Studies of Life

Learning by doing.

Mathematics, a different thinking paradigm.

06 July 2013 by Jim

I’m actually studying French literature right now, so what could a bookworm tell anyone about being a mathematician? Well, since primary school I have been drawn to all types of knowledge, not just one, and deciding on studying literature was more of a compromise than a calling. I would have preferred to study everything, but I do not have any more time than you do, so I had to limit my scope to get something done, and so I chose literature.

However, knowing that there are many specialists out there; be it people specialised in arts, in philosophy, history or something else; I think it is very important to emphasise how some ‘sciences’ or ‘skills’ are different from others in a more profound way than philosophy differs from history or geology.

Geology and history may use completely different tools, look at completely different domains of knowledge and be concerned with different questions, but they remain fundamentally rooted in language, as most sciences do. That is, of course, not a disadvantage. The compressive capabilities of language are, after all, one of the biggest causes I think of the rise of the age of information, because they allowed abstract ideas to be communicated efficiently. Language has many wonderful abilities that only very few people notice, however, there is no denying that our mind benefits enormously from sometimes letting go off it.

How would that be possible? Don’t we all think in words? We do. But there are certain types of skills that open up new areas in our minds that are not directly ‘supervised’ by language, like mathematics. Mathematical logic is also taught, as any other skill or science, using language, but its inner workings are entirely independent of it. The same holds true for handiwork, sculpting, music or drawing. All these skills can exist independently of any kind of language, because they contain their own infrastructure. You could practically teach a child to draw by imitating what you draw, to play rhythms on a drum through imitation or to sculpt a lump of clay. You cannot, however, teach history through imitation, nor can you teach chemistry through imitation, because the basic workings of these fields are alien to our minds. They cannot be grasped by a single human mind, so we rely on the interface of language to penetrate the web of ideas underlying it, which has been woven by people who have lived prior to us. Programming, a more modern and relevant skill for future jobs, is another example of a skill which, although it is very much taught using normal language, contains its own rules and logic which is not necessarily dependent on spoken language.

This classification of sciences and skills which rely on human language and those which do not force us to look differently at what it means to have broad culture in a cognitive sense. It is not enough to merely ‘learn’ facts i.e. acquire encyclopaedic knowledge in different fields in the form of language, it is, to my mind, just as important to expose our minds to other ways of thinking, whole new areas of our minds, which rely on our bodies, like sports or drawing, or a different cognitive system, like mathematical or programming logic, or even other sensory organs like hearing or tasting in the case of cuisine. All of these skills are not stimulated enough in the classical education system, an omission which seems to be rather like reducing sports to just football instead of the wide range of possible options and directions which are offered to us in our prosperous modern world.

Next time you don’t know what book to read next, or which new hobby to pick up, try thinking about an area or skill that is unlike any you’ve practised before. If you’re a historian, try programming, if you’re an athlete, try reading, if you’re a musician, try cooking. All of these uncommon combination should yield far more interesting results and deeper, more fertile assimilation processes, than just adding another section of the same type of knowledge we already possess.

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