"There's only one saving grace to this book: it might be right."
October 20, 2013 1:44 PM   Subscribe

Has David Birnbaum solved the mystery of existence?
David Birnbaum made his fortune selling jewellery to movie stars. Now he has published a 'remarkable and profound' investigation into the origins of the universe. Is there any reason to take it seriously?
posted by andoatnp (120 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
"reads like L Ron Hubbard had drunken sex one night with Ayn Rand and produced this bastard thought-child ... The universe itself is potential, actualising itself."

*headdesk*
posted by lukemeister at 1:54 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


His work, said a commenter on the Chronicle's website, "reads like L Ron Hubbard had drunken sex one night with Ayn Rand and produced this bastard thought-child".

Holy shit still reading but this line is AMAAAAAAAAZING!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 1:54 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


All those words, and nothing actually describing what he's on about.
posted by empath at 1:56 PM on October 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


Yeah, less "sold gems to Goldie Hawn", more substance would have been nice.
posted by lukemeister at 1:57 PM on October 20, 2013


All those words, and nothing actually describing what he's on about.

There is an overview on the book website, but I don't think it helps to clarify things.
posted by andoatnp at 1:58 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


But then again – as Birnbaum pointed out to me, more than once, during the weeks I spent trying to figure out exactly what he was up to – just suppose that a scrappy, philosophically unqualified Jewish guy from Queens really had cracked the cosmic code, embarrassing the ivory-tower elites: well, isn't this exactly the kind of defensive response you'd expect?

The first rule for discussions like this? Puff. Puff. PASS.
posted by three blind mice at 1:59 PM on October 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


And the full text of the books is available.
posted by andoatnp at 1:59 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


What must have existed, before everything else, but the potential for all those things that later came into existence? If you believe in God, the potential for God must have been there first. And prior to the Big Bang, there must have been the potential for the Big Bang.

But that makes sense to me. Why is that so ridiculous as a concept? That makes more sense than God existed before anything...because He did, or the Big Bang happened...because it did. No? Just me? I'll get my coat
posted by billiebee at 2:04 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]




Summa Metaphysica proposes an Overarching Metaphysics: a unifying drive and concept of the universe. Summa Theory pegs-off of one single unique (original) concept/dynamic - Birnbaum's (Holy) Quest for Potential∞ to craft a unified/elegant/original/powerful/internally-consistent metaphysics. Birnbaum proposes that Potential/Possibility is 'by definition' Eternal. He maintains that the eternality of Potential/Possibility is self-evident. The author asserts that Q4P∞ (Quest for Potential - Infinitely iterated) captures the entire cosmic dynamic in one simple-yet-sophisticated formula. Q4P∞ is ‘infinite,’ ‘nested,’ and indeed, uniquely ‘infinitely nested’.

Or, in the immortal words of Dr. Bronner: "For who else but God gave man this sensuous passion, Love that can spark mere dust to life! Revealing beauty in our Eternal Father's fashion, poetry, uniting All-One, all brave, all life! Who else but God! Who else! Each day, like a bird, perfect thyself first! Have courage and smile my friend! Think & act 10 years ahead! And the man without fault? He's dead! Do one thing at a time! Work hard. Get done! Then teach the Moral ABC that unites all mankind free! Love is like a willful bird! Do you want it? It flies away! Yet when you least expect it's bliss, it turns around & it's here to stay! DILUTE IT...REFILL FROM GALLON OR DRUM AT STORE! OK!"
posted by scody at 2:08 PM on October 20, 2013 [58 favorites]


Holy shit still reading but this line is AMAAAAAAAAZING!

Yeah but we already have an author whose work reads like L. Ron Hubbard had drunken sex one night with Ayn Rand and produced this bastard thought-child. His name s John C. Wright. We don't know two.
posted by Justinian at 2:10 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


'Things are more like they are now than they've ever been before.'
posted by Sing Or Swim at 2:10 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Could this fucking charlatan actually be vaguely right about something - anything - that the elites have missed that could change our understanding of the universe? YOU decide dear reader!"
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:11 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have no idea how to search for it, but someone here posted a good quote from a physicist who basically said in response to something like this, that anyone can come up with a superficially coherent theory of everything which is not contradicted by what's already known, and there are thousands of them out there... and that the measure of it is whether you can use it to make predictions which can be tested.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:12 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


just suppose that a scrappy, philosophically unqualified Jewish guy from Queens really had cracked the cosmic code, embarrassing the ivory-tower elites: well, isn't this exactly the kind of defensive response you'd expect?

Well, yes, but, since it's also what you would expect as a response to the work of an untrained amateur who has hit on a "breakthrough" that has been disproved numerous times since 1820, what can one make of that?
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:15 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is the outsider a presumptuous moron? Are the academics defensive, rigid elitists? There's room for both to be true in this world!
posted by shivohum at 2:15 PM on October 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


just suppose that a scrappy, philosophically unqualified Jewish guy from Queens really had cracked the cosmic code, embarrassing the ivory-tower elites: well, isn't this exactly the kind of defensive response you'd expect?

No.
posted by escabeche at 2:15 PM on October 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


Or, in the immortal words of Dr. Bronner ...

Is it bad that whenever I see the word "dilute" in all caps I'm immediately aware someone is quoting Dr. Bronner?
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 2:17 PM on October 20, 2013 [11 favorites]


And yet it is difficult not to feel some admiration. At least Birnbaum continues to ask the big questions.

I disagree with this; I really don't feel any admiration at all. This guy has a lot of money and a pretty high opinion of himself, and he seems to think that this makes him smarter than the academics he completely dismisses; I'm not really impressed with someone for Pondering the Secrets of the Universe. I think the article is too nice to him; he seems like an unscrupulous self-promoter -- using people's names without permission and sponsoring academic conferences to pass out t-shirts with the name of his book? Putting "Harvard" on the spine and then acting surprised when people assume it's Harvard University and not "Harvard Matrix"? Seriously? Why is your printing company even called "Harvard Matrix" if not to evoke the university? This guy is the worst; he has enough money to promote his pet idea, get attention, and waste people's time and the only thing he has to offer is his self-aggrandizement and his bullheaded surety that he's right because he's seen something no one else has.

Also, for someone who's put a TON of time (and money!) into this, he doesn't seem to have done any background research or engaged in the discipline; he just seems to assume that because he's smarter and can see the simplicity all around he is better than the academics. If he really thinks this is valuable, perhaps it would be worth actually spending some damn time learning about these fields? Compare that to this recent FPP about a guy who became a grad student in the field and hooked up with experts in the discipline to support his theory. That article, while actually about a guy who did things appropriately, was framed as being about a "plucky amateur" who Got It when the ivory tower academics didn't, and Birnbaum demonstrates some of the harm in that; sure, absolutely, I believe "outsiders" can achieve great things, but if you really believe you've got it right you need to engage honestly with the discipline and not just write off everyone who disagrees with you as an uptight guardian of the sacred tomes of learning who can't handle your insight and may just be jealous.

Also, the guy who said the reasons he went to the conference were "I quite like going to New York,", "Another is that I do like engaging in argument… it keeps Alzheimer's at bay." and "We were very generously looked after." is my new hero.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 2:17 PM on October 20, 2013 [44 favorites]


"What happens to a society when the official cosmology, the official picture of the world, is literally incomprehensible to 99.9% of people?" Wertheim wonders. "On some level, isn't that just a very unhealthy situation for a society to be in?"

What's comic about this is that the one universal feature of outsider science projects like this is that they're even more sealed off in idiosyncratic notation and jargon than conventional science!
posted by escabeche at 2:18 PM on October 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


just suppose that a scrappy, philosophically unqualified Jewish guy from Queens really had cracked the cosmic code, embarrassing the ivory-tower elites: well, isn't this exactly the kind of defensive response you'd expect?

Also, yeah, it's not the response I'd expect. It didn't seem defensive, it just seemed baffled. People with whom he had had contact didn't snap "it's all nonsense. Pay no attention! No comment!" they were all just like "Uh, well...working with him was...odd. He was...odd." They didn't seem uptight and defensive, they seemed bemused.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 2:20 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Stories like this are more interesting as psychological profiles than "could this be the one?" teasers. But I'm always a bit surprised that such reporters don't bring up Stephen Wolfram, and his similar attempt to upend science--both from the perspective of "outsider scientist" and self-financing, self promoting huckster. The difference with Wolfram is that Wolfram isn't really an outsider, or an insider, and A New Kind Of Science seems a lot more concrete and possibly useful than "from the bottomless VOID to the limitless EXTRAORDINARY." (which, by itself, is all the reason you need to put the book down).

Last I heard, ANKOS wasn't getting much traction, though it wasn't being laughed out of the room either.
posted by fatbird at 2:20 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]




In other words, they were offered free business class tickets* and nice hotels, as is admitted later on. And $7,000 isn't much of a donation for this - I wonder what the full actual amount he gave was... In fact, I'm far more interested in this aspect of it than in the book.

*I bet he didn't even have to go to first class for most of them. We're cheaply bought in academia.

posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:24 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


fatbird, I wrote about Wolfram from just this point of view in Slate when his book came out. I think Wolfram and Birnbaum certainly have in mind the same kind of story about themselves, but beyond that, they are indeed pretty different. That's the utility of the story -- it's so flexible that almost anyone can tell it about themselves.
posted by escabeche at 2:24 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


> "...reads like L Ron Hubbard had drunken sex one night with Ayn Rand and produced this bastard thought-child..."

For Birnbaum and those in his peer group who have wholly invested themselves in the personal mythology of the self-made man and for which financial success is a manifestation of virtue... this is high praise.
posted by ardgedee at 2:26 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


My impression from the Guardian article is that the only difference between this guy and Time Cube is that Birnbaum is capable of forming coherent paragraphs and has a lot of money.

Wolfram came to mind to me too, precisely because he is dismissed as a crank by so many experts in his area. Or not exactly a crank so much as an enormous egotist working in isolation. I've read A New Kind of Science and in a previous career worked closely with experts in complex systems. There's nothing wrong or crazy about Wolfram's work, it's just not very useful in that it doesn't relate to anything else or explain anything deeply meaningful. Then again compared to, say, philosophical metaphysics at least discrete mathematics has something concrete to sink your teeth in to.
posted by Nelson at 2:26 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


True, he concedes, he hasn't worked out every detail of his theory yet. ("I'm a macro-conceptual theorist!" he protested when I raised this point.)

Oh my god I am totally using this next time somebody calls me on something.
posted by escabeche at 2:27 PM on October 20, 2013 [43 favorites]


Here's the question he's attempting to answer:

If evolution explained how living things changed, why did life start to begin with? Why was there anything?

So, the "why is there the universe/something instead of just nothing" question. Here's his answer:

The answer was: potential...everything and everyone around him was an expression of cosmic potential, working itself out. Why? Because that's what potential does... Potential, possibility: it's the gentlest of all concepts." He half-closed his eyes. "Possibility is driving everything. It's so simple!"

The problem with this answer, as I see it (and I'm not a philosopher), is that it doesn't actually explain anything. It's just a tautological semantic gesture that punts the burden of proof to another claim. If "potential" explains why there is something rather than nothing, how does it do that? That becomes the big question, and I suspect his work (if it is intelligible) is merely a sequence of punting that big explanation over and over again, probably adding layers of obfuscation each time.

I don't think the question is answerable, because "why" questions about big subjects like that usually contain false imputations of intentionality, but if he did answer that question somehow, the answer would clarify the situation. Answers that don't clarify are usually bullshit.
posted by clockzero at 2:30 PM on October 20, 2013 [20 favorites]


There have been a small spate of these in philosophy, super-rich guys trying to buy some crediblity from academic philosophers. At one end of the ethical spectrum you have this guy, who seems oblivious to why anything he's done is deceptive/unethical (see his quote about naming his press Harvard); then you have the pseudonymous "A. M. Monius" who IIRC was trying to basically buy peer review for his work but not under false pretenses; then you have the Templeton Foundation which is putting up a ton of grant money to fund projects on certain subjects (and reputable philosophers and departments have been accepting the money, which is a subject of discussion as to whether it's swaying the course of academic philosophy).
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:33 PM on October 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


Has David Birnbaum solved the mystery of existence?

If the answer he came up with isn't 42, I'm gonna say no he hasn't.
posted by fuse theorem at 2:34 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


"All those words, and nothing actually describing what he's on about."

Just the little they do describe makes it extremely obvious that it's trash. It's very typical crankery, but with more money and promotion behind it than usual.

And, no, you're not going to do important work — certainly not paradigm-changing work, but really anything major — in metaphysics while being ignorant of what's already there. Maybe an autodidactic amateur who has carefully read and studied the major works in the field might contribute something important. But, no, not someone largely ignorant of the work of others.

This is, of course, much more true with regard to physics, whether it's cosmology or particle physics.

With regard to this article, the idea presented in it — that these deep questions should be available to productive inquiry by anyone, and that they are not is an indictment of current state-of-the-art — is nonsense. It's as wrong as it's possible to be wrong. The whole enterprise of philosophy, math, and natural science in the western world has been a long, reluctant march into the counterintuitive. This stuff hasn't become increasingly counterintuitive as a means of cultural gatekeeping, it's been done with every step of the way being resisted. Resisted but ultimately accommodated because it works.

When people complain that these fields are overly complex and esoteric, what they don't realize is that they know less about the supposedly simple, easy, comprehensible and intuitive stuff than they think they do. Off the top of my head, I can provide each a geometry, a philosophy, and a physics concept that most people would find counterintuitive and difficult to understand that, nevertheless, were each well-known to the classic greeks. There's a whole bunch of weird stuff that's foundational and sort of glossed over in modern education, with the weirdness made to seem prosaic by the technical pedagogy used to teach it. Although it's true that contemporary math, physics, and philosophy are very weird, it's also true that there was not a time when they weren't weird.

These are difficult subjects and they require a lot of rigorous, sustained effort in order to accomplish something productive under the easiest conditions, and given the level at which they've been elaborated at this point in time, there is simply no substitute for a solid grounding in what has come before and what is state-of-the-art.

The hallmark of the crank is a willful ignorance of what is thought to be the conventional body of knowledge about a subject. They are outsiders by choice. They don't want to participate in the authoritative institutional structures because they know, deep down, that their grandiose claims of insight wouldn't survive the challenge.

It's a form of psychological pathology. As such, I feel more concern for the cranks than anything else. Most of my scorn and anger I reserve for the credulous media.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:35 PM on October 20, 2013 [37 favorites]


MetaFilter: It's very typical crankery, but with more money and promotion behind it than usual.
posted by lukemeister at 2:39 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


isn't this just platonism mixed with gnosticism? - the theory of forms combined with the idea of the light mired in the physical world?
posted by pyramid termite at 2:39 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


For those of you debating Wolfram, I found this review of Wolfram's New Kind of Science to be quite illuminating (the reviewer Cosma Shalizi is a complexity theorist at Carnegie Mellon.
posted by leibniz at 2:40 PM on October 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


Ugh sorry I will stop posting after this (unless I really don't feel like it) but for some reason I'm just feeling compelled to keep writing about this guy because he and people like him drive me BONKERS. I am sick to fucking death of privileged people who because they are sure they're smart or rich or just fucking RIGHT feel like they can come into any discipline they want and "solve it". Let's treat government like a business! Let's solve business by treating employees badly! Let's totally change everything about education! These people who just bluster forward and completely ignore all the facts or information or evidence or opinions of legitimate experts with legitimate backgrounds and stakes in the field just drive me absolutely fucking CRAZY. The fact that you are an outsider does not legitimize you! What are you thinking you arrogant man?

This kind of thinking, and the lauding of amateurs who refuse to engage with the discipline and instead come in all mavericky and change everything, make me so so so angry. That's the real problem with this guy, and other people like him; yeah, they waste time and take up resources and that's bad enough, but arrogant privileged people who use "common sense" and refuse to acknowledge experts can really, really screw things up for a lot of people who don't have their resources. To my mind, this moves them from harmless, pitiable cranks and into dangerously arrogant bad actors.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 2:42 PM on October 20, 2013 [86 favorites]


That was a good article, escabeche. Until I reread Wolfram's wikipedia entry, I'd forgotten that he really was an insider for a long time, and it's not crazy to believe that, at least in Wolfram's case, a major upset coming from him is really possible.

In the decade since, has anyone actually worked with or against Wolfram's theories? I recall a grad student saying something along the lines of "it's hard enough carving out a career within the established field; no one's going to take a flyer on what will likely turn out to be a crank theory."
posted by fatbird at 2:42 PM on October 20, 2013


has anyone actually worked with or against Wolfram's theories

There are literally thousands of people working on complex systems theory in general and cellular automata in particular. Many of them have been working on "Wolfram's theories" longer than Wolfram has. But you won't learn about them in A New Kind of Science, because that book has no bibliography.
posted by Nelson at 2:47 PM on October 20, 2013 [20 favorites]


Is there any reason to take it seriously?

Is he a human? Yes? Then, no, no reason.
posted by IvoShandor at 2:51 PM on October 20, 2013


I am sick to fucking death of privileged people who because they are sure they're smart or rich or just fucking RIGHT feel like they can come into any discipline they want and "solve it". Let's treat government like a business! Let's solve business by treating employees badly! Let's totally change everything about education! These people who just bluster forward and completely ignore all the facts or information or evidence or opinions of legitimate experts with legitimate backgrounds and stakes in the field just drive me absolutely fucking CRAZY. The fact that you are an outsider does not legitimize you! What are you thinking you arrogant man?

This, a thousand times this. Thank you for expressing a summation of this broad problem with such perspicacity, Mrs. Pterodactyl.
posted by clockzero at 2:53 PM on October 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


Atkins had been sent Birnbaum's books in advance, and considered them without value. So why did he go? "Well, one reason is that I quite like going to New York," he said. "Another is that I do like engaging in argument… it keeps Alzheimer's at bay." Moreover, he added, "We were very generously looked after."

To me, academia itself didn't come off too well in the article. Ok, so a guy comes up with a theory, no matter how crackpot - at least he believes in it. Does he have less integrity than an academic attending an event that he thinks is bullshit so he gets a free trip to New York? Is someone agreeing to chair a conference as a favour to a friend (said friend having accepted thousands of dollars from Birnbaum) and not bothering to find out exactly what it's about a sign of rigorous thinking? Is an academic institution hosting a rich man's vanity project problematic at all?
posted by billiebee at 2:58 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


This article kinda bordered on TL;DR, just in terms of me going "ENOUGH CRAP ABOUT GEMS WHAT DOES HE SAY" but is it just me or does when it FINALLY gets to the damn point, it's kinda basically Vonnegut's idea of The Universal Will To Become? Or am I off-base?
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 2:59 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh my god I am totally using this next time somebody calls me on something.

The problem with "macro-conceptual theorists" is that their ideaa often founder on problems that people with feet in the mud can see very clearly. Then, when, months later, the theorist is upset that their ideas aren't bearing fruit, they never want to hear "well, here's the laundry list of problems that have come up, we can solve them with enough money, but..." If big ideas were all that was needed, we would be living in paradise.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:00 PM on October 20, 2013


There's only one saving grace to this book: LOL.
posted by trip and a half at 3:00 PM on October 20, 2013


"There are literally thousands of people working on complex systems theory in general and cellular automata in particular. Many of them have been working on "Wolfram's theories" longer than Wolfram has. But you won't learn about them in A New Kind of Science, because that book has no bibliography."

Right. And with all due respect to escabeche, that was a major grievance of mine of his Slate piece when I read it when it was published — that he didn't even discuss the fact that complexity had become an established discipline at least as much as ten years before ANKoS was published.

Anyone who has any notion that Wolfram's book is credible on this subject needs to read the Cosma Shalizi piece that leibniz linked above.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:02 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


To me, academia itself didn't come off too well in the article. Ok, so a guy comes up with a theory, no matter how crackpot - at least he believes in it. Does he have less integrity than an academic attending an event that he thinks is bullshit so he gets a free trip to New York?

Does a rich person with crazy ideas trying to buy himself legitimacy have less integrity than an academic who accepted a free trip to New York from said rich person? I'm going with "Yes."
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 3:02 PM on October 20, 2013 [13 favorites]


Anyone who credits themselves for a paradigm shift is an untrustworthy, granfalutin' charlatan.
posted by Grandysaur at 3:03 PM on October 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


What does his integrity have to do with whether his ideas are any good? And at least he believes in them? SFW? Is science the new Tinkerbell?
posted by biffa at 3:08 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well said, Mrs. Pterodactyl. Trying to convince someone that "hard thing is hard" is one of the most irritating time-wasters I encounter. Someone says "what are you working on?" I say, "trying to solve X". Their next question is always "why don't you just [naive guess]?". The best answer I can come up with is "how much time do you have? I would need at least two hours to even bring you up to speed to the point where you'd have an inkling of why that's not even a remotely useful suggestion, and I seriously would rather be actually working productively on the problem than getting into that dialogue with you." But instead I just sarcastically respond "great idea, why didn't I think of that?" and get back to work. Which is why everyone thinks I'm an asshole.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:10 PM on October 20, 2013 [23 favorites]


Some of these quotes in the article are pretty crazy.

The science writer Margaret Wertheim has made a specialism of studying people she calls "outsider scientists": obsessive amateurs, usually with little or no university education, who assert that mainstream science has taken a wrong turn, and devote themselves to constructing elaborate alternative theories of reality.

"Outsider scientist" is a nicer thing to call them than "cranks", but it doesn't make them any less wrong.

"What happens to a society when the official cosmology, the official picture of the world, is literally incomprehensible to 99.9% of people?" Wertheim wonders. "On some level, isn't that just a very unhealthy situation for a society to be in?"

Well, here's the thing; the complexity of the universe doesn't hold itself hostage to your ability to understand it. Maybe cosmology is complicated and non-intuitive because the nature and origin of the universe itself is complicated.
posted by Mitrovarr at 3:11 PM on October 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


Woof. Leibniz's link is a brutal takedown of Wolfram and ANKOS. He goes into detail on the point Nelson raises, the astonishing degree to which Wolfram collected and claimed the work of predecessors without acknowledgement, as well as how much Wolfram simply blows the science side of it whilst loudly arguing his own genius.
posted by fatbird at 3:12 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I just have to say that his "thesis" is one I also (as many others before have done, I'm sure) landed on as a very giddy lad in my early 20s after reading Timothy Ferris' "Coming of Age in the Milky Way." The idea that we exist -- that the universe exists -- because it CAN exist, that it has the potential to do so, is not that groundbreaking a notion, really.

The problem with patting yourself on the back about it is that (a) it's not a new realization and (b) without doing any serious work to put flesh on it, it's just late-night, college-dorm metaphysics.

Mrs. Pterodactyl and clarkzero said it best: Birnbaum's thesis lacks any rigorous treatment to allow it to have any predictive value as a theory and it is therefore a distraction from real progress in cosmology based on actual scholarship of any respectable sort.
posted by darkstar at 3:13 PM on October 20, 2013


What does his integrity have to do with whether his ideas are any good?

Nothing. I'm not saying he's right. I'm just asking if there is an issue with the system that allows money to buy credibility. The academics who are (I'm sure rightly) deriding him appear to be happy to take the hospitality, which just seems a bit hypocritical is all. I am - obviously - not an academic, but for those who are, is this a freak one-off or a regular occurance?
posted by billiebee at 3:17 PM on October 20, 2013


There are a bunch of academics in here saying how unethical it is. It's not a regular occurrence in philosophy (maybe because big business doesn't see a lot of benefit in buying us off!), no. The times that similar things have happened, they are big news in the philosophy gossip circles and people's reputations can be harmed by getting involved with something like this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:21 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


'There must be an answer. How is it possible that so many brilliant people, over thousands of years, have missed it?'
Um, setting aside the obvious answer, which is that for 99.999% of that time those brilliant people had had their thinking distorted or suppressed by religion -- even Newton walked willingly into this trap in the end -- the more complicated answer is that you need more than brilliance, you need facts, and obtaining facts about the universe which fall outside our evolutionarily constrained senses requires tools, and it takes an entire field generations of effort just to figure out what kinds of tools those might be, let alone make them.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:29 PM on October 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


This guy, like many, is just another crank. The actual ideas that he has that are good don't appear to be at all original and the ideas that are original don't appear to be any good.

I've been fascinated by cranks for a while and I think I have a decent model for understanding where it comes from, frustrated privilege. They seem to be almost exclusively white men from relatively economically privileged backgrounds, a demographic that Western society is constantly reminding from a young age is smart, talented, knows things, and HAS THINGS TO TEACH US. Lacking the drive or humility to actually learn enough to have things worth teaching, they invent things that only appear to be worth teaching in order to fulfill that drive that was expected of them from birth without needing to do the hard work they either are not capable of or simply do not want to do. It is the dark flip side to the debilitating impostor syndrome that many real academics have, where the main difference seems to be the intellectual honesty to recognize and fight it as well as the talent and drive to do so. The practice of crankery represents a reversal of something fundamental to the honest practice of science, where it is all about finding ways to feel smart - smarter than everyone else - whereas as good scientists are constantly finding new ways to feel stupid - pushing themselves to the edge of knowledge where they know nothing and no one can help them. Much like how Charlie Sheen represented his actions to a judge while defending himself from prostitution charges during sentencing, "Sir, I did not pay that woman to sleep with me, I paid her to go home afterwards," as an academic I don't get paid to be smart but instead get paid to be willing to feel stupid, constantly. It is exhausting, but ultimately supremely liberating in a way that is both difficult to explain and trivial to spot in others who do not grok it in one of the seemingly infinite ways to usefully do so.

This guy is absolutely confined to the knowledge that is accessible to someone without a meaningful education. He is not capable of honestly producing anything that is simultaneously new and valuable, and so in his desperation to feel smart like he imagines scientists to be, he tried to rebuild what he has into something coherent - but he is not capable of doing anything remotely like what someone with a proper education could do, much less actual researchers using real data.

If this is something that also fascinates you I would recommend watching this,
Pathological Physics: Tales from "The Box" (previously) You will also need to forgive the ideosyncratic theories of videography and sound capture on display, but it is totally worth it.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:33 PM on October 20, 2013 [24 favorites]


I'm really enjoying this thread.

Just to address one point from above, a major challenge in writing this piece was figuring out how much time to spend discussing Birnbaum's specific ideas in detail, given that they were not what drew me to the story to begin with, nor necessarily the most compelling part of it. But as andoatnp points out above you can read much more about them here.

The only other thing I'd say, in response to this:

Well, here's the thing; the complexity of the universe doesn't hold itself hostage to your ability to understand it. Maybe cosmology is complicated and non-intuitive because the nature and origin of the universe itself is complicated.

I think it's worth pointing out that just because this is true, it doesn't mean it's not also problematic that it's true. In the end, I guess I'm just deeply interested in the kind of people who refuse to accept this – even if, ultimately, it's simply the case.
posted by oliverburkeman at 3:44 PM on October 20, 2013 [12 favorites]


(and reputable philosophers and departments have been accepting the money, which is a subject of discussion as to whether it's swaying the course of academic philosophy)

Sorry LobsterMitten I missed this comment of yours. Although it actually seems like the only one to be looking at the ethics from the other side. I don't see any other comments saying its unethical for academics to accept expenses from someone who is considered a crank; Birnbaum's ethics are questioned (again, I'm not saying they shouldn't be) but apparantly those accepting the trip to the conference were heroic. I just find that a bit strange. But I get that it happens maybe more in some circles than others. Maybe it just surprised me because I still have this rarefied idea of academics as holier than thou when it comes to putting the Truth before the material gain, and I'm sure it's still mostly true. I guess this case is just one of the exceptions.

I really must get that coat. It's cold out here
posted by billiebee at 3:44 PM on October 20, 2013


posted by oliverburkeman at 3:44 PM on October 20

I had no idea the author of that article was metafilter's own. I'd love to hear about any other aspects of the story you found interesting that might not have found it into the print piece.
posted by andoatnp at 3:53 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


"What happens to a society when the official cosmology, the official picture of the world, is literally incomprehensible to 99.9% of people?" Wertheim wonders. "On some level, isn't that just a very unhealthy situation for a society to be in?"

I think she has a point, actually, and the way to improve the situation is through high-quality public education. I think she's overstating the case to some degree, as well; what's truly incomprehensible to most people is the stuff that requires very specialized and advanced math and physics, but that doesn't mean that 99.9% of people cannot be taught a very accurate (but not exhaustive) model of what sort of place the universe is.
posted by clockzero at 3:55 PM on October 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


That's a very insightful analysis, Blasdelb — though I hope you'll forgive me for pointing out that there's a bona fide academic specialist in the topic of crankery quoted in the article and it would behoove us not to imagine that our lay, non-rigorous interest in crankery is sufficient to make this sort of judgment about crankery as a social phenomenon, lest we ironically indict ourselves.

That said, your theory seems sound to me. My initial objection — that there are respected, legitimate intellectuals who become cranks to greater or lesser degrees, such as Wolfram, and your theory doesn't account for them — doesn't withstand scrutiny. Because I think a version of the same impetus is involved there as in what you describe.

For example, for me the stereotype for this is the late middle-age, tenured academic who hasn't done any significant work in their field in more than a decade and who decides to tackle a topic in an entirely distinct discipline than the one in which they are trained. Say, a highly respected physicist doing historical linguistics or a highly respected entomologist doing psychology. I think the privilege thing you describe is active in these cases, too: the accolades of their career and their high self-regard convince them that they can be sufficiently competent at an entirely different field with minimal preparation. And the last thing they want to do, at this stage of their life, is to immerse themselves in rigorous study of a new field in which they will find, as they did when they were young and starting in their own, how truly ignorant they actually are. So their motives are very similar to what you describe about the outsider cranks. These "insider cranks", if you will, are not really that much different. They're entitled and unwilling to risk their elevated self-image by starting at the beginning.

The other thing that bothers me about cranks is how badly they misunderstand science (and other rigorous academic work). What they don't realize is that even when someone with some exciting deep insight into a topic works within the subject's institutions to investigate and elaborate it, far more often than not they're eventually proven to be mistaken. For the people with the intellectual temperament who best work at the boundaries and beyond into the unknown, there are far more wrong ideas than there are right ideas. People spend their entire careers working on something that is ultimately proven to be wrong.

And so I think you're quite right in describing this as a pathology that is in some ways the psychological inversion of what it means to be successful at what these cranks are attempting. It does require ambition and self-confidence, but it requires a kind of ambition and self-confidence that somehow still contains some humility. It's the humility of understanding that one can be wrong, and easily. That in some essential respect, ambitious intellectual work is humbling even while it's ambitious.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:02 PM on October 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


So before the Big Bang, before God, there was "potential"? So where does this "potential" come from then? So many questions, so little time.
posted by monospace at 4:03 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Off the top of my head, I can provide each a geometry, a philosophy, and a physics concept that most people would find counterintuitive and difficult to understand that, nevertheless, were each well-known to the classic greeks.

I'd love to hear some of these, Ivan Fyodorovich.

Would the fact that the earth is nominally spherical be in your list? How about the distant stars being fixed in space? Also, apparently, boring old projectile motion is (once was) counter-intuitive. Aristotle--no lightweight, I think we'd agree--had impetus theory, which predicted trajectories that seem like they'd be easy to identify as wrong by eye.

Anyway, I'd like to hear the kinds of things you have in mind, particularly if you've got more down to earth concepts.
posted by mondo dentro at 4:05 PM on October 20, 2013


There is a very good (though very *headdesk*) book entirely devoted to various mathematical crankeries.
posted by BungaDunga at 4:11 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]




Also, apparently, boring old projectile motion is (once was) counter-intuitive.

You'd be amazed. In the high school physics class I took, the class was asked whether, if you whirl a weight on a string around your head and let go, the weight's path follows

a) A tangent from the point it was when it was let go
b) A spiral outwards, or
c) A line perpendicular to the tangent.

The class was polled and (in my recollection) something like a third of them answered b.

Which is odd, because I'm convinced they would be very, very surprised if they actually performed this experiment and something happened other than a). I think people's naive physics gets worse if they're asked to reason about it. If you're on an airplane and jump, do you fly backwards? of course not!- if you were on an airplane and this actually happened you'd be surprised. But if you ask people, they'll answer that yes, you will.
posted by BungaDunga at 4:21 PM on October 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


More on the conference this guy apparently bankrolled here at CHE.

It is a serious embarrassment to Bard that they held this conference, on the work of someone whose work does not merit scholarly attention, because he paid for it. I suspect Chilton, the religion professor who organized it, has had to do some serious explaining internally.

Something people may not realize is how common cranks are. When I was in philosophy I would get an email a month, or maybe more, from a person with a New Amazing Theory that just had to get the word out!!! (When I was working as a retail clerk I once got talking with a guy, mentioned I was a philosophy teacher and it turned out he was a crank who had vanity-published his own book on metaphysics. He later sent me a copy (hardcover!) at the store. The only difference is this dude we're discussing has a lot more money to throw around.) Having read the first pages of a number of such efforts, I think it's not very useful to regard these things with a wide-open "well, any one of them might be right, might have discovered something important" attitude. The work is just typically not very good, things are not well-explained, obvious objections/counter-arguments are not addressed, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:26 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


BungaDunga: what's really intriguing about your example (which is definitely another good one), is that peoples' bodies understand that it's answer (a) better than their brains: if you gave them a sling and asked them to practice knocking over cans with it, most people would get pretty good at it pretty quickly.
posted by mondo dentro at 4:26 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


It is the dark flip side to the debilitating impostor syndrome that many real academics have, where the main difference seems to be the intellectual honesty to recognize and fight it as well as the talent and drive to do so.

For some people, I think there is also a kind of "cargo cult" approach to science and learning, like you perform the "rituals" of using certain kinds of jargon, and that transfers what you say into "truth." It's like a reverence for learning anddscovery without actually understanding what learning is or how discovery happens.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:28 PM on October 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


"Has David Birnbaum solved the mystery of existence?"

DUUUUUHHHRRRR!!

no.

"What must have existed, before everything else, but the potential for all those things that later came into existence?"

So basically, he ripped off Bjork.
posted by markkraft at 4:31 PM on October 20, 2013


Oh man I just spent a few minutes listening to this poor man's videos and it's immediately obvious he's a crank, or at least lacks any sort of critical thinking about his own ideas. It's nearly glossolalia in parts.
posted by Nelson at 4:32 PM on October 20, 2013


When I was in philosophy I would get an email a month

I did a BA in philosophy at university, and had a roomate in law school. He would take me to law parties, where I would run into Type A personalities in their second year of law who, on finding out that I was in philosophy, would ask if I wanted to read their book refuting Kant because apparently NO ONE ELSE IN THE PHILOSOPHY WORLD WANTED TO!
posted by fatbird at 4:33 PM on October 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


What I think is so great about philosophy is just how much of our greatest things, like computers, mobile phones, and modern medicine are built upon its discoveries. Philosophy asks the important questions... and gets answers and results!

(Oh.. sorry. Meant science.)
posted by markkraft at 4:41 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I started reading this:

The universe itself is potential, actualising itself.
You may be raising your eyebrows at this. But Birnbaum's perspective isn't without precedent. Since Aristotle, some thinkers have been drawn to the notion that the world must be heading somewhere – that there is some kind of force in the universe, pushing things forward.


And was like, "FUCK, THIS IS LIKE THAT FUCKING IDIOTIC NAGEL BOOK ALL OVER AGAIN"

and then voila!

These teleological arguments are deeply unfashionable nowadays, but there's nothing inherently unscientific about them. In his controversial 2012 book Mind And Cosmos, the US philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that teleology might be the only way to account for the still unsolved mystery of why consciousness exists.
posted by Greg Nog at 4:43 PM on October 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


"like L. Ron Hubbard had drunken sex one night with Ayn Rand..."

"I wonder, if I could take the worst, most selfish, misguided people and make them worse...douches and make them douchier...oh, that would be delicious."

Wow, Cracked reached down into Ayn Rand's grave and bitchslapped whatever's left of her corpse.
posted by fuse theorem at 4:45 PM on October 20, 2013


would ask if I wanted to read their book refuting Kant because apparently NO ONE ELSE IN THE PHILOSOPHY WORLD WANTED TO!

Most academic books go virtually unread, particularly in the humanities, as far as I can tell, except by their editors. Look at books from the top university presses like Oxford or Columbia and then look them up on Google scholar and Amazon or Goodreads. Most will have zero to one substantive comments or reviews.
posted by shivohum at 4:46 PM on October 20, 2013


"I'd love to hear some of these, Ivan Fyodorovich."

I'm not sure what I'd pick for philosophy. Possibly the liar's paradox, though that seems too obvious. Zeno's motions?

Both of those are really math, but they're presentable in simple language and very much within the scope of early philosophy. And confounding to intuition.

In math I'd choose incommensurability, which is for me almost the purest example of how something that is deeply contrary to commonsense is glossed over in modern education in a way that hides the weirdness.

In physics I might go with Archimedes and hydrostatics — there's something pretty counterintuitive there that Pascal elaborates in atmospheric pressure that I know that most people don't understand and which was really right there in Archimedes if anyone earlier had thought to think of the atmosphere in these terms.

My point in my earlier comment where I mentioned this was that even with very basic, foundational things there's already stuff that is difficult in the sense that if you want to have insight, you want to really understand, you have to work at comprehending it in a way that's not just rote. A technical education — that is, an education that provides one with technique that's built out of past comprehension — makes it easy to be unaware of how much difficulty is being hidden within these highly developed tools. That's pretty much the only sort of education anyone gets about the foundations of math and science and so they — everyone from eventual scientists to ordinary people to cranks — come away with an impression that this old stuff was easy, simple, and clearly comprehensible. But it wasn't; each of these steps from the beginning have been difficult.

And it just gets more difficult when building from these foundations. So there's no shortcut, you're not going to develop a fully formed new physics, or even a metaphysics, that is entirely ignorant of all that's come before because there's a lot of truly difficult stuff there right from the beginning and this also means that you're not going to return to some easy, simple comprehensibility because that never really existed.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:48 PM on October 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


"Wow, Cracked reached down into Ayn Rand's grave and bitchslapped whatever's left of her corpse."

In fairness, if you're a man who's a strong, independent, rugged individualist determined not to let society tell you that potentially non-consensual BDSM with corpses is wrong, well... she'd probably be completely into that.
posted by markkraft at 4:55 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Philosophy asks the important questions

Correct. Personally, I'm thrilled that I get to live in a world where computers and thoughts about the meaning of life co-exist.
posted by billiebee at 4:56 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


This article kinda bordered on TL;DR, just in terms of me going "ENOUGH CRAP ABOUT GEMS WHAT DOES HE SAY" but is it just me or does when it FINALLY gets to the damn point, it's kinda basically Vonnegut's idea of The Universal Will To Become? Or am I off-base?
I like that you pick Vonnegut in particular, and my favorite Vonnegut book no less, to point to this idea! ♥ The idea that the fundamental ground state of capital-B Being is potential, actualizing, is a pretty standard, traditional part of mysticism (something Western culture has long struggled with for whatever reason, preferring to mash things into either hardline idealism or hardline empiricism) and is not cranky at all as a philosophical position.

Whether that's the position in the book or not, I can't really tell (the article is not clear, and the official site is not clear), but no, it's not a new or stupid idea. I'm kind of curious about the book, but also kind of wary that it mashes things into a hardline fluff-capitalism, which these kinds of topics by these kinds of authors written in these kinds of ways often are. But the idea that the world is potential, becoming, is perfectly fine and lovely.
posted by byanyothername at 5:01 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure what I'd pick for philosophy. Possibly the liar's paradox, though that seems too obvious. Zeno's motions?

Both of those are really math


They're math now. Because philosophers worked extremely hard to digest the difficulty of these issues to the point where they could be formalized and made part of mathematics.
posted by escabeche at 5:01 PM on October 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


If you're on an airplane and jump, do you fly backwards?

Obviously yes. The friction between you and the air changes your velocity in relation to the airplane, accelerating you rearwards away from it. So you indeed do fly backwards.
posted by Authorized User at 5:08 PM on October 20, 2013


This sort of book is essentially the Holy Grail of human creativity. You see fiction writers attempt it too: the Great American Novel, the book which will neatly and succinctly explain all of human and universal behavior in only seventeen thousand pages. I'm sure there exist movies by now which try to do the same; certainly there are paintings and sculptures which similarly attempt to encapsulate existence in a tight (but enormous) bundle.

Writing philosophy is the laziest way to go about this, because you don't have to worry about anything whatsoever beside the map of your head that you're gradually detailing. You can make words mean whatever you want them to mean, and you can take as long as you want or be as cryptic as you'd like in detailing them. The plus side is that if anybody else comes up with thoughts remotely like your own, you can claim they were inspired by you, so long as your cryptic mess was spewed out first! (This is true, I think, of certain strains of more legitimate philosophy as well.)

If you're looking for a Grand Encapsulation that you can get something practical and entertaining out of, the one I most recommend is Christopher Alexander's The Nature of Order, in which Alexander goes about arguing that a handful of patterns can explain everything you'll ever need to know about life, where "life" refers not only to biological matter but to something fundamental in how structure allows for freedom and growth. It's an enjoyable read with many lovely color photographs, and it's extra good because Alexander a) admits that what he's writing is nothing new, although he feels many nuances of his ideas are less-known by most audiences, b) is aware of his own vague language and apologizes frequently, c) talks about practical things like color theory and how to make your gardens prettier, which is nice, and d) praises alcohol and custom-painted Harley-Davidsons, which are signs IMHO that he's got an appreciation of the finer things in life.

What frustrates me about this fraudulent crank is that this whole Ultimate Answer stuff runs counter to what philosophy does best anyway. He's doing philosophy the way utterly ignorant doofuses think it ought to be done, which is to say he's searching for abstractions that are now more readily sought by mathematicians and scientists. Once upon a time philosophy was the best way of trying to understand the greater non-human universe, but now we have such a mass of knowledge about the world already that if you're looking to study it, you want to do so by means of the traditions that already exist. Philosophy is great at studying the ways in which people behave, and the ways in which our seemingly concrete thought formations are in fact shoddy or not entirely considerate; it's a discipline that's useful for developing a greater context for pretty much anything you want to look at, which is not the same thing as saying it is useful for actually looking at those things directly. It's a Not Even Wrong situation, I think. This guy is so far away from doing anything useful that he's not even useless.

Now, for MeFites looking for a Grand Encapsulation that's homegrown and considerably cheaper than Alexander's $200 price tag, I'm halfway finished writing the draft of my own GE, which I promise will be far more entertaining and useful than this guy's thingamajig, and which will lead you to the conclusion that you yourself have already probably drawn: namely, that the meaning of life is MetaFilter. Looking to understand the origins of the universe while simultaneously justifying your living exactly the life that you're already living? My hard-sought research lets me say authoritatively that this is not an impossible dream.
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:08 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don't know how the toaster works.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:13 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


"What I think is so great about philosophy is just how much of our greatest things, like computers, mobile phones, and modern medicine are built upon its discoveries. Philosophy asks the important questions... and gets answers and results!

(Oh.. sorry. Meant science.)"


What I think is "great" about your comment is that you specifically mentioned computers, which is one very potent counter-example to your implicit argument. Mathematical logic was originally just logic, the key pioneers were mathematician-philosophers. Not to mention the general argument that science originated in natural philosophy. If you want to disallow all branches of philosophy that became math or science, I'll say that you're putting forth a "no true scotsman" argument.

Ethics is still a vital topic in philosophy and it is still in many respects a practical field — you mention medicine, but philosophers and physicians working in medical ethics ask important questions and gets answers which have real-world effects.

"They're math now. Because philosophers worked extremely hard to digest the difficulty of these issues to the point where they could be formalized and made part of mathematics."

It's funny that you wrote that while I was writing this comment. I didn't mean they are math in the sense that they weren't philosophy. I meant it more in the sense that I was looking for something that someone like markkraft would readily see as "philosophy" and is foundational but really, really difficult to get your head around in the sense of "looks like it's amenable to commonsense but when you rigorously examine it, you find that it's very difficult".
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:21 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure what I'd pick for philosophy. Possibly the liar's paradox, though that seems too obvious. Zeno's motions?

Both of those are really math


Well, according to Peter Adamson's The History of Philosophy Podcast, Zeno's ideas were designed to express/prove the constructions of Parmenides concerning motion (which were driven, if I recall, by his ideas about matter, atoms, and the absence of void). So, philosophy and natural science and also deeply weird (even when the early ato mists were right, they were right for the wrong reasons, it seems).
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:35 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


This guy can't be right. Neal Adams is the one that's supposed to be sitting on the big break through of life, the universe, and the importance of the number 42.
posted by Ber at 5:39 PM on October 20, 2013


The idea that the universe is made out of infinite possibility seems very tidy, to me. It's certainly not a provable hypothesis for anything as much as it is an idea for looking for the face of god, but it's exactly the same sort of thing I've been trying to say with my music for the last couple of years. The difference is, I fully expect to be ignored & considered an amateur crank, because I am.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:00 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd love to hear about any other aspects of the story you found interesting that might not have found it into the print piece.

As you might imagine, it was one of those pieces that I could quite easily have spent about a decade working on, following up every claim and counterclaim and curious alleyway. (Sadly this wouldn't have been economically viable.) It was definitely the most challenging piece I've written in a long while. There was a fine line to walk to avoid being either condescending or credulous – and of course I was aware that one possible response would be that people like Birnbaum just shouldn't be written about at all. I disagree with that, naturally, but explaining why was a challenge.
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:36 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Regarding Xeno's paradoxes of motion, I'm especially enamored of the way they presage the development of quantum theory (and are neatly addressed by quantum theory). There actually IS a smallest distance that you can travel, a smallest unit of energy, etc. And once you have those smallest, quantized units, you can explain why the arrow can eventually reach its mark, and why Heracles can actually win his race. Because no longer do you have to first reach the intervening midpoints ad infinitum...you just have to reach each quantized step in turn.
posted by darkstar at 6:43 PM on October 20, 2013


"What happens to a society when the official cosmology, the official picture of the world, is literally incomprehensible to 99.9% of people?"

Fucking magnets, how do they work?

Tide goes in, tide goes out and you can't explain that.
posted by fredludd at 6:57 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


We've already solved the mystery of existence. Hip-hop was discovered decades ago.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 6:59 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


That silly man has a book, which isn't as clever as he thinks it is. This very important man has an onion, which is exactly as huge and rare as he thinks it is. I think the old man with the onion has more to be proud of, and is more worthy of our attention.
posted by idiopath at 7:11 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


His work, said a commenter on the Chronicle's website, "reads like L Ron Hubbard had drunken sex one night with Ayn Rand and produced this bastard thought-child".

So it's like Neo-Tech then?

I saw some discarded Neo-Tech books on a footpath in Islington a few weeks ago, of all things; and I thought that particular cult had sunk without a trace.
posted by acb at 7:15 PM on October 20, 2013


This very important man has an onion, which is exactly as huge and rare as he thinks it is.

That onion has certainly actualized itself from a noticeable abundance of potential.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:21 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


There was a fine line to walk to avoid being either condescending or credulous – and of course I was aware that one possible response would be that people like Birnbaum just shouldn't be written about at all. I disagree with that, naturally, but explaining why was a challenge.
-oliverburkeman

I agree that there is something worth writing about in this story (namely, how he was able to use money to buy the appearance of academic attention/credibility improperly; how he is proceeding in his promotional campaign; etc), but I am constitutionally opposed to an approach to this story which involves "well, gosh, maybe he's actually right and all the academics are wrong, who are we to judge". No. I come down on the side of judging.

But I didn't take it that ("who are we to judge") was your intention with the story. I thought I was hearing a good deal of implied judgment (of which, to be clear, I approve) in the piece, no?
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:36 PM on October 20, 2013


(Not to put you on the spot. I'm content to read it the way I read it, and don't need a reply to that last question.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:16 PM on October 20, 2013


One time, this person I know had the experience of perceiving a concept--something that was like an idea, and also like an equation, and like a multidimensional geometric shape, or also, yes, like a "potential". This concept, through its own innate qualities had the property of causing itself to come into existence. It was like God, in that even if neither matter, nor energy, nor the universe, nor natural law existed, this concept would create itself. And it would not stop creating itself, it would expand like a rose, but at its heart, a tiny void would be left, and in that void the concept would create itself again, and as that geometry unfolded, the concept would create itself again, and so on, ad infinitum. It was this crazy infinite fractal of pure potential.
The concept which could create itself, founding infinite universes on its own, was the pure, essential sensation of social awkwardness.
It was not the person I know's favorite experience with psilocybin.
posted by agentofselection at 9:10 PM on October 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


I was shocked by the absurd sloppiness of the chemist who contended that the second law of thermodynamics suggests that the world is heading in the opposite direction of perfection. Seriously? The second law of thermodynamics is not value neutral? Whose the amateur in this debate?
posted by vorpal bunny at 10:01 PM on October 20, 2013


"What happens to a society when the official cosmology, the official picture of the world, is literally incomprehensible to 99.9% of people?"

Fucking magnets, how do they work?
Tide goes in, tide goes out and you can't explain that.


It's connected to the wall
posted by talitha_kumi at 3:35 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I was shocked by the absurd sloppiness of the chemist who contended that the second law of thermodynamics suggests that the world is heading in the opposite direction of perfection."

This is pretty interesting because this mention of chemists and entropy caused me to (briefly) fall down into the Frank Lambert rabbit hole once again. I return with no more satisfaction than I did the last time. Like last time, I find that I agree with Lambert that textbook illustrations of messy desks are a Bad Thing in the context of teaching entropy, but also that Lambert is just this side of the respectable/crank line and also a bit of a dick.

But the cool thing (for me) about it is that the quoted chemist, Oxford's Professor Peter Atkins, is a very highly regarded chemist who wrote some of the most widely-used and well-regarded textbooks on physical chemistry ... and a few changes to Atkins's discussion of entropy in the 5th edition of his introductory p-chem textbook is (somewhat misleadingly) used by Lambert as an example of a textbook shifting from a "disorder" pedagogy to a "energy dispersal" one.

Anyway, on rereading the quote that oliverburkeman got for his Guardian piece:
"So when, in our academic way, we looked for flaws in his position, he really did get rather annoyed. He's got this view that the world is striving towards perfection, or something. But the second law of thermodynamics says that everything is getting worse: not a striving toward perfection, but an unwinding into collapse."
...I'm inclined to read him generously. He's not really talking about "perfection" in the values sense, nor "collapse" in that values sense, either; but rather just using casual and colorful common language to describe what we understand about entropy and physics/cosmology and how this fundamentally conflicts with Birnbaum's teleological cosmology of increasing universal designed complexity.

Finally, I didn't mention it in my earlier comment, but Birnbaum's teleology is totally unsurprising. I have a strong belief that human cognition is fundamentally teleological as an inevitable consequence of our being semi-gregarious animals. The causal chain is: semi-gregarious animals --> linguistic and technological intelligence positively selected --> theory of mind --> teleological modeling. We fundamentally reason from inferred purpose because the larger part of our cognition is social and our theory of mind incorporates inferred purpose. That's the core piece of our complex reasoning toolset, so we naturally use it first and foremost, even where it doesn't apply. Like almost the rest of the natural universe.

Pretty much all religious and philosophical cosmologies are teleological. In a world where the vast majority accept a version of a religious teleology of an ultimate cosmological purpose in which we each play a role, it's entirely unsurprising that people are dissatisfied with a scientific cosmology that is not teleological. As I often point out in the service of making the argument of the previous paragraph, even evolutionary biologists and other scientists working in evolution habitually use teleological language to describe evolutionary processes even though that are excruciatingly aware that evolution is emphatically not teleological. And the popular imagination about evolution is explicitly teleological: it's a progression of increasing complexity leading to ultimate "perfection". That's a hoary science-fiction trope (which I wish would die die die). This is how people think.

So an outsider's attempt at a grand cosmology that rescues the enterprise from a sterile physics anti-teleological view and presents an apparently humanistic teleology of an elegant progression towards realized potential is attractive and natural. The tragedy of this, besides the blatant crankery, is the lack of self-awareness that this is basically how almost all of non-physics humanity thinks about the universe. It's ordinary.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:31 AM on October 21, 2013 [11 favorites]


Basically this dude is paying a lot of people to tell him how great his new suit of clothes is.
posted by Mister_A at 7:17 AM on October 21, 2013


... even with very basic, foundational things there's already stuff that is difficult in the sense that if you want to have insight, you want to really understand, you have to work at comprehending it in a way that's not just rote.

This is reflected in one's experience learning mathematical physics, and probably pretty much any of the mathematical sciences. As one takes courses over time--from high school, to undergrad, to grad--in mechanics, or E&M, or whatever, the basic topics listed in the syllabi really don't change much at all. What changes is the level of abstraction and mathematical rigor. Each time you, as a student, hear or read someone talking about something you supposedly learned in high school (like, say, the concepts of "mass", or "energy"), you're challenged to once again realize that you have no idea what the terms actually mean. It's more that these concepts cohere and have power within a mathematical framework, while continuing to be inscrutable on their own. In order to expand one's understanding of a subject, it's important as a sort of mental practice, in some ways similar to mindfulness meditation, to strip down your current technical knowledge and get back to that place of inscrutability. Conceptual creativity demands that. In fact, I had several mentors who wouldn't talk about a body of practices in this sense as "technical", but rather as "culture" or "folklore", to emphasize in a humorous way that such practices were often an impediment to thinking clearly about the problem at hand.
posted by mondo dentro at 7:43 AM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


"So when, in our academic way, we looked for flaws in his position, he really did get rather annoyed. He's got this view that the world is striving towards perfection, or something. But the second law of thermodynamics says that everything is getting worse: not a striving toward perfection, but an unwinding into collapse."

To be honest, it doesn't take much to apply a value judgement to the second law. I imagine that most people would agree that existing is better than not existing, and so the inevitable march of the universe toward thermal equilibrium is anything but a march to perfection.
posted by empath at 7:57 AM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


The fluctuations are quite pretty, though.
posted by stebulus at 8:58 AM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have been non-existent, and it wasn't so bad.
posted by thelonius at 10:38 AM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Finally, I didn't mention it in my earlier comment, but Birnbaum's teleology is totally unsurprising. I have a strong belief that human cognition is fundamentally teleological as an inevitable consequence of our being semi-gregarious animals. The causal chain is: semi-gregarious animals --> linguistic and technological intelligence positively selected --> theory of mind --> teleological modeling. We fundamentally reason from inferred purpose because the larger part of our cognition is social and our theory of mind incorporates inferred purpose.

And this in turn is the basic thesis of Dennett's intentional stance and his later work connecting it to evolutionary theory. And of course that work in turn is indebted to thousands of others...

I'm actually pretty sympathetic to these sorts of cranks, though not so much the rich and entitled ones. It's kind of depressing to get interested in idea after idea, decade after decade, and discover time after time, after that first flush of working out the ideas on some beautiful fall morning, that those beautiful little ideas are one mere facet of an enterprise that has been worked over by thousands of people over decades or centuries, with its own dense terminology and toolkit of specialized concepts. You can be brave, not shy away, and put aside the fun creative part for a few years to get up to speed, but man, the lure of just ignoring all that and charging along on your own creative journey... Especially since a certain degree of that is always necessary, and nothing is sadder than a brilliant thinker who gets too bogged down in learning what everyone else has said first -- an infinite process. Balancing this is hard, and in any case, the balance involves subjugating the creative part to the learning part far more than is funnest. The temptation to turn to the easy, quick Dark Side is powerful indeed. And heck, for hobbyist thinking there's nothing wrong with it. It's only when you go to publish, discover where you stand in the universe, and start spending your millions on anti-intellectual FUD that it becomes actually objectionable.
posted by chortly at 11:55 AM on October 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


prior to the Big Bang, there must have been the potential for the Big Bang.

This assumes that there was a time prior to the big bang, but if time was created by the big bang then it doesn't make sense.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 12:14 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Coming this fall: In Oceans Fourteen, Danny Ocean and his crew have to stop a self-regarding jeweller to the stars before he releases a toxic brew of intellectual sludge on the world. Can they reach Manhattan in time?
posted by lukemeister at 12:25 PM on October 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


Summa Metaphysica seems to have sprung from this same insistence that the world should be figurable-out. It is nothing less than an effort to answer the most brain-bending question of all: why does anything exist in the first place?

So sick of this bullshit non-question being trotted out as if it were actually some huge deal.

There's a really, really simple reason why things are as they are: it's because if they were different from how they are now, they'd still be as they are then. You don't need 700+ pages of self-indulgent crap to work that out. The parable of the puddle should be enough.

As to the specific question of why there is something rather than nothing: that's because "nothing" is an idea we made up, which actually has no referent that isn't relative to something else.

What caused the Big Bang? No "cause" needed. Causality is another of our little conceptual/explanatory mental shortcuts (there isn't even a decently rigorous definition of it) and reality works just fine without it.

There you go. Three short paragraphs. Do I get a Harvard lunch now?
posted by flabdablet at 11:17 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Three short paragraphs. Do I get a Harvard lunch now?

If they honor people for achievements in handwaving.
posted by empath at 12:40 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


If I'm reading TFA correctly, that's exactly what they do.
posted by flabdablet at 5:05 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I thought I was a genius for coming up with a theory of everything after I tried acid a few times. Then I heard Kari Mullis speak about how he did the same, except fucking Nature magazine published his, but wouldn't publish his PCR breakthrough decades later. LOL.
posted by lordaych at 3:25 PM on October 22, 2013


Louis CK has an amazing bit where his daughter is asking progressively frustrating increasingly esoteric question rooted in a mundane topic and finally he says something like flabdablet's explanation...

I used to think of it as "nothingness is nonexistence and cannot exist" akin to "nature abhors a vacuum" but I distilled it literally to a singularity point of mathematical impossibility, reduced to the question "what is zero divided by zero?" Some would consider this a fruitless exercise and respond with varying answers like "it's a non question" or "undefined" but I liked to think of it as 1 (x/x), zero (0/x) and infinity (0/x as x approaches zero). Man, my dad hated that shit.
posted by lordaych at 3:30 PM on October 22, 2013


lordaych, the axioms that make up mathematics are conventions, and we choose them based pragmatic criteria. There are mathematics in active use that have the latter rule (1/0 = ∞ - usually this also requires the existence of a distinct -0 and +0).

The first two, on the other hand, inevitably lead to absurdities that lead to the whole system being uselessly incoherent.
posted by idiopath at 5:14 PM on October 22, 2013


Oh, on another read you were saying something different: even in a system where 1/0 = infinity 0/0 is Not a Number.
posted by idiopath at 5:17 PM on October 22, 2013


The limit of 1/x is infinity as x approaches 0 from the right, and negative infinity as it approaches 0 from the left. 1/0 can't equal 'infinity' because you can justify it equaling either postive or negative infinity or both, which makes no sense.
posted by empath at 7:47 PM on October 22, 2013


1/0 = ∞
posted by stebulus at 5:18 AM on October 23, 2013


Louis
posted by flabdablet at 7:22 AM on October 23, 2013


I used to think of it as "nothingness is nonexistence and cannot exist"

Seems to me that the basic idea of nothing implies the existence of other things that are not where or when the nothing is. What's in the bag? Is it lollies? Chips? Oh, it's empty; there's nothing in there. What's left in this bell jar after we've extracted every single atom from it? Nothing... and so on. "Nothing" is no more and no less than a label for an unsatisfied expectation. Something could be somewhere; it isn't; there's nothing there. You can't have Nothing unless there's Something that could in principle be there instead.

To assert that the Big Bang is an event where Something comes from Nothing is to misunderstand the nature of the model. Sure, there was a stage in the evolution of reality where everything was all smooshed together with everything else to the extent that spatial separation breaks down as a useful way to specify relationships between the things that then existed; but that doesn't imply that there was ever some kind of void "outside" everything that everything was/is expanding "into". Everything was and remains everything, and everything is definitely something.

The nothing that "existed"* "before" the Big Bang exists only in the minds of people who misunderstand the model. There is therefore no requirement to explain how the universe so modelled "came from" that nothing.

Now shut up and eat your fries, you overprivileged overhyped overblown overexposed sales dude. You're a rich crank, but you're still a crank.

*scare quotes to emphasize the incoherence of that idea - if it existed, it was ipso facto something

incoherent again; the Big Bang is an ongoing process, not a singular event. The singularity that occurs in mathematical models of spacetime circa 13.8 billion years ago is a reflection of that fact that as time is but an aspect of spacetime, then in a state of reality so undifferentiated that spatial separation is not applicable as a useful way to specify relationships between things, neither is temporal separation.
posted by flabdablet at 8:02 AM on October 23, 2013


Yet Truth's author itself is nothingness
And though I make it vital that nothingness
itself will collapse
There is nothing
Nothing ever was
Nothing is a house never bought
Nothing comes after this wildbright Joke
Nothing sits on nothing in a nothing of many nothings
a nothing king.


-Corso
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:16 AM on October 23, 2013


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