Sunday, May 02, 2004

Meanderings into metamathematical madness

Every once in a while I find myself in a situation where I curse literary intellectualism. At those moments I remember that catchword that people use to describe all the pompous and senseless ramblings of literary intellectuals, namely "postmodernism." I found myself at a party and somehow ended up talking to a bunch of philosphers. They became much more interested in me when the found out that I'm a mathematician. Once of them then asked me "What is zero? Zero is not a number." I paused, looked at him and responded: "What?" He then said, again very quickly, "zero is that thing that isn't equal to itself, so how can it be a number?" Now, I don't mind sensible discussions of the philosophy or history of mathematics, but it bugs me when people, especially pompous philsophers, rattle of insensible statements that are nothing more than definitional issues. In the end, it turned out that [Heidegger] had made some statement about "nothingness" and my erstwhile conversation partner had somehow arbitrarily substituted "zero" for "nothingness" and was trying to get, I believe anyway, some kind of mathematical statement about Heidegger. I reiterate, how do I find myself in these situations.

Another gem of this conversation regards yet another participant: she was a child of two academics whose "mother's milk" was perhaps Kant. When I said I had enjoyed Douglas Hofstadter's book [Gödel, Escher, Bach], I was greeted by the response: "I liked that book when I was fifteen." Yet another participant claimed that the book was "content free." I asked both to clarify their opinions. Our academic child responded, "it's just so triumphalist." The other responded: "it's just prattle for nerds." I was asked about what content was in the book. My response was: "besides a statement of [Gödel's thoeorem]?" Whatever the case it was a stunning display of pomposity...

In order to enact retribution, I'm going to list some of my favorite "postmodernism is nonsense" books. Actually, in the hope of academic honesty, there's only one that I've read and I'll list that one. Indeed, what a stifled and pathetic existence I live.

[Fashionable Nonsense] - by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. And a very intelligent response by (mathematician) Michael Harris entitled: [I Know What you Mean!.pdf].


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