Note: This is the fourth in a series on developing a Christian mind in business school. You can find the intro and links to all previous posts here.
As I mentioned in the last post, when in this series I talk about developing a Christian mind in b-school I’m referring primarily to learning how to think Christianly about things as they are symbolized, things as they are known, and things as they are communicated. That is, how to think Christianly about the three business arts taught in business school: quantification, orientation, and rhetoric.
Today I wanted to discuss the Christian view of quantification—things as they are symbolized. Before I can do that, though, I probably need to convince you that there even is such a thing as a “Christian view of quantification.” While we understand why we might need to think Christianly about management or ethics, quantification is primarily about numbers. Can there really be a Christian view of accounting, finance, quantitative analysis, etc., when numbers are religiously neutral?
I believe the answer is “yes” because I believe there is a distinctly Christian view of everything. (Yes, everything.)
The reason this idea seems so foreign—if not downright absurd—is that most views have a minimal pragmatic affect on how we actually live our lives. Both my neighbor and I, for example, may get sunburned even if we different beliefs about the sun. The fact that I think it is a ball of nuclear plasma while he believes that it is pulled across the sky in a chariot driven by the Greek god Helios doesn’t change the fact that we both have to use sunscreen. It is only when we move beneath the surface concepts (“The sun is hot.”) to deeper levels of explanation (“What is the sun?”) that our religious beliefs come into play.
Even the concept that 1 + 1 = 2, which almost all people agree with on a surface level, has different meanings based on what theories are proposed as answers. These theories, claims philosopher Roy Clouser, show that going more deeply into the concept of 1 + 1 = 2 reveals important differences in the ways it is understood, and that these differences are due to our religious beliefs.
A belief is a religious belief, a Clouser usefully defines the term, provided that:
(1) It is a belief in something(s) or other as divine, or
(2) It is a belief concerning how humans come to stand in relation to the divine.
(Even those who might quibble with the novel definition cannot deny that these are a universal set of beliefs. Whether the subject is Yahweh, Zeus, the Great Pumpkin, or the physical cosmos, everyone has a belief about the divine and man’s relation to such an entity. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, as Bob Dylan said, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.)
Different traditions, religions, and belief systems may disagree about what or who has divine status, but they all agree that something has such a status. A Christian, for instance, will say that the divine is God while a materialist will claim that matter is what fills the category of divine (even if they dislike the term). Therefore, if we examine our concepts in enough detail, we discover that at a deeper level we’re not agreeing on what the object is that we’re talking about. Our explanations and theories about things will vary depending on what is presupposed as the ultimate explainer. And the ultimate explainer can only be the reality that has divine status.
Returning to our example, we find that the meaning of 1 + 1 = 2 is dependent on how we answer certain questions, such as: What do the symbols ‘1’ or ‘2’ or ‘+’ or ‘=’ actually stand for? What are those things? Are they abstract or must they have a physical existence? And how do we know that 1 + 1 = 2 is true? How do we attain that knowledge?
Let’s look at the answers proposed by four philosophers throughout history:
Leibnitz’s view — When Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, an inventor of the calculus, was asked by one of his students, “Why is one and one always two, and how do we know this?” Leibnitz replied, “One and one equals two is an eternal, immutable truth that would be so whether or not there were things to count or people to count them.” Numbers, numerical relationships, and mathematical laws (such as the law of addition) exist in this abstract realm and are independent of any physical existence. In Leibnitz’s view, numbers are real things that exist in a dimension outside of the physical realm and would exist even if no human existed to recognize them.
Russell’s view — Bertrand Russell took a position diametrically opposed to Leibnitz. Russell believed it was absurd to think that there is another dimension with all the numbers in it and claimed that math was essentially nothing more than a short cut way of writing logic. In Russell’s view, logical classes and logical laws—rather than numbers and numerical relationships—are the real things that exist in a dimension outside of the physical realm.
Mill’s view — John Stuart Mill took a third position that denied the extra-dimensional existence of numbers and logic. Mill believed that all that we can know to exist are our own sensations—what we can see, taste, hear, and smell. And while we may take for granted that the objects we see, taste, hear, and smell exist independently of us, we cannot know even this. Mill claims that 1 and 2 and + stand for sensations, not abstract numbers or logical classes. Because they are merely sensations, 1 + 1 has the potential to equal 5, 345, or even 1,596. Such outcomes may be unlikely but, according to Mill, they are not impossible.
Dewey’s view — The American philosopher John Dewey took another radical position, implying that the signs 1 + 1 = 2 do not really stand for anything but are merely useful tools that we invent to do certain types of work. Asking whether 1 + 1 = 2 is true would be as nonsensical as asking if a hammer is true. Tools are neither true nor false; they simply do some jobs and not others. What exists is the physical world and humans (biological entities) that are capable of inventing and using such mathematical tools.
For each of these four philosophers what was considered to be divine (“just there”) had a significant impact on how they answered the questions about the nature of the simple equation. For Leibnitz it was mathematical abstractions; for Russell it was logic; for Mill is was sensations; and for Dewey it was the physical/biological world. On the surface we might be able to claim that all four men understood the equation in the same way. But as we moved deeper we found their religious beliefs radically altered the conceptual understanding of 1 + 1 = 2.
What all of the explanations have in common, what all non-theistic views share, is a tendency to produce theories that are reductionist—their theory claims to have found the part of the world that everything else is either identical with or depends on. The Christian view, in contrast, must ultimately be non-reductionist, which is why the Christian view on numbers, math, and everything else—especially everything in business—must ultimately differ from theories predicated on other religious beliefs.
So let’s apply this concept to quantification and see what the practical implications would be for the Christian. That is the topic we’ll take up in the next post.