Curiosities about Counting

We live in an Age of Endless Numbers.  We count everything:  batting averages, how many Kindles were sold last week, the average speed of drivers on Highway 64 at 6 a.m., the number of breast cancer patients in Alabama over the age of 50.  Very few things in our society remain uncounted.  And yet numbers can obscure as well as reveal.   This is especially true when we lose sight of the realities being represented (or obscured) by the numbers we so confidently announce.

The mathematicization of nature that has characterized modernity has often enough caused us to think only in terms of quantity, not in terms of the value of particular individuals.   When I hear on the news that five people were killed in a tornado in Florida, I am relieved that it wasn’t twenty or fifty.  And yet, if one of those five had been my wife, the loss would be incalculable.  The genocide of one can be as devastating as of twenty or twenty thousand because the murder of one is a loss that is infinite.

Millions upon millions of unborn children are aborted each year in the United States — so many, in fact that, for all intents and purposes, most of us have basically lost count. Many others would rather not try to count them at all.  When over ninety percent of all Downs Syndrome babies are aborted before birth, it’s hard to count that as “random” or merely “a statistical anomaly.”  It’s more likely that, for far too many people, those lives simply don’t count.

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In a world dominated by numbers, it’s odd to think that people shouldn’t count any more.  In an age that counts everything, how is it that we’re not able anymore to count the one thing in the world most like ourselves:  other human beings?  Perhaps it’s because when you no longer know what a human being is — when you fail to comprehend its essence, perhaps because you’ve simply decided in advance that no one can ever know the essence or nature of anything anymore (like human life, marriage, and families) — then you no longer count them, because you’ve lost your sense of their ultimate value and why they are worthy of being lovingly counted, nurtured, and preserved.

“Counting is an act of love,” I read somewhere recently.  “It is impossible to count without pausing and attending.  A child who reckons up his marbles stops and handles each one as he counts them.”  I never collected marbles, nor even as I child did I ever meet anyone who did, so I can’t be certain about counting them, but I have known plenty of people who counted up their money over and over without in the least pausing over each coin or dollar.  The only thing that seemed important to them was the final tally, and whether it was larger than the last time they counted.  I did have a number of friends who collected baseball cards, though.  What was important to the ones who really liked baseball wasn’t primarily the total number of cards, but the presence of especially treasured ones:  Roberto Clemente, Dock Ellis, Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan, Rollie Fingers, Brooks Robinson.  Unlike dollar bills, not all baseball cards were created equal.

Make no mistake, there were often enough “numbers” involved — the beloved “stats” — but the numbers were important because they were attached to particular players.  Thus if any of my friends were to go through their stack of cards with you, it was often enough to show you that they had the important stats memorized.  “Roberto Clemente, hits: 3000; liftetime batting average: .317; homeruns: 240.”  Dock Ellis, win-loss percentage with Pittsburgh: .545; ERA: 3.16.”  And on and on the numbers would pour forth.  Even those who didn’t know the exact number of their cards knew the numbers of the players in their deck: Bill Mazeroski, #9; Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, #44; Nolan Ryan, #30 with the Angels, #34 with the Rangers and Astros.  None of these friends, be it noted, went on to major in mathematics; indeed, none of them did particularly well in math — in circumstances when the numbers weren’t attached to identifiable persons and their notable accomplishments.

“Counting is a profound act of objectivity,” the article I was reading went on to say.  It can be, I suppose.  But then again, there have been plenty of times when I’ve had someone say to me: “Look, you just don’t count.”  Indeed, after you’ve not been included on the team or in the group for the umpteenth time (I gave up counting), it does make you wonder: “Why do some people count and others don’t?”  It’s a question that has haunted me ever since my youth.

When I was a child, my brothers and I, like many other children of our generation, spent endless hours traveling across America in the back seat of our parents’ car.  To moderate the boredom, we would sometimes play “recognition” games: games where you would look for particular things along the road, and whoever would see it first would call it out, thereby making himself instantly superior to all the rest.  This game tended to break down fairly quickly, not only because it was mind-numbingly boring, but also over fairly frequent contrary interpretations of what “counted.”

“I see a red bicycle!” someone would cry.
“Motorcycles don’t count,” someone else would strenuously object.
“Why not?” the other would reply; “it has two wheels.”
“That doesn’t make it a bicycle!”

Or the objection might involve a different aspect of the thing.

“That’s not red,” one or the other of us might insist; “it’s more like pink.  It doesn’t count.”

Suffice it to say that, as the youngest and thus as the weakest, I generally lost these arguments.  Rarely in these matters did my opinion “count.”  It’s odd to think that counting — ostensibly one of the most “objective” and “neutral” of all human acts — can be subjected to the vagaries of power politics.  But as it turns out, much depends upon who “counts” (and thus controls the counting) and who doesn’t.

“To count is to delimit,” the article I was reading said finally: “to judge where something begins and where it ends.”  “Very true,” I thought.  Counting involves identifying a thing and distinguishing it from other things.  When you “don’t count,” you’re distinguished from those who do.  When you count dogs or houses, you need to distinguish dogs from houses and from all those things that are neither dogs nor houses.  Thus when you don’t have a clear idea what a thing is — when you haven’t yet appreciated the fundamental essence of a thing, as the philosopher Aristotle suggests we must — then often enough, we’ll fail to count it correctly, if at all.  A culture that has given up on understanding the essences of things, that is no longer able to judge correctly where something (like a human life) begins and where it ends, will often fail any longer to be able to count correctly or to understand precisely what the things are to which its precious numbers refer.

Such metaphysical and moral blindness is undoubtedly why the late Pope John Paul II, in his visionary work on Christian wisdom, Fides et Ratio, called upon Catholic educators to undertake a twofold set of responsibilities: first, to restore the sapiential dimension of philosophy as a search for true moral wisdom; and second, to recover “a philosophy of a “genuinely metaphysical range.”  The two projects are, I would suggest, fundamentally connected.  “Metaphysics” is meant to reveal what a thing is, and what makes it different from other things.  It clarifies by helping us limit and define.  “Wisdom,” then, is the power of the soul that allows us to act rightly and faithfully, in accord with the demands of the truth as reason and faith have disclosed it to us.

Many people have thought we could by-pass the messy business of metaphysics and get right to the more practical business of deciding the ethics of right and wrong.  The underlying problem, however, is that often enough we cannot determine “the good” without understanding “the true;” we can’t decide whether or not we should do something unless and until we know what we’re dealing with or what it is we’re intending to do.  There are times when we think we know — “this is just a clump of cells,” we tell ourselves, or “this untruth wouldn’t really be lying, it’s just a fib” — but these self-confident proclamations rarely survive the bright light of philosophical scrutiny (or a mother’s angry stare).  Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict have repeatedly preached the message that our freedom must be tied to the truth — especially the truth about the human person — because a freedom not tied to the truth will quickly turn into mere license, warranting the worst of “man’s inhumanity to man.”

Author Annie Dillard, in an endlessly depressing essay entitled “The Wreck of Time,” mentions that Ted Bundy, the serial killer, after his arrest, could not understand all the fuss.  “What was the big deal?” asked Bundy.  “I mean, there are so many people.”  Later, she quotes China’s Mao Tse-tung who, taking “the long view,” told India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that China did not fear the atomic bomb.  “The deaths of ten or twenty million people is nothing to be afraid of … China has many people.”  Speaking in Moscow several years later, Mao was even more generous: he boasted that he was willing to lose 300 million people, half of China’s population at the time!  At the end of her article, after a mind-numbing and truly depressing list of the numbers of those killed and slaughtered in the Twentieth Century, Ms. Dillard quotes an unnamed “English journalist” who, observing Mother Theresa’s sisters in Calcutta, made this comment: “Either life is always and in all circumstances sacred, or intrinsically of no account; it is inconceivable that it should be in some cases the one, and in some the other.”

Which brings me back to the question that bedeviled me in my childhood and adolescence: What does it take to count around here?  Is it simply all the things it used to be when I was a kid?  Power?  Good looks?  Intelligence?  A high position in the social pecking-order?  What others say about you, not what you in fact are?  That is one sort of “truth”:  the truth the post-modern disciples of Nietzsche affirm: the truth of power.  When one’s faith in discovering the truth of things is lost, then that sort of truth will likely seem to be the only sort that counts.  Which is why the project of restoring the sapiential dimension of philosophy, as a search for the ultimate meaning and value of things, must always be tied to a philosophy “of a genuinely metaphysical range.”  We cannot know the Good without a clear vision of the Truth, especially the truth about the dignity of the human person.

With regard to the truth about the person, reason can be aided by faith:  classical metaphysics can get a boost from Christian revelation.  For once we come to understand that man is made in the image and likeness of a God who is infinite; and that this infinite God has sacrificed nothing less than everything for us and for our salvation; and that our ultimate end is union with that infinite God in the eternal threefold communion of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then we can also affirm that each and every human life has an infinite dignity and value.  And the peculiar character of infinity is that no combination of the merely finite — no matter how large — can add up to or surpass it.  Infinity plus infinity is still no greater than infinity.

It is not only Christians who affirm the infinite dignity of the human person, of course; many philosophers and other wise men and women of good will have done so throughout the centuries and across many different cultures.  But our grasp on that fundamental truth is as tenuous, it often seems, as is our hold on human life itself.  Just when we think we’ve got it firmly in hand, it slips unexpectedly from our grasp.  And when it does, when reason’s grasp is loosened by arrogance or foolish pride or simple cowardice, faith must fill in where reason fails, and spiritual charity must move us to act where calculating cautiousness confuses.

For you see, once we come to accept that each and every human life has, according to its very essence, an infinite dignity, we can never again engage in the sort of utilitarian calculus so common today that suggests the deaths of a few (or a few million) would be justified by some greater benefit to the many.   Rather, we will begin to count human beings the way God does: that is to say, not entirely unlike the way the proverbial little boy counts his marbles:  “as an act of love”:  pausing, attentively over each one, taking in its beauty, appreciating its unique value. “Why even the hairs of your head are all numbered,” the Gospels tell us.  It’s an odd number to know, I’ve always thought — not a number I’ve ever been interested to know about myself, for example (especially since I’m starting to lose some of that hair) — but if God knows it, then that can only be because He judges our value to be beyond counting.  This is a lesson we would do well to remember in an Age of Endless Numbers.


  • Randall B. Smith

    Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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