Issue 107 / September - October 2015
Mathematics: On the Path to Wisdom
Throughout history, mathematics has meant different things to different people. According to the sixteenth century scientist and philosopher, Galileo Galilei, God created the cosmos in the language of mathematics. The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, ordered, "Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here", to be written on the gates of his own social academy, indicating that he had the same concept of the language of the cosmos as Galileo.
Through its various incarnations, from the Egyptian, Greek, Muslim, and Western sciences to the present day, mathematics has ignited the interest of people, nations, and religions. Mathematics has been used extensively to solve the secrets of the Holy Qur'an in the discipline of jifr and numerology, despite not being recommended by theologians, and Kabbalists have endeavoured to understand the word of God by using mathematics. Within Christianity, Saint Augustine's statement that, "six is not perfect because God created the world in six days; rather, God created the world in six days because six is a number of perfection,"1 shows that mathematics has been far more influential than science. Therefore, mathematics' role in the transformation of knowledge into wisdom should be carefully considered.
In its abstraction, mathematics provides us with a vast quantity of information to explore. It is one of the most effective means of explaining incomprehensible phenomena in the cosmos, including the aspects that are beyond human perception. Even though not everything in mathematics appears to have a correspondence in the real world now, according to Nikolai Lobachevsky, the future will bear witness to such a correspondence. Therefore, contemporary mathematicians need not be concerned whether their studies correspond to real facts or not.
History has demonstrated repeatedly that nations which have progressed in the social and natural sciences have become more fully developed. Life depends on a lot of parameters, which share several common characteristics. For example, a link may exist in society between a society's justice system and its level of mathematical knowledge. John Nash, the Nobel Prize winner, stated (2012)2 that there is no justice in a society where people do not know mathematics, revealing that all levels of mathematics have more meaning and social impact than we imagine. In this context, math can even be useful for understanding and solving complicated social issues.
How can theology, which deals with creation and belief, help us understand life without mathematics? The answer to this question depends on our understanding of the universe as evidence for God's existence. In Richard Feynman's words, "To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature."3 Here it can be realised that Feynman's ideas on the language of nature correspond to those of Galileo, who lived over four centuries ago. Both scientists seem to agree that an understanding of the universe is intricately linked to mathematics.
In the contemporary world, the reason the majority of people prefer studying social sciences may be related to an unwillingness to study mathematics. If we believe everything in the universe was created for a purpose, it makes sense then that everything is connected at a deeper level. Mathematics can make enormous contributions to other disciplines. Therefore, the current role of mathematics in other disciplines needs further attention. As an illustration, although the work of Leonardo da Vinci is globally acclaimed, particularly masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa, most people ignore the mathematical aspect of da Vinci's art. To understand this aspect of his work would only deepen our appreciation of his genius.
In Islamic theology, it is suggested that every sin, whether minor or not, should never be undermined. The Qur'an asks every human, as small as they are, to behave as if they were in the presence of God. Bediuzzaman mentions that, "For there are some small things which can in one respect swallow many large things."4 Indeed, the things that we regard as small can be the bearers of larger things, and this is possible in mathematics as well. The example of the butterfly effect is prominent proof of this fact; the flap of a butterfly's wings in China may trigger a storm in the United States. In other words, a single occurrence, no matter how small it is, can change the direction of the universe. This was proved with a weather forecast experiment. When the decimal value of one of the parameters was not entered, considerable changes occurred in the curve of the weather estimation. This is a clear example of how small things may have much more of an effect than we assume.
In conclusion, the universe will disclose its secrets more if approached holistically. It is obvious that the universe cannot be fully read without mathematics. People who want to understand the workings of creation should know all disciplines, at least to a certain extent.
1 Hamilton, Albert Charles. 1990. The Spenser Encyclopedia, page 514.
2 Evin, Mehves. 2012. "There is no justice in a society where people do not know mathematics," (Turkish) Interview with John Nash. Milliyet, 24.07.2012.
3 Richard, P. 1967. The Character of Physical Law, MIT Press, p. 58.
4 Nursi, Bediuzzaman Said. 2008. The Gleams, NJ: The Light, Inc. p. 188.