“Mathematics undoubtedly gives the best understanding of the world around us.” the mathematician said, leaning forward in his chair and waiting in eager anticipation for the debate to begin.
“Is that so?” the philosopher asked, flicking through an exercise book with apparent disinterest. “Are these the problems you give your students?”
“Yes, they are. But what about my question?”
The mathematician spread his palms out, inviting the first volley of the argument that would surely follow. Frustration began to creep into his mind and he furrowed his brow.
“You didn’t ask one. Can I test you?” the philosopher asked, waving the exercise book in an idle hand.
“Of course.”
“If I have nine sacks of flour and I pour them into three buckets, how much flour is in each bucket?”
Why was he asking such a simple question? But then, the mathematician thought, it might not seem so easy to a professor of a soft science.
“Three.”
“And if I pour those three buckets into a large container, how many sacks’ worth in the container?”
“Nine.”
The philosopher hummed, steepling his fingers over his chest and leaning back. He cocked his head and seemed to be studying his colleague.
“I have taken away your sacks and buckets, and have given you a shovel. Can you remove three sacks’ worth from the container?”
“Of course, I take a third of what’s there/!” the mathematician said, trying to remember which part of the syllabus that question had come from.
“Are you confident that mathematics has provided you with the correct answer to each of those questions?”
“Yes, absolutely.”
“Alright.” the philosopher said, frowning. “Then I’ll ask you something. How much flour was already in the buckets? Were the buckets large enough to take a full sack of flour? How much flour was in the container? Were there holes in the buckets? Did some flour leak? How many carrots were in each sack? Did rats get into the container and eat the flour?”
The mathematician blinked and stared at his colleague, who had asked every question without taking a breath. Calculations ran through his mind, none quite fitting with the facts he was given. The solution hit him with unexpected force. He glanced at the clock.
“It’s half-past three. You’re late for your lecture.”

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3 thoughts on “Philosophy and Mathematics

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