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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Of Math and Truth

For my college education, I chose a small, local, Benedictine school.  The school still had Sisters active in the lives of students but there were only a handful of Sisters who taught any classes. The campus had two primary buildings for classes, the Science Building (which was appropriately named) and Tower Hall which was home to the Humanities and Technology Labs. There were more buildings on campus to house students then to have our classes.

There was great glee for professors who would have a student from the other building taking a required class in "their" building. When I would take philosophy, english or theology classes for fun the teachers would smile extra broad when I mentioned that I was a Math Major, because they knew they could try and pin "lofty" concepts on me and watch me squirm. Then after a few weeks, these professors would quickly learn that I was as sharp if not sharper than some of their routine students who had built relationships with them.

I had an English Professor who for the first three weeks would ask me the questions that would tip the balance of the class or start their lecture points. One day he didn't and instead stopped me after class and asked, "Why do you care about these classes?" I had already explained that I was taking them for fun, I didn't need the credit to graduate, I just needed the credit to maintain financial aid. All I could reply to him was that there was more to life than equations could answer. Satisfied, he smiled and we enjoyed the conversations that would start in class.

American Novels - Proof that readers need punctuation.
Conversely, I would walk through the halls between math lectures and feel like I was the only person who held my beliefs as true despite my company. We would occasionally have discussions about what we "personally" believed when it came to God, faith and hot topic issues. Many of them had their own beliefs, Christian or other, but would never press them on someone else or inquire as to why they hold certain beliefs. This struck me strangely, if there was anything we could agree about it was the truth that we had too much homework and our collaborative efforts helped to make sense of the work we had. Above all, the biggest thing that I learned in my Math classes and from my peers was, that there is such a thing as absolute truth.

I always chuckle when I see one of the "math tests" pop up in my Facebook feed. It looks similar to this 1+2-1+1*0=? or a long string of adding and subtracting ones and then multiplied by zero. Many people will look at it and say that anything multiplied by zero is zero. This is true, when used in proper context. If we back up to 7th grade we remember a handy trick called the Order of Operations. It shows us how to take a problem like above and solve it in the right order. Working from left to right complete the parenthesis, exponents, multiplication/division, and addition/subtraction. 1+2-1+1*0 = 2.

The Equation
One day my aunt and I were both working on one of these problems and she told me I was wrong. My aunt is a wise woman but my math knowledge was greater than hers. I tried to explain my work and the order of operations but she told me "Put in a calculator, but we will have to agree to disagree." I knew that if I pressed any further that I would hurt my aunt so I stopped discussing the matter.

She was right in one regard, if you put that above equation in a simple calculator (think solar powered non scientific) the answer will be zero. A calculator like that is more of an adding machine and will go in the order that you input numbers. However check it on a scientific calculator or even your cell phone, (which I just did) it will give you 2. The reason is, these devices have been programed to overcome simple human error.

The Result
Mathematical principles are important, especially if you are an accountant, engineer, physicist or someone who needs to work with numbers on a daily basis. However, most people don't have a need for mathematical theorems in their daily life. I let the discussion with my aunt slide because she didn't have the same need for math in her life as I did. Math will not have a lasting effect in her life.

Then we look at matters of morality and faith. We see the Gosnell Trial where murder charges are dropped because they couldn't prove that a baby was "alive", in Minnesota the State House is voting on an amendment to redefine marriage tomorrow, and taking a stand that universal truth exists proves that you do not believe in "tolerance". So if exposing pure sodium to air results in unsafe combustion of the element but taking a class one carcinogen for a women's sexual health is perfectly ok. Calling the unborn offspring of a dog, puppies, before they are born but an unborn offspring of a human a lump of tissue until they viably leave the vaginal canal, there is something wrong with holding onto relativistic faith.

Relativism in the United States has created a society of "anything goes so long as I believe it's right." If someone shows opposition to widely held beliefs they are shamed and labeled bigots and intolerant until they change their beliefs. Religious denominations are shrunk to buildings of people who conveniently share the same beliefs who believe in a God that is convenient for them.

The truth that I experienced is that there is a hard and tough road out there. Science proves that life begins at conception, faith confirms that within a mother who feels her child moving within her. Science proves that there was a big bang, faith says God put it into action since science also says that there was nothing prior to the big bang happening. Faith gives us eyes to see when science cannot prove why miracle cures happen.

xkcd.com
All sciences have to rely on absolutes. Whether its a number line to show that two is less than three and together they make five or the ability to map DNA markers, there are absolutes in every science. Today there are many loud voices which drown out truth in our lives. It's time to let our voices be heard and to show that we aren't afraid and will not be silenced.