Math and the Modern World

Many students – well, let’s broaden the genus, and say many former students, with haunted memories of vague equations and sine-curves and integrals – claim to ‘hate math’, that they were ‘never good at it’, and they’re just not a ‘math person’. Au contraire. Like music, anyone can, at some level, do math – it just requires a bit of perseverance and patience. And whatever one’s proclivities, mathematics has certainly helped build what we know of as our modern world, for better or for worse, as Bo Malmberg persuasively argues.

There is an intellectual thread that runs through all of these advances: measurement and calculation. Geometric calculations led to breakthroughs in painting, astronomy, cartography, surveying, and physics. The introduction of mathematics in human affairs led to advancements in accounting, finance, fiscal affairs, demography, and economics – a kind of social mathematics. All reflect an underlying ‘calculating paradigm’ – the idea that measurement, calculation, and mathematics can be successfully applied to virtually every domain. This paradigm spread across Europe through education, which we can observe by the proliferation of mathematics textbooks and schools. It was this paradigm, more than science itself, that drove progress. It was this mathematical revolution that created modernity.

The mathematical revolution has indeed spawned technological wonders, and, as may be gleaned, as far as math’s effect on the world goes, the author seems to side on the ‘better’ – and there are certainly marvels galore, from interplanetary spacecraft to modern computing. In the narrative, there is some at least implicit downplaying of the prior over-emphasis on classical education, derived largely from the philosophically-based ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. Yet, Dr. Malmberg does admit that Jesuits did include some rigorous mathematics in their curricula, and we may agree that a foundation in math is necessary for a well-rounded education, at least of some basic sort, so that one is not, for example, bamboozled by slanted statistics and can balance one’s household budget.

Yet, for all of its success, math itself remains unmoored and lost without a clear telos. What is the purpose of the internet or I-phone, if one has little to say, or, worse, one’s head is filled with falsehoods? We have become homo technologicus, with advanced tools we know not what for. All that calculus, which helped invent millions of marvelous mini-computers with windows into all knowledge, just to scroll through Tik-Tok or Instagram, or blow away imaginary pixelated villains in a video world?

And what of math and the modern university? Many of the morass of majors now pullulating academic calendars don’t require much, if any, math courses at all, which may explain much of current students’ emotionalism and illogicality, the baneful effects of which are now on full display, with the tragic fruits, as one pundit put it, of arrogance allied ignorance. Whatever one says of the science of numbers, it at least trains the mind to rigorous argumentation, and provides a necessary basis to reasoning properly Some degrees, the more demanding ones, require a dose of calculus and such.

But we need the full ‘liberal arts’ to ‘free’ us from debilitating ignorance, and slavery to the algorithm: The trivium of logic, grammar and rhetoric, and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, in some form or another. But we also need the Church’s wisdom, as embodied in the rich tradition of philosophy and theology, to integrate and apply all that knowledge and techne, by the ‘higher things’ – God, the soul, the moral life, ethics – which is, in the end, what life is all about. As the Second Vatican Council Constitution, the Church in the Modern World, warns, the world stands in grave peril, unless wiser men are forthcoming.

We need a lot more than math for such wisdom, but a study of the numerical harmony of God’s cosmos certainly paves the way.