Thursday, April 13, 2006

A much better lecture

Thanks to our new shop employee, Wade, I attended another lecture at ISU this evening. A smaller audience and a more specific topic made it much better than the lecturer's colleague at MIT, Chomsky.

Loren Graham, a historian, spoke about the connection between a heretical branch of the Orthodox church (Name Worshipers) and how it influenced mathematical theory in Russia and the Soviet Union. Put briefly, both felt that by naming something one makes it real. In the case of the church they invoked the name of God in prayer in order to bring God into being and achieve an ecstaic state. The mathematicians noticed that we can name things that have no reality such as the square root of -1 (i), or, in set theory, different sorts of infinity. In this way we create by naming.

It turns out that many of the mathematicians were Name Worshipers. Rather than being put off by the lack of reality of these concepts, the mathematicians were fascinated and driven on by their belief that they were creating something new. This led to great advances in set theory and to the Moscow School of mathematics, out of which many famous mathematicians now come.

Graham's perspective was that of a historian of science rather than a mathematician or philosopher himself. He refused to speculate on whether they were creating by naming or not, but it leads me to ponder. Personally, I think that they were creating in some sense. They weren't merely discovering something that was already there, but it hardly matters. The metaphysical status of things like these is insignificant so far as I can tell. We don't even know what an satisfactory answer would look like. It only shows that we can talk about and use concepts that we don't understand. It makes me want to re-read Kripke's Naming and Necessity though.

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