In a systematic theology class at an American seminary, a strangely dressed man takes a seat one morning and all the seminarians sneak glances at him. His clothes are strange. When the professor arrives, he asks the stranger to identify himself. The stranger claims he has been sent from the future. The professor appears alarmed at first, but asks the stranger what he wants. The stranger says he has been sent from the future to learn about the beliefs of the past. The professor tells the stranger he may ask the seminary students whatever he would like.
Future Man: So, what is your personal philosophy of the quadratic formula?
Theology Student: My what?
FM: What do you think the quadratic formula is?
TS: I don’t know what you mean. I think the quadratic formula is exactly what my math teacher told me it is.
FM: (laughing) Are you serious?
TS: Yes. Why?
FM: You just believe whatever your math teacher says the quadratic formula is?
TS: Sure. Why not?
FM: You haven’t figured it out for yourself? You just believe whatever your math teacher says it is? That’s rich. What a chump. What a lemming. Tell me something. If your math teacher jumped off a cliff, would you jump off, too?
FM: Where did your math teacher learn what the quadratic formula is?
TS: Probably from his math teacher.
FM: And his math teacher probably learned it from his math teacher. It’s just turtles all the way down with you people, isn’t it?
TS: I mean, I assume someone figured it out a long time ago.
FM: And how did he figure it out? By thinking on his own. By thinking for himself. By examining the data and reaching his own conclusions.
TS: Look, what do you think the quadratic formula is?
FM: X = b + 2
TS: That… doesn’t even remotely sound like the quadratic formula.
FM: My articulation is very simple. Very elegant. It doesn’t have a bunch of extraneous, superfluous numbers and letters and symbols in it. All that extra stuff just obscures the true essence of the quadratic formula.
TS: True essence? All those “extraneous numbers and letters and symbols” are the quadratic formula.
FM: Are they? I think the quadratic formula used to be very simple, very straightforward, and then men just started adding whatever they wanted to it over the years. The formula got longer and more complex. But really, the quadratic formula was meant to be short and easily understandable. But tell me something. Why don’t you tell me what the quadratic formula is. Just tell me right now. State the equation.
TS: Hang on. Let me get my book.
FM: (laughing) For real? You’re going to believe the quadratic is whatever the book says it is… even though you don’t know what the book says without peeking! What about the volume of a cube? What about pi? Do you have a personal belief about pi or do you believe whatever they say in the book about that one, too?
TS: I believe pretty much everything in the math book.
FM: That math book you’re holding… do you know the names of any of the people who wrote it?
TS: I mean, Pythagoras and—
FM: Have you ever read Pythagoras or are you just trusting that the people who wrote that textbook had read Pythagoras and all those other old mathematicians?
TS: I’m just trusting the authors read them.
FM: Not an artist, huh? Not a very independent thinker, are you?
TS: Mathematics isn’t about thinking for yourself. The quadratic formula works. If it didn’t work, I wouldn’t trust the books.
FM: Look, I come from the future. In the future, everybody has their own way of writing the quadratic formula. There’s such a rich spectrum of articulations of the quadratic to enjoy. I don’t agree with all of them, but it’s still beautiful to see.
FM: It’s a reasonable, mature society. How do you think I got here? You people can’t send anyone into the past, can you?
FM: Because you’re stuck with your mindless sheeple version of the quadratic formula. That’s why.
TS: Does anyone in the future still believe in the… classic quadratic formula?
FM: Oh, sure. There’s a few.
TS: What do they do?
FM: They built the time machine I came to you in, but they wouldn’t have done it unless people with authentic personal beliefs about the quadratic formula made them do it.