Religion and the ultimate questions
I have, for much of my life, lived outside the sphere of religion. Its not that it doesn’t affect me, (to say that would preposterous, quite frankly given the immersion our society has in anything faithful) it’s just that within my modes of thinking and feeling, it has no place. That does not mean that I don’t think that there are some aspects of religion that are worthy.
Pacificism and public service are two that immediately come to mind. But by and large, the idea that there could be anything that there could be an all knowing all seeing deity that “watches the sparrow fall” and “will strike me down” etc. belongs to my way of thinking in the fascinating and engrossing milieu of myth and legend of humankind. That is not a religious putdown, but rather a rumination of my perspective.
Its a very complicated relationship, but worth commenting on. Some of the most worthy people I know, and by worthy, I mean worth listening to, worth considering and who have a perspective that has worth, come from the deeply faithful. I am not talking George Bush theocracy or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad zenophobia, the two most notable Jihadists in the world today, but rather people who feel deeply for the human condition and try to make sense of it with empathy and heart and make the world a better place. Who am to say this is wrong or misguided?
Yet when all is considered, intellectually I have more akin to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Bertrand Russell, some of the most prominent atheists of my time. Yet, surprisingly, this does not stop me from accompanying my wife on Sundays to the solitude of a sanctuary to get what peace I can in quiet consideration, nor from being fascinated with the vast and spectacular religious pantheon that we have had through the ages. I am drawn to reading about myth and legend, about ancient faiths and am enthralled with the rich tapestry of faith that we had through all the ages, whether monotheistic, pagan or new age.
In that vein had to think about a particular group who had an interesting intellectual conjunction some 2500 years ago and brought together mathematics and faith.
I think it is safe to say that most of us are familiar with an ancient Greek mathematician, Pythagoras, whose main claim to fame rests with the theory in mathematics which bears his name, the Pythagorean Theory, dealing with triangles, and is a specific case of another theory made famous over the past couple of decades, Fermat’s Last Theorem.
Most people are not familiar with the notion that Pythagoras was, in addition to being a mathematical genius, a political and religious icon of his day as well. He and his group formed a faith around the number 2. And in its day it was quite influential and until a coup that basically wiped them out. Other Greeks of other religious persuasions took offense to the Pythagorean political machinations and the mixing of religion and politics, otherwise we might have had cathedral or two built with modern day adherents to the holy number 2. Stranger things have happened. But that was not to be. It is now just a twist of fate and the Pythagorean religion is just a footnote in religious history and quite forgotten.
So why was the number 2 holy? Their number 2 represented the male and the female, the two sexes of humankind, 2 was the first and only even prime number, the first even number, divided itself without remainder, into half of all numbers and the first nontrivial number. In fact, as far as they could see, the number 2 represented something holy and mystical about the universe and was worthy of worship. Hey, I’ve heard worse. A a scientist and a mathematician, this makes as much sense to me as any of the religions I have encountered. However like all religions they ran into controversy as they applied their general idea of the workings of the universe into the framework of their faith.
One day, one of their number (couldn’t resist the pun), playing with the number 2 as they were want to, discovered that in addition to all its other properties, 2 had some imperfections, or rather irrationalities. This person, whose name has now been lost in the mists of time, discovered that the square root of 2 was an irrational number and could not be written down numerically, only symbolically. It just stretched out on and on without end. Given all the perfections and conciseness of the number 2’s other properties this was a definite fly in the religious ointment and would be a serious problem to the less mathematically inclined of their flock. In an effort to expunge the obvious shortcoming to the holy of holies, the discoverer of the irrational side to their deity was dispatched by the more political of their group to the great hereafter with the help of a chunk of good Greek limestone providing ballast to make sure the concept sank into the Aegean as surely as he did.
What’s that about the road to hell and good intentions? The greater good etc?
I have always liked this story and whether it is entirely factual is up for discussion, but for some reason it does have the ring of truth to it to me and gives me pause. Like all religions, it is hard to create an all encompassing, inductive reasoning that perfectly fits the unknown in all contingencies. Every once in a while irrationality springs forth. Just a little food for thought.
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