403. Number People

January 12, 2015

Some of us are music people or food people. Others are visual arts people, TV people, sports people, booze people, film people, word people. This is not simply a matter of choice but more a matter of experience. We get good at what we do most often and with greatest concentration.

Number people use numbers a lot because they find them meaningful. They understand numbers, and use them to express themselves on important subjects. Scientists, statisticians, financiers, mathematicians, sportscasters, astrologers, and many others build worlds around themselves by relying on numbers in everyday life.

Numbers, that is, are one of the ways people engage with the world around them. We are born to cultures having a heritage of numbers, and we have the option of immersing ourselves in that or some other heritage as our primary means of expression and understanding.

In that sense, numbers are one of the ways we use to fit into and anchor ourselves to a world of our personal choosing. Our aptitude with numbers affects our making such a choice. So does our exposure to numbers, our education, our job, our early childhood experience with numbers, and so on. As we count on our fingers, so do we become—finger counters, who grow professionally into some of the fields I have mentioned above.

Numbers are an aspect of the language we are born to. They allow us to make meaningful sounds and gestures in situations where we want to tally a set of separate items or perform some mathematical feat such as measuring, adding, subtracting, and so on.

The genius of numbers is that each one has a unique but memorable name as part of a system we carry with us wherever we go. A system that serves as a kind of lens we use in viewing the world. We can speak or write those names in referring to the purely quantitative aspect of whatever we are directing our attention to in a given situation.

The sounds and symbols of numbers differ from language to language, but their numerical value remains in the same sequence in each language. As long as the sequence is unbroken, the concept of numbers is limited only by the the practical needs of its users. No number is too large or too small to imagine as long as it keeps its place in the number series embodied in our everyday usage.

Infinity seems to be a number, but being beyond the farthest reach of the number series, it is a concept that violates the concept of numbers as forming an unbroken series. Infinity is a supposition, not an actual number. In being beyond reach, it is a contradiction in terms, not an actual number that has a particular place in a sequence.

Zero, too, seems to be a number, but we use it as an imaginary threshold between nothing and something, or the dimensionless divide between positive and negative somethings as a kind of placeholder to remind us of the break or discontinuity we are inserting into our conventional system. The letter n stands for any real number that might occur beyond zero in the direction of or toward, but not including, infinity.

Numbers originate in the human mind as immersed in one culture or another. That mind is based on activated and inhibited pathways for conducting neural impulses, which allow for sequence, addition, multiplication, integration, subtraction, division, differentiation, and other numerical operations.

Too, the mind is based on comparison between signals in different parts of the neural network. Numbers, that is, are not so much in the world as they are in the mind as products of the same neural capabilities for engagement as allow for the production of gestures and speech.

Numbers are abstractions from primary experiences having their characterizing qualities deleted—qualities such as redness, coldness, roughness, motion, size, direction, and so on—leaving a residuum of purified quantity devoid of particular qualities.

Numbers play a prominent role in our many engagements with aspects of our natural environment. Our poise during those engagements depends on the feedback we get in comparing our sensory impressions with past impressions or with our intentions in acting as we do. Did we hit the target or are we low and to the left? By how much? How much thrust do we need to launch a million-ton rocket toward Mars? What is the Earth’s population of ants?

In the practical use of mathematics, we must consider the instrument that employs numbers in a particular situation. Invariably, that instrument is the human mind (not the so-called mind of God or of the universe) which depends largely on memory and the flow of sensory energy from perception to judgment and on to action as key portions of our engagements with the world.

The power of numbers is not in the order of the universe we discover in using them as a tool of our minds; that power is in the educated, dedicated, and systematic workings of our own minds. The laws of physical motion are laws of our perceiving, not of discovery. Of description, not causation. Saying that the universe is inherently based on mathematical principles is like saying the Creator must speak English because his work is so aptly described by our English poets.

More wonderfully, we should applaud ourselves for learning how to use both numbers and our minds to advance our personal grasp of the world around us. When our species dies off, that grasp will go with us, leaving an undescribed universe behind on its own.






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