The God of Mathematics
If you looked carefully at the night sky, and you did so every night for a year, you would notice something unusual.
In the small hours of morning, when sleep has fled and the strange noises of night crowd young imaginations, numbers can be magical.
I do not mean math proper, not yet; I mean the solidity and reality of counting. We counted sheep, we counted our toes and small fingers, our elbows and knees — strange preparation for the infinite, uncountable stars that awaited in the velvet dark. I remember feeling small, but with my back against grass and the warm earth under me, I don’t ever remember feeling lost. The world as I knew it had concrete foundations. I believed it immovable and unshakable. And for many centuries, most of humankind held a similar view. Aristotle claimed as much in 355 B.C.E.[CE1] : “In the whole range of time past, so far as our inherited records reach, no change appears to have taken place either in the whole scheme of the outermost heaven or in any of its proper parts.”[i] Aristotle’s universe had no creator; it preexisted all things: an I HAVE BEEN rather than the great I AM. But Aristotelian ideas would be used by Christian Medieval and Renaissance astronomers to build complex mathematical systems for understanding the cosmos as a purpose-built machine. This universal clockwork — the mathematics, even the numbers — they claimed, proved the presence of an intelligent creator. They were unlikely heroes of “new philosophy” on their quest to find order in the numbers, and a divine God within the Machine.
French technology theorist Paul Virilio, known for his work on engineering accidents, reminds us that all technology invents its own destruction. “When they invented the railroad, what did they invent?” he asks: “An object that allowed you to go fast, which allowed you to progress — a vision a la Jules Verne [. . .] But at the same time they invented the railway catastrophe.” Taking this as the end position, and the history of mechanics, order, and power as the starting line, I wrote a book about our need for control and our capacity for chaos. It’s called Clockwork Futures. I’ve mentioned it before, a book that strikes a balance between the two impulses in a series of paired chapters: