence.


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