Friday, May 11, 2007

safety in numbers: when "is" isn't

You first!

Counting is just another language, another form of communication. Like all languages, it only works when everyone who uses it agrees on what the symbols mean and agrees to submit to the rules. Take the "equals" sign, for example. Think about how complicated everyday life would be if we didn't all agree that "=" is a definite statement of identity. What would life be like if, on one day, two plus two was equal to four, and on another day, it was not? It might make an interesting story to ponder just how fast a complex civilization would melt down if all of a sudden people couldn't agree on the meaning of "equals."
Well, we have seen something like that happen, actually. A few years ago, then President of the United States Bill Clinton, one of the most influential men in the world at the time, stated that "is" just isn't what it used to be. "Is" didn't necessarily mean, "is." "You define it your way," he implied, "I'll define it mine."
In doing so, he set an example of how to disengage from reality with a straight face. He legitimized (among other things) rebellion against one of the codes of a civilization: the logic of its language. He changed the rules of leadership as well. It was thenceforth OK, even presidential, to excuse one's self from submission to the rule of law -- the law of logic, in this example -- and to trade instead on the sheer force of one's will and charisma. Daedalus (of mythology), pictured above, excused himself from the law of gravity with his wax wings.
And now nearly ten years later it seems like everyone you meet is an accomplished liar, saying whatever they think it takes to get what they want, so much so that you wonder if they understand what reality is at all. Think about it: if you're not willing to believe that "is" is, upon what definite foundations are your thought processes built? If "is" isn't "is," then is the light red or isn't it? If the other guy's is red, you should hope that he knows what "is" is.
Incidentally, if you get stopped for running a light, and the policeman asks you, "what color is that light," try answering with "it depends on what you mean by 'is.'" When you're paying your fine, you can ask yourself what fine then president Clinton paid for answering to authority in the same way. Borne aloft by his wax wings, he hovered above the law. Can you do that?
And, I suppose, we all have experienced someone saying to us, effectively, "I know that I said two plus two equals four last week, but now I say that it equals minus four."
When you mount up with wax wings to overcome the limitations of reality, sail ever so high and crash. And if you're in a position of significant influence, you take a lot of innocent people with you. You might even ruin a generation or two. Like Daedalus, pictured above, sacrificing his son on the altar of his own insanity.
That's what's so beautiful about math. Two plus two IS four. We all know that, at least for now. If the time ever comes when we can't agree on it, I promise you, I'll still know it's true.
graphic: Daedalus and Icarus, by Charles Paul Landon, 1799 (Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle, Alençon). I found the picture on Wikipedia.


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