15 June, 2005

Does one's wife really exist?

The current issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society has an interview with Martin Gardner. (Free download, but large PDF file.) Gardner, for those of you not in the know, is not a mathematician; rather, he is a "popularizer" of mathematics, which basically means that he wrote articles for Scientific American that took sophisticated mathematical topics and reduced them to a level that a non-mathematician could understand. He was amazing.

The interview touches on several interesting points, one of my favorites being the following summary of the philosophical differences between Rudolph Carnap and Bertrand Russell:

I attended one [seminar] in which they got into a big discussion about whether their wives existed or not. Carnap is inclined not to call himself a realist. The only reason he recommends the realistic language is that he thinks that's the most efficient language for science. Of course, Russell is a dyed-in-the-wool realist who thinks the universe exists whether anybody observes it or not. So Russell kept turning the argument into a question of whether they had a right to say their wives really existed outside of their own experience. The next day... Professor [Robin] Harshorne... asked [me], "Were you at Russell's seminar yesterday? How did it go?" I said, "Well, Russell tried to convince Carnap that his wife existed, but Carnap wouldn't admit it." And who should walk in except Carnap! To my great embarassment Hartshorne said, "Mr. Gardner here attended your seminar last night, and he said you wouldn't admit that your wife existed." Carnap didn't smile at all, he just glowered down at me—he was a very tall fellow—and he said, "Well, that was not the point at all."
I read this and thought it was immensely funny, until I read the very next couple of sentences: it ends badly, because Carnap's wife committed suicide some time later.


Alessandra said...

I'll try to read the article later, it sounds interesting. I had never heard of Carnap, and I really think most of these "existence" discussions are a total waste of money and big philosophical words hiding some stupid or very loony takes on reality. Anyways, I agree with Russell.

And it is a sad story. The tragic ending only goes to highlight how stupid this Carnap must be.

jack perry said...


I had never heard of Carnap either, and I still knew nothing more about him until you said that you knew nothing about him. Then I decided to look him up on Wikipedia, but that didn't help much either, especially since my eyes glazed a few words into the article. (Apologies to any philosophers reading this: I'm more of a dilettante in than a genuine student of philosophy, and modern philosophy generally gets the glazed eyes going especially quickly, not in the least because, like Alessandra, I think a lot of the discussions are a bunch of "big philosophical words hiding some stupid or very loony takes on reality.")

On the other hand, I understand what Carnap was trying to say, and he has a valid point, so I don't think he's totally stupid. I do think, though, that Plato answered this first and best when he considered the problem of an oar that looks bent underwater. (Maybe I am revealing here that I don't really understand what Carnap is say,ing.)

But, like most people I've known who make that point, he carried it wayyyyy too far, and the absurdity of arguing that he can't know with certainty whether his wife exists outside of his experiences of her rather demonstrates it, I think.