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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


The common usage of the term mathematical refers to something “of, relating to, or of the nature of, mathematics”. An understanding of the term mathematics is required to understand mathematical.

  Up to 1475, the term mathematics was implicit to astrology. Only until 1673 did the current definition, “the science of space, number, quantity, and arrangement”, begin to prevail. The astrological definition became obsolete at that time.  Mistranslations have resulted because of this curious fact. A famous case is that of Saint Augustine’s warning, "the good Christian should beware of mathematicians, and all those who make empty prophecies”; the mathematicians being referenced in this are actually Manicheans, a group of cultists whom are more astrologist and numerologist than mathematician in the current sense (2). Coincidentally , the denunciation of the maths by Creationists, partially fueled by mistranslations from that period, lie true to the word’s Greek root, μάθημα (máthēma), meaning, “something learned, knowledge, […] the sciences” (1).  

The term mathematical can be used as a descriptor to evoke a quality of precision, similar to that found in mathematics and science. This can be applied to anything. People can be mathematical and cold; objects can be mathematical and precise, and designs can be mathematical and rigorous. Using mathematical to describe things unrelated to mathematics suggests underlying patterns, algorithms, structure, and ultimately depth. However, due to the nature of the term mathematical, as long as any mathematics is involved, then the latter, meaningful definition is void. The use of any mathematics in an idea, regardless of how primitive and reckless, allows the grand label of mathematical to be affixed. It is a term that obfuscates the actual level of complexity of an idea.  For example, “the volume of the cup has been optimised with mathematical methods”, sounds more impressive than it actually is.

In addition, Mathematical has become a synonym for distant, cold, and abstract. It is used to label something unapproachable, anti human, and unsympathetic. Mathematics goes against the empathetic side of human nature. It is taught that mathematics is always right—cold, hard logic cannot be faulted; that which is mathematical is always true and consequently, that which is human and contrary to mathematical results must be wrong. Mathematical explanations can be flawed. There is a fear and avoidance towards the mathematical, perhaps because it is not relatable, something that is not understood by the public, likely because of a faulty school system. This conflict is reminiscent to the one between man and machine. Mathematics is the oppressor. 

This relationship can be, and usually is abused for greater authority. Mathematical is a term thrown around to give an oppressive authority; it is an elitist term of sorts.  Mathematical used as a qualify any idea or statement should be treated with suspicion.

1.      "mathematical, adj. and n.". OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/114966 (accessed November 21, 2012).
2.      "St. Augustine v. the Mathematicians”.OSU Department of Mathematics. September 2012. Ohio State University. http://www.math.osu.edu/~easwaran.1/augustine.html (accessed November 21, 2012).

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