Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth: The World Feels More Spacious

Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - 5:27 am

Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth: The World Feels More Spacious

I picked up Janna Levin’s novel off a table at a bookstore, drawn to it initially perhaps because we had just completed our show with Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder on autism. Mathematician Alan Turing — known as the father of modern computing — is one of the autistic personalities who was mentioned in that interview. I was immediately taken by Janna Levin’s lush prose and the alluring, provocative ideas that she brings to life through human stories in space and time.

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines sounds depths I had never considered before, between mathematical truths and great existential questions. It does so by probing the parallel lives and ideas of Turing and another pivotal 20th-century mathematician, Kurt Gödel. Turing’s discoveries were made possible in part by Gödel, who shook the worlds of mathematics, philosophy, and logic in 1931 with his “incompleteness theorems.”They demonstrated that some mathematical truths can never be proven. Or, as Gödel says in Janna Levin’s novel, “Mathematics is perfect. But it is not complete. To see some truths you must stand outside and look in.”This held unsettling scientific and human implications; it posited hard limits to what we can ever logically, definitively know.

Janna Levin is an atheist, if we care to categorize her. And while that simple fact informs our conversation along with her exquisite intelligence and her mathematical training, we cover territory that can’t be bounded by such definitions. Janna Levin’s most certain “faith”is in the conviction that we can agree on basic realities described by mathematics — that 1 plus 1 will always equal 2. Putting God into that equation, or barring God from it, is not her concern. Yet this conversation is a beautiful example of the deep complementarity of religious and scientific questions, if not of answers. The ideas and questions Janna Levin lives and breathes open my mind to new ways of wondering about purpose, meaning, and ultimate reality.

There is much in her thought that I struggle to comprehend and will continue to ponder. I’m intrigued, at the same time, by echoes with the wisdom of ordinary life. Gödel’s idea that there are some truths we can only see at an angle — by standing outside, looking in — is a fact even in the work I do, of speaking of faith. The deepest truths are usually impossible to see and articulate straight on.

And I feel a kindred pull to Janna Levin’s delight and passion in the great narrative of the world and humanity, epitomized in these lines from her book that we read in the show:

“I am looking on benches and streets, in logic and code. I am looking in the form of truth stripped to the bone. Truth that lives independently of us, that exists out there in the world. Hard and unsentimental. I am ready to accept truth no matter how alarming it turns out to be. Even if it proves incompleteness and the limits of human reason. Even if it proves we are not free.”

Of all the ideas Janna Levin presents, the most provocative and disturbing, perhaps, is her doubt that there is free will in human existence at all. She cannot be sure that we are not utterly determined by brilliant principles of physics and biology. Yet she cleaves more fiercely in the face of this belief to the reality of her love of her children and her hopes and dreams for them. She sees “evidence of our purpose”in figures like Gödel and Turing, even though they did not the find the clarity in life that they wrested from mathematics on all our behalf.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the world feels more spacious to me after this conversation with Janna Levin — even, to use her words, if it suggests incompleteness and the limits of human reason and faith; even if it suggests we are not free. She possesses a quality that keeps me interviewing scientists as often as a I can — a delight in beauty, a comfort with mystery, a limitless ambition for one’s grandest ideas combined with a humility about them that many religious people could learn from.

Share Post


is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York Times bestselling author. In 2014, President Obama awarded her the National Humanities medal for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.” In 2013, she created an independent, non-profit enterprise designed to deepen the engagement of diverse audiences and amplify the unusual social impact of this content.

Share Your Reflection