Demystifying the strange religious-like beliefs which modernists have regarding mathematics.
Over the years I have had numerous discussions with people who seem to believe that math is some kind of cosmic cipher that reveals the secrets of the universe. It is not just that these folks believe that math can describe reality precisely, but that mathematics exist as some kind of universal force, independent of human beings. They view math as some kind omnipresent, omnipotent force and consider it with religious awe.
Well I hate to burst your bubble, but we totally made that shit up.
Math is a language. It is language that human beings created to describe phenomena. It is not an inherent property of any given phenomena itself. To believe otherwise is similar to believing that the word ‘cat’ is an inherent property of cats. It is not. ‘Cat’ is a word human beings made up to describe the phenomena of cats. It does not arise or emanate from cats. A cat is not formed from the word ‘cat’. The word ‘cat’ did not pre-exist the animal, and the word did not give rise to them.
We can all agree that the word fits the animal because we agree on the definition of the word. Definitions are axiomatic. They are a closed, finite system based on agreement. Math is the same. The reason math works so neatly to describe phenomena is because it is axiomatic. It is an agreed upon set of definitions which does not change depending on its applications. The stability and usefulness of math arises from our agreement of its rules, properties and definitions, not because it is the programming code which reality was written with.
To suggest that math exists independently of humans, and that it is somehow a causal factor of phenomena, is to make religious proclamations. If math is the code used to write reality, then there must be a programmer. This is just reinventing god in the image of modernist beliefs. It is even more problematic to insist that there is no programmer, and that the code writes itself. This is to attribute agency to mathematics, which is so kooky that it makes most new age nonsense look super-rational by comparison.
In fact, new age nonsense is chock full of this kind of magical mathematical thinking. The Fibonacci sequence is often taken by new agers as some sort of secret code used to write reality. The only difference between new agers and those who believe math to be something more than just a language is that the former has the good sense to limit their silliness to a few mathematical concepts, rather than imbue the whole of mathematics with some divine agency.
Mathematics is a complicated language. All throughout history we have viewed those who are able to master complex ideas as superior. This is where religion comes from. Those who create difficult abstractions to describe reality become the priesthood. Whether it is interpreting chicken entrails, the bible or calculations – we apply awe to those who dazzle us with bullshit we do not fully understand ourselves. History is full of oppression by these priesthoods, and we are just as susceptible today. The reverence for math and science has created a no-questions-asked form of authority that is ripe for abuse. Just as the reverence for the old priesthoods led to oppressive theocracies, reverence for the new priesthood is leading us towards a scientocracy that is every bit as dangerous as it’s ideological predecessors, if not more so.
To view math as anything other than a language is not only irrational, it opens up an opportunity for abuse that threatens the self-ownership, personal agency and bodily autonomy of individuals. And it is important to remember that although mathematicians may appear to be cosmic sages in the context of modern beliefs, in any other time or ideological zeitgeist they would appear to be madmen. You may view your zealous awe for math as a sign that you are intelligent and on the right side of things, but what it really says about you is that you are an obedient participant in the most basic modern beliefs. One day these beliefs, like all that came before them, will be seen as silly and ignorant – and you will be regarded as one of the many gullible fools who fell for it. If you are looking to be on the cutting edge of things, having religious ideas about math is not going to deliver. That is how to be extremely basic in the context of our times and beliefs. The true mavericks of today probably look batshit insane to you, because that is how next level ideas look to people trapped in the old ideas. Reverence for math is not proof of your intellectual or ideological superiority – quite the opposite – it is proof that you are trapped in the past and far too proud about it.
WARNING: Beyond this point I discuss the reactions to this article, and what they portend. You should see them as supplemental to the overall discussion, but not part of the main point I intended for this article originally.
I posted this piece to r/math and it was almost immediately removed. Apparently anything less than unthinking reverence and piety towards math was seen as heresy, and had to be banished before the Wrath of Math could be brought down upon their little digital Reddit church. It pains me to consider that they do not see the irony of their actions at all. Thanks for proving my point about mathematical religiosity r/math!
r/mathematics has also censored this piece. If these were communities that were legitimately interested in expanding perspectives and conversations on math, then this type of article would be a unique opportunity to have a different discussion than usual. It has become clear that, like any fundamentalist groups, the gatekeepers of the internet’s greatest math forums are more interested in protecting their narrow, dogmatic view than opening things up for authentic inquiry. How much more religiously fanatic can you get?
This has now been banished from https://math.stackexchange.com as well. I really thought genuine math lovers would be happy to see their subject being protected from overzealous pop culture and ideological factions, but I guess they are more interested in protecting their image as infallible magistrates of reality.
Let me clarify the problem for you, if you do not see it. These forums are the most visible and accessible places online for people to learn about and discuss math and the underlying issues of math. Whether they understand or admit it, this provides them with tremendous power. To use that power to erase any discussion that they do not agree with will change the information landscape, and narrow it to a dogmatic set of canonized truths. That is dangerous. That is where the homogenization of thought is created, which can be exploited by tyrants and oppressors. Without freedom of information exchange in public places, which the internet definitively is according to usage, we become ripe pickings for inscrutable opportunists who will use our blind faith against us. This is not a small deal. This is a very big deal, and those people responsible for orchestrating these gatekeeping efforts will one day appear on the wrong side of history. They may not be intentionally malign figures, but their stubborn, egotistical need to control narratives will place them next to the most intentionally evil individuals in hindsight.
Further, there is tremendous power in SEO. If you do not understand SEO you do not understand one of the most powerful elements of the modern world. When you take ownership of a general term like ‘math’ on a huge platform like Reddit, you occupy a public space that is more likely to be viewed than almost anywhere else online. If you limit the sort of discussions that can be had using the general ‘math’ domain, then you are limiting the public discussion of math. If you want to keep your discussions limited to a specific area of a subject, you should put that in your name. Taking the most obvious name comes with the responsibility of accepting perspectives outside your own. If you do not you become an information monopolist and tyrant. A greedy fundamentalist whose ego will not permit you to consider any ideas but your own on any given matter. And there are way too many of you in charge of almost every narrative these days, which is going to become catastrophic for human progress.