A blackboard with mathematical equations written in chalk

Reality as Numbers

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In this week’s Friday Philosophy post we’re going to stay with the ancient Greeks and look at an idea by a man who we all know from mathematics lessons. Pythagoras of Samos lived around the mid-sixth century BC (we don’t know the exact dates) and like Thales who we looked at last week was a presocratic philosopher.

Who Was He?

Pythagoras was a mystic and religious thinker as well as a philosopher and mathematician. We know him best for his famous theorem relating to right-angled triangles but it’s actually likely that he didn’t invent the theorem as there is evidence that it was known both to the Egyptians and Babylonians around the same period.

We don’t have any of his writings, but in a similar way to Socrates who followed him we have the writing of his students to whom he passed down his ideas. A random fact about Pythagoras is that he founded a kind of religious cult that had a veneration for beans.

What’s the Big Idea?

Pythagoras believed that the ultimate nature of reality is number. He came to this conclusion after studying music and deciphering that the intervals between musical notes could be expressed as ratios between the numbers one to four.

A fascination with numbers characterised a lot of Pythagorean thought, and there was a mystical element to his thinking. Numerology became something of an obsession for the philosopher and he believed, for instance, that the number 10 is the perfect number because it is made up of the sum of the first four integers (1,2,3, and 4).

My Reflections

Numerology has had a major influence down through the ages, the most obvious example of this being Nostradamus, who used numbers in his prophetic writing. But it’s also interesting that some Christians, even those living in the present day, have an obsession with trying to read significance into the numbers we find associated with certain events in Scripture.

I find the whole concept of numbers very interesting. While I was writing my book The Philosophy of a Mad Man I spent some time thinking about numbers and words, and why they have meaning. I believe that they can best be understood as impressions in consciousness that God imbues with a certain regularity. For instance, if you look at this number – 5 – what you are looking at is merely a mark on the page which has no inherent meaning. What gives the number meaning is God creating an impression in your awareness as you read.

So I share with Pythagoras a fascination with numbers, and I believe that although numerology can sometimes be overly superstitious, if we take time to study why numbers mean what they mean, that study can reveal some deep truths about the human mind and its relationship with God.

Next week we’ll be looking at a big idea by Xenophanes, another presocratic thinker. If you don’t want to miss out on that, consider subscribing. Thank you for reading!