Nonsense and knowledge…
“Math is the only language all human beings share,” according to IBM’s new TV ad. “Math can do anything.” Some would say this is nonsense pretending to be knowledge. Others however don’t catch it because they haven’t been immunized against idiocy. C.S. Lewis had an antidote. Here it is – see if you feel the effect within the next two minutes.
Knowledge such as the sciences and math sprang to life in ancient societies that imagined social life ordered by a coherent, comprehensible, and sacred canopy.1 This canopy might have been called fate or faith, but it connected math to a higher language of morality. This meant all human beings shared at least two languages. It’s a connection however that began to corrode during the Western Enlightenment.
On the night of November 10, 1619, Rene Descartes, the father of the Enlightenment, had a life-changing dream. Descartes imagined a “universal science” – the “possibility of applying the infallible method of mathematics to all the phenomena of the universe and every department of thought,” Louis Bredvold writes. It was a dream of mathematics one day establishing human affairs and ethics on a rational and precise basis.2 It wasn’t a rant against religion; mathematics was simply a superior language, offering “a realm of objective facts which are quite sanitized of any elements of subjectivity.”3 Our other language of morality was inferior, suffering from unsanitary subjectivity.
The language of morality fell further out of favor in the 1800s, beginning with Auguste Comte (1798-1857) who founded a school of thought known as logical positivism. Comte maintained that humanity progresses through stages of positive improvements, the first being theological and looking to God. The second stage is mockingly called the “metaphysical,” when theological definitions of reality are replaced by science. Comte believed we were moving past this second stage toward the third – and final – period, which he called the “positivist.” This was the highest achievement in human thinking – a period in which science, including math, is the only language all human beings share.
Comte might have been ignored were it not for an overlapping network of individuals and institutions that took his ideas seriously. Chauncey Wright advanced the philosophy of positivism, influencing the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, and Charles S. Peirce. This elite group changed the institutions of jurisprudence, philosophy, literature, and education in the 19th century through an informal network that met in Cambridge, Mass in 1872. They derisively called it the Metaphysical Club. The key was Wright’s insistence that “positivism was, at bottom, an absolute distinction between facts and values. Fact was the province of science and value was the province of what he called, always a little deprecatingly, metaphysics,” historian Louis Menand notes. Wright didn’t condemn religions – they simply couldn’t solve problems because they were so subjective and unreliable. “He just thought they should never be confused with science.”4
It was the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) who first called this so-called knowledge nonsense. He drew with inescapable clarity the necessary conclusion of disconnecting mathematics from morality: unimaginable wars without end. Hitler for example did the math and switched from bullets to gas chambers – a cheaper final solution. Mao did the math and figured it was more economically expedient to exterminate 70 million of his countrymen. Bernard Madoff also did the math.
Human beings, “all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and can’t really get rid of it,” Lewis wrote.5 If math is our only language, why are people livid at Bernie? Math alone doesn’t make you mad; but a breach in a moral code does. People believe Madoff ought to have acted in a certain way. Ought is the opening act of a shared human drama known as ought, is, can, and will. All human beings share this moral language. This means IBM’s ad is nonsense.
Two minutes are up. Does the IBM ad still wash over you… or is it now a wake-up call? Did you notice that the antidote was a simple acquaintance with philosophy and history? We need these “because bad philosophy needs to be answered,” Lewis said. “We need intimate knowledge of the past… something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village… and is in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press.”6
Lewis’s antidote isn’t arduous. “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between,” he noted. “The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of history blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” For example, after finishing the book you’re presently plowing through, follow up with Tolstoy’s What is Art? Tolstoy said art is a universal language. Huh… another language all human beings share. If you keep reading old and new, you’ll soon be immunized against the great cataract, or waterfall, of nonsense that washes over us everyday – and see the many languages we share.
1 Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: faith, doubt, and certainty in christian discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 7.
2 See Louis I. Bredvold, “The Invention of the Ethical Calculus,” in The Seventeenth Century: Studies in the History of English Thought and Literature From Bacon to Pope, by Richard Foster Jones and others writing in his honor (Stanford: Stanford Press, 1951), pp. 165-180.
3 Newbigin, Proper Confidence, p. 22.
4 Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York, NY: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001), p. 207.
5 C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity (New York, NY: First Touchstone Edition, 1996), p. 7.
6 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, seventh edition, 1977), pp. 50-51.