Saturday, August 11, 2007

Philosophical Illumination in Statistics Class (Who Knew?)

Let one thing be made certain, I am in no way gifted in mathematics. In fact, it has been suggested that I have a full-blown math disability. Aside from it being humorous to watch me attempt to figure a tip at a restaurant without the aid of a counting mechanism, this has historically proved to be anything but helpful. However, Introduction to Statistical Methods my junior year of college provided a grand philosophical moment (for myself, as others have probably come to the same conclusion), despite my assuming the role of the proverbial deer in the mathematician’s headlights the rest of the time.

Upon one “simple” math problem which I naturally did not understand, I realized that this class was entirely dependent on the existence of absolute, universal, objective truth. Further, mathematics itself is dependent on such absolute truth. 2+2= 4. Some, subscribing to a different school of thought will attempt to deny this reality, but suffice it to say that there is only minimal thought of the wishful type done in said school. I apologize if this seems a bit harsh.

If 2+2 did NOT equal 4, ever or even occasionally, then every math-based scientific discovery would crumble because they are entirely dependent on this being consistently true. You will never see a true math test which is graded subjectively. This is because there cannot be a middle-ground. The operation, done in the same way, either always produces the same answer, or it is entirely wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Otherwise, we have an unreliable mathematical framework, and the stakes for such are painfully high. Math reflects truth. My mathematical ANSWERS, because they are most of the time WRONG, do not reflect truth, nor do they change the composition of math itself. Why is math universally accepted? Why is math universally trusted (when done correctly, of course)? Thought provoking, isn’t it (at least it was for me during class)…

I argue that the person who does not believe in absolute, universal, objective truth must then also throw out the privilege to use mathematics. One cannot have their cake and eat it too. (Though many try, much to the chagrin of intellectual honesty…)


Tim said...


You're quite right. This is also one of the beautiful things about chess, which rightly understood is an art that illustrates the beauty of logic. As the second World Champion, Emmanuel Lasker, said:

"On the chessboard, lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in the checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite."

Vocab alert: for "ascribing" put "subscribing."

Sarah Scott said...

I have never played, but now I may have to learn it, slowly. ;) Thank you for the vocab alert, I made the change.