On the Ghosts of Reality: G.H. Hardy and Robert M. Pirsig

"A chair may be a collection of whirling electrons, or an idea in the mind of God..."

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English mathematician, G. H. Hardy (February 7, 1877 – December 1, 1947), was known for his achievements in number theory and mathematical analysis. Hardy was also an avid cricket fan. Friend and colleague Maynard Keynes (founder of Keynesian economics) noted that if Hardy had read the stock exchange for half an hour every day with as much interest as he did cricket scores, he would have been a rich man.

Outside of mathematics, Hardy was known for his essay, "A Mathematician's Apology," considered one of the best insights into the mind of a mathematician. A love letter to mathematical beauty and the pleasure mathematicians derive from their work — comparable to music and poetry.

The Ideology of Reality

Ideology is the science of ideas. What is reality then, is it a system of ideas or is it what we take it to be, the state of things as they actually exist?

On this, Hardy writes:

The mathematician is in much more direct contact with reality. This may seem a paradox, since it is the physicist who deals with the subject-matter usually described as ‘real’; but a very little reflection is enough to show that the physicist’s reality, whatever it may be, has few or none of the attributes which common sense ascribes instinctively to reality. A chair may be a collection of whirling electrons, or an idea in the mind of God: each of these accounts of it may have its merits, but neither conforms at all closely to the suggestions of common sense. ... A chair or a star is not in the least like what it seems to be; the more we think of it, the fuzzier its outlines become in the haze of sensation which surrounds it; but ‘2’ or ‘317’ has nothing to do with sensation, and its properties stand out the more clearly the more closely we scrutinize it.

If it is all a matter of perspective, then reality, even to the speakers of math, does not lose any of its beauty.

Hardy writes:

The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics.

On the function of the mathematician, Hardy writes:

I believe that mathematical reality lies outside us, that our function is to discover or observe it, and that the theorems which we prove, and which we describe grandiloquently as our ‘creations,’ are simply the notes of our observations.

Robert Maynard Pirsig (born September 6, 1928) is a writer and philosopher. With an I.Q. of 170, Pirsig skipped several grades and at 14, enrolled at the University of Minnesota to study biochemistry. The young Pirsig saw science, not as a system of understanding but as an end goal — as a way to meet absolute Truth. While in the university, Pirsig discovered that there were seemingly limitless workable hypotheses to explain a given phenomenon. A puzzled and disillusioned Pirsig was eventually expelled from the university due to failing grades.

Pirsig enlisted in the military, serving overseas. Upon his return, he began to study philosophy. Pirsig was far from overcoming his difficulties with inquiry, finally suffering a nervous breakdown. Pirsig was in and out of psychiatric hospitals between 1961 and 1963. Pirsig chronicled much of this experience in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where he put into words not only the ghosts of his past but also what he had learned about the nature of reality and its accompanying beliefs. At the start, Pirsig believed that math and science would offer some ultimate Knowing, only to later discover that math was just another interpretation of existence, comparable to music and poetry.

On this, Pirsig writes:

The problem, the contradiction the scientists are stuck with, is that of mind. Mind has no matter or energy but they can’t escape its predominance over everything they do. Logic exists in mind. Numbers exist only in the mind. I don’t get upset when scientists say that ghosts exist in the mind. It’s that only that gets me. Science is only in your mind, too, it’s just that that doesn’t make it bad. Or ghosts either.

Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn’t a human invention. The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It’s all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It’s run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts trying to find their place among the living.

The pairing of G. H. Hardy and Robert M. Pirsig illuminates the beautiful language of reality. Whatever really "is," we may never know. Our interpretations of what is, exist within our own human imagination.

I am my world.
— Ludwig Wittgenstein

Expressed through words, and words defining our interpretations. Reality becoming beautiful language and beautiful language becoming Reality.

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