Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Michael Atiyah on the foundations of philosophy, math and physics

Dear Colleagues:
Atiyah has given a very bracing address on "Mind, matter and mathematics". You can obtain a pdf of it at
and can read a report on a similar talk at
My best,


Successful Researcher said...

Great post! Thanks for the links!

John Q. Nobody said...

I don't mean to be rude, but Atiyah's speech was virtually content-free.

There seems to be a certain tendency among well-respected scientists to drift into philosophy as they get older. For some inexplicable reason, this drifting is accompanied by the impression that philosophy does not involve any hard work, and that one does not need to train one's mind to make any sort of progress. Of course, this impression is also prevalent among the not-so-eminent and not-so-old math crowd.

One can't help but conjure up the mental image of eminent, aging philosophers drifting into math. Without any previous training, without bothering to read anything beyond popular science to help the transition, they would waste the time of entire audiences with their views on what the big problems in math are, and how math fits together. One further imagines ranks of young philosophers fancying themselves to have mathematical opinions and insights.

No, I'm afraid this is all nonsense. Philosophy is every bit as hard as math (I say this as a mathematician), and to be vaguely competent one has to work just as hard as in math (I say this as someone with an unspecified degree in philosophy). There are just as many "standard arguments" to learn, which prevent one from making the standard mistakes.

Atiyah's speech was a bunch of popular-science crap thrown together haphazardly, without bothering to argue a single point. Honestly, I almost stopped reading at page 5, "Even logic, based on the principle of implication, is derived from the causality that we observe in the natural world". I'm guessing Sir Michael hasn't read any Aristotle, or anything on logic at all.

And don't get me started on the "sweet jesus, is the shrink gonna have a field day" habit these eminent scientists acquire of citing someone famous every other sentence. Seriously, Sir Michael, you couldn't go 9 pages without citing Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Russell, Laplace, Hume, Einstein, Connes, Penrose, Gauss, Kronecker, Wittgenstein, Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Michelangelo, Maxwell, Heisenberg, Dirac, Witten, Lewis Carroll, Feynman, and Gödel?

I could have got the same content from a Wikipedia quotes page.

tcamps said...

I don't have a problem with Sir Michael telling us what he thinks about the philosophy of mathematics, but Mr. Nobody is not wrong, either. Though he's not a philosopher, he is a mathematician, and a great one. I think this is enough so that his perspective on the philosophy of mathematics is not irrelevant. I don't think anyone was looking to him for original ideas on the subject in the first place. I suppose this is what rankles for the serious philosopher, but really, by giving this speech, Atiyah probably caused several mathematicians to reflect on issues they hadn't thought about in awhile, and brought a little more perspective to his field.

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