The Truth About Pi

Smoking sheesha in Luxor, Egypt

Smoking sheesha in Luxor, Egypt

My idea of having a great time: smoking sheesha in Egypt, wearing my favourite T-shirt (ThinkGeek.com). The print on the shirt consists of the first 4,493 digits of the number Pi in the shape of the symbol itself. In my view, the number Pi, not the number 42 as some have proposed, symbolises the ultimate truth of the universe. Let me explain why.

On the way back from Egypt I watched The Oxford Murders. In this movie, the question whether mathematics is the underlying truth of the world is discussed between the two main characters. Martin, a student played by Elijah Wood, said:

“Things are organised following a model, a scheme, a logical series. Even the tiny snowflake includes a numerical basis in its structure. Therefore, if we discover the secret meaning of numbers, we will know the secret meaning of reality.”

But is Martin correct? Can all philosophical questions and truths be expressed in mathematics? Will we eventually calculate our way out of ethical dilemma’s? Can we improve our understanding of Shakespeare by expressing his prose in formal language?

To be or not to be

I tend to agree with Professor Martin Seldon, played by John Hurt in the same movie:

“Since man is incapable of reconciling mind and matter he turns to confer some kind of entity on ideas because he can not bear the notion that the purely abstract only exists in our brain.”

With this in mind, why does the number Pi reflects the ultimate truth about the universe?

Pi is an irrational and transcendental number and the digits of which it is composed comprise an infinite array of random numbers. Even after calculating billions of digits, there does not seem to be any pattern in the arrangement of the digits. It is this lack of any pattern, the absence of logic, that illustrates the structure of the universe itself.

Pi is an artificial structure of our mind, not something existing in reality. Nature doesn’t care about perimeters and diameters, although it might seem that the ubiquitous nature of Pi seems to suggest differently.

Pi is an important number in physics and is included in many formulas. This implies to me that there is something inherently random in the structure of reality.

However, we perceive our environment in discrete terms. Common sense mathematics does not include irrational numbers such as Pi. We think in whole numbers and fractions. This is reflected in the fact that in ancient cultures, Pi was perceived to be a fracture, such as 22/7. This is the value that I use in my own calculations as it is accurate enough for almost all computations.

But the number Pi is ubiquitous in mathematics and physics. We rely on an irrational numbers such as Pi and e in much of our modeling of reality. What does this say about the structure of reality? I do not have an answer on this, but for me, the existence of irrational numbers shows the great divide between common sense and our scientific description of the world.

Postmodernism and Language Games: The limits of abslute truth

Language gamesWhen I studied philosophy in the Netherlands, postmodernist thought was an important part of the curriculum. Now that I am studying in Australia, I am more exposed to the analytical philosophy tradition. (See also my previous article Schools of Thought). I have been reading some analytical criticisms of postmodern thought and think some are missing the point.

Thinkers of the analytical tradition have a big issue with the postmodern idea that truth is not absolute. A very common counter argument is that this is by itself presented as an absolute truth and therefore a logical contradiction. Most criticisms are, however, missing the point.

The answer to the problem lies in the work by Richard Rorty whose interpretation of Wittgensteinian Language Games provides a very powerful way of dealing with relativism.

Within a Language Game (closely related to Khun’s ‘paradigm’ and Foucault’s ‘episteme’) there is absolute truth. Rorty argues, however, that there is no almighty Language Game that can provide a universal truth. Human culture has produced many different language games across time and cultures and none of these provide a final answer to any problem, nor will any future products of the human mind be able to do so.

This thought is quite disturbing as we are psychologically wired to favour certainty. Our oversized brains give us the possibility to contemplate the future. This amazing feature enables us to develop science and philosophy because we can think about an answer to the question “What if?”. This causes a great deal of grief because with an uncertain future comes fundamental existential uncertainty. Science, philosophy and the arts are merely psychological band-aids to help us deal with this uncertainty and prevent anxiety.

Postmodern philosophy is, in a way, an attempt to create a universal language game. The quest for universality comes at a great price, because the only universal claim we have been able to find is that all knowledge is relative and only valid within a certain Language Game. The issue that many analytical commentators, and also many postmodern thinkers, do not seem to understand is that postmodernism—as a universal language game—can not be used for any practical purposes. It is a Language Game about Language Games—not a Language Game by itself.

Postmodernism is therefore only useful to be able to talk about language games in general. The problem is that postmodern mankind is by definition detached from the possibility of finding truth with the inherent risk of falling into nihilistic despair. Postmodernism is a Venom Crystal, a beautiful wisdom which is poisonous to the mind. From an existential point of view, postmodernism is a view that can only be maintained by those who are able to float in a metaphysical hot air balloon above the landscape of Language Games.