The Ineluctable Modality of Numbers
by Rob McGinley Myers, associate producer
Catching up on my New Yorker reading, I ran across this article from the March 3 issue about the way the human brain is hardwired for math. It reminded me of my own peculiar sense of numbers as a kid, especially the numbers 1-10. At some point, around 1st grade, my brain gave those numbers distinct personalities, genders, and even relationships with each other. The number 6 for instance was an awkward, nerdy boy, and the number 9 was a sophisticated young woman. 6 looked up to 9 like a cool older sister, but she couldn’t stand him, and whenever they were multiplied or added, 9 couldn’t wait for the computation to end. She much preferred the company of 4 and 8, both of them cool, confident boys, though 8 was more disaffected than eager, cheerful 4 (I could go on and on like this).
What’s fascinating to me is the author Jim Holt’s statement that, according to cognitive science, “We have a sense of number that is independent of language, memory, and reasoning in general.” To me, numbers feel like a human invention, just as alphabets and words are human inventions, but it’s apparently more like numbers are a part of nature. And according to this research, our brains grasp the rudimentaries of math as intuitively as we grasp hunger, thirst, and love.
It made me think of Janna Levin’s response on our show “Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth” when Krista asked her, “Does the fact that one plus one equals two have anything to do with God?” Levin said, “If I were to ever lean towards spiritual thinking or religious thinking, it would be in that way. It would be, why is it that there is this abstract mathematics that guides the universe? The universe is remarkable because we can understand it. That’s what’s remarkable.”
Reading The New Yorker on the Way to New York
Krista Tippett, Host/Producer
I am a “faithful” reader of The New Yorker - for all the kinds of writing and reporting they do. They’ve also by the way had some brilliant pieces on religion in recent years, as the whole field of journalism catches up with this subject, its importance in human life, and the intellectual and spiritual content that has been missed by traditional journalism for too long. But this kind of list still puzzles and throws me - an announcement of a New Yorker conference on “the near future”, with:
“theorists, designers, economists, philosophers, ethicists, animators, inventors, musicians, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, scientists, artists, politicians, engineers, financiers.”
Where are the theologians? Why this assumption that philosophers and ethicists can hold their own in pressing, intellectual conversation - and have relevant and essential insight to add to the mix - and not religious thinkers?
On a lighter note, I love this spiritually profound and true cartoon.