FOM: attacks against f.o.m.

Harvey Friedman friedman at
Fri Mar 20 07:50:20 EST 1998


Feferman writes 10:38PM 3/17/98 with subject Basta:

  "Wet blanket" takes his leave.

Simpson writes 8:08AM 3/18/98:

  A note to Harvey:
  Harvey, it might be a good idea for you to rein in your rhetoric a
  little bit, especially when it comes to eminent f.o.m. researchers
  such as Sol Feferman.

Tait writes 11:15AM 3/18/98:

  Quite on the contrary. Sol and other `eminent f.o.m. researchers'
  can look after themselves. What I have found most offensive is the
  treatment of more vulnerable people contributing to the list. And,
  Steve, you are a culprit in this, too.

Davis writes 9:15AM 3/18/98:

  Dear Steve & Harvey,
  I am great admirers of both of you. But you both manage to be tone
  deaf to the effect of your utterly unnecessary rude remarks. And
  this harms fom.


People may not be aware that I have a well defined system of rules
that I am operate under when I write on the fom list. I have never
attempted to explain it publicly, although I have done so privately to
several people. The matter of my style came up some time ago in
connection with Thayer and Franzen, and now it has come up again with
Feferman. And it is about to come up again with Tragesser and Franzen.

I measure the intensity of my responses according to several factors.
Foremost in my mind is whether I sense a bad faith attack on f.o.m. as
a subject. This may or may not include an attack on me, personally or
professionally. A mere attack on f.o.m. will elicit a sharp rebuttal
from me, but *not* with intense language. However, once I sense that
the attack on f.o.m. has progressed into that forbidden area of "bad
faith", my reaction is usually quite different. And there are many
degrees of bad faith. I strive to carefully measure the response
according to the degree of bad faith that I encounter: the more
bad faith, the more intense the response.

The fom has attracted several people who choose to post attacks
on f.o.m., and some of these attacks soon turn into bad faith attacks
after they are rebutted. In my opinion, this desire to "mess up" the fom
is often connected with a failure to make meaningful contributions to
the field. This results in ill conceived - and ill fated - attempts to
denigrate genuine f.o.m. which are soundly refuted on the fom.

However, I am usually not satisfied with either the
speed or the content or the definiteness of the rebuttals by others on
this list to these bad faith attacks on f.o.m. Therefore I generally
get involved.

Recently, these bad faith attacks have reached an especially high
degree of intensity and frequency. These bad faith attacks on f.o.m.
are a form of vandalism.

If a relatively undistinguished person makes a bad faith attack on
f.o.m. then I don't soften the intensity just because the person is
undistinguished. In fact, I make no distinction whatsoever once I see
that the attack is in bad faith. Thus I don't follow Tait's implicit
advice, which is to go easy on the "more vulnerable" - when it comes
to attacks on f.o.m. made in bad faith. Bad faith is bad faith.

On the other hand, when innocent errors are made in good faith, it is
important to go "easier," as Tait suggests, especially if that person
is a student. But bad faith is another matter.

Before I go any further, let me at once say that Feferman's posting of
7:28PM 3/15/98 is not a good example of what I call a bad faith attack
on f.o.m. This is the posting that I responded to with "wet blanket",
which was followed swiftly by Feferman's unsubscribing to the fom. I
regard my wet blanket attribution as a very mild form of
unconventional language which I had no reason to suspect would be
followed by Feferman's unsubscribing. And given the present spew of
poor postings on the fom list, Feferman certainly had plenty of
reasons to unsubscribe, even without considering my "wet blanket"

Feferman could, if he were so inclined, respond by calling me a hot
headed egoistic dilletante, and I would have no problem with that! I
wouldn't unsubscribe. However, putting all of the contexts together -
my acquaintance with him for 30 years, his "don't need new axioms
paper," accounts of his "don't need new axioms" lectures, and his
posting, with its uncritical use of the truly bad faith infamous
"slack-jaw" posting of Franzen, I must confess that I sensed a
twinge of perhaps minor "bad faith" attack on some crucial lines in f.o.m.
Hence I measured the response and came up with "wet blanket." I could say
more about this, but this is not the time or place, and besides I am sure
that lots of people - including me - are making it clear that we wish
Feferman would stay with the fom. (Said by a hot headed egoistic

But what I really want to do is to give a number of examples of what I
regard as truly bad faith attacks on f.o.m. I need to do this, because
I can already "hear" people reading this saying things like: "oh, he
just calls it in bad faith if he merely disagrees with it."

1. From Pillay 3:22AM 10/30/97.

  I suspect that the notions [general intellectual interest, hierarchy
  of concepts] really just serve Harvey and Steve's psychological
  needs, but maybe we should not get into that.

2. From Thayer 2:54PM 12/18/97.

  I will go farther: it is blatant nonsense [general intellectual
  interest] as used by Harvey and Steve.  What "general intellectual
  interest" do most of Harvey's "interesting technical results" (to
  quote Anand) actually have.  ...

  I suspect that the folks who partake of the botanicals that grow in
  Doctor Cantor's garden have OD on them: we know since Goedel that
  number theory is incomplete, indeed incompleteable.  So details as
  to what large cardinal hypotheses are required to prove the graph
  minor theorem, or Paris-Harrington are about as exciting as
  improving the exponent on logloglogloglog(n) in the error term for
  some number theoretic function.  ...

  The two biggest foundational questions in mathematics are:

    1. What is the origin of the certainty that many (but NOT all)
    people feel when presented with a mathematical proof?

    2. When, and why is this feeling of certainty justified?

  Next to this sort of discussion (which may be too vague for Harvey)
  details of which uninteresting set theory statement follows from the
  existence of which implausible infinite entity seems remarkably like
  medieval theology - which is probably not of much intellectual
  interest to most people.

3. From Lou 3:31AM 12/28/97.

  My *experience* in the course of 30 years has indeed made me
  suspicious of certain wide spread instincts that Harvey and Steve
  may have in mind here, and which I share: these instincts, covered
  by a thin veneer of questionable philosophy, are often used to
  justify ignorance of major developments in mathematical thought of
  the last 200 years that are outside of the *relatively minor* and
  *exceedingly familiar* FOM-line: Cantor, Frege, Goedel, ...

4. From Lou 1:13PM 12/31/97.

  Anyway, it's a pretty routine account [Chapter on Foundations of
  Mathematics from Morris Kline's big book], with the usual inordinate
  attention to marginal matters like paradoxes, and indeed some
  statements that I strongly disagree with, like the one Harvey
  mentions ["by far the most profound activity in 20th century
  mathematics has been the work on its foundations"]

5. From Tragresser 7:44AM 2/26/98.

  That set theory does not have a strong and coherent sense, that it's
  basically a product of tinkering, and that it has not been
  re-produced from a clear and distinct idea that allows us to see why
  it is so fundamental, does suggest that the Generation ZF+Xer
  foundationalists are (were?--are there any?)  driven not by serious
  thought but by some combination of ideology and convenience.  I am
  not in the least moved -- and deeply wonder why anyone is -- by the
  reputed "empirical" fact that every piece of mathematics known can
  be coded in ZF+X (for some well-considered X's).  I do not find this
  "marvellous"; rather I find it suspicious.  ...

  I have by the way an analogous problem with the sorts of compression
  results of Feferman and Simpson: exactly what are we learning about
  mathematics?  What is the mathematical signifiance of such results?

  ...most any research program in mathematics where the aim is not
  just to secure "truths", but to understanding something (e.g.,
  Charles Feferman in pursuit of "uncertainty" phenomena dropping out
  of Fourier analysis) would likely not be furthered, but be hampered
  by (so that its fundamental "facts" are not adequately coded or
  represented by, but rather distorted by) such PRA, PR, ZF

6. From Franzen 2:19PM 3/13/98.

  My own tendency as I attempt to penetrate the combinatorial
  principles here at issue is to lapse into slack-jawed wonder that
  anybody can make sense of them, let alone formulate them. What is
  needed to convince people that these are "very natural combinatorial
  propositions" is to find some striking applications of them. ...
  Also, it is a significant circumstance that the only occurrence of
  the phrase "subtle cardinal" on any web page indexed by AltaVista is
  a reference to Cardinal Granvelle. To establish Friedman's results
  as important progress in f.o.m., a principle that yields the
  existence of subtle cardinals must be established as a
  comprehensible and potentially acceptable addition to the axioms of
  set theory. ...  The fact that many people take an interest in
  incompleteness and unprovability does not imply, however, that they
  either will or should take an interest in technical refinements
  (strong and modern versions of earlier results).

7. From Tragesser 4:28AM 3/17/98.

  ..."general intellectual interest"--a cunningly designed slogan for
  levering all manners of evading the most difficult philosophical
  problems we face.  ...  Philosophy in this Platonic sense is
  extremely difficult, and so one could see why someone who is genius
  at f.o.m. but who also has revealed quite obviously that he has
  little time and energy for hard philosophy might deeply value and
  need to displace it, hide it way, by the philosophically subversive
  ideology of "general intellectual interest".

  I have in mind H.F.  Judging by his postings, it is easy to imagine
  that he has little appreciation of the nature of philosophical
  problems (or at least no patience with them).  [I do not venture a
  comment on the philosophical vapidity of HF and SS's satisfaction in
  the "gii" of HF's "big cardinal/finite statement results -- I
  haven't been able to access them. Except to notice that on FOM one
  sees a lot of emphasis on importance and very little on import.]

8. From Franzen 12:45PM 3/18/98.

  If you accept the description of your results as an epochal advance,
  wherein would you say that this epochal advance consists? Not in the
  discovery that combinatorial principles are logically related (in
  the sense of these results) to large cardinal axioms - this epochal
  discovery has already been made. The epochal advance must be
  connected with these specific combinatorial principles, and these
  specific large cardinal axioms. And indeed you have strongly
  emphasized that these combinatorial principles are simple and
  natural (to a number of combinatorists). But even so, if they have
  no striking mathematical applications, or if we have no grounds for
  accepting them, how do they advance our understanding of
  mathematics?  ...  My comment about applications and epistmological
  status concerned specifically the results you announced.

9. Franzen 11:05AM 3/19/98.

  OK, so what you [Tenant] regard as an epochal advance is a result
  "intimated" but not stated. It would less misleading, I think, to
  speak of an "intimated" or "hypothetical" epochal advance.  ...  I
  suppose some such distinction also explains why you [Tennant] are
  not equally impressed by an equivalent of B in the form of a
  statement of the form "the Diophantine equation p(k1, has no

These are all, in various ways, bad faith attacks on f.o.m., especially
in light of the contexts in which they are written. I find it pretty
easy to dispose of them, and I have disposed of many of them in
my postings. But they keep appearing. And this wastes a lot of my time.

This is an e-mail list devoted to f.o.m., and is meant to be a postive
force in the development of f.o.m. Yet these postings reek with
opposition to serious f.o.m. developments, past and present. They have
absolutely no redeeming intellectual value.

These postings expose various levels of misunderstanding, ineptness,
bias, and incompetence - both technically and philosophically. The
people involved rarely acknowledge egregious errors - both
mathematically and philosophically. Some of them don't take into
account their gross inexperience and ignorance of basic work in f.o.m.
when preparing these counterproductive postings.

But most importantly, they display a profoundly negative attitude
towards f.o.m.

In conclusion, I don't think the present state of affairs of the fom
can be expected to have a positive influence on the development of
f.o.m. if it continues as it is. The present situation is untenable for the
fom. There must be change.

The best alternative is if some of the large number of reasonable and
competent people on this list do their part in responding swiftly to
this vandalism.

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