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The Pernicious Influence of Mathematics upon Philosophy Author(s): Gian-Carlo Rota Source: Synthese, Vol. 88, No.

2, New Directions in the Philosophy of Mathematics (Aug., 1991), pp. 165-178 Published by: Springer Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20116936 . Accessed: 13/09/2013 04:20
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GIAN-CARLO

ROTA

THE PERNICIOUS MATHEMATICS

INFLUENCE

OF

UPON

PHILOSOPHY*

ABSTRACT. century

We

to parrot Such philosophy. philosophy,

that the attempt carried out by certain philosophers in this the and the results of has mathematics harmed method, language, an attempt of both mathematics results from a misunderstanding and shall argue the both subjects.

and has harmed

1.

THE

DOUBLE

LIFE

OF

MATHEMATICS

or discovered? This question has been the ages, and will probably through repeatedly posed by philosophers be with us forever. We shall not be concerned with the answer: what matters is that by asking the question, we acknowledge the fact that has been leading a double life. mathematics In the first of its lives, mathematics deals with facts like any other science. It is a fact that the altitutes of a triangle meet at a point; it is a fact that there are only seventeen kinds of symmetry in the plane; it is a fact that there are only five non-linear differential equations with it is a fact that every finite group of odd order is fixed singularities; solvable. The work of a mathematician consists in dealing with these Are mathematical ideas invented facts in various ways. When mathematicians talk to each other, they In their research work, mathematicians tell the facts of mathematics. with a taxonomic zeal similar to that of study the facts of mathematics the botanist who studies the properties of some rare plant. are as useful as the facts of any other The facts of mathematics science. No matter how abstruse they may appear at first, sooner or later they find their way back to practical The facts of applications. for example, may appear abstract and remote, but the of group theory have been numerous, and they practical applications have occurred in ways that no one could have anticipated. The facts of are the springboard for the science of tomorrow. today's mathematics group theory, deals with proofs. A mathematical life, mathematics with and its results from clearly agreed derives definitions, theory begins rules of must be ensconced fact of mathematics inference. upon Every as to be accepted in an axiomatic and if it is theory formally proved
Synthese 88: 165-178, 1991.

In its second

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166

GIAN-CARLO

ROTA

true. Axiomatic is indispensable in mathematics because the exposition to facts of mathematics, unlike the facts of physics, are not amenable verification. experimental The axiomatic method of mathematics is one of the great achieve ments of our culture. However, it is only a method. Whereas the facts once discovered, of mathematics, will never change, the method by which these facts are verified has changed many times in the past, and not to expect that it will not change again at it would be foolhardy some future date.

2.

THE

DOUBLE

LIFE

OF

PHILOSOPHY

success of mathematics in leading a double life has long been the another field which also is blessed - or maybe we envy of philosophy, - to live in two should say cursed worlds, but which has not been quite as comfortable with its double life. sets to itself the task of telling us In the first of its lives, philosophy at correcting is effective how to look at the world. and Philosophy our thinking. It helps us do away with glaring prejudices redirecting that and unwarranted lays bare contradictions assumptions. Philosophy we would rather avoid facing up to. Philosophical descriptions make us aware of phenomena that lie at the other end of the spectrum of which science will not and cannot deal with. rationality, phenomena are less reliable than the assertions of The assertions of philosophy run but they into the roots of our existence. mathematics, deeper The The
sense of

philosophical
tomorrow.

assertions

of

today will

be part of

the common

like mathematics, relies on a method life, philosophy, of argumentation that seems to follow the rules of some logic or other. But the method of philosophical reasoning, unlike the method of mathe never matical has been clearly agreed upon by philosophers, reasoning, In its second in Greece since the beginnings has and much philosophical discussion with been spent on discussions of method. relationship Philosophy's than to the romantic Goddess Reason is closer to a forced cohabitation and mathemat liaison that has always existed between Goddess Reason
ics.

The

assertions

of philosophy

are tentative

and partial.

It is not even

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THE

INFLUENCE

OF MATHEMATICS

UPON

PHILOSOPHY

167

It used to be said that it is that philosophy deals with. clear what and this used to be an expression philosophy was 'purely speculative', a bad word. of praise. But lately the word 'speculative' has become are emotion-laden to a greater degree than arguments Philosophical is often written in a style which mathematical arguments. Philosophy than of a dispassionate is more of a shameful admission reminiscent Behind every question of philosophy there lurks a gnarl of description. emotional unacknowledged cravings, which act as powerful motivation for conclusions in which reason plays at best a supporting role. To bring such hidden emotional have cravings out into the open, as philosophers felt it their duty to do, is to call for trouble. Philosophical disclosures are frequently met with the anger that we reserve for the betrayal of our family secrets. state of affairs makes This confused reasoning more philosophical difficult, but far more arguments rewarding. Although philosophical are blended with emotion, seldom reaches a firm although philosophy the method of philosophy has never been clearly conclusion, although the assertions of philosophy, tentative and agreed upon, nonetheless, than partial as they are, come far closer to the truth of our existence the proofs of mathematics.
3. THE LOSS OF AUTONOMY

of all times, beginning with Tha?es and Socrates, have Philosophers from the recurring suffered about the soundness of their suspicions to them as best they could. work and have responded The latest reaction against the criticism of philosophy began around the turn of the twentieth century and is still very much with us. have become Today's (not all of them, fortunately) philosophers in mathematization. fam great believers They have rewritten Galileo's ous sentence to read, "The great book of philosophy is written in the language of mathematics". to itself", wrote "Mathematics calls attention Jack Schwartz in a famous paper on another kind of misunderstanding.1 in Philosophers than ever from the dictatorship this century have suffered more of The illusion of the final answer, what two thousand years definitiveness. failed to accomplish, was thought in this century of Western philosophy to have come at last within reach by the slavish imitation of mathemat
ics.

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GIAN-CARLO

ROTA

have claimed that philosophy should be Mathematizing philosophers to philosophical made factual and precise. They have given guidelines argument which are based upon mathematical logic. They have con can be definitively solved tended that the eternal riddles of philosophy unencumbered by pure reasoning, by the weight of history. Confident in their faith in the power of pure thought, they have cut all ties to the are now of past philosophers past, on the claim that the messages
'obsolete'.

will agree that traditional philosophical Mathematizing philosophers is radically different from mathematical reasoning. But this reasoning rather than being viewed as strong evidence for the hetero difference, is taken instead as a reason for and mathematics, geneity of philosophy altogether. doing away with non-mathematical philosophy In one area of philosophy the program of mathematization has suc no longer a part of philosophy. ceeded. Logic is nowadays Under the name of mathematical logic, it is now a successful and respected branch one that has found substantial practical applications of mathematics, in science, more so than any other branch of mathematics. computer at a price. Mathematical But logic has become mathematical logic to mathematics. has given up all claims to give a foundation Very few that mathematical logicians of our day now believe logic has anything to do with the way we think. are therefore mystified Mathematicians by the spectacle of philoso sense into the language of to re-inject philosophical phers pretending mathematical logic. A hygienic cleansing of every trace of philosophical reference had been the price of admission of logic into the mathematical fold. Mathematical logic is now just another branch of mathematics, like topology tical logic are of topology or which, by an and probability. The philosophical aspects of mathema no different from the philosophical aspects qualitatively the theory of functions, aside from a curious terminology accident of chance going back to Leibniz's reading of

Su?rez, goes back to the Middle Ages. The fake philosophical of mathematical terminology logic has misled into that mathematical deals with the truth believing logic philosophers sense. But this is a mistake. in the philosophical Mathematical logic does not deal with the truth, but only with the game of truth. The one finds nowadays snobbish symbol-dropping in philosophical papers raises eyebrows among mathematicians. It is as if you were at the

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THE

INFLUENCE

OF MATHEMATICS

UPON

PHILOSOPHY

169

grocery Monopoly
4.

store

and you watched money.


AND

someone

trying

to pay his bill with

MATHEMATICS

PHILOSOPHY:

SUCCESS

AND

FAILURE

By

pro to be enough to school children. Thus, Euclidean is now taught geometry assigned in the second year of high school. Similarly, the mathematics that of my generation mathematicians learned in graduate school has now to the undergraduate descended level, and the time is not far when it may be taught in the high schools. Not only is every mathematical every problem solved, but eventually, easy mathematical is proved trivial. The quest for ultimate triviality problem is characteristic of the mathematical enterprise. we When look at the problems of philosophy, another picture as the study of a few problems can be described emerges. Philosophy whose statements have changed little since the Greeks: the mind-body problem, or the problem or reality, to recall only two. A dispassionate two contradictory look at the history of philosophy discloses features: have in no way been solved, nor are they likely first, these problems to be solved as long as philosophy survives; and second, every philos opher who has ever worked on any of these problems has proposed his own "definitive which has all invariably been rejected as solution", false by his successors. Such crushing historical evidence forces us to the conclusion that these two paradoxical features must be an inescapable concomitant The failure to conclude of the philosophical has been an enterprise. of philosophy its history. throughout of the past have repeatedly stressed the essential role Philosophers for example, of failure in philosophy. Jos? Ortega used to y Gasset, as "a constant describe philosophy the fear of shipwreck". However, failure did not stop him or any other philosopher from doing philos outstanding characteristic ophy. Philosophers' failure to reach any kind of agreement does not make

all accounts, mathematics is the most successful Every problem of mathematics taking of mankind. or later. Once it is solved, a mathematical problem no later event will disprove a correct solution. As that were once difficult become gresses, problems

intellectual

gets solved, is forever finished: mathematics

under sooner

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170
their writings with interest Aristotle, opinions
gence.

GIAN-CARLO

ROTA

of our day. We reread any less relevant to the problems theories of mind that Plato, the mutually contradictory to us, and we find their Kant and Comte have bequeathed even in problems of artificial intelli timely and enlightening,

are of philosophy the latter-day mathematizers But unfortunately, to face up to the inevitability of failure. Borrowing from the unable the ideal of success. Philosophy world of business, they have embraced had better be successful, or else it should be given up, like any business.
5. THE MYTH OF PRECISION

are precise, and since mathematics has Since mathematical concepts our darling philosophers infer that philos been successful, mistakenly ophy would be better off if it dealt with precise concepts and inequivocal if statements. will have a better chance at being successful, Philosophy it becomes precise. defined in order to that a concept must be precisely The prejudice or that an argument must be precisely stated in order be meaningful, to make insidious of the twentieth century. sense, is one of the most at the end of of this prejudice The best-known appears expression later writings, in and the author's Tractatus, Ludwig Wittgenstein's is a loud and repeated retraction Investigations, particular Philosophical of his earlier gaffe. the ideal at from the vantage point of ordinary experience, Looked is not pre Our everyday of precision appears preposterous. reasoning to the gene, is itself, from the cosmos cise, yet it is effective. Nature and inaccurate. approximate are among the least precise. The mind, The concepts of philosophy are words that do not have any fixed memory, cognition, perception, or clear meaning. these Yet, they do have meaning. We misunderstand concepts when we force them to be precise. To use an image due to streets of an concepts are like the winding Wittgenstein, philosophical old city, which we must accept as they are, and which we must famil their iarize ourselves with by strolling through them, while admiring the advocates of preci historical heritage. Like a Carpathian dictator, raze the city to the ground and replace it with a straight sion would and wide Avenue of Precision. has its roots in a misunder in philosophy The ideal of precision

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THE

INFLUENCE

OF MATHEMATICS

UPON

PHILOSOPHY

171

standing of the notion of rigor. It has not occurred to our mathematizing that philosophy philosophers might be endowed with its own kind of should dispassionately describe and rigor, a rigor that philosophers did with their own kind of rigor a long time codify, as mathematicians as they are by the success of mathematics, ago. Bewitched they remain that the only possible enslaved by the prejudice rigor is that of mathe has no choice but to imitate it. and that philosophy matics,
6. THE MISUNDERSTANDING OF THE AXIOMATIC METHOD

are verified and presented The facts of mathematics by the axiomatic method. One must guard, however, the presentation against confusing of mathematics with the content of mathematics. An axiomatic pre sentation fact differs from the fact that is being of a mathematical as medicine differs from food. It is true that this particular presented, to keep the mathematician at a safe distance from medicine is necessary the self-delusions of the mind. Nonetheless, mathematics understanding means being able to forget the medicine, and to enjoy the food. Confus with the axiomatic method for its presentation is as ing mathematics as confusing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach with the preposterous for counterpoint in the Baroque age. techniques This is not, however, the opinion held by our mathematizing philoso that the axiomatic method is a basic instru phers. They are convinced ment use for discovery. believe that mathematicians They mistakenly the axiomatic method in solving problems and proving theorems. To the misunderstanding of the role of the method they have added the absurd pretense that this presumed method should be adopted in philos food with medicine, confusing they have pre ophy. Systematically tended to replace the food of philosophical thought with the medicine of axiomatics. This mistake view of their own betrays the philosophers' pessimistic or as are field. Unable afraid of singling out, describing and they analyzing the structure of philosophical reasoning, they seek help from the proven technique of another field, a field that is the object of their in the power of autonomous envy and veneration. Secretly disbelieving to arrive at the truth, they have surrendered philosophical reasoning to a slavish and superficial imitation of the truth of mathematics. The negative opinion that many philosophers hold of their own field to philosophy. has caused damage at The mathematician's contempt

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172
the philosopher's feeds exposition further decreases

GIAN-CARLO

ROTA

estimation of a method of mathematical exaggerated onto back and inferiority philosophers' complex, the philosophers' confidence.
7. "define your terms!"

a platitude in everyday discussions. injunction has become a than clear statement, What could be healthier right at the beginning, start with of what it is that we are talking about? Doesn't mathematics the properties of the objects definitions and then develop that have and inexorable been defined, by an admirable logic? it has had disas Salutary as this injunction may be in mathematics, This old trous consequences when carried over to philosophy. Whereas mathe starts with a definition, A matics ends with a definition. philosophy clear statement of what it is we are talking about is not only missing in philosophy, such a statement would be the end of all philosophy. If we could define our terms, then we would dispense with philosophical
argument.

is deeply flawed in more the 'define your terms' imperative Actually, than one way. While argument, we are reading a formal mathematical that the 'undefined terms', or the 'basic definitions' given to believe have been whimsically chosen out of a variety of possibilities. Mathema in faking the arbitrariness of defi ticians take mischievous pleasure is arbitrary. The theor definition nition. In actual fact, no mathematical ems of mathematics as much as the definitions motivate the definitions is A motivate the theorems. good definition 'justified' by the theorems one can prove with it, just like the proof of a theorem is 'justified' by a to given definition. appealing previously There is, thus, a hidden circularity in formal mathematical exposition. The theorems are proved are motivated themselves Instead but the definitions starting with definitions, that we have previously by the theorems

ought to be right. of focussing on this strange circularity, have philosophers as not if it the axiomatic does method, exist, pretended proceeding to theorem, were endowed with a definitiveness linearly from definition which is instead, as every mathematician knows, a subtle fakery to be debunked. that you are Perform the following thought experiment. Suppose same two formal of the mathematical given theory. The presentations decided

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THE

INFLUENCE

OF MATHEMATICS

UPON

PHILOSOPHY

173

are the theorems of the second, and definitions of the first presentation versa. vice Which of This situation frequently occurs in mathematics. the theory 'true'? Neither, makes the two presentations evidently: what we have is two presentations of the same theory. shows that mathematical truth is not brought This thought experiment a is into being by formal presentation; rather, formal presentation truth. The truth of a for displaying mathematical only a technique mathematical of any axiomatic theory is distinct from the correctness that may be chosen for the presentation of the theory. method this distinction. have missed Mathematizing philosophers

8.

THE

APPEAL

TO

PSYCHOLOGY

who insists on precise statements What will happen to the philosopher and clear definitions? Realizing after futile trials that philosophy resists will proclaim the philosopher that most problems such a treatment, are heretofore to philosophy to be ex thought to belong previously are cluded from consideration. He will claim that they 'meaningless', or at best, that they can be settled by an analysis of their statements that will eventually show them to be vacuous. The classical problems This is not an exaggeration. of philosophy The have become forbidden topics in many philosophy departments. mere mention of one such problem by a graduate student or by a junior In followed by severe penalties. colleague will result in raised eyebrows, we this dictatorial have witnessed the shrinking of philosophical regime, lan probl?matique, activity to an impoverished mainly dealing with
guage.

to justify their neglect of most of the old and substantial our mathematizing of have resorted questions philosophers philosophy, to the ruse of claiming that many questions, formerly thought to be are instead and that they should philosophical, 'purely psychological' In order be dealt with in the psychology department. If the psychology of any university were to consider only department are palming off on them, one-tenth of the problems that philosophers then psychology would without question be the most fascinating of all it is. But the fact is that psychologists have no intention subjects. Maybe of dealing with problems derelict in their duties. abandoned by philosophers who have been

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ROTA

One cannot do away with problems by decree. The classical problems are now coming back with a vengeance in the forefront of philosophy of the conditions of the Kantian of science. For example, problem is now again rearing its old of vision, after years of neglect, possibility head in brain science. and computer science neurophysiology psychology, Experimental The turn out to be the best friends of traditional may philosophy. awesome complexities that are being studied in these of the phenomena scientists (well in advance of the philosophical sciences have convinced in science will crucially depend on philo that progress establishment) sophical research of the most classical vein.

9.

THE

REDUCTIONIST

CONCEPT

OF

THE

MIND

What

a mathematician do when trying to work on a mathematical of this event might take a thick An adequate description problem? volume. We shall be content with recalling an old saying, probably Polya: "Few mathematical George going back to the mathematician are ever solved directly". problems will agree that an important step in solving a Every mathematician does

mathematical

in the most step, consists important problem, perhaps that have been previously either attempts other attempts, analyzing carried out or else attempts that one imagines might have been carried how such 'previous' attempts were out, with a view to discovering a no will ever dream of attacking In short, mathematician misled. first becoming substantial mathematical acquainted problem without the real history or an ideal with the history of the problem, whether The solution of might reconstruct. history that a gifted mathematician a mathematical of the with the discovery problem goes hand-in-hand that sees through inadequacy of previous attempts, with the enthusiasm inherited from the past, and does away with layers of irrelevancies In philosophical which cloud the real nature of the problem. terms, a

mathematician of historicity

cannot avoid facing up to the who solves a problem if not a historical is nothing the problem. Mathematics excellence. par subject has stressed with striking uni since Heraclitus Every philosopher historical. Until, all is the lesson that constitutively thought formity

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INFLUENCE

OF MATHEMATICS

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PHILOSOPHY

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came along, claiming that the that is, our mathematizing philosophers not to be polluted by mind is nothing but a complex thinking machine, the inconclusive thought has been ramblings of bygone ages. Historical dealt a coup de gr?ce by those who today occupy some of the chairs of our philosophy in the his Graduate school requirements departments. have been dropped, tory of philosophy together with language require in mathematical and in their place we find required courses ments, logic. It is important to uncover the myth that underlies such drastic revision that is, the myth that the mind is a mechanical of the concept of mind, and successfully device. This myth has been repeatedly attacked by the of our time (Husserl, John Dewey, best philosophers Wittgenstein, to name only a few). Austin, Ryle, to this myth, the process of reasoning is viewed as the According a com functioning of a vending machine which, by setting into motion film of those we saw in Charlie Chaplin's reminiscent plex mechanism like so many Hershey 'Modern Times', grinds out solutions to problems, will bars. Believers in the theory of the mind as a vending machine, to 'degrees' of intelligence, the more beings according intelligent ones being those endowed with bigger and better gears in their brains, as can of course be verified by administering I.Q. tests. that the solu in the mechanistic myth believe believing Philosophers in just one way: by thinking hard about tion of a problem is obtained it. They will go as far as asserting that acquaintance with previous to a problem may bias the well-geared contributions mind. A blank rate human is better geared up to initiate the solution process mind, they believe, than an informed mind. of how This outrageous from a misconception originates proposition work. Our mathematizing like mathematicians behave philosophers in wide failed mathematicians. They gape at working mathematicians fans gaping at posters of Joan Crawford like movie eyed admiration, are superminds who turn out solutions and Bette Davis. Mathematicians of one problem after another by dint of pure brain power, simply by staring at a blank piece of paper in intense concentration. The myth of the vending machine that grinds solutions out of nothing describe the way to solve the linguistic may perhaps appropriately but puzzles of today's impoverished philosophy, the mark in describing the work of mathematicians,
work.

is wide of this myth or any other serious

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ROTA

error is one of reductionism. The fundamental The process of the of the mind, which may be of interest to physicians but is of working no interest to mathematicians, is confused with the progress of thought that is required in the solution of any problem. This catastrophic of the nature of knowledge is misunderstanding the heritage of one hundred-odd of years of pseudo-mathematization philosophy.
10. THE ILLUSION OF DEFINITIVENESS

are definitive. No one will every improve The results of mathematics on a sorting algorithm which has been proved best possible. No one will ever discover a new finite simple group, now that the list has been is forever. drawn, after a century of research. Mathematics We could classify the sciences by how close their results come to At the top of the list we would find the sciences being definitive. of lesser philosophical interest, such as mechanics, organic chemistry, botany. At the bottom of the list we would find the more philosophically inclined sciences, such as cosmology and evolutionary biology. The old problems of philosophy, such as mind and matter, reality, are least likely to have 'solutions'. In fact, we would be perception, as a 'solution'. The term hard put to spell out what might be acceptable an 'solution' is borrowed from mathematics, and tacitly presupposes and problems of mathematics analogy between problems of philosophy that is seriously misleading. the use of the word 'problem' in Perhaps raised expectations that philosophy could not fulfill. philosophy of our day go one step farther in their mis-analogies Philosophers between philosophy and mathematics. Driven by a misplaced belief in in terms of problems definitiveness measured solved, and realizing the to produce to any of the definitive solutions futility of any attempt classical problems, they have had to change the problems. And where do they think to have found problems worthy of them? Why, in the world of facts! it is that traditional philosophy deals with facts. Whatever it is not facts in the scientific sense. Therefore, traditional is worthless. philosophy on the assump This syllogism, wrong on several counts, is predicated tion that no statement is of any value, unless it is a statement of fact. Instead of realizing the absurdity of this assumption, have philosophers deals with, Science

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INFLUENCE

OF MATHEMATICS

UPON

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in themselves line and sinker, and have busied swallowed it, hook, their living on facts. making had never been equipped to deal directly But previous philosophers ever nor considered facts to be any of their business. with facts, had they turns to philosophy to learn facts. Facts are the domain of Nobody And so, a new slogan had to be coined: science, not of philosophy. should be dealing with facts. philosophy This 'should' comes at the end of a long line of other 'should's'. should be precise; it should follow the rules of mathematical Philosophy it should ignore the lessons logic; it should define its terms carefully; at solving its problems; it should of the past; it should be successful solutions. produce definitive "Pigs should fly", as the old saying goes. But what is the standing of such 'should's', flatly negated as they are Are we to believe the not so by two thousand years of philosophy? that the royal road to right reasoning will at last be subtle insinuation found if we follow these imperatives? There is a more plausible of this barrage of should's. explanation The which reality we live in is constituted by a myriad contradictions, to has taken traditional describe with courageous philosophy pains cannot be confronted realism. But contradiction by minds who have in precision and definitiveness. is The real world put their salvation with absurdities, with abnormalities, with aber filled with absences, with abuses, with Abgrund. But our latter rances, with abominations, are not concerned with facing up to these unpleasant day philosophers features of the world, nor, to be sure, to any real features whatsoever. They would rather tell us what the world should be like. They find it safer to escape from distasteful of what is into pointless description of what isn't. Like ostriches with their heads in the ground, prescription the lessons they will meet the fate of those who refuse to acknowledge of the past and to meet the challenge of our difficult present: increasing irrelevance followed by eventual extinction.

NOTES * 44 Portions (1990), of text have previously the present appeared are reprinted with permission. in The Review

of Metaphysics

259-271,

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178 1 Kac, M., tics Science

GIAN-CARLO

ROTA

G-C.

and J. T. Schwartz: Rota, 1986, Discrete Thoughts: and Philosophy, Birkh?user, Boston, pp. 19-25.

Essays

on Mathema

2-351, Mathematics Department of Technology Massachusetts Institute

Cambridge, MA 02139
U.S.A.

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