A world without numbers

I have a favorite thought experiment that, for some reason, I think about a lot when I’m driving (to clarify, I’m not driving at the moment). It’s inspired by the claim that the Pirahã language, spoken by a group of people in Brazil, lacks number terms (the original paper is here). The claim is based on Pirahã speakers’ performance in two tasks. In the first, they were shown one battery and asked: how many? The researchers continued to present one at a time, continuing to ask how many there were. The responses were as expected based on previous research: the speakers all used the same term for “one,” a different term for “two,” and combinations of the “two” term and one that signifies “many” for larger quantities.

In experiment 2, the batteries were presented in the reverse order, so the participants first saw 10 batteries, and they were taken away one at a time. This time, the participants used the “one” term when there were as many as 6 batteries left, and they all used it when there were 3. The researchers took this as evidence that the terms that researchers believed to indicate “one” and “two” are not precise, but instead seem to be relative quantifiers. The claim is controversial, but the possibility that a language might not have any definite terms for numbers is intriguing.

Returning to my thought experiment, I often try to imagine living in a society with no ways to quantify things. If we had terms for “one,” “two,” and “many,” we could still see the difference between five apples and six, but the only way we could talk about that difference would be invoking our terms for “one” and “many.” In addition to having no words for definite quantities, we wouldn’t have numerals either. I recognize that a society without number terms would be vastly different from the modern-day American society that I know, but I like to imagine some consequences that would arise if our society suddenly lost all numbers:

We’d all have far less money. We’d have the currency that we could stash away, but no more invisible money in abstract sources like stocks and bonds. Debt would probably be a lot more manageable too.

It would be nearly impossible to be punctual. It seems natural to measure time of day by the sun, but that’s still so subjective. The pattern of the sun shifts a tiny bit every day, and we’re probably not pretty good at perceiving the sun’s exact angle in order to use it to tell time.

Life would be less competitive. In school, we wouldn’t be able to split hairs over percentage points. Many sports, like swimming or long jump, would be pointless without a precise measure of time or distance. We would have no way of knowing how many people liked our facebook posts, how many grams of fat were in the cake we just ate, or how few hours we slept last night (thank God – time for that competitive habit to die anyway).

Losing our number system would dramatically catapult our society into a much more primitive culture, and we’d lose progress in every domain of life. But at the same time, I wonder if we might see the number of people being diagnosed with ulcers and high blood pressure plummet… even without the technology to diagnose them.

P.S. An interesting post that uses the comic above as a jumping off point: Is “one, two, many” a myth

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