Wisdom Mathematics

Friends of Wisdom Newsletter (6):1-6 (2010)
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For over thirty years I have argued that all branches of science and scholarship would have both their intellectual and humanitarian value enhanced if pursued in accordance with the edicts of wisdom-inquiry rather than knowledge-inquiry. I argue that this is true of mathematics. Viewed from the perspective of knowledge-inquiry, mathematics confronts us with two fundamental problems. (1) How can mathematics be held to be a branch of knowledge, in view of the difficulties that view engenders? What could mathematics be knowledge about? (2) How do we distinguish significant from insignificant mathematics? This is a fundamental philosophical problem concerning the nature of mathematics. But it is also a practical problem concerning mathematics itself. In the absence of the solution to the problem, there is the danger that genuinely significant mathematics will be lost among the unchecked growth of a mass of insignificant mathematics. This second problem cannot, it would seem, be solved granted knowledge-inquiry. For, in order to solve the problem, mathematics needs to be related to values, but this is, it seems, prohibited by knowledge-inquiry because it could only lead to the subversion of mathematical rigour. Both problems are solved, however, when mathematics is viewed from the perspective of wisdom-inquiry. (1) Mathematics is not a branch of knowledge. It is a body of systematized, unified and inter-connected problem-solving methods, a body of problematic possibilities. (2) A piece of mathematics is significant if (a) it links up to the interconnected body of existing mathematics, ideally in such a way that some problems difficult to solve in other branches become much easier to solve when translated into the piece of mathematics in question; (b) it has fruitful applications for (other) worthwhile human endeavours. If ever the revolution from knowledge to wisdom occurs, I would hope wisdom mathematics would flourish, the nature of mathematics would become much more transparent, more pupils and students would come to appreciate the fascination of mathematics, and it would be easier to discern what is genuinely significant in mathematics (something that baffled even Einstein). As a result of clarifying what should count as significant, the pursuit of wisdom mathematics might even lead to the development of significant new mathematics.

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Nicholas Maxwell
University College London


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