Meet the Teachers: Michel Paul intertwines mathematics with philosophy

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As seen in the January 24 issue.

Jessica Lu, news editor

Math teacher Michel Paul discovered that he liked math when he was in third grade. He had just finished a problem set when it came together for him.

“I realized that I liked math because I knew when I was finished [with a problem],” he said. “I knew when I knew it and had generated the understanding. It wasn’t just someone else’s opinion.” 

Years later, in middle school, Paul discovered another interest of his.

“I was reading a newspaper article about some girl in my hometown who was going off to college to study philosophy,” he said. “The word ‘philosophy’ just gave me goosebumps. It seemed to me that there was something significant, that it was an important type of knowledge and I wanted to pursue it.”

Throughout his life, Paul found that the subjects of math and philosophy tied together almost effortlessly. For him, they evoke ideas from one another that lead to a deeper understanding of both subjects.

“I’ve always regarded mathematics as a doorway into philosophy,” he said. “In fact, Plato hung on the doorway of his academy: ‘Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.’”

At Earlham College in Richmond, Va., Paul earned a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics and philosophy. Though he knew he wanted to teach as a profession, he decided to travel first. He lived in India for several months, and while there, studied Indian philosophy through philosopher Bertrand Russell’s “Mysticism and Logic.”

“I traveled around the world because I was interested in spiritual philosophy,” he said. “At one point I realized it was time to start teaching, and so I entered a teacher training program.”

He first taught in East Los Angeles at Stevenson Junior High, and later applied for an open position at Beverly. While teaching Math Analysis Computational and Functions, Statistics and Trigonometry classes, Paul is also instructing Beverly’s first year of AP Computer Science. Paul wishes to share his mindset about mathematics with a philosophical spin with his students.

“I’d like my students to understand that mathematics comes from within,” he said. “It’s not a matter of memorization or imposing something from the outside.”

This belief may be related to Paul’s occasional meditation session that he holds during his classes. Outside of school, he still pursues his philosophical interests as a member of the Skeptics Society, which meets monthly at California Institute of Technology. The Skeptics Society is a nonprofit scientific and educational organization that, according to its website, investigates “paranormal, fringe science, pseudoscience and extraordinary claims.” For Paul, it provides an opportunity to meet with people with similar interests.

“I just like discussing philosophy with anyone who is interested,” Paul explained.

Though he did not major in Computer Science in college (it was not offered at the time), he believes that his studies in philosophy prepared him for the field. Its relation to information theory, or the study of how information is quantified, particularly resonates with Paul.

“It was philosophy that gave me the mindset for Computer Science,” he said. “Information, matter and energy have always existed and they coexist. Humans did not create information, they discovered that it existed. That, in itself, is philosophical.”

According to Paul, an additional philosophical element comes from the questions that are emerging alongside the rise of Computer Science.

“Philosophy, mathematics and Computer Science are having all kinds of great dialogue,” he said. “With the rise of artificial intelligence, all sorts of old questions in philosophy that used to be considered quaint are now being revitalized.”

Paul sees these “old questions” relating to what information and knowledge are, and how they can be quantified. Because he can draw these types of connections, Paul places emphasis on the future of Computer Science.

“It has become the new language of science,” he said. “It is giving us a new way of thinking what the physical universe is.”

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