Academic journal article Extrapolation

Languages, Litanies, and the Limit: The Discourse of Mathematics in Neal Stephenson's Anathem

Academic journal article Extrapolation

Languages, Litanies, and the Limit: The Discourse of Mathematics in Neal Stephenson's Anathem

Article excerpt

One of the most recent additions to Stephenson's literary oeuvre, Anathem is also perhaps his most ambitious. Combining world-historical narrative, science fiction gadgetry, contemporary philosophy, and characteristically wry humor, Stephenson puts together a massive novel of ideas, consisting of free interplay between philosophy, science, and story-telling, of a sort only rarely seen in contemporary science fiction. While much of the philosophical discussion within Stephenson's text focuses on the polycosmic theory of consciousness advocated in the later portions of the book, it is my intent in this article to restrict analysis of the many philosophical themes of the novel to that of mathematical realism, or the question of which mathematical objects constitute "real" entities. This limitation is both to fit this article into a manageable scope, but also to focus on those issues alone in Anathem which my own educational background permits me to address: while my education has included formal study in mathematics, I am in no way qualified to hold forth on issues in theoretical physics or neurophysiology. In this article I will argue that Anathem puts forth a dialectical reconciliation of the two dominant themes of contemporary mathematical philosophy, Platonism and Fictionalism, arguing that each represent different but mutually compatible ways of understanding the same phenomena, as a result of a metaphysics advocated by the novel which I will loosely describe as "transcendental materialism." In exploring this line of argument, I will first briefly situate Anathem in the context of Stephenson's own corpus, as well as outlining the thematic indebtedness of the novel to Plato's Timaeus. I will then discuss the mathematical-philosophical concerns salient to the content of Anathem, and finally analyze the various representations and discussions of mathematical philosophy over the course of the novel.

Form and Function

In the concluding paragraphs to In the Beginning ... Was the Command Line, a piece of short non-fiction focusing in turns on the relative merits of competing operating systems, the history of the computer, and the role of the computer in society at large, Stephenson permits himself to indulge in a bit of metaphysical speculation, in which he describes the universe as a computerized operating system of cosmic proportions, run by a deistic systems administrator.

[S]omewhere outside of and beyond our universe is an operating system, coded over incalculable spans of time by some kind of hacker-demiurge [...] The demiurge sits at his teletype, pounding out one command line after another, specifying the values of fundamental constants of physics [...] When he's finished typing out the command line, his right pinky hesitates above the enter key for an aeon or two, wondering what's going to happen; then down it comes - and the whack you hear is another big bang. (112)

As a piece of philosophy, this image is clearly problematic: not only does Stephenson naively attribute gender to a problematically transcendent being, but it is furthermore unclear just where this "somewhere" where the demiurge is coding could possibly be, if it is "beyond" the universe. Of course, this image is not intended as philosophy or metaphysics, and it is somewhat unfair to demand such a high level of rigor. Rather, it seems clear that this image is intended as a kind of poetry, a myth of the cosmos if you will, an explanation of the world that does not seek to enable predictions, but instead seeks to satisfy certain psychological needs for order, unity, and form in the world writ large. As such, both the content and the function of this concluding image from In the Beginning ... Was the Command Line, and especially its use of the word "demiurge," recall another famous story-of-the-world, the one set forth in Plato's Timaeus.

The bulk of Plato's Timaeus presents the principal, eponymous speaker as he describes "the origin of the universe" and "the nature of human beings" (27a). …

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