When I wrote “What If I Denied the Existence of Science?” I was pointing out a contradiction. Science itself relies on abstraction, it is a body of knowledge not a material thing. It cannot walk right up to you and say “Howdy!”
Well it turns out people do question the existence of another body of knowledge — math. Thank you Mrs. Mary C. Tillotson, who writes at Ignitum Today, for sending me the video. It was posted at The Atlantic and played on PBS’s YouTube channel.
Here’s the short summary: Biology studies living things. Chemistry studies chemicals. Physics studies physical things. Math? Math just studies math. Math is the abstract study of something abstract, something disembodied from the material world. Therefore, some people say that math is just something we created, and is only meaningful in the story of human life — that is, it doesn’t really exist.
The video commentator mentions Alain Badiou, a professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. I cannot follow his philosophy, but this is what he says about truth, from his biography page.
As Alain Badiou explains in detail in his major work to date L’Etre et l’événement(1988), truths are militant processes which, beginning from a specific time and place within a situation, pursue the step-by-step transformation of that situation in line with new forms of broadly egalitarian principles. Only a pure commitment, one detached from any psychological, social, or ‘objective’ mediation, can qualify as the adequate vehicle for a truth, but reciprocally, only a properly universal truth qualifies as worthy of such a commitment. Only a truth can ‘induce’ the subject of a genuine commitment.
If I put my one-liner goggles on, I think that says, “There is no truth, we just think there is.” He claims to be an atheist and a communist. No truth but man’s truth.
I hear scientists say that too. They even say that science is not a search for truth.
On the contrary, I’m reminded of one of my favorite (and kind of funny) St. Thomas Aquinas explanations, Chapter 4 of Summa Contra Gentiles where he talks about what “awkward things” would happen if the search for truth were solely left to human reason.
What does St. Thomas say? He says that reason alone can only go so far in a lifetime, that ultimate answers about God surpass the ability of human reason. We needed Divine Revelation so that we could know and love God better. He names “three awkward consequences” that follow if someone searches for truth without searching for God.
Quick aside: St. Thomas uses the words “search for God,” but before this part he also explains (one-liner goggles again) that if you are searching for truth, you are searching for God because God is truth, which probably explains the dislike for the word “truth” among some atheists.
First, he says, few men would have any knowledge of God. A lot of people do not have the “physical disposition for such work” and are “naturally not fitted to pursue knowledge.” No matter how much they try, they wouldn’t be able to get very far. Others are cut off from it by the “necessities imposed upon them by their daily lives.” People have to work and cannot spend an entire lifetime in intellectual pursuit. There are also, he says, some who are “cut off by indolence,” which is his way of saying that some people are just too lazy to “labor for the mere love of knowledge.” They do not have that “appetite” for knowledge.
Second, he says, that the few who would come to discover knowledge would “barely reach it after a great deal of time.” Why? Because the truth is profound and the human intellect is weak. It needs training. In youth the soul is “swayed by the various movements of the passions” and isn’t ready for such high knowledge. He quotes Aristotle, “One becomes wise and knowing in repose.” (Was it Aristotle who said that we don’t reach prime intelligence until after the age of fifty?*) If the way open to knowledge of God is limited to the few who can work that hard and who spend a lifetime to reach it, then “the human race would remain in the blackest shadows of ignorance.”
You can’t argue with him, though I know some young people who would.
Finally, he says, the third effect is that with human reason alone we risk going astray. There is “falsity present” within our reasoning due in part to weakness in intellectual judgment and in part to the “admixture of images.” What is that? It’s imagination. We let our imaginations run wild too easily. The result is that many, “remaining ignorant of the power of demonstration,” would doubt what is true and believe what is false. People are capable of making sophisticated-sounding arguments and all too willing to neglect an intellectual examination of the demonstrations. This is why we needed “unshakeable certitude and pure truth” to be presented to us, to help us.
In other words, if faith guides our search for truth, we’ll get much further.
And that, I think, is exactly what happened in the video. Math is abstract, but if you approach it having accepted the truths of faith, then math makes sense. Math is beautiful, math is something you expect, discover, and put to use, “…but thou hast ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight.” (Wisdom 11:21) If you approach math without faith and dig into the deeper questions proposed by the imaginative man in the video, then bam, you might just run into a logical brick wall, and find yourself asking whether math really exists.
Tagged and filed accordingly.
*Yes, it was Aristotle. If you want to have some fun, go read what he says about it. Physics, Book Seven, XVI.