Gateways to “Mysticism”, Part I: Math

This should be a long post written by somebody smarter, but rather than have it join the Invisible Draft Parade, where end up most of my good ideas that need more help than I have time or brains to give them, we’ll try to break it up into small pieces and throw it down! Yea, internet!

I may have mentioned this before: Carl Sagan managed to reeeeeally rub me the wrong way back in the early 80s when I first became aware of him through Cosmos, a comically overrated Science! series. One thing that got me was his repeated sneering dismissal of ‘mysticism’, a term whose functional definition was anything Carl didn’t like: God and religion, of course, but also philosophy and especially metaphysics, insofar as they have anything to say about Science!.

Now, what I want is facts” I can hear Mr. Gradgrind, oops, Mr. Sagan say. None of this mystical nonsense! Except Gradgrind, just like Sagan,  is a man of “facts and calculations.”

It’s the calculations part we’ll look at today.

One insinuation of Sagan and materialists in general is that what they disparage as mysticism is the result of weak-minded refusal to face the facts, of a pathetic effort to layer on ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ beyond the immediate world. Oddly, this turns out to be about opposite of the historical truth.

I contend, and I think anyone who has seriously looked at the question will concur, that Aristotle, he who coined the term ‘metaphysics’, was as hard-headed and practical as any thinker has ever been. What I mean is that he started, as he was fond of saying, ‘with what is most knowable to us’. He didn’t stop there, however – he asked the fundamental metaphysical question: what would need to be true for those things that are knowable by us to be knowable at all? This question leads, by one very short and inevitable step, a step a massive logical gravity pulls us inexorably to take, to all those things Sagan derides as mysticism.

Let’s ask the question about ‘calculations’ – about math.

What would need to be true for 1+1=2 to be true? How is it that I know 1+1=2? Please, show me the ‘facts’ in the material world that allow me to *know* this is true. The standard response, in my anecdotal experience, is to bluster and bluff and pretend it’s a dumb question to ask. In reality, it is the ONLY question to ask, if you are a materialist of any sort.  Show me ‘4’ for example. Not four of something, but 4.  Can’t show me 4 in the material world, let alone E=MC^2 or any other of the myriad of formulas that make up a large part of  our scientific understanding of the world? It would seem materialism has a problem, if  they live only as ideas, ideas which are unvalidatable by anything in the material world.

We cannot understand the material world scientifically without math. Yet math is immaterial.

The key point here, maybe the only point, is that men like Aristotle and his greatest student Thomas do not arrive at metaphysics because they are weak and cowardly and can’t face a world without and ultimate cause or reason. Rather, they philosophize because they want to know how it has come to pass that we mere mortal men came to know anything at all. The weakness and cowardice kicks in when we flee such questions.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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