Things that go bump in the night: Was man [sic] ever "the rational animal" is any essential way?
This morning, right in his opening paragraph, Paul Krugman helps answer that question. Don't let your children read this:
KRUGMAN (3/22/19): We’re now in the silly season of the Democratic primary—a season that, I worry, may last all the way to the nomination. There are many honorable exceptions, but an awful lot of reporting seems to be third order—not about the candidates, let alone their policy proposals, but about pundits’ views about voters’ views of candidates’ electability. It’s a discussion in which essentially nobody has any idea what he or she is talking about.So it goes as the rational animals pretend to cover another White House campaign. And while we're at it, make no mistake:
Many of these "rational animals" went to "the finest schools." It doesn't much seem to have helped!
In truth, Krugman is being too kind. It's hard for us to understand how anyone can still be watching "cable news," a profit-seeking corporate enterprise which now centers, with numbing repetition, on The Chase And Nothing Else.
No one is more obsessive in this regard than Rachel Maddow. Maddow is Our Own Rhodes Scholar and a Stanford/Oxford grad. That said, she continues to center on one entertainment product—Manafort Pictured In Chains.
Public schools don't exist on this program; neither does America's struggle with health care. In fairness, though, the Green New Deal has finally been mentioned.
The plan was designed to save the world; it was released on February 7. Maddow finally mentioned it at the start of Tuesday evening's program, during the throw from Chris Hayes. This is what was said:
HAYES (3/19/19): The Rachel Maddow Show starts right now. Good evening, Rachel.Maddow told us that her desk was piled up. "I I I I I I I," the analysts quickly said.
MADDOW: Chris, I am super-excited about your Green New Deal town hall thing. That's awesome.
HAYES: I am too. You know what? Here's a great detail. It's in the Bronx. It's in the hospital I was born in, which is in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's district.
MADDOW: That is going to be amazing. That is the last Friday in March, that's Friday, the 29th. Awesome.
HAYES: Yes, Friday next.
MADDOW: I have to find out about these things watching TV!
HAYES: That's how you get it.
MADDOW: Jeez, you know, I work down the hall. You could—
HAYES: Well, you're welcome to come if you want, although you've got to a show to do. All right.
MADDOW: Yes. Thanks. Well done! And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.
We've got a lot to get to tonight. You can always tell that when my desk is piled up like this before we even gotten started talking about anything.
At any rate, Rachel Maddow, Our Own Rhodes Scholar, had finally mentioned the Green New Deal! As it turns out, she "has to find out about these things from watching TV!"
In fairness, Maddow probably meant that she'd just found out that Hayes would be holding a town hall program. That said, if Maddow's viewers want to find out about the environment (or about any significant part of their world), they'll have to go somewhere else, to some other TV show, perhaps to a show which originates in some Platonic realm.
What you see in that exchange with Hayes is Maddow's most extended discussion of the Green New Deal since the program was unveiled on February 7. That said, what did she quickly "get to" after speaking with Hayes? In accord with the laws of Pandering Tribal Entertainment, she quickly "got to" this:
MADDOW (continuing directly): But we're going to start tonight with something that arrived in today's news as a surprise.As always, she turned to Manafort In Chains. Why that would come as some sort of "surprise" is anybody's guess!
About a week and a half ago, the Washington Post filed a motion with the federal court in Washington, D.C. that was handling the criminal case of the president's campaign chairman, Paul Manafort...
Despite this amazingly useless diet, the Maddow Show remains the cable program most heavily watched by us pseudo-liberals. For ourselves, we persistently marvel at the idea that anyone could still be watching this ridiculous program by choice.
In that opening paragraph, Krugman describes the fatuous way our White House campaigns typically get covered. In the case of Maddow, children being born today are going to drown in future years because corporate multimillionaire "rational animals" conduct themselves as she does.
So it goes as our theoretically brightest "rational animals" agree to destroy the earth. Elsewhere, our highest ranking intellectuals—our astrophysicists, mathematical physicists, philosophers and mathematicians—continue to stage their endless pseudo-debate about where "you can find" the number 3, about where such "mathematical objects" "reside."
Where do the numbers 3, 4 and 5 reside? According to Professor Livio, Professor Penrose believes that they resides in "the Platonic world of mathematical forms, which to Penrose has an actual reality"—an "actual reality comparable to that of the physical world."
Newton's laws "reside" there too—or so says Livio, though only while reporting what Penrose, "a renowned Oxford mathematical physicist," allegedly thinks.
In fairness, this is Livio's account of what Penrose thinks; at no point does Livio quote Penrose speaking in his own words. That said, Livio presents this peculiar set of ideas in a fully respectful way, as if the ideas he ascribes to Penrose might seem to make some sort of sense.
It isn't until page 37 that Livio tips his hand. We're going to guess that Professor Livio isn't a "devout Platonist," the term he ascribes to Penrose.
Indeed, we'll guess that Livio, like Professor Goldstein before him, isn't a Platonist at all! We say that because, on that page, he writes this:
LIVIO (page 37): Platonism has become one of the leading dogmas when it comes to the foundations of mathematics."Where exactly is this world?" Livio skeptically asks. But uh-oh! On its face, his question doesn't exactly seem to make sense, since he has earlier said that the Platonic world of mathematical forms "exists outside space and time."
But does the Platonic world of mathematics really exist? And if it does, where exactly is it? And what are these "objectively true" statements that inhabit this world? Or are the mathematicians who adhere to Platonism simply simply expressing the same type of romantic belief that has been attributed to the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo? According to legend, Michelangelo believed that his magnificent sculptures already existed inside the blocks of marble and that his role was merely to uncover them.
Whatever! We have to say we're inclined to count Livio among the group to whom we've affixed the moniker, "mathematicians [and others] gone wild." We say that because we've read the first two pages of his book, in which he travels to a dream state which almost certainly has Michelangelo shaking his head.
Like others in his high academic class, Livio has invented a "fairyland" (page 9) by the end of his own fourth paragraph. We'll examine what he says in two steps.
As you can see at this NPR link, Livio starts his book with an explanation of its eye-catching title:
LIVIO (page 1): A few years ago, I was giving a talk at Cornell University. One of my PowerPoint slides read: "Is God a mathematician?" As soon as that slide appeared, I heard a student in the front row gasp: "Oh God, I hope not!"Please note: before the professor has completed his first page, he is attributing "omnipotent powers" to mathematics—"the type of characteristics one normally associates only with a deity."
My rhetorical question was neither a philosophical attempt to define God for my audience nor a shrewd scheme to intimidate the math phobics. Rather, I was simply presenting a mystery with which some of the most original minds have struggled for centuries—the apparent omnipresence and omnipotent powers of mathematics. These are the type of characteristics one normally associates only with a deity. As the British physicist James Jeans (1877-1946) once put it: "The universe appears to have been designed by a pure mathematician." Mathematics appears to be almost too effective in describing and explaining not only the cosmos at large, but even some of the most chaotic of human enterprises.
Already, Livio is flirting with a highly peculiar "romantic belief" all his own! In part, he gets there by way of a logical error—through his conflation of the terms "describing and explaining" in this particular context.
Can mathematics "describe" the cosmos at large? In many ways, yes, it can.
A few pages later, Livio describes the way Newton was able to formulate "unbelievably accurate mathematical laws of nature" based on a set of observations—observations of the moon and of a falling apple. Those "laws of nature" can be said to describe the way physical bodies act across the cosmos at large.
Newton's laws can be said to describe major parts of the way the cosmos works. But do they "explain" the way physical bodies act? Not exactly, no—and when an astrophysicist blows past this fact, he may soon be indulging himself in things that make us go hmmm:
LIVIO (continuing directly): Whether physicists are attempting to formulate theories of the universe, stock market analysts are scratching their heads to predict the next market crash, neurobiologists are constructing models of brain function, or military intelligence statisticians are trying to optimize resource allocation, they are all using mathematics. Furthermore, even though they may be applying formalisms developed in different branches of mathematics, they are still referring to the same global, coherent mathematics. What is it that gives mathematics such incredible powers? Or, as Einstein once wondered: "How is it possible that mathematics, a product of human thought that is independent of experience [the emphasis is mine], fits so excellently the objects of physical reality?"By paragraph 4, Livio seems to be saying that mathematics is somehow "shaping and guiding" the universe. Mathematics is no longer being used to provide a description of the way physical bodies move. It's now somehow said to be guiding the moon, and falling apples, in the way they move.
This sense of utter bewilderment is not new. Some of the philosophers in ancient Greece, Pythagoras and Plato in particular, were already in awe of the apparent ability of mathematics to shape and guide the universe, while existing, as it seemed, above the powers of humans to alter, direct, or influence it.
It now seems to exhibit "the type of characteristics one normally associates only with a deity."
In just four paragraphs, while still on page 2, mathematics has been turned into something resembling a god. It's no longer describing the universe. It how has the power to guide it!
This is foolish, incompetent work. It's also the product of our highest-order rational animals—and a great deal follows from that.
This is what happens when mathematicians and physicists leave their areas of expertise and head down to the corner bar for a couple of cool ones. Given the way we humans are, silly "things which make us go hmmm" are the inevitable product.
We debate where the number 3 resides; along the way, we decide that mathematics is "guiding the universe!" This is the apparently endless product of mathematicians, and humans, gone wild.
You'll note that Livio tells us, right in paragraph 1, that he'll be discussing the work of "some of the most original minds" of the past few centuries. We humans have always flattered ourselves in such ways. This helps explain how we came to think of ourselves as "rational animals" to begin with.
In the middle part of the last century, a logician tried to put a stop to this manifest foolishness. According to Professor Horwich, "professional philosophers" in the academy have chosen to throw him away.
Livio's book is a record of primitive thought—primitive thought as conducted by our highest-ranking intellectuals. The fact that nonsense like this can seem deep and wise helps explain the past thirty-five years, in which professional journalists have run wild in the way Krugman describes, with almost none of our vaunted intellectuals stepping forward to offer critiques, objections or correctives.
Our journalists clown as Krugman describes. Our foremost thinkers continue to wonder where the number 3 "can be found."
The clowning and the manifest nonsense have become increasingly general. Are we supposed to be surprised to see climate change threatening the world, to see Donald J. Trump where he is?
Coming: Horwich on Wittgenstein