Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Bringing humanity back to the cult of numbers



Pythagoras, the fifth century Greek philosopher and the name behind the theorem, was a mythical figure. All the significant developments in ancient philosophy, mathematics, music, geometry and astronomy, as well as the founding of a community of mystics and scholars, were attributed to him.

PythagorasAt the heart of his contribution was the almost religious wonder at a world in which the human intelligence could understand and handle such different phenomena as music, architecture and the stars through mathematics. The building blocks of the world were seen to be numbers. The ascetic pursuit of the harmony of the universe replaced more primitive religions based on sacrifice to the gods.

The cult of numbers in a cruder form remains characteristic of the public world today. The most revered numbers are economic. Salvation is to be found in a rising GDP and stock market, a falling deficit, increasing or falling employment to taste, and increasing profits.

The numbers that evoke the most heartfelt awe and veneration are comparative. They are to be seen in political polls, school and university rankings and market ratings. If the support for the Coalition rises even a fraction within the margin of error, party sectaries will celebrate. If it moves down a tad, also within the margin of error, they declare a season of mourning.

If a school buys up brilliant students to provide the year's top performers or a university buys in a high powered institute or two to increase its position on the necessarily crude QS World University rankings, it will flourish. Educational institutions that serve less privileged students, with correspondingly poor rankings, will struggle.

Government ministers also rejoice to see Australia climb the international table for brutality to refugees. If the mathematics of flies climbing walls were discovered, and a gambling industry built around them, the fastest species would no doubt be protected. Such is the religious power of numbers.

When numbers collide with such other deeply held religious practices as sacrificing people to the gods of retribution, however, they are neglected. Governments that build more jails on the pretext that crime rates are rising happily disregard numbers that show they are falling. In order to deter crime they pass laws to send more people to prison for longer, despite the numbers showing that people sent to prison are much more likely to offend again later.


"The discussion of values should always precede the discussion of numbers."


They treat young offenders as adults despite the evidence showing the effects of incarceration on the young brain. To force young people to work they limit benefits to young people and impose harsher and more demeaning restrictions on them. They ignore numbers which show the intractability of youth unemployment and the unaddressed disadvantage that stops people from connecting with society.

This mixture of religious fervour shown in the worship of numbers with cruder practices of human sacrifice is disconcerting. Lacking in it is the fervour and wonder attributed to Pythagoras when he discovered that so many apparently unconnected and apparently incomprehensible aspects of the world are in fact connected and can be explored by human intelligence. This wonder at the capacity of human rationality to understand the human and natural world is the proper starting point for public conversation.

From it flow questions such as what kind of a society do we want, and how will we pass it on to our children? What kind of education awakens wonder in young people and enables them to contribute creatively to society? What policies will contribute to shaping a more decent and happy Australia? What framework in economic governance is appropriate to ensure that all have a decent place at the table?

In all these questions we must begin with values and then move to an analysis of the situation. In the second stage numbers are important, as is the study of the presuppositions involved in their presentation. The discussion of values, however, should always precede the discussion of numbers.

The legacy of Pythagoras is to ground conversation in wonder at the mystery of human beings which is embodied in their capacity to understand the workings of the world. It begins with respect for humanity and for the world. Numbers are grounded in mystery, and when they are applied to human affairs they must be tested against mystery. This entails scrutinising the analysis of the human situations they decorate and the policy they endorse to ensure that human beings and the world are given due respect.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pythagoras, asylum seekers, youth detention, unemployment, economics



submit a comment

Existing comments

Andrew, you rightly say, "Government ministers also rejoice to see Australia climb the international table for brutality to refugees." And Australia's major parties all continue to adopt a cruel policy towards refugees, holding them for years on off-shore hell-holes! Also, any party that tries to phase out poker machines,because of their devastating effect on the lives of so many families, comes up against a massive spending advertising campaign by the gaming industry. Christians, think very carefully before you cast your next vote. How could any Christian not take very seriouslly such cruelty to refugees and such addictive gambling damage to Australian families?

Grant Allen | 14 March 2018  

In Josephine Tey's masterful mystery novel "The Daughter of Time", the epigraph reads "Truth is the daughter of time" Old Proverb. It's a great read and presents a very lucid argument around Richard III's innocence of the murder of the Princes in the Tower. It's a work of fiction despite it's lucidity. A decent and happy Australia depends on our finding the elusive truth.

Pam | 14 March 2018  

Fascinating appraisal, Fr Andrew. I thought Pythagoras was probably a maths nerd and didn't realise that he was such a prolific contributor to the civilisation of the ancient world and the recognition of the spiritual dimension of human life which was an essential foundation stone for the building of Judeo- Christianity.

john frawley | 14 March 2018  

Pythagoras believed that only whole numbers and their ratio existed; the story of the treatment of one of his followers who suggested the existence of non-terminating, non-repeating numbers like Sq Root(2) is probably apocryphal. Today, we understand that such irrational numbers never terminate and we can say NEVER with the kind of certainty that is foreign to almost any other discipline. The great German mathematician George Cantor explained that there are different levels of infinity. There is a whole number of more than 22 million digits - if we printed it out, it would fill several thousand pages - and we know it is prime. We KNOW. These are examples that show the wonders of the human mind when it is directed to things other than dismal economics.

Frank | 15 March 2018  

Frank, I love this quote from Grigory Shabat: "Mathematicians are people possessed of a special intellectual honesty. If two mathematicians are making contradictory claims, then one of them is right and the other one is wrong. And they will definitely figure it out, and the one who is wrong will definitely admit that he was mistaken." Economists are clearly not mathematicians.

Erik Hoekstra | 15 March 2018  

Oh Wow, this is beautiful writing. What mystery there is for us to marvel at and then try and understand. Do we force numbers into our narrow mind sets because we simply fail to see the beauty anymore. Have we become so limited?

Jorie Ryan | 15 March 2018  

Thanks Andrew, you make some nice points. However, there seems to be a fundamental contradiction at the heart of your piece. The examples you chose highlight public policy that disregards the relevant evidence, and indeed I agree that public debates in Australia are replete in this anti-rational approach. But you cannot have it both ways. "In God I trust; but everyone else must bring data!" is not bad foundation for public policy.

Eugene | 15 March 2018  

Nice work, Andy! It reminded me of the 1960s Jewish-Catholic BBC sitcom, "Never mind the quality; feel the width", with its parodic take on those obsessed with number-crunching.

Michael Furtado | 15 March 2018  

Yes, this is an excellent piece, but not for its reference to Pythagoras and his great contribution, but for its clear statement of modern society's obsession with numbers - particularly economic numbers. The highlighted sentence, "The discussion of values should always precede the discussion of numbers" is the gem of value in this article. Tragically our society, our nation, our world is not built thus.

Ian Fraser | 15 March 2018  

Two (2) incidents, no, make that three(3), were dredged from my memory as I read Andrew's essay. No, make that four(4). I'll start with the 4th. How obvious was Pythagora's Theorem when I was taught it as as an eleven (11) year old schoolboy! However years later as a mature age Philosophy student I couldn't (wouldn't?) see how he thought that the study of Mathematics could lead a student to a more spiritual way of life. The other 3 incidents involved the numbers correlated by the Bureau of Statistics for the Same Sex Marriage Opinion Poll & the last National Census. Re-SSMOP: The Statistician was a model of professional objectivity. How the numbers were interpreted was very partial indeed. With regard to the Census there was was a similar partiality regarding the increase in numbers of those of No Faith (e.g. equating that with Atheism). I read that as an increase in the number of people who had the capacity to be honest with themselves. A fifth incident occurs to me but I would exceed the 200 words ES limit if I tried to expatiate on it so I shall desist.

Uncle | 15 March 2018  

Numbers stand or fall with infinity. I remember a letter to The Tablet a few years ago which lamented confusion about infinity. Infinity is not a number, if it were you could not add to or subtract from it. No, the author (a philospher) said, infinity is the total number of all numbers. And is best intuited. But the best of us can be confused by numbers. Two plus two said the school inspector to the young pupil. Four, sir, said, the pupil. Very good, said the inspector. No sir, said the pupil, that's excellent. The best policy makers are aware of how easy it is to be at sixes or sevens with the data. So should we be.

Noel McMaster | 15 March 2018  

Commenting on what he considered contemporary society's inordinate attachment to numbers and visuals, George Steiner in Language and Silence observed " . . . a massive retreat from the word" in favour of " . . . the number and the image." Steiner, a philosophical realist, regarded this as superficial and symptomatic of a culture in decline.

John | 16 March 2018  

I raise my hat to mathemiticians and psychicists with the mental brawn to tackle the mysteries of the cosmos in the way they day - but at the same time fell a sense of despair and deep sadness when I hear the likes of UK physicist (and former pop star ) Brian Cox feel the need to declare he's an atheist. When I watch his documnetaries about the marvels of the cosmos, I can't fathom how someone with so much knowledge could be co-erced by popular media into declaring an aversion to the possibility of divine intelligence.

AURELIUS | 16 March 2018  

Does anyone think Pythagorus would have declared the strength of someone's faith was determined by the number of times they slapped their bum on a seat during Mass?

AURELIUS | 16 March 2018  

Fill the churches. with the too many homeless to count. Fill the empty space, the empty pews with the intention/solution and assist those most in need. To all Bishops and Pope Francis. Open your church doors to the homeless- they need a safe and welcoming place to sleep in. Every empty pew would be graced by the presence of one, as Christ was, poor, rejected, and with nowhere to lay his head. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/deaconsbench/2018/03/catholic-church-homeless-welcome-sleep-pews/

AO | 20 March 2018  

“The discussion of values, however, should always precede the discussion of numbers.” In that case, the US and Australian gun lobbies win because the wholly negative nature of the ‘gun-free’ argument is predicated purely on numbers which are in the US, in a relative sense, not very large and are in Australia, in absolute terms, miniscule. If the gun-free argument was predicated on the value of a human life, cars would have to be banned.

Roy Chen Yee | 20 March 2018