clown-lego

Somewhere else, part 125

Some writings worth reading,

What is mathematics about? We know what biology is about; it’s about living things. Or more exactly, the living aspects of living things – the motion of a cat thrown out of a window is a matter for physics, but its physiology is a topic for biology. Oceanography is about oceans; sociology is about human behaviour in the mass long-term; and so on. When all the sciences and their subject matters are laid out, is there any aspect of reality left over for mathematics to be about? That is the basic question in the philosophy of mathematics. People care about the philosophy of mathematics in a way they do not care about, say, the philosophy of accountancy. Perhaps the reason is that the certainty and objectivity of mathematics, its once-and-for-all establishment of rock-solid truths, stands as a challenge to many common philosophical positions. It is not just extreme sceptical views such as postmodernism that have a problem with it. So do all empiricist and naturalist views that hope for a fully ‘scientific’ explanation of reality and our knowledge of it. The problem is not so much that mathematics is true, but that its truths are absolutely necessary, and that the human mind can establish those necessities and understand why they must be so. It is very difficult to explain how a physical brain could do that.” [to be continued…]

Do you long to become a “thought leader”, thinkfluencing your way from TED talk to tech conference, lauded for your insights? I hope not. But if so, you could do worse than consult a paper published in 1971 by the maverick sociologist Murray Davis, entitled “That’s Interesting!” (I found it via Adam Grant.) What is it, Davis asks, that makes certain thinkers – Marx, Freud, Nietzsche – legendary? “It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great because his theories are true,” he writes, “but this is false. A theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting.” Even in the world of academia, most people aren’t motivated by the truth. What they want, above all, is not to be bored. Forty-three years on, this feels truer than ever. We live in the Era of Interestingness: attention is money, and purveyors of the interesting can make millions from Twitter feeds of amazing facts – even if they’re not always true facts – or from books or blogs offering intriguingly counterintuitive perspectives. (This column’s part of the problem, except I’ve yet to make millions.) Moreover, Davis argues, there are only a handful of main ways for an idea to be interesting. To grab people’s attention, you should argue that something we think of as bad is good, or vice versa; that some apparently individual phenomenon is really collective; that several seemingly disparate things are actually part of the same thing; and a few others. It’s unnerving how many thinkers can be pigeonholed this way. Christian morality seems good, Nietzsche argued, but really it’s bad. Mental disorders, dreams and slips of the tongue might seem unrelated, Freud said, but really they’re the result of the same inner drives. And on and on…” [to be continued…]

et un peu de lecture en français

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