Opinion 11: Great Scientists, Lousy Philosophers

By: Doron Zeilberger

Written: June 3, 1996

The intersection of the sets of great mathematicians or scientists and great philosophers is a rapidly decreasing function of time. Of course we have Pythagoras, Pascal, and Descartes, but even Euler was a rank amateur.

Most of us know how he made fun of Diderot by proving the existence of God : ``Sir, (a+b^n)/n=x, hence God exists; reply!'' (E.T. Bell, Men of Math, p. 147). In his attempts at a more serious theology, Euler (unintenionally) made fun of himself.

Nowadays, Traditional God has been replaced, in part, by another God: `Absolute Truth'. Practicing scientists get really annoyed when they are reminded that after all they are also human, and their view of science is time- and fashion- dependent. So Alan Sokal had a good laugh at the expense of post-modern cultural-relativists. But he used the same cheap trick of Euler, intimidation by jargon. He went one step farther: making fun of the sociologists' jargon. He had the advantage that their jargon is closer to spoken English than his, so he could master it superficially.

Making fun of other people's language is the lowest form of humor. Like Euler, Sokal did not prove anything, except that physical scientists and mathematicians are arrogant and look down on everybody else. They are also religious fanatics, for whatever religion they may have. Social science has probably lots of rubbish, but so does regular science, and in either case it is not the content that matters so much as the act of expressing oneself's.

For response by Alan Sokal click here .

Back to Doron Zeilberger's Opinion's Table of Content