BEHIND THE CURTAIN: An early clip from the text-in-itself!


Part 4—The need to explain what you mean:
The alleged philosopher Jim Holt was off on a hero "quest."

He set himself on the hero quest at the start of his ridiculous book, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story. Inevitably, the book would be chosen by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of the year.

Alas! The silliest newspaper in the land never doesn't do this!

What was this philosopher's quest? Inanely, he decided to jet around the upper-class world in search of three or four Einsteins. According to Holt, he would then "arrange them in the right order," settling a question with which he had struggled since he was maybe like ten.

Holt assumed that readers wouldn't notice the sheer absurdity of his plan. Correctly, he further seemed to assume that reviewers wouldn't note the nonsensical nature of his quest—further, that they wouldn't note the fact that he seemed to have embellished the televised conversation from which he'd drawn the inspiration for his quest.


Have we ever fact-checked a peculiar claim from a heralded book and found that it wasn't embellished? When we fact-checked the troubling incident at the start of Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent heartfelt letter to his son, we found that Coates was basically making it up. Long ago and far away, we'd had similar experiences fact-checking mammoth best-sellers by such redoubtable stars as Bernard Goldberg and Ann Coulter.

(Coulter had been praised in a New York Times review for the huge number of footnotes supporting her claims. Again and again and again and again, we found that the footnotes didn't check out.)

Coulter's footnotes were impressively numerous, but they didn't support the claims to which they'd been appended! When you draw back the curtain on modern elite journalistic culture, you find that basic thoughts like that don't occur to the pitiful souls who conduct their own quests at the New York Times, eventually leading to Donald J. Trump and his future war.

Whatever! In the case of the philosopher Holt, he decided to jet to the finest salons looking for three or four Einsteins. He described that quest on his book's page 11, as we explained in yesterday's award-winning effort.

Before reaching that point, Holt had already displayed the type of pseudo-philosophical flimflam which would suffuse his book. In the process, he convinced at least one young Princeton grad that his work was "over her head."

Briefly, then, let's turn to Holt's text-in-itself! In this way, we'll start to see what the New York Times takes to be deep thought.

We'll start at the top of page 8. Quickly, let's review:

As a teen, Holt abandoned the thought that God created the world. Why then do we have something rather than nothing? Decades later, Holt still wanted to know.

On page 7, he said how "unnerving" our world will be if we can't untangle that riddle. Atop page 8, he offered this:
HOLT (page 8): This dilemma has lurked in the suburbs of my mind ever since I first hit upon the mystery of being. And it has moved me to ponder just what "being" amounts to.
This dilemma had moved Holt "to ponder what 'being' amounts to." At moments like this, young journalists start thinking that work of this type is "over their heads."

Ideally, they shouldn't have that reaction. Ever so briefly, here's why:

Imagine that someone walks and offers you a question. This is what your interlocutor asks, using his hands to form scare quotes:

What does "being" amount to?

Imagine that someone poses that question. Almost surely, the obvious answer is this:

I don't get it. What do you mean?

The person who asks a question like that needs to explain what he means. It shouldn't be up to a young journalist to figure out what he meant.

In the end, the chances are good that a fellow like Holt won't be able to explain what he means. But it's very much up to him to explain. It isn't the job of a young Princeton grad to decipher his Delphic musings.

All through Holt's ridiculous book, Holt fails to explain what he means. He offers various Delphic thoughts and, because he's a "philosophical" made man, upper-end book reviewers give him extremely wide berth.

That doesn't mean he's saying things that make definable sense. Consider the first block of text, right there on page 8, where he takes us on a flight.

What does "being" amount to? After posing that riddle, Holt notes that philosophers since Descartes have tended to refer to two "ultimate constituents of reality"—basically, to matter and mind. ("Physical matter" and "consciousness," Holt also says on page 8.)

This is fairly basic stuff. Sadly, it leads to this:
HOLT (pages 8-9): If that's all there is to reality—matter-stuff and mind-stuff, with a web of causal relations between them—then the mystery of being looks hopeless indeed. But perhaps this dualistic ontology is too impoverished. I myself began to suspect as much when, following my teenage flirtation with existentialism, I became infatuated with pure mathematics. The sort of entities mathematicians spend their days pondering—not just numbers and circles, but n-dimensional manifolds and Galois systems and crystalline cohomologies—are nowhere found within the realm of space and time. They're clearly not material things. Nor do they seem to be mental. There is no way, for example, that the finite mind of a mathematician could contain an infinity of numbers. Then do mathematical entities really exist? Well, that depends on what you mean by "existence." Plato certainly thought they existed. In fact, he held that mathematical objects, being timeless and unchanging, were more real than the world of things we perceive with our senses. The same was true, he held, of abstract ideas like Goodness and Beauty. To Plato, such "Forms" constituted genuine reality. Everything else was mere appearance.

We might not want to go that far in revising our notion of reality. Goodness, Beauty, mathematical entities, logical laws: these are not quite something, the way mind-stuff and matter-stuff are. Yet they are not exactly nothing either. Might they somehow play a role in explaining why there is something rather than nothing?
Piddle-pure nonsense of this type pervades Holt's useless text. Unfortunately, it's the type of sophistry which makes journalists, young and old, imagine that Holt is working on a lofty plane.

Holt's text is full of formulations which badly need explaining. We'll offer some advice:

Try to ignore the way Holt mentions obscure "mathematical entities" like Galois systems. This is a form of name-dropping. Its basic function is to signal that you're out of your depth as you try to decipher this text.

Try not to be distracted! Let's note some of the claims in that passage which don't quite seem to make sense:

Numbers and circles "are nowhere found within the realm of space and time?"

In fact, numbers are found on every page in Holt's ridiculous book! Whatever it is he's trying to say, he hasn't explained it yet. There's no reason to think that he could explain if he decided to try.

"There is no way that the finite mind of a mathematician could contain an infinity of numbers?"

In what way does anyone's mind "contain" any numbers at all? How many numbers does the average mathematician's mind "contain?"

Does a mathematician's mind "contain" those numbers all the time, or only when she's working with the numbers in question? As a more general matter, do you have any idea what somebody means when he starts talking like this?

"Do mathematical entities really exist? Well, that depends on what you mean by 'existence.' "

It also depends on what you mean by "really," the pseudo-philosopher's favorite flimflam term. But since Holt is the one who's presenting this point, it's up to him to explain it.

(For the record, Holt has identified numbers as a type of "mathematical entity." As of this morning, we can report that such "entities" clearly exist on the front of every house on our block!)

"Do mathematical entities really exist? Plato certainly thought they existed."

Plato believed more crazy things than you could fit in a phone book. (More recently, Newton kept trying to turn lead into gold. He also believed in witchcraft.)

The various things Plato said form an important part of our impoverished intellectual history. But it's hard to know why you'd offer him as an expert witness, some 2500 years later.

The fog continues from there. Mathematical entities aren't quite something, the savant says. Yet they aren't exactly nothing either!

Might they somehow play a role in explaining why there's something rather than nothing? Holt is flirting with massive claptrap as he spreads this familiar old porridge around.

As he does, untutored journalists mistakenly think they're being exposed to "the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today," to conversations that go "over their heads." If you doubt that, just click here.

Those journalists are being exposed to nothing of the sort. Tomorrow, we'll show you more of Holt's world-class claptrap. Then, we'll show you his chapter 10, in which he ginormously buries his lede, while giving us an embarrassing look behind a cultural curtain.

Did Holt know he was doing that? As he conducted his search for his three or four Einsteins, there is no sign that he did.

Tomorrow: Two-thirds of mathematicians say...

Coming next week: Behind the curtain at the daily Times


  1. Somerby has wandered into the domain of "mental representation" which is part of psychology. He doesn't seem to have realized that. Is there perhaps a third field, besides philosophy and mathematics, that might be relevant to someone reading this sort of book? Is it perhaps a field that Somerby has little competence in? Might someone consider ramblings ridiculous if they had no training in considering the ideas of that field? How are numbers represented mentally?

    I get tired of Somerby wandering into psychology without even recognizing that he has done so. This is why psychologists so frequently feel that they and their discipline get no respect!

    There are many ways to be ignorant in this world. Sometimes you can be ignorant without even realizing the full glory of your ignorance, as Somerby illustrates.

    1. So the problem here is *really* that Somerby is just out of his depth in trying to read Holt and his critics?

      Seriously, you're just a dope.

    2. Yes, and why shouldn't he be. He stopped school with his B.A.. He still reads, which is to his credit, but he didn't go on to learn how knowledge is generated in any field, methods (even in philosophy), and he hasn't published anything in philosophy or any other academic field. So, what is his qualification to be so hard on Holt or his reviewers?

      Calling me a dope doesn't change anything about what Somerby does or does not know.

      Most people with the qualifications to read and understand books on obscure topics would have decided not to read Holt's work, since it is obviously fatuous and intended as diversion, not a serious contribution to philosophy.

      Roger Ebert once said that you don't critique a B-movie as if it were an art film. You review it in the context of its own aspirations. I doubt Holt was trying to do what Somerby expects him to have accomplished. So that makes Somerby a bit of a dope, in my opinion.

    3. Yes, keep moving the ball. One's got to be a subject matter expert to address this obviously fatuous work!

      Somerby has all the expertise needed to show, not what Holt's work is, but what the work of the machine that praises and extols Holt is.

      You are decidedly out of your own apparently quite shallow depth not to recognize that if anyone's critiqued a B as if it were art, it's the Times here.

  2. "Holt assumed that readers wouldn't notice the sheer absurdity of his plan."

    Sometimes such a plan is a literary device to structure a piece of writing. Sometimes editors and publishers recognize that fact. Somerby seems to be excessively literal in his criticism.

    For example, "Eat, Pray, Love" was a literary device, a conceit, to describe the author's journey to three different geographic areas (with little else to connect them) while she tried to recover from a divorce. It gives structure to what might otherwise seem disjointed and perhaps self-involved. I suspect Holt's book is similar. But I have no plans to read it, since I think of this kind of question asking and ruminating as mental masturbation. I also find it appeals much more strongly to men than to women, who write more obviously personal books.

  3. Didn't the Greeks lack a representation for the concept of infinity in their math? Wasn't that the point of Zeno's paradox?

  4. The wide disagreement among Americans on the president’s performance, however, is more than partisanship. It is a matter of political literacy. The fact of the matter is that too many Trump supporters do not hold the president responsible for his mistakes or erratic behavior because they are incapable of recognizing them as mistakes. They lack the foundational knowledge and basic political engagement required to know the difference between facts and errors, or even between truth and lies.”

    “There is a more disturbing possibility here than pure ignorance: that voters not only do not understand these issues, but also that they simply do not care about them. As his supporters like to point out, Trump makes the right enemies, and that’s enough for them. Journalists, scientists, policy wonks — as long as “the elites” are upset, Trump’s voters assume that the administration is doing something right.”

    “There is a serious danger to American democracy in all this. When voters choose ill-informed grudges and diffuse resentment over the public good, a republic becomes unsustainable.”

  5. Bob is racist because he criticized Coates and Coates is black - which is racist. Like Oreilly made fun of that one lady who was black - which was also racist.

    1. go away troll

    2. I won't be going away. Ever.

    3. At least you changed your name. I liked Cicero better.

    4. 151/jackass

      Let's stick to the facts. A woman was made fun of. She was black. The man who made fun of her I was white. This makes him a racist. It is racist if a white person makes fun of a black person. You are racist if you deny it.

    5. O'Reilly said that Maxine Waters had hair like James Brown (who wore a pompadour). His comment was racist because her hair didn't look anything like Brown's and the only point of comparison was that both were African American. But the more important racism came from belittling hear appearance in racial terms instead of dealing with the content of her remarks or her actions as a congresswoman.

      His remark wasn't racist because he was a white person making fun of a black person or because she was a woman. It was because he ignored her political position in order to mock her appearance and because he did so in racist terms by equating her with a black entertainer that she did not resemble in any way except in skin color.

      I have been noticing how clueless racist people are when it comes to understanding what exactly gives offense and what is irrelevant to it. It is as if they do not realize how race works in America.

      Greg is, of course, a troll, but he is echoing statements made on the right by people who are presumably not trolls. And I've seen the same problem when it comes to sexism. Offenders either are (or pretend to be) ignorant about how they have violated norms or caused offense. I'm wondering where this comes from, assuming it is not feigned.

    6. Cool man - thanks for clearing that up for me. A black woman was mocked by a white man about her hair. It was racist because the white man compared her hair to another black person's hair and it was a poor comparison. Makes perfect sense. ;)

    7. It is racist when a white person ignores a black person's political position and makes fun of them instead? What about when white person ignores another white person's political position and makes fun of them instead?

      Isn't it possible in both cases position ignorer is just a dick?

    8. In this case, a dick AND a sexual harasser.

  6. "Try to ignore the way Holt mentions obscure "mathematical entities" like Galois systems. This is a form of name-dropping. Its basic function is to signal that you're out of your depth as you try to decipher this text."

    Leftists lap this stuff up. They love to pick up new words like "Kompromat" to signal literacy but it reveals a stunted education in social science electives.

    1. Very weak. Troll harder.

  7. "Coulter had been praised in a New York Times review for the huge number of footnotes supporting her claims."

    Boxcar Bob returns to an old hit, dating back to 2002.

    From the actual review:

    "Ann Coulter's diatribe ''Slander'' is the most popular nonfiction book in America, according to Publishers' Weekly, and The New York Times....

    ...Much of what Ms. Coulter asserts, especially where the press is concerned, has already been expressed by Mr. Goldberg in ''Bias.'' As a former CBS News correspondent, he drew upon firsthand experience to make his assertions. Ms. Coulter relies on 780 footnotes (she is a lawyer) and a bottomless supply of bile....

    ....A great deal of research supports Ms. Coulter's wisecracks.....But she is her own worst enemy when it comes to subordinating joking and rhetoric to serious debate.

    But she is her own worst enemy when it comes to subordinating joking and rhetoric to serious debate..."

    Hardly praise.

  8. With regard to the mathematical name-dropping, Holt doesn't do a particularly good job at it. I am a mathematician and have never heard the term "Galois systems" - apparently neither did Google. Holt probably meant "Galois groups", which encode symmetries in systems of algebraic equations. Anybody who fudges such a basic undergraduate level mathematical term quite certainly has no idea what they're talking about when they say "crystalline cohomology".

    1. Galois is a system that automatically executes "Galoized" serial C++ or Java code in parallel on shared-memory machines.

      I don't know if it has anything to do with the work of Evariste Galois. Maybe someone thought it was clever to take his name in vain.

  9. “Then do mathematical entities really exist? ... Plato certainly thought they existed. ... The same was true, he held, of abstract ideas like Goodness and Beauty. To Plato, such ‘Forms’ constituted genuine reality.”

    Note that normally we use “good” and “beautiful” as adjectives, traits, actually giving our own aesthetic appraisals of people, objects, and situations. When we convert these terms into nouns, grammatically implying objects, we fool ourselves with mental phantoms for which there is no physical counterpart — which we can either recognize as mirages, or insist are a “genuine reality” beyond the physical; Plato chose the latter.

    We puzzle ourselves all the time with such mis-categorized nouns, calling a clenched hand by the special name “fist” or the juncture of seated legs and pelvis “lap” as though they were actual objects governed by the Law of Conservation of Matter, and then asking “Where does your fist go when you open your hand?” or “Where does your lap go when you stand up?” — because an object must go somewhere, it can't simply stop like the action of clenching or bending, which we would better categorize as verb-gerunds.

    Likewise the action of burning (“Where does the flame go when you blow out the candle?”), or the action of thinking and more generally the functioning of the brain and of the rest of the body (“Where do you [i.e. your mind etc.] go when you die?”)....