The world seems mired in crippling ignorance of how to solve its biggest problems, but memories of how we learned to solve simple formulas remind us that a solution remains ever possible.
Let us begin by thinking about your own past. I pose this specific question: Do you remember what it was like to communicate before you learned how to write? Most of us do not. In fact, we’ve probably never been asked that question. Yet, learning the skill of writing marked the greatest turning point in our ability to participate in a world that communicates so much through written text. And in this brief moment, as we ponder how we may have lost this important memory, we may find that by trying to recall other milestones from our earliest youth, we can learn much about ourselves as we are today. We might also learn about how different the world seemed to us before we acquired the literacy that we now use on a daily basis. What is true is that, while the past that gave rise to these formative abilities has disappeared, your skills have nonetheless developed, and they hold promise for helping you pave your future.
Don’t fret if you can’t remember having learned to write (I refer to the growth of writing from words to sentences, not from letters to words). The same is true of all of us, and is even more true regarding our memories of learning math. An informal survey of any social group might produce the same results as those that I found by asking random people this: Do you remember what it felt like when you started learning to add numbers? As it happens, many people remember something of the marvel of math; perhaps they don’t remember the very first equation that they worked out, which might have been something like 1+1 = 2, but they likely remember the feeling of being “in the math process,” of working with a set of numbers in order to produce a result that was not yet known to them when they first began to work out the problem.
In fact, the “experience” of math is not one, but several. Being familiar with different kinds of rudimentary mathematics (even though we may not think of ourselves as math veterans), we already know the answer to an equation like 3+4 = X without even working out the terms that lead to the result. This is a case of what we might call result in hand, referring to a problem so simple and so frequently encountered that the answer is known at virtually the same moment as when it is first presented to us. Our speed in processing result in hand problems is such that one scarcely has a moment to discern the underlying processes before they retreat again into the shadows. For example, as you read this problem 5 + 5 = X, you already know the answer for X without thinking about how you arrived at it. The math for solving X was already in hand in a way that it is not in a problem like this: 7183+6268 = X. You know that you can find the value of X in both problems, but in one, the answer is in hand, while in the other, it is not.
With this second, more complex example, we might also consider a different kind of math in which the answer is not ready to hand but instead emerges gradually or in steps applied through the use of rules that are in hand. In those cases, even though the answer may not emerge instantly, as it did for a result in hand problem, we are nonetheless confident that we can eventually find the correct answer. As with the earlier addition example, adding 16 numbers together (e.g., 8,853 + 797 + 7,333 + 6,259 + 5,526 + 40,053 + 4,226 + 39,456 + 37,798 + 36,799 + 30,634 + 3,636 + 29,191 + 28,926 + 28,412 + 25,467) may not give us the feeling that we have the solution already, but we know that no matter how large those numbers are, we can eventually find an answer by following the rules of addition. We might call this cognitive experience rules in hand, because, while we lack the mental ability to generate an answer spontaneously, we know which rules will get us there.
With result in hand, and rules in hand, we come to a wider understanding of how we confront math problems (in fact, this applies to many problems outside of numerical analysis). But there is still a third kind of math experience whose answers do not come through these first two kinds of cognitive processing. In this third case, we are presented with a problem whose answer cannot be calculated by any known formulas. Sometimes we don’t know which rules apply to the equation, but in most cases, finding the answer is entirely impossible because too many of the necessary variables are unknown. For example, if I ask this: How much energy does a person require in order to jump from our current dimensional spacetime to a different one? it becomes obvious that we cannot find any real answer, and so, this special, third kind of experience is one we might call a problem enigma. This kind of problem is not necessarily mathematical; many enigmas revolve around questions that are fairly simple to pose but very difficult to answer.
In this sense, mathematics mirrors the enigmatic tapestry of human affairs: each quandary, each puzzle, each problem set demands its key, each riddle, its revelation. In either case. solutions may masquerade as mere child’s play, cloaked in the comforting garb of arithmetic predictability. Adding 4 to 3 always produces 7, but in the arena of human interests, a social problem may not always respond to the same solution. The past, from which we learned how to create these solutions, has vanished, and no matter the difficulty, a mathematics problem presents its solutions for the present as well as the future. But among human concerns, is there any equation that will always produce the same optimal answer?
When the arena shifts to the capricious theater of human drama, particularly the simmering cauldron we presently witness in the Middle East, the playbook is different. Here, answers seem elusive, dancing on the fringes of reason, sometimes demanding nothing more than the strategic pause of some chess master, biding his time for clarity to pierce the fog of contention before any answers are proposed.
And what lasting answers can be proposed in the murky waters of politics, or in the ruthless tides of economics, where problems are like a game that harbors perennial victors, and also many vanquished? The cruel arithmetic of politics too often prefers a wealth of answers to appease the victory of one party, while starving the quest for a harmonious equilibrium between both. In a world set up to create winners and losers, any balanced solution, in its truest essence, seems a will-o’-the-wisp, tantalizingly out of reach, an estranged concept. The Middle East’s chronicles through the 20th century were indeed such a testament to this relentless pursuit, a tragic cycle of ‘solutions’ in a perpetual dance, each falling short of the elusive harmony that equally satisfies the dueling ends of the equation. When we speak of solutions, the impartial rigor of math lies at one end of a range of reality, while the fictive delusions of politics clump very much toward the other.
The nature of intransigent conflicts, dilemmas, roadblocks, and crises presents us with the temptation to fall into a sort of distortion of perspective in which we may see that one side of the equation continually wins while the other repeatedly fails. Without a larger context in space, in time, and in collective interests, it is impossible to be conclusive about what is a convincing “solution,” either in a political or an economic sense.
This hasn’t discouraged politicians from proposing responses that are immediately triggered by the events that are taking place. Such responses are a case of result in hand thinking, which, as we saw with problems from our early math development, holds only for simple equations. The problems aren’t simple because the Middle East equation, previously unsolved, has become more complicated owing to new variables gradually inserted in place of a true answer. The question now is whether we understand the rules any longer through which the problem can attain a future-bound solution. In other words, is rules in hand, thinking adequate because, while we lack the mental ability to generate an answer spontaneously, we know which rules will get us there? If not, then we are looking at a problem enigma akin to pushing ourselves into another dimension.
This is why mathematics doesn’t always work in human affairs, not least of which is the matter of economic planning: the future is the great unknown equation. And as with other human affairs, no political solution in the world works without embracing the future, perhaps through planning in full consideration. What is presently playing out in the Middle East is not merely a religious or political conflict, but a case of economic, political, and social disparity that has not been managed by either side of the equation. And, because neither side thought to account for it, the future is nowhere to be found. But it can emerge, and in a lasting way. Every problem is an equation; both sides must equal out in the end without greater value on one side or the other. However intractable the problem may seem now, the only sustainable solution is one of equality, which is to say that, however many variables now appear in need of answers, both sides must come out of this with total mutuality, as equals in all respects. And as long as that equation remains satisfied, the problem will remain solved, fully in hand. No alternative will work out.
Whatever wisdom I may have acquired from philosophy and religion have taught me but this: no one who ignores the future has a realistic chance of existing in it.