The Mathematics of the Soul

In 1960, physicist Eugene Wigner published The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. The gist of it is in the title: Math is weirdly good at describing the physical world, good enough to seem unreasonable.

At the end, Wigner says:

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning. (emphasis added)

I could’ve cut that off after the first sentence, but that phrase: to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement. I’ve had that feeling with math, when something click click clicked into place and made the most wonderful, most unexpected kind of sense.

What, then, is the mathematics of the soul?

It can’t be mathematics, because the soul

  1. isn’t physical, and
  2. doesn’t exist.

So let’s ask the question this way: What is unreasonably effective at expressing, communicating, shaping, and preserving the fruits of the human heart? What carries those precious things through time and space and past the death of the individual?

Beauty. Art. But most especially song and story, story and song.

Song and story intersect at rhythm and narrative. Song has harmony and melody; story has plot and character. Song slices through reason like a sharp knife through the butterlike-brain; story marinates and soaks and dissolves and precipitates thought from reverie.

Song and story are unreasonably effective in transmitting and preserving culture, persevering when written word and graven image do not. What’s sung and said is the most Permanent Record. Erasing that takes genocide, and even that doesn’t always work.

I could not accept a theory of humanity, a theology or a philosophy of life, without song and story as one of its foundations. Along with human solidarity and grateful wonder at the world, it is one foundation of mine.

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