“Math is hard”: Math, Science, the Arts, and Humanist Spirituality

It is a false dichotomy that those who seek to understand nature without imposing on it their own wishes of how it ought to be cannot, then, appreciate the majesty of its beauty. This false dichotomy is distressingly commonly held among people who consider themselves spiritual, and worse, also by those who consider themselves the opposite.

The adjective has come to indicate a proper subset of the actual set of spiritual people. The set of all spiritual people includes the religious and the non-religious, the scientifically oriented and the unscientifically oriented, and all those who create or enjoy art. Instead, the commonly understood meaning today is one who prefers metaphysical explanations and vague feel-good explanations to the rigorous objective pursuit of truth. This is not necessary, and the scientifically and artistically oriented (humanists, in short) perhaps ought to claim their form of spirituality.

I say this because there can be genuine spirituality in honest, rigorous science. Note that there is a distinction between science and technology — a distinction that has been all but lost in the understandable environmental guilt (and accompanying desire to make up for the mistakes of the past) felt by many progressive people in the northern hemisphere. This distinction is also blurred by the existence of applied science and applied research in general, specifically in the case of chemistry, and, I’m told, by the day-to-day work of physicists and chemists in environmental analysis. Nonetheless, for the sake of clarifying a point in the issue of scientific spirituality, I ask that you bear with me and assume that science and technology are essentially distinct and different.

It appears to be the case that, drunken with the power of knowledge and of technological development, humans worldwide (especially in the developed nations) have brought various forms of environmental harm and extensive threats to human health … yet, all the while making great strides in the elimination of many human-health problems. I understand the desire to lash out at “science and technology” *, but I think it’s a fallacy to blame environmental destruction on science and scientists alone, and to confuse science with technology.

People choose, time after time and around the world, to put comfort or profit before caution, safety, and a sufficient understanding of the consequences of our actions. Is it not true that critics of fossil-fuel use, for the most part, continue to drive cars, ride motorcycles, or fly in airplanes? And if that is inevitable, how many are either working on or supporting the development of clean(er) or more sustainable technologies? **

Some people are, of course. And I even know many who give up certain fundamental comforts and amenities that all citizens of developed nations have come to take for granted—and which most citizens of developing nations look forward to. Nonetheless, such people are in the minority.

My point is that pointing the finger at “science and technology” is hypocritical. We are all responsible. What scientists and technologist have made possible would not have caused harm if people weren’t eager to use technology  in ways that cause harm (directly or indirectly).

Furthermore, scientists are people, too. They need to put food on the table. I expect that many, if not most, scientists would prefer to live in a world where curiosity about the universe was encouraged and funded, and future funding depended solely on merit, not on the applicability of research to corporate profits or defense. Can you imagine a world in which research in mathematics, pedagogy, or music-information retrieval with no defense or business potential would be awarded the same level of importance as research that promises great profits or great military advantage? (I can’t.) Scientists, mathematicians, researchers, doctors, and technologists need to make a living, just like baristas, acupuncturists, and civil servants. What I find most problematic about blaming “science and technology” alone for environmental destruction and other ills (and they certainly were to blame some of the time, to some extent) is that it leads to anti-science attitudes and even pseudo-scientific beliefs.

I lived for over seventeen years in a progressive city that prides itself on its liberal politics, its arts, and its (so-called) alternative medicine, which I call non-evidence-based/non-mechanism-based medicine. (Let’s just call it NEB.) The reasoning for many who pursue NEB either as a career or as their primary health-care choice is that it involves “holistic” care, which sometimes is indeed holistic, but mostly has come to mean wishy-washy or that something has its roots in non-dominant/global-southern cultures or deep in the past (before humans were such environmental bullies).

Aside from the fact that math, science, and critical-thinking are grossly neglected by many education systems — hence many people simply do not have the tools to understand what math or science are like —  I believe, based on my observations, that it is the need to turn away from the harmful effects and shameful colonial history of the global north’s dominant nations that fuels the preference for unproven, vague, and in some cases, impossible treatments just because they originated far in the past or in foreign countries.

Acupuncture, for example, is said to be from ancient China. It posits the existence of chi, and the meridians along which it flows. Chiropractic is based on the (alleged) innate intelligence of bones, and although it, like its cousin osteopathy and  like homeopathy, is of European origin, it is old enough*** to be considered attractive by those who feel the need to dissociate themselves from the evils of technology. (Yet, I don’t see them giving up their cars and smart phones.)

And, it is those individuals who most commonly claim spirituality as their exclusive domain. Otherwise progressive, fair-minded, usually educated people who buy “holistic” pet food and gluten-free everything are also the ones who prefer acupuncture, homeopathy, reflexology, and cranio-sacral therapy to “invasive” “allopathic” **** conventional therapy, the last adjective also being one calculated to sound boring, old-fashioned (ironically), and non-innovative.

The only other group to claim spirituality are the overly religious. Oregon is home to a branch of Christianity that requires faith healing alone to be used for health care. (Criminal cases related to this have been in the news several times in the past decade.) Various organizations have sponsored or carried out studies on the power of prayer to heal. All of this sometimes drives the mechanism-minded, evidence-minded, and the mathematically or logically minded to abandon the concept of spirituality to the pseudoscientific, the anti-scientific, and the heavily religious.

I was one of those spirituality-abandoners for many years. I allowed myself to be robbed of my true nature. Spirituality is not the sole domain of the wishful thinker or the tradition-follower. Science, mathematics, and the arts are spiritual pursuits: They reveal the beauty of nature and the human mind (which is part of nature anyway). One of the most harmful expressions I have ever heard is “Math is hard.” Most things worth pursuing are.

Being an athlete is hard. Carpentry is hard. Cooking (well) is hard. Prioritizing is hard. Learning to drive a car or ride a bicycle is hard. (Learning to drive a semi truck is harder.) Being an auto mechanic is hard. Being a nurse is hard. Raising kids is hard. Being a professional musician is really hard. The same people who typically claim that math is hard have no concomitant fear about going into and succeeding in these other areas.

“Math is hard” is irrelevant. Everything is hard. At least, to be good enough to make a living in anything is as difficult as in math. People who make a living by playing basketball, League of Legends, or the guitar are the ones who worked tirelessly on their passion through years of frustration and failure. Somehow, society (in America) seems to say that it is okay to strive to be successful in sports, business, law, medicine, or even music, but not in math, science, and technology (except for IT and programming, and except very recently… and those “STEM” efforts really don’t seem to be going anywhere).

This doesn’t make sense. First of all, STEM fields are supposed to be financially rewarding careers (and sometimes, they are). Secondly, the joy of science is more satisfying than of League of Legends. I say this because the joy of math is deeper than any other wordly pleasure, perhaps with the exception of deep intimacy. The joy of engineering is on par with the joy of music-making (though a little different) because both are centered on creating through problem-solving.

Those who have been able to unite in themselves a sense of awe for the arts and the sciences are sometimes called humanists. Part of this is to be able to appreciate in art those ideas and feelings that one may not give creedence to in daily life. A humanist may truly appreciate Christian music (from Bach to OUT KAST, say), the wabi-sabi aesthetic of Japanese Zen art, Islamic architecture, or a painting that reflects Taoist values, just as people who identify primarily as followers of those beliefs or philosophies use the Internet ( a product of electromagnetics and semiconductor technology, hence physics) or may prefer seeing a physician to relying on prayer for health care. There is no reason not to coexist, disagree, and still respect one another as people, as long as no one forces (either through violence or the force of law) their ways on unwilling others. And while doing that (coexisting in peace), there is also no need for any one group to give up its right to spirituality.

Science rocks. Math is beautiful. Engineering is creative. Art is life. And each is its own spirituality.


* See song lyrics by Living Coloür, ANTI-FLAG, and countless other bands.

** Some do, of course, and I even know many people who give up some fundamental comforts and amenities that all citizens of developed nations take for granted — and which most citizens of developing nations look forward to. Nonetheless, they are in the minority.

*** (and sufficiently looked down upon by the mainstream)

**** Have you looked up the meaning of the prefix “allo-” ?   It seems to mean “other” or “outside” . . . How are herbs any less “other” to our bodies?

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