Warning: this is a philosophical, and deeply weird, post. If I’m lucky, it will go unnoticed in the holiday rush and I won’t have to answer any difficult questions; if not, I can just say that the end of the year has always been the time when I am most prone to consider deep and philosophical thoughts. (Of course, that is patently untrue; deep thoughts, ones about the meaning of life or the passage of time or the inexorable approach of death, come to me at the most inopportune times, such as when I’m watching repeats of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or when I’m ironing a shirt.) At any rate, the thought I’m about to articulate in this post is a doozy, even for me, so you might want to put on some heavy waders, because we’re about to plunge into some fairly deep shit.
First, a little background. Some months ago, I listened to an episode of the BBC’s fantastic radio show In Our Time that focused on zero. Full disclosure here: I have not really considered mathematics seriously in any capacity since, well, since ever. It has always been a tool for me, something that I have to do in order to cut a recipe in half, average students’ grades, or create a grading system with weighted assignments. So why I listened to this podcast, other than simple curiosity, is a bit of a mystery. But listen to it I did, and I have to admit it fascinated me. I learned all sorts of things about zero: when it was invented and who invented it and when it came into general use in the Western World. I mean, to start with, I didn’t realize zero actually had to be discovered; I always thought it just appeared, like the rest of the numbers, with all of its properties neatly attached to it. But apparently zero was invented, or discovered, by the ancient Babylonians, who needed it to keep track of tax records, as a place-keeper along with numbers that were set out in rows for easy and quick addition and subtraction.
You can listen to the podcast to find out more about the number zero, or you can read a book I just finished, Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea, by Charles Seife, which provides a thoroughly understandable overview of the subject. I find it all interesting, intriguing even, but what got me really thinking was how useful zero is without actually being anything. Calculus and physics, for example (not that I know anything about them) are apparently impossible without a concept of zero. The ancient Greeks and early Christians were averse to considering zero, being terrified of the idea of nothingness; Babylonian and Indian culture had no problem dealing with the idea of a void, so they ran with the idea of zero. It would take the Western world until the middle of the Renaissance to really begin to experiment with the concept of zero, and the Industrial and Technological Revolutions simply couldn’t begin until zero became accepted as a legitimate number.
For the first time in my life, I could see that zero is really, really important. And here’s the interesting thing about zero: it means nothing–literally. It is nothing. But without the idea of it, things just don’t work right. We can’t achieve a level of mathematical knowledge that allows us to have computers, space travel, medical breakthroughs–almost anything we associate with the kind of lives we live today. Zero, while being nothing, is a critical idea around which the entire universe as we encounter it seems to hang.
So I began to think about this, and how intriguing it is that the our concept of the universe depends on something that isn’t there. Maybe my age is showing–I went to graduate school during the heydey of deconstructive criticism, after all–but I find this to be a really satisfying conundrum. Zero is nothing. Yet it is in fact incredibly important, and without a concept of it, we can’t really understand anything beyond elementary mathematics; without it, we can only make fairly simple and elementary natural observations. In short, the nature of zero is a puzzle, and it’s so contradictory that I find it pleasant and satisfying to consider it.
But thinking can be dangerous, especially if you have a lot of time on your hands and allow your mind to wander. Thinking about zero in this way led me to another idea, one that is heretical but at the same really intriguing, namely, what if the concept of God is analagous to the concept of zero? In other words, what if having God as a kind of moral placekeeper is more important than having God as a real entity? God, in this scenario, would be nothing–an evanescent, empty idea–but the concept of God would be all-important. Without this concept of God as simple place-holder, nothing works as it should. The idea of empathy, of ethics, of morals, of duty, or of simply “doing the right thing for the right reason,” these things are easily jettisoned without a belief in or a sense of a higher being. The concept of God as a placekeeper, though–that could be just as useful, and perhaps less prone to corruption and deviance, as the traditional Judeo-Christian concept of God as an all-knowing, all-powerful divinity.
Consider: God is zero. It seems like nothing, but without this zero, the entire trajectory of human existence simply doesn’t work right. Belief in God would then represent not a belief in a traditional deity with superhuman powers, but rather an acknowledgement of the role of God, which in turn grounds human experience in a meaningful way. I think Seife comes close to saying something like this early in his book when he writes: “Yet through all its history, despite the rejection and the exile, zero has always defeated those who opposed it. Humanity could never force zero to fit its philosophies. Instead, zero shaped humanity’s view of the universe–and of God” (p 3). My theory is similar but not exactly identical to Seife’s, however. Rather than suggest that our concept of God was shaped by our view of zero, I’m arguing that zero and God could, with a little bit of imagination, occupy the same location in their respective theoretical frameworks.
Ultimately this theory is important only to those people who, like me, struggle with a belief in God. It’s easier for me to think of God as a function or a place than as an omnipotent Being. But I think my theory might be fun for anyone to think about , even those with a strong traditional faith. It turns traditional religious ideas upside down, which, after all, is always fun.
At any rate, I’ve thought about this idea long enough to cause me to change my behavior in a real, and hopfully, a positive way. I’ve actually signed up for a college algebra class at the local community college this coming semester. That in itself is nothing short of a veritable Act of God, which I owe to a belief in the power of zero.
Thanks, Meredith, for encouraging me!