The Academy: Axiom 1

The rule

This post is not trying to do anything clever. It is making a statement that seems self-evident:

There are three ways to gain understanding of the world:

  • Personal experience
  • Systems of rules
  • Stories

All are equally important, and each has its strengths and weaknesses.

The important point is not the content of the statement but the stating of it. This is not just something that feels correct (to me) but something that feels fundamental. This mirrors one of the quests of mathematics to find the simplest statements on which to build the whole subject. I have my suspicions that the same thing would not work completely here, though writing the “Elements of the Academy” with this as one of the axioms might make a curious exercise!

This axiom maps onto the world of academia. The Sciences are primarily concerned with the use of rules to understand the world; the Arts centred on the creation of objects that attempt to transfer personal experience; and the Humanities write, dissect and try to understand the stories of the world.

All three areas, of course, do and should take advantage of the strengths of the other two methods as well as their primary concern.

The story

As a mathematician I obviously come from the grand tradition of finding rules to understand the world. For much of human history this was known to be rather limited in its scope. It was applicable to commerce, certainly; but also to questions of measurement, and to the study of the stars and music. Then, with the acceptance of arguments based on infinitesimals and the genius of Newton and Liebniz, the models of calculus opened up a vast array of phenomena to understanding through rules. It was so successful that many started to believe that it would eventually explain everything.

I do not believe this to be the case. Chaos theory shows that even perfect models can be severely limited by small, unavoidable, measurement errors. The work of Gödel and Turing shows that even in the purely theoretical world, there are unanswerable questions. Some even believe that as fundamental a system as arithmetic might contain contradictions. Before we even get to these hard limits we must deal with the soft limits imposed by the great ideas that we have yet to have.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on situation and personal preference,  the world offers many questions that we cannot answer with a systematic, rules based approach. Questions we cannot ignore. I wanted to define for myself the other options, and place them in some imagined framework.

The personal experience

I don’t believe I have said much here. It is, as I stated, self-evident. I also think it is important. It has been useful and practical to me. So, if you have managed to read this far, I thank you, but ask one further thing. Think about it yourself and see if it is a useful for you too.


This post grew out of a string of tweets, out of which grew very valuable discussion with  Colin Wright (@ColinTheMathmo) and Daniel Colquitt (@danielcolquitt), on twitter and elsewhere.