Math, History, Philosophy: Exploring the Connections


DSC_2078 v2

Mathematics can seem abstract, separate from the “real world,” but actually, math is tightly wound into the history of humankind. At one of the last Berkeley Connect Math small-group discussions of the semester, students considered math’s origins in the ancient world, and the role it plays in our contemporary world.

As a case study, graduate mentor Maria Guadalupe Martinez explained to students the positional notation system used by the Babylonians, which first appeared in 2000 BC. Positional notation uses the same symbol for the different orders of magnitude. The Babylonian numeral system was the first positional system to be developed, which used the number 60 as its base.

“Babylonian mathematics is very functional,” explained Martinez. Math exists on a spectrum from very pure to very functional for solving real-world problems. There are instances of math being used in ways in ways very different from the original intent. For example, math can be used to help build weapons. “What do you feel is math’s place in ethics?” Martinez asked the class. “As a mathematician, do you have a social responsibility for how your math is used?”

“I don’t think it’s different from any other field,” offered one student. “You always have to think about the consequences of what you do.” Another student suggested that while everyone has a social responsibility to protect the greater good, it’s hard to look at the bigger picture when you are financially dependent on your job.

In any case, said one student, “I don’t think math is to blame. It’s just a toolset. It’s the ones who are actually coding who have the responsibility.”

Martinez then asked the students to think about math in an even more philosophical sense. For example, if you can predict where a ball you throw is going to land using math, what is the difference between where the ball actually lands and the theorem that tells you where it will land? Where, in this case, does the math live? “Do you think math is created, or do you think it exists independent of humans?” asked Martinez.

“I think math exists in nature on its own,” suggested one student. “You can find fractals in nature. Math is our way of describing what we see in nature.”

However, another student felt differently: “Math is just man’s description of the world. It comes from our sensory experience.”

The concept of math is very wide, overlapping borders with science and even philosophy. We tend to have a narrow vision of what qualifies as math, but these different fields are often inspired and influenced by each other. “All of these things tend to blur together,” said Martinez.

Obviously, math refers to something much broader than just adding numbers together. It can hold great philosophical value. Taking time to discuss math’s importance in the context of history, as well as its relation to social concepts, only deepened Berkeley Connect students’ fascination with their field of study.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant