At the ISSEI conference on language and the scientific imagination I came very close to figuring out what the meaning of life is. I had been happily anticipating a theory panel and especially two of the talks in it: one about poetic language in Badiou and the other on the nature of mathematical language in Claude Chevalley.

At the end of the day the whole panel turned out to be a bizarre occurrence and we went from brilliant papers to disastrous ones – the latter both in content and in presentation.

The presenter on Badiou ended his paper with a response to a mathematician who had dropped in just before the last question was posed: something about the relationship between set theory and the possibility that poetry produces no knowledge. His response was that mathematics is all about ontology. I felt the Homerian /Simpsonian voice in me rise: “thaaaaat’s interesting.” Said the mathematician: “how can you say that about mathematics? Surely, if and when considering its ontological form we must first also consider its relation to semantics.” Before an answer was offered, he furthermore asked, addressing the audience: “what is this panel on?” – Nobody answered. The organizer was jet-lagged and looked like she fell from the moon. Then he asked, addressing the poetry guy: “what was your paper on?” – No answer was given here either. We all had our thoughts.

Then the Chevalley scholar presented a paper that was not written in any form. It was not prepared in any note form either, and it was delivered entirely by way of translation. Chunks of texts coming from 9 articles written by Chevalley in the 30s were translated ad hoc, and on the spot, and without flinching. This last affair took one hour instead of 20 min.

What was interesting was that according to him, or rather should I say, according to Chevalley, mathematics is all about existentialism. “Thaaaaat’s even more interesting,” I said to myself. The itinerant mathematician also had a question here: “abstraction is good, but semantics is better; how can an existential crisis, which is mathematics itself, be rendered in purely abstract form?” The answer was that insofar as pure mathematics is a walk on a tightrope, the existential crisis arises when you realize that you don’t want to live there – on the tightrope, that is.

A counter question was posed by the one who delivered the long talk/translation: “but what do you need semantics for, when you deal with pure form?” Right on, I thought, though I couldn’t help also thinking that indeed we can’t use pure formalism for anything whatsoever if we want to live it, or live with it. (We need hermeneutics, stories, just like the ones I’m delivering now, for all to interpret, dismiss, laugh at, or curse, if one fancied it. So, I’m not even sure that thinking of pure form is or can remain an act of the imagination – assuming that imagination can bypass semantics.) In response to the question, the mathematician got up, gave the Chevalley guy his card, and said: “send me your paper, and we’ll talk”. But before the other one had a chance to tell him: "there is no paper," the mathematician was gone. We all had our thoughts. Mine were these: “compared to these guys, I’m hardly the most eccentric, or mad, or interested in abstractions merely for the sake for confusing others.”

Now I’m tempted to ask my math friends, what say you? Is math ontological or existential?
Where I’m concerned and where math and life is concerned I deduced this arithmetical axiom derived from the above mentioned panel:
Fate (a constant) + will (fluctuating between strong and weak) + relevance = nobody gets out of here alive.

The moral: I hate moral philosophy.
The lesson: formally, we can still say whatever crosses our minds (the interesting way: regardless of consequences; the economist way: think of cost/benefit before you open your mouth)
The teaching: go on counting – not what we get out of it, but what we put into it.

A quote springs to mind:
"Mathematicians are like lovers. Grant a mathematician the least principle, and he will draw from it a consequence which you must also grant him, and from this consequence another.
---Bernard Le Bovier Fontelle"


Anonymous said…
Hahaha, from time to time I also do conference-crushing, but nothing on this scale.

Judging accordingly to what your mathematician did/said, he must have been an arrogant SOB pushing 50, proudly wearing a colorful tie and some corny glasses. I still have more than ten years to go before getting to that level :)

But coming back to your question, I guess it is equivalent to the following one: is sex about reproduction or pleasure?

I would say that without semantics, mathematics would be just a shitty way of waisting time trying to prove the existence of God :)
Anonymous said…
Draga Camelia,
Claude Chevalley are o teorema importanta despre grupurile de transformari. Era o teorie dezvoltata de Sophus Lie la finele veacului XIX, si continuata de Elie Cartan (colegul si amicul lui Titeica, din pricina caruia a si vizitat Bucurestii in 1932). Teorema lui Chevalley are o demonstratie constructiva, destul de greu de imaginat. Intamplarea face sa fiu familiarizat cu ea, pentru ca e una dintre teoriile din geometrie unde am avut treaba o vreme.
Habar nu am ce e cu existentialismul. Grupurile Lie? Evident ca exista. :)
Cu prietenie,
Anonymous said…
Scurt raspuns la textul tau:

Mathematics is the only good metaphysics. (William Thomson)
Camelia said…
Well put, all of it.
On comment 1: math like sex is all about pleasure, of course. The reproduction part is a cultural lid on thinking.
On comment 2: I'm attracted to the idea of continuous symmetries as forms of motion, especially when graphically represented. In terms of permutation groups, it's interesting to think of the semantics of 'existential' possibility for totally interchangeable elements in a finite set.
On comment 3: Amen. (but we have to remember that amen is also a cultural construct)
Bent said…
Existential advice:

Take 3 quarks daily and contemplate these two geeks for 5 minutes....
Anonymous said…
I'd rather have a bottle of vodka in three minutes, puree de merde... :)

to be honest, I dislike quotes. I prefer looking people in the eye while pouring out my goddamn' dirrrrrty mind... :)

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