Math is very strange stuff. A serious question within the community of science and math is whether math is an invention or a discovery. Is it something that we have just made up out of our head, or is it something we observed and discovered (because it is already there)? This might sound like a silly thing to wonder about, but it is indeed most serious.
The ancients (Plato in particular) thought that numbers existed “out there,” or somewhere. But Plato thought that about pretty much everything. Our reality, he thought, was, at best, a copy of some Greater Reality somewhere else. This idea later found echoes in Christian thought.
One very puzzling thing about numbers is that unlike most invented ideas, it corresponds precisely to what we observe around us. When physicists do the math to predict a hitherto unknown particle – lo and behold! the particle is found to exist just as the numbers said it would. This same phenomenon is found in many places throughout nature. The force of gravity can be expressed with a precise formula. So the numbers are more than mere ideas – they are ideas that actually correspond to reality as we know it. There are very amazing sets of correspondence. A Fibonacci Sequence is a name given to a sequence of numbers produced by adding the previous number to the present to get the next: 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13, etc. It creates patterns that are found throughout nature, governing even the shape of the galaxy in which we live.
This is more astonishing than you might think. It is certainly possible to make up some sort of system of things with rules of what happens. But if I make up a random system with random rules, I would be absolutely astounded if anything outside of my head were found to correspond to it.
But numbers and the rules that govern them work.
Though the scientific community is divided over the nature of numbers, many mathematicians are not. As one mathematician put it, “When I’m working out a problem, the experience is one of discovery, not invention.”
Discovery, not invention. This is the point and a very, very great point.
For this aspect of our universe applies to far more than math. The universe itself is not the sort of thing you invent. You discover it. A fiction writer could “invent” an alternate universe, but if they did a very thorough job of it, we would not be able to follow anything he said about such a universe because it would not have the logic of the only universe we know. In truth, when a science fiction writer engages in his/her craft, they only partly “invent” their new world. They inevitably have to borrow many (or most) of the properties and aspects that we have previously discovered in this universe so that readers in this universe can understand their fiction and buy their books.
Discovery should be a primary attitude towards all things. For the universe is not something we invent. It is not inside our heads.
Oddly, this also applies to great art and poetry. I would say that it absolutely applies to all matters of beauty. We do not, and cannot “invent” beauty. We can make something and call it “art.” But beauty cannot be idiosyncratic. It is known in the communion of human knowing. We “recognize” beauty and are sometimes struck with awe by beauty. But no one can invent something and simply declare: “This is beautiful.”
This strange aspect of discovery applies to God as well. We cannot invent God and be satisfied with the result. Any God you can invent is too little to be your God. The religious term for this discovery is revelation. It is a religious finding-out.
This is one of the deep misunderstandings that modern atheists have about religion. They suggest that religious believers are inventing something. But that is not at all the nature of religious believing. What believers experience is closer to beauty and math. They perceive something that they did not invent.
Now, there are indeed religious inventions (cf. Mormonism, Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.). They are critiqued by others precisely on account of this aspect of their existence. To a degree, this is a fault in all of post-Reformation Christian groups.
Discovery is an aspect of tradition, the experience we have when we confront that which is handed down or given to us. And it is worth noting, that this is simply part of how the world actually is. Its givenness is its primary quality and our discovery of its givenness is a primary quality of our sanity.
It is the abandonment of this primary human experience that has become a hallmark of certain aspects of modernity. Modernity believes that the world, even human beings, can be re-imagined and newly invented. Gender-experience, it is suggested, can be self-defined (along with a continual string of new “rights”). But these inventions are not discoveries. They are nothing more than the assertion of power. They become oppressive inasmuch as they cannot be discovered in a manner independent of their brutal assertion. And they will be maintained as an invention, only through the continuing use of coercion.
Discovery is a matter of the heart as well as the mind. It is a perception of what is outside us, and can be shared. It can be perceived by others. As a matter of the heart it is an openness to what has been given, a willingness to receive.
And we receive what cannot be invented: beauty, truth, goodness. Even God Himself.