Indiscrete Thoughts

Gian - Carlo Rota

Gian - Carlo Rota

The truth offends. In all languages of the world one finds proverbs that stress this truism in many colorful versions ("veritas odium parit" in Latin). More precisely: certain truths offend. Which truths offend? When and why do we "take offense?" All cultures have offered variants of one and the same answer to these questions. We take offense at those truths that threaten any of the myths we profess to believe in. Taking offense is an effective way we have of shutting off some unpleasant truth. It works. It enables us to restore a hold on our dearest myths, to last until the next offending truth comes along.

Myths come in two kinds: working myths and wilting myths. Working myths are the bedrock of civilization, they are what college students in the sixties used to call "ultimate reality." We could not function without the solid support that we get from our working myths. We are not aware of our working myths.

Sooner or later, every working myth begins to wilt. We can tell that a myth is wilting as soon as we are able to express it in words. It then turns into a belief, to be preserved and defended.

A wilting myth is an albatross hanging from our necks. Only on rare occasions do we summon the courage to discard a wilting myth; more often, we hang on to a wilting myth to the very end. If anyone dares question any of our wilting myths, we will lash out and label him elitist," "subversive," "reactionary," "irrational," "cynical...... nihilistic," obscurantist." We will seize on some incorrect but irrelevant detail as an excuse to dismiss an entire argument. Most discussions, whether in science, in philosophy, in politics or in everyday conversation, are thinly veiled attacks or defenses of some wilting myth.

Eventually, a wilting myth gets dropped by all but the hard-liners.

These are the bigots, the fanatics, the mass murderers. Hitler staged a last-ditch defense of the cloying romantic myths of the past century. Stalin battled for the dying myth of socialism. The kooks of Montana are taking the last stand in defense of the myth of the West.

The wilting myths of the millennium are the theme of this book. Never before in history have so many myths begun to wilt at the same time, and a hard choice had to be made, to wit:

1. The myth of monolithic personality. "Every scientist must also be a good guy." "If you are good at math, then you will be good at anything." "Great men are great in everything they do." "Heidegger cannot be a good philosopher because he was a Nazi."

Against this myth, sketches of the lives of some notable mathematicians of this century are given in "Fine Hall in the Golden Age," "Light Shadows," "The Story of a Manage A Trois" and "The Lost Cafe." When first published, each of these chapters caused a stir of sorts. After reading the section "Problem Solvers and Theorizers," a mathematician friend (one of the most distinguished living mathematicians) wrote that he would not speak to the author ever again. Another mathematician threatened a lawsuit after reading the section on Emil Artin in "Fine Hall in the Golden Age." After publication of a heavily edited version of "The Lost Cafe" in the magazine Los Alamos Science, the author was permanently excluded from the older echelons of Los Alamos society.

2. The myth of reductionism. "The workings of the mind can be reduced to the brain." "The universe is nothing but a psi function." "Biology is a branch of physics." "Everything has a mechanical explanation."

Critiques of these frequently heard assertions are found in "The Barrier of Meaning," "Fundierung as a Logical Concept," "The Primacy of Identity," "The Barber of Seville, or the Useless Precaution," and "Three Senses of A is B in Heidegger." The confusion between scientific thought and reductionist error is rampant in our day, and critiques of reductionism are mistakenly viewed as attacks on the scientific method.

Reductionism would do away with the autonomy of biology and physics, of physics and mathematics, as well as with the autonomy of science and philosophy. "The Pernicious Influence of Mathematics upon Philosophy" is motivated by the loss of autonomy in philosophy. The paper (reprinted five times in four languages) was taken as a personal insult by several living philosophers.

3. The zero-one myth. "If a marble is not white, it must be black." "If you don't believe that everything can be explained in terms of atoms and molecules, you must be an irrationalist." "There is no valid explanation other than causal explanation."

The ideal of rationality of the Age of Enlightenment is too narrow, and we need not abandon all reason when we stray from this seventeenth-century straightjacket. Already the life sciences follow a logic that is a long way from the logic of mechanics and causal explanation.

The simplistic cravings for a "nothing but" are dealt with in "The Phenomenology of Mathematical Truth," "The Phenomenology of Mathematical Beauty" and "The Phenomenology of Mathematical Proof." There is no answer to the question "What is mathematics?" because the word "is" is misused in such a question. A distinguished mathematician, who is also one of the last hard-line Stalinists, criticized these essays for their "anarchy." He is right.

The book concludes with a selection of book reviews the author has published in the last twenty-five years. It was hard to resist the temptation to publish samples of the hate mail that was received after these reviews. The truth offends.

Cambridge, MA, September 1, 1996


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