Mathematics: The essential? pretended? gulf between map and territory — and why it matters!



My housemate Brie is currently studying for the dreaded “math” part of the GREs. I remember my own foray into that test. Back in 1965 I scored a “98%” on the humanities portion, and a “50%” on the math portion. (That means, I was in the top 2% and in the top/or bottom 50%, of all applicants for graduate school.) I remember those scores, because the divergence between them was so vast.

Not that I was surprised.

In first grade, when Sister Bernita was trying to teach us arithmetic, she stood with her back to us, talking while writing numbers on the blackboard, I suddenly blurted out, loud, clearly puzzled — even scared! — But what is a number?”

At this unexpected outburst from one of her favored obedient students, Sister Bernita turned around and stared at me. For a long time, so long that my face felt hot and all the other kids turned around to look. Finally, she said,


You can imagine the shame, the terror! I had gone to the edge and peered over. I had done what I wasn’t supposed to do. In fact, what I did, did not exist!

From that traumatic moment on, math became a floating world, utterly disconnected from the real world. And it still is!

But a new understanding has been creeping in lately. It is now dawning on me that my terrible time with math was not just my “problem,” but signaled that I was still more innately in touch with, in communion with, all that is than I was supposed to be at that age. Clearly, in first grade, we all should have separated out by now to the point where only “me” and “not me” existed! Yet somehow, stubbornly, the awareness inhabiting my little body still sensed its communion with the surround — and I couldn’t separate from The Other without doing violence to the whole!

So while I used to think I was “stupid,” I now understand that I was real.

These two pieces remind me of that story, as their authors also point out the violence done when humanity pretends to be able to separate out (and perfectly and completely describe, and digitize, and analyze, and ultimately — we intend —”control” and “dominate”) the “territory” from any of our mental “maps” of it.

Charles Eisenstein:

What We Do to Nature, We Do to Ourselves

David Cain:

Time Is Something We Do, Not Something We See

This so-called “gulf,” between any of our conceptual maps and the mysterious reality that they pretend to mimic, matters a great deal and has real world consequences, doing violence to Earth, each other, and our own interior lives.






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