It’s easy to argue that the need for narrative precedes the understanding of abstraction. Or, more importantly, the learning of it. Anyone who’s sat in a class that involves anything beyond first order statistics will probably empathise with it more than a mathematical formalist’s longing for the reverse.

Now, a serious Cosmologist has addressed this in an oblique way that raises even more qualms for many of us who wish were better students than what we are. Max Tegmark makes the claim that all human discovery is after all an instance of a larger abstraction of some sort. One cannot disagree with that bit; after all the most basic aspects of thought evolved precisely that way. For example, only after humans learnt counting could they have possibly figured their system was of a base that was one among many. Quite easily this can be extended to most of what we now know. Thus, it seems only logical therefore to understand the narrative of an instance and then elevate it to abstraction.

But anyone who’s had a basic brush with the three approaches to numbers knows this isn’t easy. There is, firstly, Platonism. Which we all intuitively grasp as what numbers are — that is, associate meaning to the number itself — when we start counting. We assume here, to say 1+2 = 3 is to say 1 and 2 and 3 exist and we get 3 by adding 1 to 2. Then came the set of people most famously lead by that Bertrand Russell. They thought mathematics can be reduced to a set of non-deniable basic truths. Thus making every other result some derivation thereof. Kurt Godel, as we now know, disproved this possibility and that is left at that[1]. Finally, as all of us now are in some sense, we are left with being mathematical formalists — where we assume the internal dynamics of the symbols on a sheet of paper are self-contained.

An honest student has no option but to be a formalist with some apprehension. And from there where does one go on the need for narrative for any and all knowledge? Doesn’t the narrative sit squarely on Platonism? In a sense the agony of a student who does not understand the abstract without the instance in a theory class but does not want to do it otherwise is identical to a participant in a game called electoral Democracy.

[1] – That’s possibly the worst hand-waving ever. But for the purpose of this post it hopefully holds. Apologies to Russell, Wittgenstein, Godel and everyone else this author does not understand all that well.