“On the Relation of Mathematics to Freedom”


(Prague, Czech Republic—April 7, 2002)

I grew up learning to whore. First it was for religion, then later for my country, and then, for a while, both at once. I was most ragged during that latter time and must have seemed older than my adolescent age.

In church, I testified to the mighty strength of God and the fear He instills in his children, a fear as pure and as justified as the love we seek from Him in return; elsewhere—in school, on the street, in the civic temples celebrating commerce—I proclaimed the mighty strength of the American nation and the fear it instilled in godless communists, thus the necessity of girding our loins with military strength so as to defend democratic civic virtues and free enterprise against the totalitarian State. Heady stuff for a fourteen-year-old boy, but I was full of it.

My performance was supported from both behind and below by the usual quid pro quo arrangement between a young person and his elders: affirmation of the collective myth reaps a generous reward in the form of yet another affirmation, that of the young person’s individual worth. That an individual would discover his true worth in the reflected and collective glory of God and Nation proved too emotionally lucrative for me to question. I desperately needed that love, even on such compromising terms, and it sustained me, at least for a while. And so I learned to rationalize such apparent contradictions by ignoring them. But that, too, lasted only for a while.

Mathematics put the fly in the ointment. Or perhaps the fly was already there, was in fact the contradictory condition itself, and mathematics merely revealed it to me. In any case, a deep understanding of logical processes, of which mathematics is one form—the first such logical form we are taught to consciously manipulate, and sometimes the last—seemed to come to me naturally. I was very good at mathematics, and for some reason did not have to try very hard to understand mathematical operations; it was as if I was learning something I already knew, a kind of sustained revelation—not really learning at all, but a prolonged, orgasmic epiphany. Not only the adding and subtracting, the multiplying and dividing, but the presumptions underlying the very existence of numbers, the substructure of these processes which seemed alchemical in their mysterious tendency to prove predictable in a world that seemed most unpredictable, even dangerously so—these deeper aspects of mathematics drew me ineluctably toward the whole, and they brought me exquisite pleasure. They also taught me to think clearly.

Of course, that was the beginning of the end to my devotion toward the collective myths concerning God and Nation, which were based not on reason but on blind unquestioning faith, and the blinder the better. The contradictions were manifold; they often seemed obvious to anyone giving a matter some thought, and many were staggering in their magnitude and scope. How could anyone not see them? The U.S. Declaration of Independence said we all were created equal, a premise backed by the Judeo-Christian commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself, yet all around me religious and patriotic citizens routinely qualified the principle in accordance to ethnicity, religious affiliation and income level. Some qualifications seemed especially pernicious because they were so clearly disconnected from choice; no one chooses the color of his skin, so why would he be punished or rewarded for it? This sort of obvious contradiction bewildered me, and because of the inexperience of youth, I at first assumed it need only be pointed out and my elders would move quickly to rectify the error.

Naturally, I began publicly expressing these observations, and they produced the effect I expected—embarrassment, surprise, even alarm—but not the results. Confounded by the lack of initiative among my elders, I began asking questions. Bereft of answers, they told me to stop asking the questions. But I could not stop. In this way, my dwindling devotion to the collective myth, to God and Nation, was noticed. Indeed, it was closely monitored. Measures were soon taken. The reaction was swift and terrible. I was punished for every step beyond the carefully circumscribed territory of the collective belief, for trespass is a serious offense: it endangers the public sense of security, which is a kind of collective property. This state of affairs is an inversion of the normal meanings of property and trespass, for I was not attempting to invade another’s territory, but was instead only trying to exit secured territory and enter unmapped lands, to explore property which the collective culture had rejected and did not want. The anxiety this incited in my elders, and the fervor with which they punished my minor trespasses (after all, at this time I was still only asking questions), served to lend that unknown territory a mysterious and seductive character which made me all the more curious. What was it the others did not wish me to see? What did they want, even need, me not to know?

As must be obvious, but is only known by the wise because of its simplicity, action breeds reaction in human affairs as surely as it does in the affairs of physics, though what can be calibrated by science within the calculated constraints of a laboratory becomes not only difficult to measure and predict but potentially explosive within the crucible of the human heart, especially one overheated by youthful exuberance and not yet tempered by experience. And so it transpired that the fierce opposition of those around me to my youthful curiosity merely enlarged and strengthened my need to explore. The more censorious and autocratic my elders behaved—and in their fear, they became the totalitarians they had so often warned me against—the more determined I became to strike out on my own.

At that point, I was forever lost to them.

A prostitute worships the security of belonging to her pimp and finds affirmation in her self-estimation as valued property, the lowest denominator of belonging. This inversion of values—a person choosing to forego individual will, subverting one’s own humanity to become the property of something perceivably more powerful, whether that thing be a person or an institution or a society—is a perversion of the values we collectively embrace. Our collective myth endorses individual freedom. This is why we place a prostitute so low in our esteem, provide her so little dignity; she has sacrificed the very thing we say we most value: individual freedom. We advise her to take the one step that will lead to a recovery of that freedom: leave her pimp. It won’t be easy. If she tries, he will beat her; if she runs, he will chase her down. But if she doesn’t give up, she will succeed. Either that, or he will kill her. Her survival depends on both persistence and skill in evasion. Of course, what she sees—and what we fail to see—is that in order to escape she must become an outlaw to the very values she previously endorsed, to the collective myth she is rejecting.

And so it happened for me. I stopped whoring and became an outlaw. It was one or the other, but by making a choice the transition was inevitable. It was the choice that did it. Making a choice, an exercise of will, is not merely a catalyst; it is the action which creates its own existence. That this transformation began so long ago, when I first observed the fly in the ointment and began to understand the nature of contradiction and the nature of humans in relation to contradiction—that we do not like it and so ignore and even deny it if possible… well, remembering that time is akin to remembering a dream. In the dream, the recognition of contradiction is the first step toward freedom. For freedom itself is a contradiction; it stands in relation to something else, either embraced or rejected, and the most we can hope from it is the courage to recognize what is false and what is true and the will to move toward the true, which forever recedes from us. This movement, this action, is the very affirmation that an individual will not receive from the collective body, but can only provide to himself. It makes him an outlaw. But that is better than being a whore.

The comprehension of this existential understanding, so long in the forming, is the measure of a long journey. It began so long ago, in my youth. And it began with thinking, nothing less that clear thinking, the simple requirement that if A is true and A leads to B, then B, too, must be true and cannot be false. It is not complicated. But it is revelatory.

As all mathematics are.



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