Commerce & Industry Minister Piyush Goyal has been lambasted for his apparent error about the discoverer of gravity, but a more fundamental point has been his treatment of mathematics, the most exact of sciences. Such an attitude may be the child of mysticism, the principle that logic and empirical evidence have little to do with the functioning of the world.

For when an important Union minister makes light of mathematics, he seems to be suggesting that there are special insights which only he and the anointed few in the ruling dispensation can boast of, the insights which are beyond the reach of language and reason. Therefore, he is saying, “don’t ask us how and why”.

It needs to be emphasised here that Goyal’s riposte came when he was asked to explain how the current and estimated growth rates could make India become a $5 trillion economy. He said, “Don’t get into calculations that you see on television…don’t get into those maths.”

Mathematics is regarded as the mother of all sciences. Most men whose thoughts and works made the world modern were either mathematicians or deeply influenced by it. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Isaac Newton (1642-1726), and Leibniz (1646-1716) are some of the more prominent people whose works made the Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason (roughly the 18th century), possible.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that swept across Europe and North America. It was the crystallisation of the Western intellectual tradition, incorporating ancient Greek, Latin, and Christian elements. If there is any period in history which metamorphosed mankind, it is the eighteenth century.

The defining feature of Enlightenment, as also of the Renaissance, was humanism. Human autonomy has been called “the means and end of Enlightenment”. The “light” in the Enlightenment is invariably the light of reason, using which individuals can acquire knowledge, improve their lives, and declare their freedom from authority (ecclesiastical as well as political) to determine their own course of action.

In an essay, “What is Enlightenment” (1784), Immanuel Kant wrote, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.” While several counter-Enlightenment ideologies trace their origins to Kant’s philosophy, in this essay at least he sought to place reason on a pedestal. He wrote, “Nothing is required for this Enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters. But on all sides I hear: ‘Do not argue!’ The officer says, ‘Do not argue, drill!’ The taxman says, ‘Do not argue, pay!’ The pastor says, ‘Do not argue, believe!’… In this we have examples of pervasive restrictions on freedom. But which restriction hinders Enlightenment and which does not, but instead actually advances it? I reply: The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among mankind.”

The tectonic movements in the Western intellectual tradition translated into fundamental changes—political, economic, social, religious, cultural, literary—not only in England, Scotland, Holland, France, Germany, and America but also, indirectly, in the entire East and Africa. The story of the Enlightenment transforming Western countries, strengthening their economic muscle, enhancing technological prowess, increasing military power, augmenting political might, and ultimately helping them embark on the imperialist project is too well-known to be repeated.

Since the entire Enlightenment project was premised upon reason, the thought leaders of the early modern age came to the conclusion that the use of reason was the key to understanding the world and thus benefiting from it. This was summarised in the writings of the great modern philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626). His view on the subject occasioned the famous aphorism ‘knowledge is power.’ Bacon wrote, “Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed…”

Nature can be “obeyed” by studying it as it is, in contradistinction with what authority (secular, scholastic, or ecclesiastical) says it is. So, Galileo invented the telescope, and made observations that brought him trouble.

Nature was not just to be studied but also made sense of. Most philosophers, scientists, and thinkers found mathematics handy for the purpose. In fact, Galileo went on to say, “Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.”

It was the reliance on mathematics (rather than on the syllogisms and tedious pedantry of the scholastic method) and the emphasis on seeing the world as it is that made the Enlightenment the greatest movement in the history of mankind. It was the cause of the Industrial Revolution which, beginning in England, spread to the entire West and the whole world. It led to not just the creation of huge amounts of wealth but also, despite the Marxist claims, unprecedented prosperity for the people across the globe.

Those who matter, and Piyush Goyal matters a lot, need to realise that any discussion on, and estimate of, economic growth has to be oriented around mathematics and economic philosophy, not a mystic faith in intangible gifts and rewards

Ravi Shanker Kapoor, a freelance journalist, majored in mathematics from Hansraj College, Delhi University

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