Numbers in their birthday suits were a scary thing for Mr Sutter, my Maths Master at school. Mr Sutter could not bear the mention of a number without its being assigned to an object. Being of a ruddy, rural disposition - fond of fresh air and the frying pan - his complaints would usually take the form of “Twenty-three WHAT, McDowell? Twenty-three cows? Twenty-three sheep? Twenty-three pigs?” He would shuffle about, his beer belly wagging from side to side. We watched eagerly for the moment when a button would fly off and hit the class swot in the eye.
Greek philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras had a more wet-eyed view of numbers, believing them to be God-like, their truth a free-floating thing, existing entirely independently from the imperfect, human world to which we were fond of attaching them. Pythagoras "proved" this using Geometry. In any possible world or universe a circle would still be a circle. And it would still be a circle regardless of whether there was anybody around to admire it (this idea was later developed by Idealist philosopher Bishop George Berkeley into the assertion that the figure of a tree in an Oxford quadrangle was an emanation from the mind of God first, and a set of electrical signals in the grey matter of the viewer second).
When Einstein met Indian priest-poet Rabindranath Tagore - Tagore was the first non-Westerner to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and was W.B. Yeats's favourite poet - they were meant to have a debate about religion versus science.
What, they were to ask, was the difference between the sort of belief process we engage in in response to a scientific fact, and the sort of belief process we engage in in response to the compelling narratives and powerful group dynamics of religion?
But the resulting intellectual dance involved both thinkers encroaching delightfully on each other's sacred space. For Tagore - as a Hindu - religion was no more, and no less, than the human experience of the Divine. For Einstein, scientific fact was always weightier than any possible human experience, and so Einstein was nervous about placing such apparent limitations on it.
"We humans", says Einstein, "attribute to truth a superhuman objectivity. It is indispensable for us—this reality which is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind--though we cannot say what it means." (about as handy a definition of the popular God of Western culture as it is possible to imagine).
Tagore's reply to this is like a wrecking ball: "If there be any truth absolutely unrelated to humanity, then for us it is absolutely non-existing." "Then [replies Einstein], I am more religious [he means in the Western rather than the Hindu sense] than you are!"
We would do well to ponder this. When BBC Radio 4's File on Four examined foreign aid impact assessments, some of the senior Civil Servants interviewed were so microphone-shy their voices had to be scrambled. The resulting honesty made for an entertaining thirty-five minutes. The apparatchiks talked about how numbers could be used to "kill" an embarrassing issue by "striking people dumb". Numbers can certainly be a cudgel in our culture, heavier even than facts.
When public servants use numbers to reach a decision in work - a decision which may have an impact on the lives of thousands of people - the real truth of the matter is not so much what the numbers have proved, as what those numbers may make us, as a society, do in the world.
If numbers are indeed the gods that drive decision-making in public service, they should not be experienced as untouchable, remote, fear-inducing, striking people silent; but as gods in the Hindu sense, defined by their relationship with us, with the humans whose lives may be altered by them forever, by the impact they will have in the world.