Babbage was a great mathematician, professor of math at Cambridge University and inventor of a computing machine implemented mechanically. He planned another machine that could be considered from all points of view a programmable computer, but could not get an appropriate financing by the Government and it reained just a project; its mechanical nature made it very expensive to be built due to the high level of precision needed for each detail. It is known that Carroll contacted Babbage to know more about his project, but few information is available now about their contacts. It would be great to collect all available information about that, as it could maybe permit to understand something new about Carroll's mathematical opinions. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Babbage is a good starting point for those curious about Babbage's life and work.
Dear Carlo, I do not know whether there were really exchanges between Carroll and Babbage. We just know that the two men met once in 1867. Carroll recorded the visit in his diary on 24 July 1867:
"Then I called on Mr. Babbage, to ask whether any of his calculating machines are to be had. I find they are not. He received me most kindly, and I spent a very pleasant three-quarters of an hour with him, while he showed me over his workshops etc."
It doesn't seem however that the two men had any other exchanges. Babbage was probably too old to have a regular contact with Carroll. He was like Boole, De Morgan, Jevons, etc. from the generation before Carroll's one. Carroll had little contacts with all these men. He knew however most probably the mathematicians and logicians of his generation (Venn, Smith, etc). Also, Jevons died in 1871 at a time when symbolic logic was not yet one of Carroll's main interests. Of course, one may find some relationship between the works of Carroll and Babbage. But, here again I am not convinced that Babbage may have any (major) influence on Carroll's works. There are no Babbage works in the surviving catalogs of Carroll's private library. Also, I do not know of any interest of Carroll in logical machines, though he was surely interested in mathematical ones and in machines in general. But one cannot blame him for that. Neither Boole nor Venn believed in the interest of logical machines. In 1968, Willard Wiener published a query in the journal "Notes and Queries" to ask the readers for any information on the Dodgson-Babbage relation. He received no replies (at least none in the journal). So, maybe there is little to say on the Babbage - Carroll relationship because there was no (proper) relationship at all.
Hi Ami, thank you for the information; I think that your conclusions are correct. I did not know about Wiener. It is surprising that Carroll seems not to have noticed the importance of Babbage's ideas; in many of Carroll's notes on mathematics and logic, there seems to emerge an algorithmic interpretation of both subjects, quite in agreement with Boole's approach. I do not remember the dates, but it seems probable that Babbage could have talked about his second machine's project, which was not far from a universal computer (actually I never studied the project, so I am not so sure about that. I simply refer to others who wrote about it). Yesterday, while trying to sum up what I know about the opinions of Carroll about Darwinism, I re-read a letter of Darwin to Carroll where he kindly refuses the proposal by Carroll to take pictures of human expressions. It is surprising how Carroll seems often indifferent when he enters in contact with important ideas. As you noticed somewhere else, he seems isolated and deeply indifferent to other scientists' emerging ideas. One gets the impression that he considers methematic, logic and sciences in general not important by themselves, rather as if they were just tools used in view of something else. Take Darwinism as an example; he listened to the discussion between Huxley and Wilberforce, but, apart some parody of Spencer's social Darwinism in Sylvie and Bruno, he did not leave any significant comment on that subject. In his diary he cites often Wilberforce but, for example, I was not able to find any reference to George Lyell, whom I admire very much. All this is strange; frankly I do not yet understand what was Carroll's attitude towards sciences, if he wanted to ignore the new discoveries, if he did not understand their relevance (which would be surprising as he was a bright person). Sometimes my feeling is that he had some kind of psychologoical refusal and that(maybe) he invented bright critics to postpone any decision about new discoveries just because of their implications. His fixed idea of looking for self-evident truths and their identifications with Axioms ( the basic limit of his logic and geometry, I believe) is somehow connected with his indifference for the evolution of logics on the continent. All these elements seem to suggest something I cannot still describe. Thank you again Carlo
Last Edit: May 9, 2008 16:43:22 GMT -5 by ermete22
Carlo, That's a really excellent mail. It raises all the fundamental issues regarding Carroll's philosophy. They are issues I have been struggling with since the early 1980's.
Reading this mail, I feel obliged to seperate out the various issues in order to better understand them. I'm going to be fairly simplistic here, but bear with me.
First you express suprise about carroll's reticence regarding Babbage's mechanical device. I am sure that as a person completely entranced by mechanical innovation, Carroll would have been intrigued and stimulated by Babbages computer.
However, it appears to me that he was quite aware of the drawback of such mechanical contraptions. That is the outcome of such contraptions depend on the input. GIGO. Garbage in, Garbage Out. If the intial premise is wong then the outcome, no matter how logically or mathematically elegant, is also wrong. There is also the implication that the whole idea of a Newtonian mechanistic universe is also limited.
Carroll's attitude towards Darwinism also reflects this scepticism regading a mechanistic view of the Universe, It is quite clear, most especially in S&B that Carroll increasingly came to view the universe, in both spiritual and material terms as both relative and contingent.
We always come back To the Sylvie and Bruno books, both the texts of the novels and the prefaces.
This takes me to the second (psychological) point you raise. In terms of the history of ideas, Carroll was placed, shall we say at that pre-cusp point in history, when the certainty of Newton was being (at least) challenged. in science. I suppose for Carroll, whose Alice books proposed a relative and contingent universe, this may have seemed somewhat of a vindication. However, as a professional mathematician logician, he still had to operate within the existing and triumphant paradigm. Let's not forget, that the environment that Caroll lived in, most especially in Mechanics, was one of completel triumph.
I do think that Carroll did underrstand the 'relevance' of all the issues you raise. What, it appears to me at least, he challenged was the Truth.
Hi John, my personal opinion is that, merging different contributions from the exchange of messages which appeared in various sub-domain of the forum, some approximate scenario of Carroll’s approach to reality seems to emerge. Of course my attempt is what can be called a toy model, as in reality coherence between the opinions on different subjects is not necessarily the case for someone’s mind. The starting point, as from somewhere one must start, is his perpetual search for truth, (as you underlined many times). In the brief thesis he read as a young student in Oxford, he classified Aristotle as a non-philosopher as he did not put the truth at the centre of his philosophy, but the happiness of men. So we know how important was the search for truth for him since the beginning. In his search, he was finally convinced that the minimal request for reaching truth was correct reasoning, and therefore logic. But whatever logic deduction is just a procedure which assures that the conclusions you can reach conserve the truth of the axioms, if axioms are true. Your interpretation of the relative indifference of Carroll to Babbage’s idea of universal computer in view of GIGO, is a good example of that; is like stating that the limits of logic is that it can just assure that your conclusions are true if your premises are true. Then, in view of a search for truth, logic can just help as far as you start from true axioms you should choose by some other arguments. About GIGO one can add that Carroll made a intensive use of them in his books: in the physics of ATLG, and in SB. So these applications can support in some sense the argument by John about the indifference of Carroll to Babbage’s second machine. In SB the famous conclusion “it’s a delusion” about logic, is true if you read it like that “it’s a delusion if you search the truth”. In no other sense logic can be a delusion as ,for the rest it is reduced to mere computation if you do not introduce a meta-language and therefore Godel’s theorem and its surprising consequences (Carroll did not as it was introduced much later). This situation is confirmed by the approach of Carroll to Geometry: his problem are Euclid’s axioms, the starting point of the theory, as states Andrej, the rest of it is for Carroll just a series of relatively easy, amusing application of his logical capabilities. Not finding a logical road to the truth of axioms, he discovered (metaphorically) that the search for truth via logic depends on your choice of axioms because of GIGO. All this does not mean he considered logic as irrelevant as, at least it was an excellent tool to identify fallacies diffused by rhetoric in book, speech and sermons (the introduction to the first volume of his manual confirms that). One can say that he hated the false but was aware of how difficult it was to find the truth. The next step in a toy model of Carroll’s search of truth, is to understand how he investigated the alternatives to be sure that the axioms you choose are true; one can easily list the alternatives:
I do not think it is realistic to imagine that the intelligence of Carroll could seriously consider the first case, on the other hand my personal opinion is that it could not accept scientific truths also because there did not exist a logic justification of induction methods, so his judgement was correctly based just on the success of their applications (as it should always be the case if you do not want to enter in the meanders of falsification, which we cannot discuss here). This does not mean he refused, in its correct domain of application, the classical Newtonian mechanics, as some nice puzzles and notes are based it, but for sure he did not believe in any form of pure materialism or that consciousness was just an epiphenomenon. This is probably one of the reasons of his relative indifference to Darwinism. But one has to notice that his indifference may be due by a correct analysis of the status of the evolutionism at that epoch; there are evidences in some letters that Darwin too was seriously considering some objections. Huxley, with all his enthusiasm was certainly wrong. Nowadays Darwinism is a winning theory, but, judging Carroll, we must not forget that the evidences that Carroll had to base his judgement on, were very objectively poor and largely debatable. All this to state that, together with the conviction that the substance of the world was not just matter, also rationality can be a reason why Carroll did not take any position about it. His mathematical and geometrical works suggested that, at least for a period of his life, Carroll seriously considered case 2 as an alternative. Here it comes what John wrote: Is probable that a clear mind as Carroll’s one could not see that one remains with analytical a-priori propositions which share the same truth table (the only self-evident truths that logic is able to make available) and 4. Of the first kind of self-evident truths he made an extended use in his parodies and critical writings. The foundation of mathematics contains propositions which can look like self-evident truths, so I do not know if Carroll accepted them as self-evident; I could not find traces suggesting his opinion about this point. Out of mathematics you can find propositions that look factually self-evident anyhow, as “if it rains you get wet”, but express in general common shared experiences. But it seems a fact that Carroll finally was reduced to case 4. This is evidently a key point (within my toy model) to understand Carroll, his originality and his behaviour. I also suspect (but it’s just a suspect) that he realised that there exist many statements for which you cannot decide about their truth. The conclusions seems to be those by John: the judgements about our world are contingent, relative and often undecidable. I stop here as, while re-reading what I wrote, I felt quite uneasy as all these words look like an horrible over-simplification. Carlo
I would certainly say that sums up the sense i have always had about Carroll's unease with mathematics. I have often wondered about Carroll's coolness towards Darwin and evolution theory too. Indeed he appears not have been personally diverted by that triumphalism that pervaded Victorian culture around the conquest of nature by science. There is a restrained scepticism in his writings, especially in Sylie and Bruno that appears to suggest that he is saying, 'Just wait and you will discover that we have hardly begun to understand even the basics of the universe within which we exist.
Of course as a friend of Maxwell, he would have been aware of at least some of the embarrassing questions being raised in physices in the latter end of the 19th century. Not least, the assumption of aether and the wave-particle conundrum. It is unlikely he would not have been aware of the Mitchelson-Morley experiment whilst he was writing Sylie and Bruno and would ceertainly have been aware of its implications.
Post by johntufail on May 14, 2008 17:32:47 GMT -5
An addition to my previous mail - prompted by a very worthwhile off-list exchange of mails with Andrei.
I think that Carroll was faced with a conundrum that has faced all philosophers. This is the fact that language is a highly contingent, fluid and subjective medium. Yet it is the medium above all that defines us as a species. Attempts to objectify language wil always fail as language both informs and is informed by a constantly changing reality.
One of the more powerful phenomena of language is the Idea that if you Name something, then you can own it, understand it!
Carroll understood this perfectly and it was one of the most powerful themes of the Alice books.
This is, of course a fallacy. However it is a fallacy that is nowhere more evident than in the language and practice of science and medicine. Most particularly fom around the turn of the 17th century right into the 19th century the 'art' of taxonomy became accepted as a scientific neccessity. Once something was named and placed in a 'heirarchal structure that allowed people to feel that there is order in the universe, it was automatically assumed that understanding was automatically implicit.
It's interesting that the useof names, especially 'secret' or 'exclusive names are features of mystical rites in cultures going back thousands of years. Rites Pooh Poohed and dismissed by respectable scientists. Yet what modsern science and medicine do is little better.
The two examples i used in my discussion with Andrei were first, Gravity.
Let's face it, we all think we know what gravity is, it's the force that keeps us on the ground!. Yes, but what IS this force that keeps us on the ground? Why! it's gravity... And even post Einstein we are still struggling to understand what Gravity rweally is. But, never mind, it has a name. We control names therefore all is well!
Similarly I pointed to the term 'schizophrenia' in medicine. It is probably the most meaningless and dangerous Name ever invented - yet, by pure force od use it allows us to think that we understand a wide range of symptoms that can only be parially controlled by an even wider range of drugs (with often catastrphic side-effects. Nevertheless, if I told you my sister was 'schizophrenic, I am fairly confident that you would nod with understanding and sympathy.
The best example of this in Carroll is Humpty Dumpty. It has been pointed out (can't remember who by) that Humpty Dumpty resembles Thomas Hobbes in his use of language. he does. But he even more resembles scientists. However, The Bellman, in the Snark does un Humpty Dumpty a close second!
Hi everybody, John you are right about Carroll's coldness about Darwinism. Many authors maintain, more or less explicitly that it was because it contradicted his religious faith. Not many persons seem aware that the evolution theory had terrible problems at the beginning. Just to cite one, the time scales were definitely wrong; following the original version of the theory we should still be at the epoch of dinosaurs; while the changes observed in the fossils suggested that the evolution took place much more rapidly that the theory predicted. Until Baldwin proposed a possible explanation, which is still a matter of discussion today. In any case, if one wants to check what was the actual state of Darwinism, there is a good bibliography here:http://www.geocities.com/Athens/4155/edit.html. So why not to explain Carroll's coldness for Darwin's theory by the objective difficulties that such theory was objectively facing in that period? Carlo
Post by johntufail on May 22, 2008 16:46:14 GMT -5
Yes, Darwin's ideas regarding evolution bear about as much relationship to modern day understanding of 'eolution theory' (if, indeed we should continue to call it that) as Aritotle to our current understanding of the universe.
However, There WAS, of course, always a moral/ethical dimension to Carroll's view of science. He saved his most itriolic prose and potery to those who c ommitted moral and ethical abuses in the name of science (witness, for example, Fame's Penny Trumpet'). Although his hard-line anti-ivisectionist stance did soften somewhat later in life (see preface to S&B), he remained contemptuous towards those who averred that science and progess were activities that were outside moral compass. I rather wish someone with a tenth of his wit was around today to lay bare the moral and logical fallacies that are so prevalent on all side of the debates on such things as stem-cell research, genetic engineering, abortion - and 'managed care'. What he would make of the whole 'terrorism 'security' debate passes beyond my imaginative abilities.
But of course, Carroll's works, in this current mileau are probably even more relevant than they were in the 19th century, which is why all true Carroll afficionados should always resist any attempt to trivialise him.
Hi everybody, John is evidently right. The problem, I think, comes from the fact that today everybody assumes that in a public quarrel one of the parties must be necessarily wrong and the other right, while it is well possible that both are wrong, as maybe they miss the point, or simply because they are not discussing about a real problem, but just about the semantic of one or more words (as it happens very often). Take abortion, which represents a never ending object of discussion all around the western world. If you listen to such debates, the only thing you understand is that they are discussing something that has to do with abortion and is approximately corresponding to the practical implications of the semantic interpretation they defend. This is what they are discussing about. They maintain, for example, that a fertilized egg is a human being to mean that practically abortion must be forbidden. Why they believe that is left to psychology, theology but not to reason for sure. The Darwinism of Huxley was in fact a form of elliptically expressed materialism. The debate between materialism and spiritualism is another good example of a never ending debate, most of all because materialists mean that the spirit does not exist, it does not make any sense to talk about it, which cannot, but just for semantic reasons, have any material existence. Of course the materialist thesis that spirit does not exists because it has, by definition, no physical substance is logically untenable. Some years ago a neurobiologist name Damasio wrote a book which became famous, with the title Descartes Error, where he explicitly supported the above materialist thesis (personally I believe Descartes gave the most sensible solution.) It is possible that the resistance of Carroll to Darwinism was due to refusal of its arbitrary materialistic implications. Carlo
In terms of the history of ideas, Carroll was placed, shall we say at that pre-cusp point in history, when the certainty of Newton was being (at least) challenged. in science. I suppose for Carroll, whose Alice books proposed a relative and contingent universe, this may have seemed somewhat of a vindication.
It hasn't prevously occurred to me that Alice might represent a mature intuition about the real world and the inadequacies of Newtonian conceptions. At the risk of sounding ignorant, did Einstein show any particular interest in Carroll?
When I saw the similarity between Carroll's 'falling house' thought experiment in S&B and Einsteins free-falling lift thought experiment I did some reseach into this. I could find no evidence that Einstein had read S&B. However, this, in itself is inconclusive and ertainly the time frame is right. Einstein begun his studies at Zurich Polytechnic in the year S&B was published.
So no, I don't think you are displaying you ignorance - but I rather think the jury will be on extended vacation on this one!