If Nature speaks in numbers, and so do we humans

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Pythagoras (c.582-497 BCE) is one of those Greek philosophers who, along with Thales (c.624-546 BCE) and Democritus (c.460-370 BCE), made seminal contributions to the rational inquiry into nature that has come to characterize Western philosophy and science. As one who is credited with the statement, “All things are numbers and nature speaks in numbers,” Pythagoras set the stage for the mathematical representation of natural phenomena in Western science. James Clark Maxwell (1831-1879), a Scottish mathematical physicist who formulated the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, echoes the Pythagorean dictum with the following statement in his talk, On Faraday’s Lines of Force, which he gave at the Cambridge Philosophical Society in 1855: “All the mathematical sciences are founded on relations between physical laws and laws of numbers, so that the aim of exact science is to reduce the problems of nature to the determination of quantities by operations with numbers.”

As Maxwell and his fellow scientists have succeeded in their endeavors “to reduce the problems of nature to the determination of quantities by operations with numbers,” nature, or the biosphere around us, has been converted into an entity that can be represented by numbers. Indeed, we are reminded every day that nature speaks in numbers, with all kinds of numbers reported in the news. No broadcast of the evening news of the day is complete without weather forecasts about the times for the sunrise and the sunset, the high and low temperatures, and the wind velocity for the following day. With the phenomenon of global warming becoming more pronounced year after year, we are also reminded of the need to pay an increasing attention to the long-run trend in the rising temperatures around the world that threatens our living environment with more frequent occurrences of severe weather phenomena such as extreme heat waves and violent storms, which are also reported to us with threatening numbers.

If nature speaks in numbers, so do we humans! Indeed, we humans have shown an amazing propensity to represent everything in the world around us with numbers, not just by deciphering numbers behind natural phenomena but also by inventing numbers such as imaginary numbers and transcendental numbers. The lines by Alexander Pope (1688-1744), “As yet a child, not yet a fool to fame, I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came,” well illustrate the human passion to speak in numbers. The statement by Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) in his Essay on Population (1798), “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio,” is an outstanding example of the mathematical representation of social phenomena. From there, it was just a small step to an explosion of numbers about demographic and economic data in the world around us. Just as the weather forecast is a steady feature of the evening news, so is the financial report about stock market indices and foreign exchange rates.

Private enterprises as well as public organizations cannot operate today without relying on numbers relevant to their operations. For example, economic policy making without the numerical data about production, income, and employment is unthinkable today. This does not mean that policy makers know what they are doing. As David Stockman (1946- ), Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan frankly admitted talking about the US budget: “None of us really understands what’s going on with all these numbers.”

Why is it then that none of us really understand what’s really going on with all these numbers? The Buddhist response to this question is: “sabbe dhamma anatta,” which is usually translated as, “All phenomena are non-self.” From the Buddhist perspective, all phenomena, natural as well as social, are not entities that consist of fixed and immutable parts but are composite entities that are always being formed and being dissolved. In this sense, everything in the world around us is empty, including we humans consisting of the five aggregates of form, perception, feeling, mental formations, and consciousness, none of which is our fixed self as the Buddha reminds us.

Does emptiness mean that we can neglect all those numbers that bombard us everyday? “Yes,” to the extent that everything in the world is empty in the ultimate world of reality. The answer is, however, “No,” in the conventional world in which we lead our lives. In that conventional world, the statement made by Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) in his Inquiry Concerning Moral Good and Evil (1720), “That action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers,” should guide our action, which would be the Bodhisattva practice for Buddhist practitioners. This means that we need to keep on paying attention to gruesome numbers such as the number of refugees forced to flee their country due to a civil war and the number of patients who are afflicted with a new disease, and do whatever we can to help mitigate the pain and suffering of these people, just as governmental and international organizations are trying to do.