A friend, watching a serial thriller, The Oxford Murders, jotted down this interesting bit of dialogue between a professor who holds the Darwinist view of the brain (shaped for fitness, not for truth) and a design-based one (design in mathematics is real, and the brain is designed to apprehend it):
Elijah Wood is sitting in a lecture hall listening to a professor discuss the significance of Wittgenstein and the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
Professor: There is no way of finding a single absolute truth, an irrefutable argument that might help to answer the questions of mankind. Philosophy, therefore, is dead. Because “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.”
[Elijah Wood raises his hand]
Professor: Oh, it seems that someone does wish to speak. It appears you are not in agreement with Wittgenstein. That means either you have found a contradiction in the arguments of the Tractatus, or you have an absolute truth to share with us all.
Wood: I believe in the number Pi.
Professor: I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you. What was it you said you believed in?
Wood: In the number Pi, in the Golden Section, the Fibonacci Series. The essence of nature is mathematical. There is a hidden meaning beneath reality. Things are organized following a model, a scheme, a logical series. Even the tiny snowflake includes a numerical basis in its structure. Therefore, if we manage to discover the secret meaning of numbers, we will know the secret meaning of reality.
Professor: Impressive! Translating his words into the Queen’s English, we find ourselves faced with a fresh, rousing defense of mathematics, as if numbers were pre-existing ideas in reality. Anyway, this is nothing new. Since man is incapable of reconciling mind and matter, he tends to confer some sort of entity on ideas, because he cannot bear the notion that the purely abstract only exists in our brain. The beauty and harmony of a snowflake — how sweet! The butterfly that flutters its wings and causes a hurricane on the other side of the world. We’ve been hearing about that damn butterfly for decades, but who has been able to predict a single hurricane? Nobody! Tell me something. Where is the beauty and harmony in cancer? What makes a cell suddenly decide to turn itself into a killer metastasis and destroy the rest of the cells in a healthy body? Does anyone know? No. Because we’d rather think of snowflakes and butterflies than of pain, war or that book. Why? Because we need to think that life has meaning, that everything is governed by logic and not by mere chance. If I write 2 then 4 then 6, then we feel good, because we know that next comes 8. We can foresee it, we are not in the hands of destiny. Unfortunately, however, this has nothing to do with truth. Don’t you agree? This is only fear. Sad, but there you go.
It strikes me that if the purely abstract exists only in one’s brain, it still exists. And – unlike a mere delusion – abstract mathematics has great power when embodied in the world of nature.
What would you ask the professor?
Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.