FOM: general intellectual interest; Franzen's quest

Torkel Franzen torkel at
Tue Mar 17 06:54:33 EST 1998

  Steve Simpson writes:

   >The "outburst" to which Franzen refers is my thoughtful, balanced
   >posting of 12 Jan 1998 23:11:59 on general intellectual interest and
   >the sex life of termites.

  Yes, that's the one. You note that

     >We are talking
     >about truly basic concepts such as number, shape, function, etc as
     >well as the essential logical structure of mathematics.  These
     >concepts are *objectively* of interest to every educated human being.

and go on to assure us that

     >Even if the general public were to turn completely irrational and lose
     >all interest in mathematics and f.o.m., the basic mathematical
     >concepts studied by f.o.m. would still retain 100 percent of their
     >enormous general intellectual interest

  Now, this enormous (and, I forgot to add, objective) general intellectual
interest of f.o.m. which is independent of whether anybody actually takes
an interest in it isn't really what people have in mind when they inquire
about the general intellectual interest of f.o.m. This is because what
your argument boils down to is nothing but your own affirmation of the
enormous (and objective etc) interest of the subject. It doesn't make
a great deal of sense to discuss the general intellectual interest of
something unless one makes an attempt to relate it to the actual
intellectual concerns of other people.

    Harvey Friedman suggests that the general intellectual interest issue
is "handled rather nicely" by the paragraph
   >"A coherent body of discrete and finite combinatorial results, regarded as
   >interesting, natural, basic, and simple by relevant practitioners, has been
   >discovered and shown to be provable only by going well beyond the usual
   >axioms of mathematics via standard axioms of higher infinities." A
   >non-specialist can understand this finding.

  A smallish group of non-specialists could no doubt understand this
finding, in general terms. But why should they, or anybody else, care
about it? Again what is lacking is any argument linking f.o.m. to
the actual intellectual concerns of non-specialists.

Torkel Franzen

More information about the FOM mailing list