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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Playing Devlin's Advocate


Just Devlin, Devlin... and more Keith Devlin today:

A few posts back I mentioned that Gregory Chaitin regards himself as "a Pythagorean" -- one who believes that mathematics is essentially what the Universe is made of… of course a great many mathematicians hold this view or something close to it -- BUT, not all… Keith Devlin, one of the most well-known popularizers around has a different take.
Devlin's neither a Pythagorean nor a Platonist, and not at all certain that the universality that so many see in mathematics is real, rather than merely a creation of the human brain. He's not at all dogmatic about it, nor does he have specific alternative candidates for reality, but simply thinks that humans may live "in a cave" and are only capable of seeing the walls of that cave, and the "shadows" thereupon. A different intelligent life-form from somewhere else in the Universe just might have evolved in a different (unimaginable to us) sort of cave, with a different reality, including a different mathematics. It's both a simple and a mind-blowing notion…

Devlin gave a talk at the SETI Institute expressing these views. His talk is about 45-minutes long, followed by a half hour question/answer session. The latter period indicates how difficult it is for many folks to accept or wrap their heads around the non-Platonist view -- Platonism is sort of the easy, or default, position here; Devlin's view takes more concerted effort to hold onto. I sort of wish Martin Gardner, outspoken Platonist, could've been in the audience to see what questions he would pose to Keith! (…or perhaps at some time, before Martin's death, these two had occasion to sit down over coffee and discuss the two viewpoints? Anyone know???)



This Edge essay from Devlin (which I've linked to previously), much more briefly summarizes the view he espouses above:

http://www.edge.org/q2008/q08_4.html

Here's another longish YouTube presentation from Keith, this time on math education, another favorite topic of his:



You ought also know, if you don't already, that Devlin is on Twitter here:

https://twitter.com/#!/profkeithdevlin

Finally, his many books (on Amazon) here:

http://www.amazon.com/Keith-Devlin/e/B000APRPC6

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