FOM: naive or brainwashed?
csilver at sophia.smith.edu
Fri Mar 13 07:20:20 EST 1998
To Reuben Hersh,
I wish to thank you or whoever-was-responsible for sending me your
beautiful-looking book. I had planned to read it over Spring Break, but
another thought occurs to me. According to the philosophy of the author
of the book, I realize that I need not read it at all to fathom its
contents. To truly understand it, I should look only at certain external
sociological features, such as the fact that people sometimes sit around
talking about it, etc. Nowhere should I address the content of the book,
because (according to its author) its content does not matter a whit. The
book is *defined* by its author to be about the nature of the social
agreements it engenders.
Suppose I go to Borders bookstore and I hang out where people sit
at tables drinking coffee and eating muffins, hoping to hear the noises
'Hersh' and 'mathematics' uttered in conjunction with each other. Say I
write down my observations, like a dutiful sociologist. (I plan to make
lots of graphs later.) Perhaps I notice that often the person speaking
most loudly on these occasions waves a fork in the air. That could be
important, so I write it down. Perhaps there is a shaking of the head
from another person at the table. Often in my sociological experience,
that indicates disapproval. A hypothesis I draw is that opinion on the
book is divided.
Since I am scientifically minded, I want to observe other
conjunctions. At another table, I hear two persons utter the word
'astrology' in conjunction with the name of an author of a recent
astrology book. I listen in and watch the two persons carefully. I
witness the same fork-in-the-air behavior by one of them and the same
shaking of the head by the other. Another divergence of opinion.
When I go back to my office to compose graphs and such, I happen
to notice that there is absolutely no distinguishing feature of the social
attitudes towards the math book and those towards the astrology book.
Hoping to make a name for myself in the field of sociology, I tender the
hypothesis that they are one and the same book. From my outsider's point
of view, the books are identical. Sociologically speaking, I have no
reason to pick up the two books and compare their contents. As far as my
evidence is concerned, they are one and the same.
My challenge to Hersh: Why should I bother reading your book?
Why should I care about its *contents*?
P.S. I do not mean the above to be disrespectful towards Reuben Hersh. I
believe he has put his finger on an important aspect of mathematics that
is usually ignored, and I think he's right to keep calling attention to
it. I am also sympathetic with his anti-Platonistic sentiments, which
fuel his sociological account of mathematics. But, I think that in
opposing Platonism he went too far. I think he needs to separate off the
*content* of mathematical agreement (e.g., how a mathematical proposition
is determined to be true or false, etc.) from the mere fact that there is
agreement in mathematics. As I've tried to indicate above, saying that
people agree (or disagree) about something tells us nothing interesting
about the "something" they agree (or disagree) on. (At least one-half
dozen or so people on this list have made the same point. I wish Hersh
would show some recognition of its crucial significance.)
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