Useless Knowledge

Aristotle said that metaphysics is useless, in the sense that it's not for anything: every other sort of knowledge is for it. It is in metaphysics that we approach ultimate truths, the nature of being as such. Of course we don't pursue that so we can use it to make better pancakes: we make better pancakes so we can have the strength and leisure to reflect on the truth of the reality we encounter daily.

Here is a very pleasant article that makes similar claims about pure math. It's distinct from applied math, which means math that you can use for something. The article gets around to asking the question Aristotle doesn't ask, as he assumed you'd have to make a living doing something useful in order to pursue metaphysics:
Q: So if “applied” means “useful,” doesn’t it follow that “pure” must mean…

A: Useless?

Q: You said it, not me.

A: Well, I prefer the phrase “for its own sake,” but “useless” isn’t far off.

Pure mathematics is not about applications. It’s not about the “real world.” It’s not about creating faster web browsers, or stronger bridges, or investment banks that are less likely to shatter the world economy.

Pure math is about patterns, puzzles, and abstraction. It’s about ideas. It’s about the other ideas that come before, behind, next to, or on top of those initial ones. It’s about asking, “Well, if that’s true, then what else is true?” It’s about digging deeper.

Q: You’re telling me there are people out there, right this instant, doing mathematics that may never, ever be useful to anyone?

A: *glances over at wife working, verifies that she’s not currently watching Grey’s Anatomy*


Q: Um… why?

A: Because it’s beautiful! They’re charting the frontiers of human knowledge. They’re no different than philosophers, artists, and researchers in other pure sciences.

Q: Sure, that’s why they’re doing pure math. But why are we paying them?

A: Ah! That’s a trickier question. Let me distract you from it with a rambling story.


MikeD said...

I don't object to artists, mathematicians, philosophers, or others to be paid to perform "pure" research/art. I only object to it being done from the public treasury. I much prefer the tried and true patronage system, where individuals (or charities, or companies) pay for such activity. Michelangelo worked for patrons, not the state. Johann Sebastian Bach worked for patrons, not for the state. Leonardo Da Vinci did both at various times in his life, but his work for the state tended to be in the manner of weapons research (and therefore a practical application). I find it bizarre that as a programmer, or tech writer, or accountant, you are expected to produce something in order to make a living, but if you are an "artist" or "philosopher" you should be immune to the need to actually make or do anything to earn your living.

And for the record, I find art to be the strangest example of this. If you are a musician, no one thinks twice about requiring you to put out works that are creative, and enjoyable for the public in order to convince them to buy your works (or pay for your performance), but for whatever reason, painters and "performance" artists seem to believe that their ability to sell their work should be immaterial and the public owes them a living doing what they (the artists) enjoy. Why? Is music somehow less "valuable" that it has to rise or fall on its own merits? What's so wrong with asking a painter to make something commercially viable in order to make a living with their art?

E Hines said...

I don't have a principled argument against Federal funding of basic research. Some of it has huge cost barriers to entry. The outcomes of that research, though, must be in the public domain, which is a major advantage to the general weal over privately funded basic research. What I have trouble solving is the practical problem of keeping such government funding from being used for political purposes rather than for research purposes.

Federal funding of "art" is a different kettle of fish. There's very little basic research going on here; it's nearly all application work (I'd be down with government funding of basic research into the fundamentals of color, for instance, though). That should be privately funded.

Freedom of (political) speech is a carefully protected thing (arguendo); there's nothing in there, though, that says it must also be publicly funded.

Eric Hines