I found myself standing before a group of tenth graders at a local high school, giving a student lecture on what it means to be a major in mathematics in college. Their regular teacher had asked me, as an encore to my prepared speech, to prove the Pythagorean Theorem for them – so they could see, he said, the why of something they’d been using all along. This was the theme of my comments, my big selling point. Be a math major so you can learn the impetus behind so much of what you already take for granted! My pitch failed to garner quite the reaction I had hoped for, as many sixteen year olds, miraculously, find the finer points of geometric proofs to be tedious. I had managed to arouse the interest of at least one student, though, as my remarks were punctuated by a freckled hand shooting in to the air, and a small, nasal voice asking in the simplest of tones why the triangle I had sketched on the blackboard had to have exactly one-hundred and eighty degrees.
So innocuous! Yet that one question proved to be the seed for a mind saturated by too many classes that teach it is just accepted practice to assume things ‘for the sake of argument.’ The answer I lent him was one passed down through the storied careers of teachers reaching back to antiquity. I told him that it ‘just is’, knowing full well the falsity this masked. The true reason, the one which on that particular day hit me with a force it had never possessed previously, is that it’s convenient. So much in a profession which espouses the strict rigor of proofs and the maxim that if it cannot be shown without question, it is false, is built upon a foundation of convenience. Every axiom, logical or geometric alike, is a connivance among mathematicians to allow the numbers to work out in a manner which makes the arithmetic easier.
Disillusionment with a lifelong love is supposed to come creeping in to one’s consciousness over a period of years, or else be the result of some life altering event. It’s not fair that the edifice of respect for a discipline built up over many years should be collapsed by such an insignificant question. It reminds one of a dragon slain with a chicken salad sandwich. It is striking only in its being so incommensurate. Yet mathematicians do it routinely, allowing for gross oversimplification to render itself ubiquitous in the annals of their research.
This dealing with an ideal world because we find its consequences more beautiful than our own, of assuming things because it makes everything work out better, is something which acted as the reaper to my plans as a mathematician. My desire to find truth, which I had thought existed in what is considered the only field which has absolute certainty, led me only to look elsewhere to be sated.
Somewhere in between the cold comfort of numerical analysis and the lofty assertions of Plato comes the murky area in which life is lived. It’s within this cacophony of uncertain opinions, ventured cautiously yet courageously, that the trenches are created and battle lines drawn; it is precisely what defines us as individuals. In a perfect world we would need no law. In a utopia, we could accept those edicts handed down from on high as the absolute arbiter of ethical truth – but the perfect world is not forthcoming. It is a pipedream we might enjoy discussing over dew-specked glasses of lemonade on a sultry August afternoon, but to choose these illusions as a method for living is like charting the course of an ocean liner with the assumption that icebergs are negligible.
I’ve learned that the only certainty we can ever have in life is that which we create ourselves. The logos is not out there to be explored like some forgotten ruin, and the closer we get to believing we know it all, the farther the world seems from being the place we all imagined it was when we were children. I want to go to law school because even the most lowly of workers who construct a house, even out of so flimsy a material as are our laws, are superior to the person who sits on a grassy hillside and imagines the clouds rolling by to be castles suitable as an escape from the coming storm.
cranked out at 10:58 PM | |
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