Intelligent Design

Why Should Questioning Physicalism Be Almost Literally Unthinkable

Spread the love

Thank you to the UD News desk for putting up From Closer To Truth: Is Mathematics Invented Or Discovered?  In this video public intellectual Robert Lawrence Kuhn interviews mathematicians and philosophers regarding the titular question.

The most profound statement in the video does not address the question.  It addresses the current cultural constraints on the approach to answering this — indeed all – questions.  Kuhn is interviewing mathematician Gregory Chaitin.  At  about 13:25 Chaitin tentatively expresses that he would like to believe that mathematics expresses a fundamental reality that is independent of the physical world.  The following exchange ensues:

Chaitin:  It’s a separate reality, and I don’t know where it is.  Don’t ask me where the positive integers live, but they don’t live here I don’t think.  You know it’s like a religion in a way.  It’s like a subject that is stuck in the middle ages.  I mean in a way I would say, to be provocative, they are thoughts in the mind of God.  I mean where are these . . . where is the subject?  It’s not here.  So you believe in some invisible world, better than ours, purer.  This is beginning to sound a little religious, isn’t it, in some, it’s a strange form of religious, but it’s . . .

Kuhn:  Does that upset you?  That it sounds religious? 

Chaitin:  No.

Kuhn:  You sound defensive [UD Editor:  Kuhn is spot on here!]

Chaitin:  Well, given the current situation one has to sound defensive. 

Wow.  Think about what Chaitin says here.  He is advancing a proposition [Platonism] that has a provenance dating back thousands of years.  He appears inclined to believe this proposition is true in that it accurately reflects reality.  In other words, he appears to believe that the answer to the question is that mathematics has an independent existence that is discovered, that it is not something merely contrived or invented.  Yet he appears to be afraid to state his belief plainly and without reservation. 

Why should that be?  We all know the answer to that question.  He is afraid of the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Truth.  And he is right to be afraid of those bureaucrats, because they have the power to cancel him, to literally destroy his career.  And he knows that while those bureaucrats may tolerate advancing Platonism as an interesting speculation so long as one qualifies it enough with such phrases as “stuck in the middle ages,” they would never tolerate a public intellectual who affirmatively and vigorously asserts and defends the truth claim that Platonism accurately describes reality.  This is what he means by “the current situation.” 

It should be profoundly disturbing to every lover of truth that the physicalists at the Ministry of Truth have such an iron grip on intellectual discourse that some of the most famous intellectuals in the world are literally terrified to express without qualification certain thoughts they believe to be true.

From Closer to Truth: Is mathematics invented or discovered? – Uncommon Descent

9 Replies to “Why Should Questioning Physicalism Be Almost Literally Unthinkable

  1. 1
    News says:

    Physicalism is literally unthinkable. The number 7 refutes it. The number exists without reference to anything material. By the way, Chaitin’s number is unknowable.

  2. 2
    Viola Lee says:

    Wolfram and Wilczek weren’t afraid to present non-Platonic views.

    Also, Chaiten did not look terrified. He explains that he started as a Platonist, but after 40 years of doing math, his position has changed to being more of an empiricist, and he offers a view more like Wolfram’s and Wilczek’s: that we invent axioms when needed that appear useful, and discover the logical consequences of the axioms we have chosen to explore. (Wigner says something like this in his famous essay on the Unreasonable Effectiveness of Math.)

    P.S. Also, I don’t think any of those folks invoked physicalism.

  3. 3
    JVL says:

    News: By the way, Chaitin’s number is unknowable.

    Not exactly, it’s not computable, not quite the same thing in mathematics.

    In the computer science subfield of algorithmic information theory, a Chaitin constant (Chaitin omega number) or halting probability is a real number that, informally speaking, represents the probability that a randomly constructed program will halt. These numbers are formed from a construction due to Gregory Chaitin.

    Although there are infinitely many halting probabilities, one for each method of encoding programs, it is common to use the letter ? to refer to them as if there were only one. Because ? depends on the program encoding used, it is sometimes called Chaitin’s construction instead of Chaitin’s constant when not referring to any specific encoding.

    Each halting probability is a normal and transcendental real number that is not computable, which means that there is no algorithm to compute its digits. Each halting probability is Martin-Löf random, meaning there is not even any algorithm which can reliably guess its digits.

  4. 4
    Barry Arrington says:

    Viola Lee,
    Chaitin: Well, given the current situation one has to sound defensive.

    This should be interesting. Why do you think Chaitin believes he has to sound defensive?

  5. 5
    Viola Lee says:

    Because most mathematicians are Platonists, and we live in a Christian culture, so his views go against the prevailing culture.

    Please listen to the part after you quote where he explains (although not very well) that he was a Platonist but is no longer, more or less.

    He isn’t very clear, but like most of the people in the show (except maybe Penrose), he has some mixed feelings about the nature of math: Platonism has deep roots in our culture but also some aspects that make many mathematicians doubtful. The show certainly leaves the question unanswered, which is to be expected.

  6. 6
    Barry Arrington says:

    VL. You don’t appear to understand the question. Nevermind.

  7. 7
    Viola Lee says:

    Barry, I understand what you wrote in the opening post. I think you may have gotten the situation backwards: I’m suggesting his awkwardness came from going against the prevailing Platonic view, not, as you wrote, going against a prevailing non-Platonic view.

    But, as I’ve said, he was not very clear (the least clear of the five, I think). Also, I’m pretty sure none of the five discussed physicalism.

    But I’m glad to accept your “nevermind”.

  8. 8
    Viola Lee says:

    This thread died, but the business about physicalism has been on my mind (pun intended.) My opinion is that abstract ideas such as mathematical understandings exist in people’s minds, and are shared with other minds via language and symbols. Although the nature of mind is a mystery in many ways, it is certainly not necessarily just a product of the physical world, but it is also not necessarily true that the existence of our minds means that there is somehow some cosmic mind with access to all our abstract understandings. Therefore, not accepting Platonism is not necessarily an endorsement of physicalism.

  9. 9
    Viola Lee says:

    This thread died, but the business about physicalism has been on my mind (pun intended.) My opinion is that abstract ideas such as mathematical understandings exist in people’s minds, and are shared with other minds via language and symbols. Although the nature of mind is a mystery in many ways, it is certainly not necessarily just a product of the physical world, but it is also not necessarily true that the existence of our minds means that there is somehow some cosmic mind with access to all our abstract understandings. Therefore, not accepting Platonism is not necessarily an endorsement of physicalism.

Leave a Reply