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Bringing humanity back to the cult of numbers

Thursday 15 March 2018

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ, Eureka Street

Pythagoras, the fifth century Greek philosopher and the name behind the theorem, was a mythical figure. All the significant developments in ancient philosophy, mathematics, music, geometry and astronomy, as well as the founding of a community of mystics and scholars, were attributed to him.

At the heart of his contribution was the almost religious wonder at a world in which the human intelligence could understand and handle such different phenomena as music, architecture and the stars through mathematics. The building blocks of the world were seen to be numbers. The ascetic pursuit of the harmony of the universe replaced more primitive religions based on sacrifice to the gods.

The cult of numbers in a cruder form remains characteristic of the public world today. The most revered numbers are economic. Salvation is to be found in a rising GDP and stock market, a falling deficit, increasing or falling employment to taste, and increasing profits.

The numbers that evoke the most heartfelt awe and veneration are comparative. They are to be seen in political polls, school and university rankings and market ratings. If the support for the Coalition rises even a fraction within the margin of error, party sectaries will celebrate. If it moves down a tad, also within the margin of error, they declare a season of mourning.

If a school buys up brilliant students to provide the year's top performers or a university buys in a high powered institute or two to increase its position on the necessarily crude QS World University rankings, it will flourish. Educational institutions that serve less privileged students, with correspondingly poor rankings, will struggle.

Government ministers also rejoice to see Australia climb the international table for brutality to refugees. If the mathematics of flies climbing walls were discovered, and a gambling industry built around them, the fastest species would no doubt be protected. Such is the religious power of numbers.
When numbers collide with such other deeply held religious practices as sacrificing people to the gods of retribution, however, they are neglected. Governments that build more jails on the pretext that crime rates are rising happily disregard numbers that show they are falling. In order to deter crime they pass laws to send more people to prison for longer, despite the numbers showing that people sent to prison are much more likely to offend again later.

'The discussion of values should always precede the discussion of numbers.'

They treat young offenders as adults despite the evidence showing the effects of incarceration on the young brain. To force young people to work they limit benefits to young people and impose harsher and more demeaning restrictions on them. They ignore numbers which show the intractability of youth unemployment and the unaddressed disadvantage that stops people from connecting with society.

This mixture of religious fervour shown in the worship of numbers with cruder practices of human sacrifice is disconcerting. Lacking in it is the fervour and wonder attributed to Pythagoras when he discovered that so many apparently unconnected and apparently incomprehensible aspects of the world are in fact connected and can be explored by human intelligence. This wonder at the capacity of human rationality to understand the human and natural world is the proper starting point for public conversation.

From it flow questions such as what kind of a society do we want, and how will we pass it on to our children? What kind of education awakens wonder in young people and enables them to contribute creatively to society? What policies will contribute to shaping a more decent and happy Australia? What framework in economic governance is appropriate to ensure that all have a decent place at the table?

In all these questions we must begin with values and then move to an analysis of the situation. In the second stage numbers are important, as is the study of the presuppositions involved in their presentation. The discussion of values, however, should always precede the discussion of numbers.
The legacy of Pythagoras is to ground conversation in wonder at the mystery of human beings which is embodied in their capacity to understand the workings of the world. It begins with respect for humanity and for the world. Numbers are grounded in mystery, and when they are applied to human affairs they must be tested against mystery. This entails scrutinising the analysis of the human situations they decorate and the policy they endorse to ensure that human beings and the world are given due respect.

Fr Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.
Read this article on the website of Eureka Street
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