Monday, July 27, 2015

Finite of Sense and Infinite of Thought

To the Number Three
by George Boole


When the great Maker, on Creation bent,
Thee from thy brethren chose, and framed by thee
The world to sense revealed, yet left it free
To those whose intellectual gaze intent
Behind the veil phenomenal is sent
Space diverse, systems manifold to see
Revealed by thought alone; was it that we
In whose mysterious spirits thus are blent
Finite of sense and Infinite of thought,
Should feel how vast, how little is our store;
As yon excelling arch with orbs deep-fraught
To the light wave that dies along the shore;
That from our weakness and our strength may rise
One worship unto Him the Only Wise.

This poem by Boole was published in Mary Everest Boole's Symbolical Methods of Study (1884), which also has several others. This is an interesting and difficult poem to interpret; Boole was a Unitarian (he is said to have considered converting to Judaism at one point), and it is possible that there is an implicit criticism of the doctrine of the Trinity here -- notice that we are "finite of sense and infinite of thought", and thus capable of rising above the world of sense, but the number three is specifically said to be the frame on the basis of which the "world to sense revealed" is framed. But it's also the case that Boole was not particularly dogmatic, so it's not clear that this is part of the intention. In any case, the poem is explicitly about higher-dimensional mathematics: three dimensions frame the world of sense, but the human mind is capable of thinking of more. Very similar themes and ideas are found later, long after Boole's death, in Edwin Abbott Abbott's Flatland (1884) and in the work of Charles Hinton (who married Boole's daughter).

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