FOM: General Intellectual Interest

Pat Hayes phayes at
Fri Mar 26 18:18:58 EST 1999

>>>Harvey Friedman:
>>>But I am confident that you will join me and many others on the FOM list in
>>>enthusiastically celebrating this recognition of Turing and Godel!!
>>I dont think it is really a cause for celebration
>Harvey Friedman:
>I am not surprised that you said this in light of your earlier statement
>that "Maybe the question to ask is, how many mathematicians work for TIME,

I fail to follow your point here. You seem to attribute significance to my
having said 'mathematicians' instead of 'logicians'. Whatever the
importance this distinction has for you, it doesnt have much for me (in
this context, anyway.)

>Thus it seems to me that your statement below is quite misleading about
>your true state of mind:
>>Sorry if I was too elliptical. I meant only to suggest that one shouldnt
>>take a survey conducted by a magazine such as TIME as being in any way
>>authoritative in any matter requiring intellectual insight or specialized
>>technical knowledge of almost any topic, except perhaps Washington
>>politics. Sorry if this sounds snobbish. My cynicism is however based on my
>>own experience.

Again, I fail to comprehend what you are insinuating about my state of
mind, or indeed how you manage to apparently know more about it than I do.

>Hayes continues:
>>because I dont think it
>>really is recognition in the sense that would be worth celebrating.
>It is certainly worth celebrating since it is TIME magazine - which has
>such an enormous readership. Your speculations as to how Turing and Godel
>got on the list are not only just speculation, but also self defeating. Do
>you want your speculations to be true?

Whether or not I want them to be true has no bearing on whether they are in
fact true. I think it kind of inevitable that the reasons why academicians
become sufficiently widely known in the general culture to appear in TIME
magazine have only a very peripheral connection with their actual
intellectual achievements. Do you think that the West End success of a play
about Alan Turing leads directly from his mathematical work, or requires a
widespread comprehension of it? If so, I think you are living in a
mathematical logician's paradise.

>>I think
>>that Turing is there largely because he is now a national hero in England,
>TIME magazine is published by Time/Warner, a large U.S. Corporation.

I know, but old Blightly still has a cultural influence way beyond what it
deserves from its mere size, and Turing has been a household name there for
about a decade, but for exactly the wrong reasons. There has been a
successful play, a best-selling biography and a TV series about him. (I'm
not trashing these things, by the way, all of which are excellent of their
kind. But they hardly mention his mathematical work. It's impossible to
explain the notion of a Turing machine to a general TV audience. My point
is only that Turing's fame doesn't arise simply from his mathematics.
People don't first comprehend his ideas and then put him on a pedestal
because of them (contrast, say, Newton.) He is revered as a pioneer of
computers (in England, yet another in the list of names known to every
schoolboy of Great English Pioneers: John Logie Baird, the Scottish
inventor of Television; Frank Whittle, the English inventor of the jet
engine, Roger Bannister, the English first man to run the mile in under 4
minutes, and so on) and as a tortured genius who was persecuted to suicide
because of his homosexuality, and now has become a kind of emblem for a
national feeling of guilt (or maybe relief) about how hidebound and
narrow-minded England used to be (if Turing had lived to a ripe old age, I
bet he wouldnt be in that list) and of course because of the WW2 work, with
its wonderful plot lines of spying and secrecy and of having, apparently,
been a decisive factor in the Allied victory in the last "good war". None
of this is very controversial: Im just parroting much longer and more
detailed analyses of this stuff by others. It is naive to think that Turing
is in the list because of his contributions to mathematics.)

But so
>what? Don't you want to celebrate that someone like Turing is a national
>hero in England - who doesn't play sports, act in the movies, or guess
>>largely as a result of the romantic image produced by his secret WW2
>>codebreaking work and the tragic outcome of his persecution as a
>There are many many people with analogous nonintellectual achievments
>(although the codebreaking work is partly intellectual) who didn't make the
>list. Now isn't that interesting and remarkable? Why Turing and not the
>others? Join me in celebration.

If you feel like celebrating, go ahead. I dont want to be a party-pooper.
However I have to comment on the following:
>>Several best-selling recent books put Gödel into center stage in order to
>>'prove' that AI is impossible, for example.
>I celebrate that they are best selling. This increases the exposure to
>Godel, and hence one can now write further books disucssing Godel in new
>ways - perhaps drawing competing conclusions - and get a bigger audience
>than otherwise. Don't you want to celebrate this?

Most emphatically not. Many readers of these books, including most
*educated* readers of them, are so impressed by their veneer of
mathematical sophistication and the undoubted authority of their author
(Sir Roger Penrose, the eminent physicist), and so ill-equipped to
critically analyse the arguments made in them, that they fail to notice the
fact that they misuse and distort Godel's results to draw philosophical
conclusions which are totally unwarranted and often explicitly fallacious.
And most readers aren't interested in Godel's undecideability theorem, but
in what are widely seen to be its consequences for wholly non-mathematical
topics (such as whether human thinking is computation [no], whether or not
all truth is culturally relative [yes], etc. etc.)
I note, by the way, that the TIME article never mentions Godel's
*completeness* theorem, which seems to me to be at least as important as
the much more famous undecideability theorems.

>>I think that 99% of the
>>educated adult population don't have even a glimmering of comprehension of
>>what Godel's theorems actually mean, and they probably think that Turing
>>machines were sold by IBM in 1950.
>More people are more likely to understand more about Godel's work because
>of this exposure; and also Turing. Don't you want to celebrate this?

If it were true I might celebrate, but regrettably I think it is likely to
be false. More people will think they understand Gödel's work, while in
fact not understanding it. This combination of shallowness and
self-confidence is alarmingly resistant to rational debate. But like I
said, go ahead and celebrate, if you think that what FOM needs most is a
kind of Hollywood name-recognition of its celebrities. I won't raise the
issue again.

Pat Hayes

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