The Numeracy of Thought

For the humanist, the mathematical rubber hits the road of thought when she understands that almost all of her supposedly qualitative thought, particularly as it relates to the economy, involves ranking or statements of magnitude. “Invading Iraq set the country back to the stone age,” for example, is the statement that Iraq now has fewer cars, or dollar bills, or hospitals, or whatever, than it had before. Or consider “a dictatorship is better than an occupation.” In the first case you are counting, even if you don’t realize it. And in the second you are ranking, and any ranking can be represented as a counting of units of preference. So implicitly you are doing math.

The rub is that if you don’t actually write down functions and equations to describe your implicitly mathematical arguments, you end up doing very rudimentary and crude math. You are stuck with general mores versus lesses. Once you add the tools of math to your statements, you can multiply and divide your mores, integrate and differentiate your lesses, optimize them all, and so on. You explore your theories with much greater precision and insight than if you stick to just > and <.  Moreover, you can compare your statements and harmonize them in ways that you cannot do when you lack the compact mathematical notation that allows you to include many complex ideas on a single line of text. And perhaps most beautifully and powerfully, at least for me, you can go out into the world, and get actual numbers that can be input into your mores and lesses, so that you can say, with extraordinary magic, precisely how much more and how much less, precisely how badly Iraq was injured.

The frightening thing for the humanist is that math, far from being an obfuscation and a superficiality, is something one has been doing crudely all along.  It is a humbling that a true humanist should welcome to discover that her humanism is just an ignorance, or perhaps an illiteracy. Indeed, an innumeracy.