This one time I was thinking about mathematics...
A year ago on Pi Day I wrote about how I clawed my way out of mathematical mysticism. Now that mystical thinking is again on the rise, I'm sharing my post from last year.
I have been really lazy with this blog. I want to write about a lot of things and I wish I had stronger opinions that would give me the drive to log in once and a while and punch out a post. It's truly horrifies me how shallow and tepid my opinions really are. I care more about what I eat for lunch than the future of humanity to be honest.
Anyhow, it's not like I'm going to be writing anything new and meaningful today. Instead, this is a repost from my old blog that I wrote a year ago about mystic thinking and mathematics. I wrote it on Pi Day in 2022 and details how I got out of a insidious kind of mystical thinking about the nature of mathematics. To me I look back at my previous thinking as a bit embarrasing and would really just want to leave it in the past. However yesterday I was watching a short video about the thinking of Jordan B. Peterson and the way Peterson talks about serotonin in crabs and how that somehow leads to the inevitable emergence of hierachies using quasi-mystical language reminded me of my own half-baked ideas about mathematics 10 years ago. Mystical thinking is abound and is still out there having frightening effects of the way we see the world.
If anything, I hope the post below shows you that mystical thinking only feels 'profound', in reality it is only deep intellectual confusion. It is an inability, or more often, unwillingness, to look into a complex problem. It's a wonderful feeling to not think about a problem anymore and just slip into a warm bath of ignorance. Serotonin and dominance, the Fibonacci sequence in nature, all of these different patterns in the world, it's easier to think that they all point to some deeper structure, a Plan if you will, instead of going deeper and trying to learn more.
As Richard Feynman eloquently explains in the above video, you can always ask why over and over again and never stop. The answers you get can be very profound and insightful, however this doesn't mean that you have to always look deeper and deeper: something can be true within an agreed upon framework or set of axioms and you can be satisfied with some answers as they are. After all, that's the only way how we can live day to day without being mentally paralyzed. However it's dangerous to take this attitude of the knife when looking at scientific discoveries and then torturing them all into a bizzare, "is–ought" worldview.
So here is my post from a year ago. I can't bare to read it now, reading my old stuff always makes me cringe, so if there are typos and run-off sentences you'll just have to forgive me.
If you haven't noticed, today is National Pi Day in the US(3/14) and is a day where mostly schools advertise math and STEM fields to children. There is a growing community of people in the tech field in general (or at least in what could loosely be called Nerd Culture) to use the day to show their appreciation of all the things mathematics has allowed our society to do. Given that atheism doesn't really have any other holidays, this is the closest most freethinkers get to having a day to themselves other that remembering the birthdays of notable scientists.
I've had a love/hate relationship with math all my life. I've never really been good at it. To me it seemed that some people in my class just had a knack for it though. I remember one person I went to school with who was a complete asshole and just a completely crappy student that would fight and started smoking at 14. Despite that, he was extremely good at math. He could look at equations and give the answers pretty much immediately. I'd wonder how someone who otherwise was pretty much forced to go to school could be so good at math while other people needed to study pretty much every night just to be at this guys level.
It might be because of this experience that I developed this weird take on math: that it was something like being a religious prophet. You either had it or you didn't. You could do things to help cultivate mathematical ability but some people are just chosen and to them they can see what others can't, an ability that doesn't depend on moral character or even education on the subject. It's the only way my mind can understand people like Euler or Ramanujan.
There's this belief that's been bouncing around for the last few decades about what math really is. Is it just a language to describe the physical world of physics or is it something more ethereal, an invisible domain that humankind can only see in a vague way but exists somewhere in Platonic purity. I remember the idea being discussed in detail in Roger Penrose's book The Road To Reality. I liked the idea of this pure, mathematical world that somehow gets compressed and translated to create this impure, physical world. Like the way you see the Golden Ratio everywhere, as if this mystical mathematical entity is manifesting itself physically. I was prone to think that maybe if there is a God, that God is math, in this vague, Tool-esque way that requires no thinking, of course.
Now years later I realize that I was doing with what most people do when faced with something they can't really understand: you try to create a social relationship with it. At least you try to create this pseudo-social relationship with it. When you can't do anything else, you can just give up, become submissive and decide to not think of it anymore. You can give yourself permission to not worry about it and become a "devotee" or an "admirer", like you can do when you can't figure out how to get over someone in a social pyramid. If you can't become or understand the leader, you can at least have the leader like you by admiring them. It's the very core of religion.
So what's the point of "admiring" math? It's not like you get anything out of it. Math isn't a social entity, neither you nor math get anything out of settling on admiration. Not going to lie, it feels good to sit back and sink into the inky oblivion of a vague mystical feeling, making up fantasies in your mind where math can be some hidden, guiding force pointing at a golden realm not quite beyond understanding. I might have spent the rest of my life with the fuzzy feeling of mystical harmony that comes from half- or quarter-understanding basic mathematical principles if it wasn't for a video by the YouTuber ViHart that explains why you can see the golden spiral in nature. I suggest watching it, but the TL;DR is that there are clear reasons why spirals based on the Golden Ratio appear in nature. The reasons are slightly complex and took centuries to figure out, but the point it that logical reasons exist for this. If you don't just abandon reason when you reach something you can't immediately understand and keep on looking, you might have a chance to understand what's actually behind it all. Watching ViHart's 3 videos on Golden Ratio spirals completely woke me up from the mental coma I had happily put myself in. It is alright to admire things, but you can't just leave it at that. Don't give yourself permission to not dig deeper, to leave it at that. If you keep looking, you might find something even more amazing.
I still have a weird mystical view on mathematics, my mind can't help but wonder what what mathematics is really all about and why it seems so elusive to being firmly set in the physical world. Even though math can seem to give people these almost magical abilities like predicting outcomes of events or calculating trajectories, I try to keep the magical thinking at bay and to see math as just something amazing, fascinating and deeply cool but that's it. It's only the remnants of my simian mind that wants to read more into it.
If there's one thing mathematics can do, it to keep your mind busy. You can really get absorbed into a math or logic problem to a point where everything else melts away. I'm reminded of this quote in a computer science book I was reading a while back:
Counting is the religion of this generation it is its hope and its salvation.
I wonder if there are ways to make mathematics more appealing to the general public. People like Martin Gardner spent years developing math puzzles that got tens of thousands of people interested in mathematics and I've been doing my best try to get more into logic and math problems. Like I mentioned in a previous post I was reading a book on logic puzzles and also working on understanding the mathematics of cryptography. I came across an article a week or two ago called >So You Want to Study Mathematics… that go me thinking about doing some more math and logic problems a little more regularly. Given the doom and gloom that this world is pumping out isn't helping with my mental well-being at all, perhaps doing math problems will be my salvation.
Given that the last thing I was reading was a major downer, in light of my recent mystical/mathematical streak, I read The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges. It's has the kind of magical thinking I was complaining about this whole post but it's a really cool story.
Also, to end this Pi Day post, here's a reason why Pi sucks.