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.

Do Buddhist practitioners need to make New Year’s resolutions?

 Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The word “resolution” is one of those versatile words used to refer to many things and employed in many contexts. It is used, for example, as the word that refers to the degree of sharpness and detail of an image produced and displayed, and employed in such scientific disciplines as optics and electronic engineering. Though its meaning varies depending on a specific context in which it is employed, the word “resolution” is also used in other scientific disciplines such as chemistry and medicine.

In addition to its usage in sciences and engineering, the word “resolution” is also used in arts and humanities. Its usage in philosophy goes as far back as Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher, who defined a philosopher as someone with careful resolutions and unerring decisions. In works of literature, it is employed as the word that refers to the solution of a tangled relationship, or a complicated plot, involving many characters of a story with many twists and turns.

The versatility of the word “resolution” is not limited to sciences and humanities as we have become increasingly aware of its usage to refer to an official decision made by a group or an organization. In fact, the word “resolution” played an important part in the founding of the United States as an independent nation as John Adams uses it in his letter to Abigail Adams to refer to the decision made by the Founding Fathers on July 2, 1776 “that these United States are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” Another example illustrating the use of the word “resolution” to refer to an official decision made by an organization is Resolution 217 by the United Nations, which is known as the Universal Declaration for Human Rights adopted at the General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

For most of us, the word “resolution” is used in the sense of a firm decision to do or not to do something, and is heard most often on and around New Year’s Day as New Year’s resolutions. Historians tell us that it was the ancient Babylonians that started the custom of celebrating the New Year and making resolutions on that occasion, which in their case was in the form of promises to the gods to pay their debts and return objects they had borrowed. Be that as it may, people all over the world have now adopted the custom of making New Year’s resolutions, along with celebrations with fireworks and visits to churches, shrines, and temples.

If there is anything to be said about New Year’s resolutions, it is that most people fail to follow up on them. One reason for the failure to follow up on New Year’s resolutions is that people make their resolutions to themselves, not to the gods as the Babylonians did. Moreover, most people, unlike Epictetus’ philosophers who make careful resolutions and unerring decisions, tend to make resolutions that are difficult to accomplish in the first place. Resolutions such as lose weight, exercise regularly, and eat green, which are among the most popular resolutions, are also known to be the ones people fail to live up to because they require strong commitment and will to follow up on them. Having like-minded people around them should help people to keep their resolutions. This is where a support group comes in, which is known to play an effective role for those people who are trying to abstain from drinking or quit smoking.

Do Buddhist practitioners need to make New Year’s resolutions? The answer to the question is “Yes,” to the extent that New Year’s Day is the day to look back on what transpired in the previous year and look forward to what is expected to happen in the coming year. Buddhist practitioners, as long as we make our living in the conventional world, need to reexamine what is happening in our lives from time to time, and New Year’s Day gives us an opportunity to do so with the rest of the world. On the other hand, the answer to the question is “No,” to the extent that Buddhist practitioners are committed ourselves to constant practice, observing the Dhamma at every moment, every day all the year round. As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, we are expected to begin anew each day with our commitment to constant practice, whether it is Year’s Day or Christmas. In other words, each and every day is another day of mindfulness for us Buddhist practitioners.