Please welcome today’s guest writer, Sam Auyeung. Sam should have graduated in 2016 as a math major but he convinced his parents to pay another year’s tuition for him to pretend to have deep thoughts (add a philosophy major) and figure out what to do after leaving school. On a dare, he also majored in Greek. Evidently, he did not figure out what to do after leaving school because he hasn’t left; he’s in a doctorate mathematics program at Stony Brook University in New York where he thinks about geometry, topology, and scallion pancakes.
There is an episode of the podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed which has haunted me for over a year. In the episode, John Green (the YA novelist) shares a story from his days as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital. During one of his nights on call, a 3-year-old boy with severe burns was brought into the ICU. Despite his critical injuries, the boy was conscious and in brutal pain. The trauma team did what they could, but they did not think the boy would survive: “That kid’s gonna die and I know his last word. I know the last thing he’ll ever say.” Shortly after that night, Green finished the chaplaincy and immediately dropped out of divinity school. He said he could not cope with the memory of the boy and for years, he could not bring himself to discover whether the boy had survived. All he could do was pray and place his belief, “however tenuous, in mercy.” Green then quoted from All the King’s Men: “The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can’t know. He can’t know whether knowledge will save him or kill him.”
The quote, tied to the boy’s story, is what has haunted me the most. I have long thought of myself as a knower and for the last three years have pursued what I once thought to be the purest form of knowledge that eternally exists in the mind of God: mathematics. If asked, I suppose I might say I am trained as a symplectic geometer who uses Floer theoretic techniques to study geometric invariants of algebraic singularities. I know what those words mean, but what good is it when most people neither know nor care to know their meaning? Do I know the ends of what I know, and will my knowledge deliver or damn me? With math, I have been delivered in two ways. When the world is chaotic, math feels like a noetic haven of stability. When the world is ugly, math exhibits elegance and beauty for those receptive to it.
But also with math, I may be damned in two ways. I may be viewed as a lofty academic who won’t admit that his field is divorced from the “layperson’s” experiences; this is sometimes self-fulfilling. I can also passionately claim mathematics to be a profoundly human activity yet be subjected to others’ remarks such as “I always hated math in school,” “Math lacks emotion,” or “What can you even do with math?” followed by a change in subject. Of course, neither of these are inevitable, and a corpus of knowledge doesn’t exclusively kill. But it can feel that way.
These meditations lead me back to Green’s story and I am embarrassed; my experiences seem slight. But there is something else. I’m reminded of Dostoevsky’s character, Ivan Karamazov, because—well, I think I am a bit like Ivan. In a famous scene, Ivan levels a challenge to his brother Alyosha, a novice at a monastery. The challenge is, unsurprisingly, a rendition of the millennia-old problem of evil but less classical. Fundamentally, Ivan’s final conclusion is not the denial that there is a God but rather a rejection of Creation in which every evil and suffering—including the 3-year old boy’s anguish—will be accounted for. Ivan believes in God, but he cannot accept a god who can justify exactly why his creation allows for horrendous evil such as infants being impaled on bayonets in front of their mothers. Ivan does not want such knowledge and for him, even knowing that such explanations exist entails ruination. Finishing his monologue, a strangely gleeful Ivan expects a defeated Alyosha to reluctantly agree.
But Alyosha does not respond with words. He simply kisses his brother.
Lately, I find myself in a situation where instead of wondering whether certain knowledge will save or kill me, I wonder whether knowledge that I bear will save or kill others. Without going into details, I’ll say this: I had believed—nay, trusted—in some evidence related to the death of a classmate (preCOVID) which gave me hope and also imparted hope to my friends at my telling. However, I then discovered that the evidence is erroneous. Do I tell my friends the truth at the cost of a loss of hope, peace, and comfort? Will the truth give life or death? Alyosha did not speak after Ivan’s tirade even though he knew even more deeply than Ivan the challenges of faith. Instead, he loves his brother. My silence could be dishonest. Or, like Alyosha, could it be love? Math brought my classmate and I together, but it cannot solve this problem. “The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can’t know. He can’t know whether knowledge will save him or kill him.”