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.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.
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?
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