What are we made of: Numbers?

Reflection 1-12-13


I saw this phrase in an article on the particle research facility in Geneva. It said ‘We’re all made of numbers.’ What an interesting thing to say. This is especially so since we have been studying a book on St. Augustine. He was interested in the question ‘Where does reliable information come from?’ and thought, along with the Pythagoreans that things that changed could not be reliable, so he was looking for realities that were unchanging. Now of course numbers are unchanging. Anything that you can put a ‘number on’ is then fixed by that quantity.  Here is another quote that I found in the newspaper this week ‘…this rather proves the point that you can assign a number to just about anything. Numbers work because they get our attention, but they are also fairly easy to manipulate. Here’s the latest thinking about the science behind the numbers that govern our lives.’ So this is what the author, Rosie Ifould thinks: that it is numbers that govern our lives.


I can understand this to some degree. I remember being ‘turned on’ by statistics when I was studying agriculture. First of all, when things are measured, there is an awful lot of variation in the answers that one gets. This is because of the subtle differences between living beings, and the surrounding conditions, and in the actual measurement, getting an accurate number is not as easy as it first seems. So even though we may ‘believe’ in numbers getting one is difficult. So along comes statistics (for me). With statistics we can say ‘Even though we don’t know the answer to the question, we can make an estimate. We can say ‘We are 95% sure that the answer lies between X and Z. If the range is widened say to P and Z we might be able to say ‘We are 99% sure that the answer lies between P and Z’. The more examples of measurement you can find, the more accurately  you can estimate the thing you are trying to measure. That is a very powerful thing to be able do because it lets me get a grip on the kinds of reality which do not easily lend themselves to the kind of measurement that we can do with a ruler, say, when I want to know the length of a piece of wood. But even the more accurate forms of science have difficulty putting numbers on things. For example, it is useful to know where a thing is and how fast it is going. My car is at map co-ordinates A,B and is going east at 100 km per hr. But when it comes to electrons the more we know about where an electron is, the less we can say about it’s velocity. And the same is true in reverse. The more we know about an electron’s velocity, the less we can say about ‘where’ it is. This is the nature of electrons, and the kinds of measuring devices that we have. So although numbers are very powerful entities, it is not always true that we can ‘put’ the numbers we would like on everything.


Even so, what lies at the bottom of this activity is the belief that reliable information about reality is achieved by being able to put numbers on things, and that a particular case, what ever that case may be is not as reliable as collecting lots of cases, and making a generalisation about them. That is, we think that the more ‘particulars’ that can be absorbed into a ‘general’ the more reliable the information is.


But are we ‘made of’ numbers? To say ‘made of’ refers to the kind of ‘stuff’ we are. It is certainly true that when we get the numbers wrong, there are deathly consequences for our ‘stuff’. I remember reading about the Mt Erebus plane crash. This plane crashed into this mountain in Antartica, killing all on board. The fatal mistake was made in the navigation system over a year before the flight. Something in the aircraft had changed, the pilot entered the navigation ‘numbers’ into the autopilot which ended up sending the ‘plane into the mountain. Certainly when it comes to that kind of physics, our ‘stuff’ depends on numbers.


But is our ‘essential’ stuff made of numbers? This means, are the most important things that can be said about us the things that can have numbers put on them? The answer to this question is not a matter of proof, but of faith.


I remember a scene in Monty Python’s ‘life of Brian’. Brian is being questioned about his loyalty to the anti-Roman revolutionary group. They say ‘You don’t really hate the Romans’! But Brian replies ‘Oh yes I do’ ‘How much?’ comes the next question. Brian replies with the only answer available to him in a part of reality that cannot have numbers put on it “A lot!’

Some parts of our being as humans are made up of the kind of ‘stuff’ that can easily have numbers put onto it. When a surgeon operates we need to know that the surgeon knows his or her numbers! But there are other aspects of our reality as humans that cannot have numbers put onto them, like commitment, love, faith, beauty, goodness and truth. As humans both aspects of our reality are ‘part of’ us.


Some scientists want to deny the ‘beauty love and goodness’ side of our reality, and say ‘the only things that are real are those that can have numbers put onto them.’ But there are others who say ‘No, the only thing that is real is the ‘spirit’ side of things, and so stop taking antibiotics or trusting in the reliability of science at all.


Are we made up of anything then, apart from this strange mixture of ‘numerable’ aspects and ‘a-numerable’ aspects? I think so. I think we are made up of ‘Christ’. By being baptized into ‘Christ’ and partaking I communion with ‘Christ’ in the Eucharist, our ‘being’ becomes Christ’s ‘being’ . Our ‘stuff’ becomes ‘Christ’ stuff. Our future becomes Christ’s future. It is Christ, the Word of God become Flesh who is the same Word of God that created all of our ‘numerable’ aspects as well as our ‘a-numerable’ selves. All of it is taken up into the life of God, in Christ.


Now it is true that at the margins, there are demarcation disputes between which elements of ourselves are best understood by putting numbers on them, and the parts of ourselves that participate in the genuine mystery of Christ, and are best wondered at, and praised, and lived within, rather than explained. But that there is a question at the interface between these two realities, does not mean that one ought to swallow the other up completely.


So after having my interest stimulated by the claim ‘we are made of numbers’ I would say that this is only partly true. What is the whole truth is that ‘We are made of Christ.’ This is not widely known, but is the Church’s best kept secret.









About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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