FOM: the objectivity of general intellectual interest

Stephen G Simpson simpson at
Mon Jan 12 23:11:59 EST 1998

Colin McLarty writes:
 > Every empirical measure I can think of shows it to be false with
 > one possible exception. It is false according to: popular book
 > sales, technical books sales, newspaper coverage, TV coverage,
 > elective course enrollments, and major course enrollments. The only
 > possible exception that anyone has raised is Harvey's popularity as
 > a lecturer at math departments. ...

Ah yes, book sales and TV coverage.  I'm sorry, but none of this
"empirical" evidence is convincing or even relevant with respect to
the issue of general intellectual interest.

What we need to realize is that general intellectual interest is an
*objective* concept, not a social or cultural construct a la Reuben
Hersh.  It has *nothing* to do with the vagaries of public opinion.  

Let me attempt to make this clear by means of a far-fetched thought
experiment, of the kind advocated by Neil Tennant.  [ But I'm not an
academic philosopher, so I'll probably botch this somehow! ]

Suppose that the general public suddenly becomes intensely interested
in the sex life of termites, because termites are thought to be a
reincarnation of extraterrestrials, or whatever.  Suddenly there is a
huge boom in TV coverage etc regarding the sex life of termites.  The
top five New York Times best sellers are various angles on the sex
life of termites.  Commuters carry books about termites in their brief
cases, to read on the train.  Factory workers carry termite houses in
their lunch boxes.  Soccer moms enroll in night school classes on the
sex life of termites.  Community colleges are overwhelmed by demand
for courses on the sex life of termites.  Experts on the sex life of
termites command five- and even six-figure lecture fees.  You get the

OK, now, does all this mean that the sex life of termites is of
general intellectual interest???  Absolutely not!!!  All that has
happened here is that the public has made an ass of itself.

Now let me turn away from the surreal and get back to
f.o.m. (foundations of mathematics).

The reason why f.o.m. is *objectively* of much greater general
intellectual interest than specialized pure math topics is that
f.o.m. deals directly and specifically with the *most basic* concepts
of mathematics, qua basic concepts of mathematics.  We are talking
about truly basic concepts such as number, shape, function, etc as
well as the essential logical structure of mathematics.  These
concepts are *objectively* of interest to every educated human being.
If you can say something that even slightly clarifies or illuminates
these concepts, you have said something profound.

Even if the general public were to turn completely irrational and lose
all interest in mathematics and f.o.m., the basic mathematical
concepts studied by f.o.m. would still retain 100 percent of their
enormous general intellectual interest, because they are still
*objectively* the key to *all* of the mathematical aspects of reality.

Now do you understand where I am coming from?

-- Steve

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