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The Beauty of Numbers

by Rick Lewis

Even to my untrained ear, there is a difference between the sound of Led Zeppelin playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and the rather less tuneful sounds I produce on my guitar. We all seem to agree on when a sequence of notes is harmonious and when it isn’t. 2,500 years ago, Pythagoras of Samos became the first person to discover an objective basis for this distinction: he found that on basic stringed instruments, the strings produced notes in harmony with one another if their lengths were ratios of whole numbers. This was the first time that anyone had realised that aspects of the world could be controlled by numerical relationships. Pythagoras went on to look for other mathematical ratios in the world; he found them everywhere, and rapidly came to the conclusion that numbers were holy. Even after his downfall (see p.8) Pythagoras’ ideas were kept alive by his followers, and later influenced Plato, entering the mainstream of Western thought. As Arthur Koestler wrote in his book The Sleepwalkers, “ Nobody before the Pythagoreans had thought that mathematical relations held the secret of the universe. Twenty-five centuries later, Europe is still blessed and cursed with their heritage.”

Today more than ever we are immersed in numbers. Our most profound theory in contemporary physics, quantum mechanics, is an almost purely mathematical theory which appears to rule the physical world and yet which is very hard to visualise in physical terms. On a more human scale, we can detect a faint echo of Pythagoreanism in everything from huge televised lotteries (with the punters’ veneration of lucky numbers) to the figures marching across stockbrokers’ screens.

Pythagoras’ influence lives on in other ways too. He began a long tradition of scientists looking for beauty, harmony and symmetry in their theories. The link between beauty and science has rarely been analysed properly. Marilyn Kane is sceptical about it, and explains why in her article. The whole idea of beauty is problematic, and these days scientists seem to talk about it more often than artists. Colin Radford examines modern art’s abandonment of beauty and form.

Say what you like about Pythagoras’ mysticism, he did at least have an all-embracing picture of the world, an idea of life’s meaning. Ask some modern philosophers about the meaning of life, and they’ll remember urgent appointments elsewhere. There is an old story about a taxi driver, who said “ I had that Bertrand Russell in the back of this cab once. I asked him ‘What’s it all about, then, Lord Russell?’ And, you know, he couldn’t tell me!” A vague feeling has grown up that questions such as “ What is it all about?”, “ What is it all for?” and “ What does it all mean?”, somehow aren’t respectable questions for a serious philosopher to address: that they are too vague, that maybe there is something wrong with the questions themselves. But such questions won’t go away, because nearly everyone, at some stage, wonders why they bother, given that life is finite, to make the efforts that they do. When such blatantly philosophical questions are of such universal concern, philosophers simply must attempt to tackle them somehow. A few have; Richard Wollheim and Thomas Nagel spring to mind as honourable examples.

We will be encouraging a few more to do the same. It occurs to me that this is probably the only (non-religious) magazine in Britain or America which could legitimately have a ‘Meaning of Life Special Issue’, so sometime soon that is exactly what we shall do! (That’ll show that supercilious bunch at Railway Monthly!) We will be inviting contributions from a variety of sources; so if you have welldeveloped, original ideas on life’s purpose and importance and can express them interestingly in under a thousand words, do please drop us a line. Try to avoid what Bertrand Russell (I think) called “ woolly uplift”; the trick is to come up with something which is intellectually satisfying as well as livable.

We have another favour to ask you, our longsuffering readers. Philosophy Now magazine is now sold by bookstores and news-stands right across Britain and North America, even if it is spread very thinly in places. However, the vast majority of people who might be interested in reading it have still not even heard of its existence. It would help enormously if more public libraries stocked and displayed the magazine. Libraries generally only subscribe to publications when people ask them to, and if people haven’t heard of a magazine, then of course, they don’t ask for it; Therefore, if you support our aim of widening philosophical debate, of drawing more people into the ‘conversation of the West’, you could make a significant and much-appreciated contribution simply by contacting your local library and asking them to subscribe.

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