The theologico-teleological apology

Schreiber

Comments on David Roberts’s Google+ page, May 30, 2016

David Roberts’s announcement a few months ago of his then-forthcoming review in the Gazette of the Australian Mathematical Society sounded like a warning shot, especially since I occasionally had the impression that he was trying to bait me on this blog.   The review is now out, and as far as I’m concerned it’s perfectly fair; the reviewer was even thoughtful enough to include what trade jargon calls a pull quote in the last paragraph, and you can expect to see it soon enough on the reviews page.

The review also provides (yet another!) opportunity to clear up some misconceptions, notably about charisma, as used in chapter 2.  I chose the word deliberately as a provocation, but it provokes different readers in different directions, and that’s beyond the author’s control.  The ambiguity of the word is already in Weber, it seems to me:  the charismatic leader is separated from the masses by an aura, while those possessed of routinized charisma are part of the mass of functionaries that make the community… function.  I tried to make it clear that chapter 2 was the (fictionalized) story of my acquisition of routinized charisma, in other words, of being accepted as a legitimate functioning member of the community.  So when Roberts writes

The ‘relaxed field’ that Harris discusses … is perhaps not the same for us as for those with charisma.

he is making a distinction that is quite alien to the spirit of the book; indeed, Roberts is displaying a paradigmatic form of charisma by publishing a book review in the Gazette of his learned society, and more consistently in his contributions to MathOverflow and other social media.

By the way, saying that chapter 2 was fictionalized is not the same as saying that it was made up; what I meant was, first, that it was written in acknowledgment of the narrative conventions of (a certain kind of) fiction; and that it didn’t matter for my purposes whether or not the events recounted were strictly true, as long as they were ideal-typical.

Roberts reads MWA as calling charisma a form of prestige whose acquisition is one of the motivations for doing mathematics, but this was not my intention.  No doubt mathematicians find it gratifying when our work is recognized, and much of the mass of chapter 2 is devoted to prizes and other forms of recognition, large and small, institutionalized or informal; but only André Weil is represented as actually craving prestige, and the context makes him recognizably an outlier.  An obsession with ordered lists and rosters of Giants and Supergiants is attributed to the community, rather than to individual mathematicians who hunger for recognition.  This obsession is such a visible feature of contemporary mathematics that it deserves explanation, and chapter 2 suggests an explanation that is so counter-intuitive that it seems not to have been noticed by anyone (on pp. 18-19):

The bearer of mathematical charisma… contributes to producing the objectification—the reality—of the discipline, in the process producing or imposing the objectification of his or her own position within the discipline.…The symbolic infrastructure of mathematical charisma is… the “objectification” of mathematics:  the common object to which researchers refer… In other words, it’s not just a theory’s contents that are defined by a social understanding:  so are the value judgments that organize these contents.

This brings me to Urs Schreiber’s instructive misreading of MWA‘s intentions, quoted above.  Most likely it’s a misreading based on no reading at all of MWA, because he seems not to be aware that the words “meaning” and “reality” that he cites as the aims of a self-aware mathematician are examined repeatedly in MWA, especially in chapters 2, 3, and 7.

Chapter 3 refers to three main forms of “apologies” for mathematics, labelled in keeping with the western philosophical tradition as “good, true, and beautiful.”  The word “tradition” is fundamental.  The one thing I find unforgivable when mathematicians make general comments about the values and aims of mathematics is the suggestion that they are saying something original.  Talk of values and aims is necessarily embedded in a philosophical and literary and social tradition; a failure to acknowledge this is merely a sign of ignorance, not of intellectual independence.  THAT is why MWA has nearly 70 pages of endnotes and more than 20 pages of references:  in order to record the author’s efforts to purge himself of the notion that his ideas are his own — and, no doubt, to encourage others to take the same path.

MWA cites those three main forms of “apologies” because they are the ones actually on offer; writing about them is my way of grappling with “reality.”  I attended the meetings described in chapter 10 not out of masochism (the champagne receptions were not bad at all) but because they were really happening, they were organized and attended by real decision-makers (“Powerful Beings”) whose decisions have real consequences for the future of the discipline; and the representations of mathematics (and of scientific research more generally) presented at those meetings were the real attempt of the community to procure the external goods necessary for its survival in its present form.  (I procured no pleasure, not even Schadenfreude, when I read the documents listed in the bibliography under “European commission”; but they are terribly important for anyone who is concerned about the future of mathematics.)

Anyway, Schreiber’s speculations cited above are irrelevant to MWA, but they are instructive nevertheless, because they exemplify what might be considered a fourth kind of apology that might be called Theologico-teleological.  One doesn’t need to believe in a supreme being to be a seeker of “answers to deep questions” or “meaning” or “reality,” but one has to believe in something.  I don’t know how to attach consistent meanings to the terms in quotation marks in the last sentence, and I don’t think Schreiber does either.  But I do know one name that has been given to the process by which meanings accumulate around terms like that:  tradition-based practice, specifically in the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre.  Two separate texts, both cited in the bibliography, led me to MacIntyre:  David Corfield’s article Narrative and the Rationality of Mathematics Practice and Robert Bellah’s book Religion in Human Evolution, which I read at the suggestion of Yang Xiao.  Both texts propose ethical readings of important human social phenomena, and this is important to me, because I have found that most arguments about the nature of mathematics, including Schreiber’s comments, turn out to be ethical arguments in disguise.

(Like “beauty,” the “answers to deep questions” or “meaning” or “reality” that Schreiber appears to be seeking can also be interpreted as euphemisms for “pleasure,” but I will leave this for another occasion.)

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5 thoughts on “The theologico-teleological apology

  1. Voynich

    Urs’s rhetoric annoys me. I basically do math for fun, and I try to avoid puffed-up rhetoric about “deep questions” etc., but I still know what my mathematics means, and how it connects to the broader picture. So which group am I in?

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    1. davidroberts65537

      Don’t forget that Urs Schreiber is a physicist (and, in full disclosure, a one-time co-author), and so I see him as motivated to find the deep structures that describe how the world works; it just happens that the cutting edge of mathematics seems to be the best way to get one’s hands on what is the most-developed approach.

      Regarding my own personal mathematical charisma: perhaps I have some, but it doesn’t come with a paying job as well. C’est la vie 🙂

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  2. Urs Schreiber

    I didn’t react to your book, but to David Roberts’ review of it, where it states that:

    So what is Harris’s non-apology, as given away by the title? Namely this: that we do mathematics because we like to, that it has a sort of freedom of play, and, more implicitly, because it brings a form of prestige, for which he uses the term ‘charisma’

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