Let’s Destroy the Mechanical Model

In mathematics by Nadine Wambui

In the beginning, God made Adam, then from his rib Eve, and after a couple of sins, humanity arrived at the ineffable truth that 1+1 = 2, that there is such thing as “zero”, and we no longer needed God, for we had Math, the absolute authority on “fact” and correspondingly, our reality.

To my mother’s great dismay, however, I am not very religious, and to her even greater dismay, I’m also not very good at math, so I’ve never really cared for either gods. Nevertheless, she used to remind me when I would return home with another horrible grade in the subject, math is the foundation of the world, if you understand math, you can understand anything. I have had difficulty coming to terms with this as I’ve grown older and only got even more terrible at math. I like to think I understand a lot, regardless of my very low understanding of the subject. It’s probably for this reason that I rebelled against the idea that math is not just an absolute fact, but the absolute fact.

Coincidentally, in the years where I was really horrible at the subject, I was solely being taught by pretentious white menWhile, my personal experience is a ridiculously small sample size, it is still indicative of a larger problem expressed and dissected by the study of ethnomathematics. It suggests that math is not a fact, but a constant conversation. One that is as admirable as our commitment to anthropology, our commitment to biology and other sciences. It is a journey to understand ourselves and the world around us; it is our attempt at taking God from the sky and holding him in our hands. 

This means, however, that its truths and its conclusions are tainted by the biases and ambitions of those who hold authority over it. For too long, this authority has fallen into the hands of white patriarchal countries and institutions. It is for this reason that it is not true that if you understand  math, that you can understand anything and God remains in the sky. Math itself is not understood; it is discovered, and too often, created. 

As expressed by Judy M Iseke-Barnes, “mathematics has a human history and as such is fallible”. Our “understanding” of the sciences, including math, did not occur independently of our political ambitions, personal biases, etc. A most famous example being the calculations devised to take us to the moon, which bloomed during the rush of the Cold War. 

Even further, when America was still developing the system that classified groups of people as sub-human, there were menial decisions that needed to be made, such as voting rights. If we look at history as a whole, human beings often disagree, and if an authoritative figure makes decisions that do not coincide with the people they rule over, there is resistance. However, it’s unlikely you’ll find a child looking to their teacher and argue that 1 + 1 does not equal 2. Regardless of the fact that Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell wrote three volumes of logical deduction to prove this, kindergartners just have to accept that it just does. This is because their teacher isn’t the only authority present if they question it, the intangible unquestionable fact that is “Math” is.

So, if American governors needed an unquestionable reason to subjugate a group of people, the immovability of numbers granted them refuge, resulting in the now disproved belief that Black people’s voting rights were worth 3/5th to every white person’s. Sure, we can look back now and say that they were wrong and racist and evil and whatever descriptors we wish to use, but that doesn’t look at the whole picture. According to the mathematical truths of their time, this was as unquestionable as 1 + 1 = 2, why? Because the power of numbers is, ironically, incalculable; it allows for us to quantify life (averagely, insurance companies pay out $30,000), to make life this thing that doesn’t just exist and progress outside of us, but is, instead, something we can dissect, predict and, therefore, control.

To accept this truth is to accept that mathematics is inseparable from politics and just like everything else, must be decolonized. There is of course a certain fear in life not being as certain as we’d hope. I believe our search for absolute truths is just as much to grant us power as it is to grant us comfort. However, I feel it’s redundant to reiterate what this comfort must not come at the expense of. For now, 1 + 1 = 2, and accepting that 200 years from now we might look back and laugh at ourselves is terrifying just as much as it is a sign that we can and must question our reality in order to progress.