Category Archives: Mathematics

What It Takes

This essay ends up considering arguments that natural science—especially mathematical physics—is based on absolute presup­positions whose mythological expression is found in Christianity—especially the doctrine of Incarnation.

I take note along the way of continuing censorship of Wikipedia by the Turkish state.

The article falls into sections as follows.

  • Where to start. To the thesis that everybody can be a philosopher, an antithesis is that persons with the professional title of philosopher ought to know the history of their subject.
  • Ontology. Disdain for this history may lead to misunderstanding of Anselm’s supposed proof of the existence of God.
  • Presupposition. To prove anything, you need a pou sto, or what Collingwood calls an absolute presupposition.
  • Progression. Newton rejected antiquated presuppositions
  • Reaction. Coal-burners and racists reject new presuppositions.
  • Universality. From the 47th chapter of the Tao Te Ching (in the translation of Gia-fu Feng and Jane English):

    Without going outside, you may know the whole world.
    Without looking through the window, you may see the ways of heaven.
    The farther you go, the less you know.

    Thus the wise know without traveling;
    See without looking;
    Work without doing.

  • Religion. To say that we can know the laws governing the entire universe is like saying a human can be God.
  • Censorship. Thus everybody who believes in mathematical physics is a Christian, if only in the way that, by the Sun Language Theory, everybody in the world already speaks Turkish.
  • Trinity. That the university has several departments, all studying the same world—this is supposed to correspond to the triune conception of divinity.

This article began as a parenthesis in another article, yet to be completed, about passion and reason. To anchor that article in an established text, I thought back to David Hume, according to whom,

Reason is, and ought only to be[,] the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

This might express something I said in my previous article: “Reason is the power of testing what we want.” However, I had not really read Hume since college. I thought more about things that had not ended up in the previous article—which was called “Effectiveness” and concerned the article of Eugene Wigner with that word in its title. As I thought and wrote, it seemed I was putting so much into a parenthesis that it could be another article. True, the same might be said of many things in this blog. In any case, the parenthesis in question became the present article.

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Effectiveness

Preface

First published May 17, 2018, this essay concerns Eugene Wigner’s 1960 article “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” I wrote a lot, which I now propose to summarize by section. (The meditations also continue in the next article.)

  • Some things are miraculous. Among Wigner’s examples are
    • that mathematics is possible at all, and
    • that “regularities” in the physical world can be discovered, as by Galileo and Newton.

    For Wigner, we should be grateful for the undeserved gift of a mathematial formulation of the laws of physics. This makes no sense theologically—and here I agree with the character Larry Darrell in Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge. Wigner’s idea that our mathematical reasoning power has been brought to perfection makes no sense to me either.

  • Everything is miraculous. Here I agree with Collingwood in Religion and Philosophy. A miracle cannot be the breaking of a natural law, since such a thing cannot be broken. A great artist like Beethoven follows no rules in the first place, or makes them up as he goes along; and he is like God in this way.
  • Natural law. That it cannot be broken is part of the very concept of natural law. Quantum phenomena and the theory of relativity have not in fact been brought under a single law; for Wigner, it may not be possible.
  • Mystery. Not only can we not define miracles, but (as we should have observed in the first place) we cannot even say when they happen. If like Wigner we call something miraculous, this means it cleanses our own doors of perception, in the sense of William Blake.
  • Definitions. In his treatment of miracle in Religion and Philosophy, Collingwood shows the futility of trying to define a term when you are not sure how to use it. He makes this futility explicit in The Principles of Art. If we are going to think about the use of mathematics in natural science, this means we ought to be mathematician, natural scientist, and philosopher; and not just “natural scientist,” but physicist and biologist, since if mathematics is effective in physics, it would seem to be ineffective in biology.
  • Being a philosopher. We are all philosophers, in the sense that Maugham describes in the story “Appearance and Reality,” if only we think. All thought is for the sake of action. This does not mean that thought occurs separately from an action and is to be judged by the action. We may value “pure” thought, such as doing mathematics or making music or living the contemplative life of a monk. This however moves me to a give a thought to the disaster of contemporary politics.
  • Philosophizing about science. For present purposes, compart­ment­al­ization of knowledge is a problem. So is the dominance of analytic philosophy, for suggesting (as one cited person seems to think) that big problems can be broken into little ones and solved independently. In mathematics, students should learn their right to question somebody else’s solutions to problems. In philosophy, the problems themselves will be our own. Philosophy as such cannot decide what the problems of physics or biology are, though it may help to understand the “absolute presuppositions” that underlie the problems. Philosophers quâ metaphysicians cannot determine once for all what the general structure of the universe is. This does not mean they should do “experimental philosophy,” taking opinion polls about supposedly philosophical questions. What matters is not what people say, but what they mean and are trying to mean. As Collingwood observes, metaphysics is an historical science.

For more on the last points, see a more recent article, “Re-enactment.” (This Preface added June 3, 2018.)


I am writing from the Math Village, and here I happen to have read that Abraham Lincoln kept no known diary as such, but noted his thoughts on loose slips of paper. Admired because he “could simply sit down and write another of his eloquent public letters,”

Lincoln demurred. “I had it nearly all in there,” he said, pointing to an open desk drawer. “It was in disconnected thoughts, which I had jotted down from time to time on separate scraps of paper.” This was how he worked, the president explained. It was on such scraps of paper, accumulating over the years into a diaristic density, that Lincoln saved and assembled what he described to the visitor as his “best thoughts on the subject.”

Thus Ronald C. White, “Notes to Self,” Harper’s, February 2018. My own notes to self are normally in bound notebooks, and perhaps later in blog articles such as the present one, which is inspired by the 1960 article called “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” by Eugene Wigner.
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Boolean Arithmetic

Mathematics can be highly abstract, though remaining applicable to daily life. I want to show this with the mathematics behind logic puzzles, such as how to derive a conclusion using all of the following premisses:

  1. Babies are illogical.
  2. Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile.
  3. Illogical persons are despised.

The example, from Terence Tao’s blog, is attributed to Lewis Carroll. By the first and third premisses, babies are despised; by the second premiss then, babies cannot manage crocodiles.

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The Tree of Life

My two recent courses at the Nesin Mathematics Village had a common theme. I want to describe the theme here, as simply as I can—I mean, by using as little technical knowledge of mathematics as I can. But I shall talk also about related poetry and philosophy, of T. S. Eliot and R. G. Collingwood respectively.


An elaborate binary tree, with spirals

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Şirince January 2018

In the Nesin Mathematics Village recently, I was joined at breakfast one morning by a journalist called Jérémie Berlioux. He knew Clément Girardot, the journalist whom I had met in the Village in the summer of 2016. This was before the coup attempt of July 15, but after the terror attack at Atatürk Airport on June 28. I wrote about this attack the next day in “Life in Wartime” on this blog. Then I headed off to Şirince to join a “research group.” My wife and colleague came along, though not to be part of the group; afterwards we headed up the coast for a beach holiday. We were at the beach when the coup attempt happened, as I wrote in my next blog article, “War Continues.” I contrasted politics with mathematics, which was an inherently nonviolent struggle. This was the kind of struggle engaged in by the research group in the Math Village.

Large clay pot against dark vines

Outside the Nişanyan Library


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Women and Men

This began as an update to “Confessions,” which concerns the man called G. H. Hardy and the woman called Sylvia Plath. I had originally included a photograph of the subjects’ respective books. On Hardy’s, the author poses reluctantly; on Plath’s, a woman applies powder in a compact mirror.

Plath’s book was the 2013 Faber and Faber 50th Anniversary Edition of The Bell Jar, and the cover is controversial. See Alexandra Topping, “The Bell Jar’s new cover derided for branding Sylvia Plath novel as chick lit” (The Guardian, Friday 1 February 2013). I learned of the controversy from Emily Van Duyne, “Sylvia Plath Looked Good in a Bikini—Deal With It,” in Electric Literature, hosted by Medium (October 9, 2017). Medium had promoted the essay to me when I read Brian E. Denton, “The World Will Not Quarrel: Day 282 of A Year of War and Peace.

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Hypomnesis

When is a help a hindrance? The Muses have provoked this question. They did this through their agents, the cicadas, who sang around the European Cultural Center of Delphi, during the 11th Panhellenic Logic Symposium, July 12–5, 2017.

     Cicada, European Cultural Center of Delphi, 2017.07.15     
Cicada, European Cultural Center of Delphi, 2017.07.15

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Victor Vasarely

Tophane-i Amire
Tophane-i Amire, 2017.03.25

Last week I wrote about the Turkish Impressionist Feyhaman Duran, born in 1886. Now my subject is the Hungarian-French Op Artist born twenty years later as Győző Vásárhelyi. His “Rétrospective en Turquie” is at the Tophane-i Amire Culture and Art Center in an Ottoman cannon foundry.

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Şirince January 2017

Having enjoyed spending a January week at the Nesin Mathematics Village in 2016, this year I came back for two weeks. My spouse will join me for the second week. Meanwhile, here are some photographs from this amazing place. Continue reading

Confessions

This is about G. H. Hardy and Sylvia Plath: Hardy quâ author of A Mathematician’s Apology (1940); Plath, The Bell Jar (1963).

Photo: the Hardy and Plath books

I first read Plath only recently, after encountering The Bell Jar by chance in the Istanbul bookshop called Pandora. Continue reading