Exploring the Depths of Mathematics and Philosophy

By Caleb Baechtold

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Caleb Baechtold ’16 came to Johns Hopkins from Indiana thinking he knew exactly what he wanted to do. It took just one class for that to change.

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I thought I had it all figured out during my senior year of high school. I knew what I wanted to do; nothing was going to change that. College was just going to be another four years of school—an intermediate step until I could get into the real world. I was going to study mathematics and the classics.

But then I went to class. The first class I attended at Johns Hopkins was a philosophy seminar: Ethical Topics in Plato. I loved it. My mathematically inclined brain was fascinated by philosophical logic and argument. For the first time in my life, I left every class feeling intellectually challenged, stimulated, and just smarter. I read Plato’s works without any intention of gaining pragmatic knowledge, and that was my favorite part. I was thinking about the universe outside of our physical realm. One cannot see virtues in our world, and even if one is able to grasp them in some intellectual realm, does it really do any practical good? Maybe not, but I loved pondering ethical philosophy because of the intellectual stimulation and enjoyment it gave me. So I changed my game plan—and declared philosophy and mathematics as my two programs of study.

The correlation and parallels between my philosophical and mathematical studies are stronger than you might think. The primary focus for both is to develop and articulate arguments to better understand the state of the natural world. In philosophy, particularly when considering the metaphysical world, this means developing an understanding of why certain things happen and ultimately what everything in the universe is for. Not only does one have to develop theories and opinions on the state of the natural world, but one must also be able to support such theories with logic, reasoning, and argument. Mathematics is not any different. Both subjects require a foundation of understanding, but investigation into them requires the mind to expand beyond basic recitation of facts.

I was never one to really indulge myself with thoughts about my own place and role in the world. I was too busy living my life to take any time to step back and look at it. My academic pursuits have, however, shifted my entire perspective.

Outside the classroom, my interests generally revolve around music and outdoors recreation. Here at Johns Hopkins, I am employed as an educator in Outdoor Pursuits, a division of the Experiential Education Department of the Ralph S. O’Connor Recreation Center. I lead rock climbing trips throughout the semester, as well as a Pre-Orientation weeklong rock climbing trip for incoming freshmen. Rock climbing has been part of the foundation for my personal life for the last eight years, and now at Hopkins I have been able to approach the activity from a very different perspective: that of an educator. I have started to evaluate how we, as people, interact with the natural world, and how our relationship with it changes as our interactions vary. My studies have encouraged me to adopt a more interrogative perspective about the natural world in my experiences outside my academic pursuits. For the first time, school is translating into and shaping my real-life experiences—it is actually extending beyond the classroom.