Friday, December 15, 2017

From BestThinking

BestThinking is shuttering at the end of the year.  We've been invited to recover our postings and share them elsewhere, such as I'm doing here.

Thinking Out Loud
Posted in Technology / Programming / Python

Mining the 20th Century: 

Wittgenstein Meets Buckminster Fuller

Mar. 31, 2016 12:17 pm
Keywords: synergetics, applewhite, anthropology, wittgenstein
Classic Geodesic Dome

A goldmine of useful memes, textbook examples, blueprints for thinking, missed by most philosophers, is in the intersection of mathematics and anthropology. We tend to call this area "ethno-mathematics" by which we mean studying archaic practices from the past, such as Sumerian astronomy or Viking navigation techniques.

We don't look at contemporary coding subcultures (such as Python's) nor at "alternative mathematics" through the lens of anthropology because of the blinders we impose on that discipline, and because of the religious flavor of some mathematics.

Enter Wittgenstein, who studied and commented upon Frazer's Golden Bough, a first hat in the ring of this emerging discipline, anthropology. Wittgenstein's later philosophy may be seen as anthropology turning on its own culture, the one giving us anthropologists, to become more an investigation into the use of language and thereby more of a philosophical enterprise. Wittgenstein blends two flavors: ordinary language philosophy (which he helped found) and anthropology.

Fast forward to the end of the 1900s, and we get to the publication of another strange work of genius, Synergetics in two volumes, by R. Buckminster Fuller in collaboration with E.J. Applewhite. The latter wrote a separate tome, Cosmic Fishing, about shepherding this exotic text through Macmillan, in addition to recounting the collaboration process itself (Fuller narrated, providing prose, figures and tables, while Applewhite organized and typed). Another four volume tome called the Synergetics Dictionary was produced from Applewhite's documenting process. Both Synergetics and Synergetics Dictionary are available on-line.

How these connect, Wittgenstein's philosophical investigations, and Synergetics, is through the foundations of mathematics, an area much remarked upon by both. Specifically, Fuller develops an alternative geometrical model of 2nd and 3rd powering such that "squaring" and "cubing" would not be the appropriate verbs. We could say "triangling" and "tetrahedroning" instead. We don't of course -- speak that way -- but the fact remains that our mental pictures of 2 x 2, or 4 x 4 x 4, so ingrained, could be altered in a logic-preserving manner. We would enter the wonderland of a new and different culture, a so-called "different paradigm".

As an undergrad at Princeton, I wrote a thesis on Wittgenstein's later philosophy. I later became friends with Applewhite and started sharing my writings on this new doorway twixt Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (one of Wittgenstein's) and "explorations in the geometry of thinking" (the subtitle of Synergetics). He really liked the direction I was taking. I wish we could have collaborated more before he passed on.

My wife was diagnosed with a most virulent type of breast cancer (IBC) the day before Ed (short for Edgar) and I were to have dinner in DC. We had met several times before, at his place, at fancy restaurants, also in Portland where his wife June joined us. This meetup looked especially propitious. We had just finished a Fuller Symposium, Applewhite a speaker and now a Pycon was starting (a Python conference, a computer language) on the same GWU campus.

The phone call came through from my poor distraught wife who had just been given a death sentence by her oncologist. She had gone from zero to stage three overnight, with chemo to start immediately. I needed to drop everything and hurry home. Ed and I continued with phone conversations and emails but never got to meet again after that. Ed died on Valentine's Day in 2005. Dawn, my wife, died on St. Patrick's Day in 2007.

What's true about working in a goldmine is the payoff is premised on gold having value, as currency, as a precious metal. Without a culture around me that values these men of genius in the 1900s, and makes use of their ideas, I have only a private language to get lost in, and that's no fun. So of course I'm motivated to push these ideas into the public domain, via Youtubes or whatever media. If you follow the bread crumbs, you'll find me connecting these dots in several venues, including those frequented by Python programmers and mathematicians. In Portland, you'll find me at the boyhood home of Linus Pauling, one of Oregon's top celebs, the two-time Nobel prize winning activist chemist. A group of us, fans and friends, meet every week.

I also engage in talk of STEM and STEAM, the former being the much-hyped science-technology matrix, with the "A" then added to give the humanities more of a foothold, and typically meant to mean "Art". However I say "A is for Anthropology" and bring it back to my pet projects.