Chickens and Eggs

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Courtesy freedigitalphotos.net, “hand writing science formulas” by Mr. Lightman

 

Sometimes it feels like Plato and Aristotle are sitting at my kitchen table, arguing. This happens because where my kids used to bicker over who elbowed whom in the back seat of the car, as they’ve grown up they’ve moved on to better things – debates over ideas. And I have to say that while the squabbling in the back seat used to make me want to scream, the disputations that happen at the kitchen table leave me thinking. Here’s a case in point: the other day, the Rocket Scientist and the Conductor got into an epic talk about whether math is only a product of the human mind, or whether it has some reality in the world. The Rocket Scientist maintained that math is the name we give to things – amounts, shapes – and that, as such, it’s only a human construct. We see a tree outside, and connect the lines of its branches to other lines we see (the horizon, for instance), and come up with this idea we call a line. We see things and call them squares, even though no perfect square exists in the world. Meanwhile, the Conductor argued back that math grows out of physics – things exist in the world, we see them, and so we name them. Therefore, there’s a line because lines exist in the world, we see a bunch of them that look very similar to each other, and the idea of lines is born. To put the question another way, does the abstract grow out of the concrete, or do we pull the abstract out of nothing and lay it over the world we see? Sometimes These are chicken and egg questions that are just interesting to think about, and have been throughout time. As usual, I don’t think about them in terms of math and physics, but in terms of people and the telling of stories. The questions are equally tough in that realm, though, because while you often see that people tell themselves stories about what should be, or what the world is like, and then build their real, lived lives around that made-up story, you’ll just as often see stories that grow out of life. A person will experience kindness or cruelty, and go on to tell stories of the same. This gets writ large all over history – we tell ourselves that the king is born to be petted and obeyed and the serf is born to be abused and commanded, and then we make that story true by making sure everybody lives that way. And yet, that’s not the only way it happens. For a thousand reasons some other idea might develop – the concept that we human beings have inalienable rights, for example – and it works its way in, eventually changing the story for everyone. Chicken and egg, math and physics, reality and story. Is it a seesaw, or does one always lead to the other? I don’t know, but it’s fascinating to think about. 

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