Friday, January 09, 2009

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

It has for some time been a pet theory of mine that the common thread tying together Neal Stephenson's fictional output over the last decade is not, or at least not only, his fascination with science, technology, their development and the philosophies and worldviews that developed with them, and those philosophies and worldviews' effects on human society, but rather his desire to write an epic fantasy centering around these topics. Well, that's probably putting it too strongly, but already in my first reading of Cryptonomicon I couldn't shake the feeling that if I only poked hard enough at the novel's flesh and fat I'd be able to discern the skeleton of a fantastic story beneath them. It is, after all, a novel in which a running gag involves the main character classifying the people he meets into Tolkienian races, and there is something There and Not Quite Back Again-ish about most of the main characters' plotlines. The Baroque Cycle begins and ends with blatant Lord of the Rings homages, and in between tells the same departure of wonder story with which that novel has become synonymous, albeit from a perspective that views that departure as something positive. Now, with Anathem, the bones are poking up beneath the skin (though in no other respect could Anathem be called a skinny novel), as Stephenson mines a plot that has informed a sizable portion of the fantasy genre, from A Wizard of Earthsea to Harry Potter.

Nineteen year old Fraa Erasmas is a junior avout of the centenarian math at the concent of Saunt Edhar, about to celebrate his first Apert. Translation: Erasmas's planet, Arbre, has a history very similar to that of Earth's--an Ancient Greece analogue gives way to a Rome analogue, which adopts a Christianity analogue before its collapse ushers in a dark age which ends with a scientific and rationalist enlightenment, leading to a technological age--with one major deviation. On Arbre, the enlightenment was accompanied by the development of a semi-monastic way of life for those interested in scientific enquiry. This discipline was codified at the end of Arbre's technological age--a point roughly equivalent to our present day--when unspecified horrors were unleashed on the population, rendering much of the planet uninhabitable. A division was imposed between scientists and the rest of the population, with the former sequestering themselves for a period--a year, a decade, a century or a millennium (orphaned or unwanted babies delivered to concents replace the population of the latter)--and devoting themselves to pure science while renouncing most forms of technology and material possessions. At the end of their sequestration period, the scientists--the avout--celebrate Apert, a period of ten days during which they may venture out into what they term the Sæcular world, to learn of the work being done in other concents, reunite with the families they left behind, taste the world's pleasures, and decide whether they wish to recommit themselves to their math.

Erasmas, therefore, is in the classic starting position for the hero of a fantastic bildungsroman--the smallest possible cog in a machine of gargantuan complexity and power. As the novel opens, he has the standard complement of early adulthood problems such protagonists suffer from--an unrequited crush, friendly and not-so-friendly competition with his fellow novices, and a general uncertainty about his place in the concent. Anathem's early chapters introduce us to these problems as well as the people in Erasmas's life and the workings of the concent (by which I mean either passages which concentrate on the architecture and mechanics of the concent's millennium clock, which are tedious, or ones which describe the concent's rituals and social strata, which are very well done), but events surrounding Apert quickly force Erasmas to look beyond his personal concerns. Political tensions between various orders in the concent are on the rise, with Erasmas's mentor, Fraa Orolo, at the heart of the storm. The Inquisition, the body charged with ensuring that avout maintain their separation from the Sæcular world, come calling. The concent's telescope is suddenly declared off-limits. When Orolo is dismissed from the concent for using forbidden technology, Erasmas and his friends dedicate themselves to recreating his research, and soon discover that Arbre is being visited by an alien spaceship. Before long, they have all been sent out into the world, as avout and Sæcular join forces to puzzle out and possibly defend against these visitors.

Anathem's plot follows the standard progression of the fantastic coming of age novel. Erasmas learns, grows, deepens and complicates his relationships with his friends, family, and superiors, and finds his place in the world by becoming a mover and shaker in a new world order. This aspect of the novel is affecting and well done, but the characters themselves are nearly nonexistent. Erasmas is an affable Harry Potter-ish blank, the better for other characters to explain his world to him. His only distinguishing characteristics are loyalty--to his mentor and to his friends--and strength of will, which breeds in him the determination to carry out the tasks they set him or the ones he sets himself on their behalf. His closest friends over the course of the novel are the three young men with whom he forms the concent's bell-ringing team, Lio, Jesry, and Arsibalt. Lio, a wannabe ninja, is quite fun, but even at the very end of the novel I had trouble telling the other two apart--we're told, for example, that Jesry is the golden boy of the group, brilliant, handsome, and charismatic, but never get to see him outshine his fellows as Erasmas keeps telling us he does.

Erasmas's two love interests, Tulia and Ala, are an even worse story. Except for frequent mentions of the latter's exceptional organizational skills, we never get a sense of the difference between them, which makes Erasmas's decision to transfer his affections from Tulia to Ala completely inexplicable. The novel's most interesting characters are the ones who are more distinct types, and whose idiosyncrasies are allowed to stand in place of personalities--Fraa Jad, a crotchety millenarian avout who speaks only in riddles; Yul, a wilderness guide with a DIY obsession who helps Erasmas get across the north pole and falls in love with his sister; Barb, a novice avout who is borderline autistic; Fraa Lodoghir, who stands in opposition to everything Orolo believes in and has no qualms about using underhand rhetorical tactics to prove that his point of view is the right one.

Far more successful is Stephenson's worldbuilding. In Anathem's early chapters in particular, but throughout the novel, he focuses on describing the avout community, which in his hands becomes an intriguing mixture of monastic order and university. Like monks, Erasmas's and his friends' lives are governed by the observance of rituals, called 'auts,' which also give the novel's chapters their titles, and like the inhabitants of monasteries, a substantial portion of their time is spent doing chores to help with the concent's upkeep and keep it self-sustaining. But despite these overt parallels, the avout are not a religion. The purpose of their life in the concent is the acquisition and proliferation of knowledge, and the terms in which the pursuit of this goal are couched are reminiscent less of religious belief than of the workings of an academic institution or scientific community. The one-year maths, we learn, are the equivalent of undergraduate faculties. People from the Sæcular world often spend several years there, sometimes just to give themselves a little polish, and other times to learn and gain skills that will further their careers out in the world. Those who wish to dedicate their lives to knowledge join the ten, hundred, or thousand year maths, which are institutes of higher learning. The politics within these maths--tensions between different orders with opposing philosophies or tenets, or between individuals whose theories conflict--feel very much like tensions between rival departments or researchers in a university.

When Erasmas, who is about to come of age, is faced with choosing an order, he's courted by the New Circle, who take an administrative and political role in the concent, but has his heart set on the order of Saunt Edhar, where he can dedicate himself to intellectual pursuits (while fearing that his intellectual prowess isn't quite up to snuff)--mirroring the division between pure research and administration in many universities. When Erasmas and his friends step out of line, the concent's Warden Regulant hands out penance, but instead of twenty Hail Marys, they get to learn and memorize The Book--"crafted and refined over many centuries to be nonsensical, maddening, and pointless ... The punishment lay in knowing that you were putting all that effort into letting a kind of intellectual poison infiltrate your brain". Outside the concent, society is far from feral or technologically backwards--Erasmas encounters the equivalents of cellphones, movies, GPS, and the internet during Apert--but most of the Sæculars Erasmas meets are technology users or, like his sister Cord, technicians and engineers. It is mainly within the concents that the science underlying technology is fully understood, and it is only there that the more ephemeral questions about the nature of matter, the universe, and existence itself are being pondered.

At the same time as he describes the avout community, Stephenson charts Arbre's history in the 3,700 years since the separation between avout and Sæcular was imposed, and fills in the gaps in the Earth-adjacent history preceding it. Quite shockingly for a Stephenson novel, he achieves much of Anathem's affect, and creates a sense of the weight and presence of that history, through language and wordplay. As xkcd would have it, Anathem's invented vocabulary is nothing more than an exmaple of the standard epic fantasy tendency towards same, and given that the book is so clearly being written within the boundaries of the epic fantasy form, there is some truth to this accusation, but it is also a tool Stephenson uses to both equate and differentiate Arbre from Earth. Anathem's is peppered with extracts from the Dictionary, an official avout document reedited every thousand years when the millenarian maths have their Apert, the better to acquaint their inhabitants with the changes in language and word usage. Many of these are along the same lines as the definition of 'anathem,' which serves as the novel's epigraph:
Anathem: (1) In Proto-Orth, a poetic or musical invocation of Our Mother Hylaea, which since the time of Adrakhones has been the climax of the daily liturgy (hence the Fluccish word Anthem meaning a song of great emotional resonance, esp. one that inspires listeners to sing along). Note: this sense is archaic, and used only in ritual context where it is unlikely to be confused with the much more commonly used sense 2. (2) In New Orth, an aut by which an incorrigible fraa or suur is ejected from the math and his or her work sequestered (hence the Fluccish word Anathema meaning intolerable statements or ideas).
These kinds of word games abound in the novel. 'Concent' obviously recalls 'convent,' but also has its roots in 'concentration,' as in the concentration of scientifically-minded people in a single place where they can be out of the way and easily controlled. 'Apert' is a mixture of 'apart' and 'aperture.' 'Saunt' immediately puts us in mind of 'saint,' but as we learn from a handy Dictionary reference the word is actually a corruption of 'savant.' Perhaps most entertaining is 'bulshytt,' which in Fluccish, the language of the Sæcular, means exactly what you think it means, but which in the avout language means marketing speech, the use of words and rhetoric to say nothing at all, for example when a Sæcular tries to explain to Orolo that two forms of A/V technology, speely and farspark, mean completely different things. This device, like the coupling of the monastic trappings of the avout lifestyle with its secular, intellectual purpose, helps to create a combination of familiarity and strangeness that is Anathem's most dominant emotional tone. One of the chief pleasures of the novel is the way it reveals a completely foreign history while encouraging us to find its parallels with our own. This intensifies our engagement with the novel and livens up Stephenson's frequent infodumps. Instead of being spoon-fed a history and culture, readers are encouraged to actively explore them, piecing together a massive historical-cultural puzzle.

Everything I've written so far about Anathem is accurate, but it doesn't create anything approaching a true reflection of what the book is like because it leaves out what is probably its most important feature. In between Erasmas's adventures, Anathem is a primer on the history, growth, and some of the major conflicts in Western philosophy. Erasmas has few conversations as we define the term. Most of his interactions take the form of a formal philosophical dialogue. In some cases, Erasmas is being taught or led to a conclusion. In others he's explaining to an outsider some facet of avout life or thought, and sometimes he engages in or witnesses genuine philosophical battles, in which two sides dispute over the very nature of existence (so central are these dialogues or lessons to the novel that a few of them have even been lopped off where apparently even Stephenson was persuaded that they might halt the novel's action and made into appendices).

The central philosophical dispute in Anathem is between the Halikaarnians and the Procians, who correspond to Platonic Realism, which argues that concepts and ideas have an existence independent of the people or culture grasping them, and Nominalism, which argues that abstracts are nothing but the construct of the mind, and that nothing exists outside of physical matter or human perception. In other words, is there such a thing as the number 3, or is 3 merely a social construct? Obviously, this is the kind of question that is simultaneously huge and meaningless, and its discussion in Anathem is most frequently broken down into smaller, more comprehensible issues: whether, as the Procians would have it, the Halikaarnian belief in what is essentially Plato's world of perfect forms amounts to a belief in God; whether, as some of the Sæculars Erasmas meets would have it, there is an inherent contradiction between the avout pursuit of knowledge and belief in God; most importantly, what role science and rationalism have had in the development of Erasmas's society, and what role they should have.

Anathem quickly (by which I mean a couple hundred pages in) settles into a format. Erasmas arrives at a new location or meets a new acquaintance. A philosophical discourse, often building on conclusions reached or terms established in previous conversations, is launched. Repeat. This sounds like a recipe for tedium and abstruseness, but to my surprise Anathem is the most effortlessly readable of Stephenson's novels, and an exciting, thoroughly enjoyable adventure story to boot. Though not as pyrotechnically fun as Cryptonomicon, it has an earnestness that is endearing and very hard to resist. Stephenson takes care to weave the didactic portions of the novel with adventure scenes--Erasmas and his friends defying the Inquisition to discover Orolo's secret; his journey over the north pole, following in Orolo's footsteps; a mission to space. In fact, while reading Anathem I was repeatedly struck by amazement at the fact that I had forced myself to endure 2,700 pages of The Baroque Cycle, putting up with Stephenson's convoluted plotting and endless proliferation of personality-free characters, when all I had to do was wait for Anathem to make much the same point (like Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle, Anathem is about the point When It Changed. It's just that Stephenson keeps pushing that point back--from the dawn of the computer age to the Enlightenment to the discovery of the Pythagorean Theorem) so much more elegantly and enjoyably.

One possible reason for Anathem succeeding where it shouldn't and where The Baroque Cycle failed is that, unlike The Baroque Cycle, its plot takes us somewhere we hadn't been and weren't expecting to go. Every philosophical concept Erasmas learns is a building block, a puzzle piece with which he comes closer to understanding the truth about the alien ship. The Baroque Cycle, which described the past, had a clearly understood endpoint--its appeal was, or was intended to be, in its presentation of a novel interpretation of the path leading to that endpoint. The path Anathem sets us on, however, leads to a McGuffin that is a genuine delight, a piece of SFnal invention that is, if not plausible, then at least so neatly perched above the scientific and philosophical foundations established by the preceding hundreds of pages that it feels satisfyingly so, and the process of discovering it along with Erasmas similarly satisfying. Once again, by encouraging his readers to actively engage with with the novel, to conduct their own investigation parallel to Erasmas's, Stephenson transforms what might have been a dry lecture into an intellectual adventure.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing I can say about Anathem's success as a didactic work of fiction is that it has finally persuaded me to read Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. I've been resistant to this extraordinarily well-received YA novel since I first read about it in Farah Mendlesohn's review for Strange Horizons. It's a good review, both in the sense that it is positive and in the sense that it clearly conveys the reviewer's reasons for liking the book. It's just that everything Mendlesohn lists as a point in Little Brother's favor, and mainly its naked didacticism, is everything that I hate most in fiction. Subsequent positive reviews only further persuaded me that Little Brother was almost calculated to arouse my hatred. Anathem's structure, however, and its blatant didacticism, are very similar to the impression I've formed of Little Brother, to the extent that I'm wondering whether, like Little Brother and several other books tipped as hot Hugo favorites this year, Anathem might not be most profitably discussed as a YA novel (its plot is certainly a staple of many books for young readers). I'm suddenly curious to see whether my enjoyment of Anathem means that I'll also enjoy Little Brother, or whether there are crucial difference between the two books that overwhelm their similar structures and goals.

I've said that strangeness dominates as Anathem's emotional tone, created by Arbre's simultaneous familiarity and foreignness, but in its first half at least this strangeness has an almost surreal quality, and contributes to the sense that Stephenson has written the novel with tongue very firmly set in cheek. The direct parallels to Earth seem almost to be daring the reader to break their suspension of disbelief, as do the frequent meta-references sprinkled throughout the novel. The introduction, with its pronunciation guide and timeline, is very nearly a parody of the ubiquity of these elements in epic fantasy (one suspects that the only reason Anathem isn't an actual book-with-map is that the map would give the game away too soon). Erasmas's friend Lio is a enthusiast of vale-lore, a fighting form invented by the monks at the concent of the Ringing Vale, who are clearly a riff on every ninja monk ever to grace a martial arts movie. After they've arrived on the alien ship, Erasmas and his friends complain that the end to their adventure isn't anything like "a spec-fic speely, where something amazingly cool-to-look-at happens", and as he's narrating his story's happy ending, Erasmas tells us that we "might find it odd that a story like this one ends with a kiss, as if it were a popular speely, or a comedy acted out on a stage" (though perhaps this is simply Stephenson poking fun at his reputation as an author who can't write a proper ending). Most prominently, the avout about to venture on their first Apert are warned to be on the lookout for Iconographies, narratives constructed about the avout which affect their perception by the Sæcular, and which parallel depictions of scientists and intellectuals in our popular culture.
The Muncostran Iconography: eccentric, lovable, disheveled theorician, absent-minded, means well. The Pendarthan: fraas as high-strung, nervous, meddling know-it-alls who simply don't understand the realities; lacking physical courage, they always lose out to more masculine Sæculars. The Klevan Iconography: theor as an awesomely wise elder statesman who can solve all the problems of the Sæcular world. The Baudan Iconography: we are grossly cynical frauds living in luxury at the expense of common man. The Penthabrian: we are guardians of ancient mystical secrets of the universe handed down to us by Cnoüs himself, and all our talk about theorics is just a smoke-screen to hide our true power from the unwashed multitude.
Anathem appears to be aware of its genre(s) and none-too-subtly mocking them while telling a story within them. About halfway into the novel, however, these meta-references are suddenly flattened by the revelation of the nature of the alien visitors, who have arrived from parallel Earths, including our own. Suddenly what seemed like a quirky and endearingly over the top parody of genre conventions has an internally consistent reason within the plot. Instead of poking fun at the linguistic obsession of fat fantasy authors, Anathem's introduction has a reason for existing that is internal to the plot. The whole book is a translation of Erasmas's narrative for readers on Earth, hence the pronunciation guide, or his odd insistence that when he uses the word 'carrot,' he doesn't mean an actual carrot but an Arbran root vegetable similar to a carrot. What seems at first like a subtle jab at secondary world fantasy is actually our earliest clue to what is actually going on. When Erasmas says that Arbre is Earth but not Earth, we assume that he's speaking poetically, but he is actually telling the stone cold truth. Similarly, the many references to genre and narratives resonate with the many-worlds revelation when it's revealed that Arbre is the platonic ideal for other worlds, and that those worlds act as platonic ideals to others.

On one level, this is very, very neat, and the revelation is very cleverly pulled off, but however smart this McGuffin is, it's hard to escape the impression that Stephenson's build-up, those early portions of the novel in which we're half befuddled and half convinced that he's having us on, are more than his literal-minded payoff could support. It's one thing to argue that every world must arrive at certain scientific and cultural milestones if its society is to make it to space, but to suggest nearly identical parallel histories and a culture that so closely resembles our own, 21st century culture--cellphones, sports jerseys, evangelicals--strains credulity. A metaphor or a gag can support these improbabilities. An earnest reading can't.

On one level these similarities are part of the main thrust of Anathem's McGuffin, that Arbre's culture has informed Earth's (though none of the characters who suggest that this influence exists ever go so far as to speculate that Arbre and Earth's cultures might be as similar as we know them to be, because none of them ever find out much about Earth itself). This, however, leaves us bumping up against the very real problem that when Stephenson writes about human civilization, what he's really talking about is Western civilization. There is no mention of any culture not descended down the Greece-Rome-Christian Europe line in Anathem, no analogues to India, China, Arabia or Persia. At best, these cultures and their contributions to science, philosophy, and the store of human knowledge exist on Arbre but are never mentioned by Erasmas, who may not even be aware of their existence. At worst, the platonic ideal of human civilization, per Stephenson, doesn't include non-white cultures.

At what should be the novel's triumphant climax, it subtly undermines itself by insisting on a rational, thought out explanation for what had seemed like over the top weirdness. In other words, at the moment when Stephenson takes what had seemed to be a generic (if distinctive in its style and topic) secondary world YA fantasy and reveals it to be good old fashioned science fiction, there's a creak of the gears that I found impossible to ignore. It isn't enough to scuttle the book, but it does leave it feeling less than whole. In spite of this, Anathem, and the moment of revelation that gave me so much pause, are both exhilarating. This isn't yet as good as Stephenson can be, but it's a welcome return to form, and a reminder of how much pleasure and enjoyment he's capable of giving his readers.

51 comments:

Andrew Stevens said...

The central philosophical dispute in Anathem is between the Halikaarnians and the Procians, who correspond to Platonic Realism, which argues that concepts and ideas have an existence independent of the people or culture grasping them, and Nominalism, which argues that abstracts are nothing but the construct of the mind, and that nothing exists outside of physical matter or human perception. In other words, is there such a thing as the number 3, or is 3 merely a social construct? Obviously, this is the kind of question that is simultaneously huge and meaningless, and its discussion in Anathem is most frequently broken down into smaller, more comprehensible issues:

Maybe you've convinced me to actually read Neal Stephenson (many have tried, but all so far have failed). I am a little worried, though. There aren't very many Platonic Realists left in the world. The real dispute is between the Aristotelian immanent realists and the nominalists. The answer to this question, however, is enormously important. Calling it "meaningless" more or less guarantees that your sympathies are with the nominalists, even if you don't have a clearly articulable philosophical position that way. (I am, of course, an immanent realist myself.)

On the other hand, I too greatly dislike didacticism in fiction so it's still hard to see what Stephenson is going to offer me that I can't get more easily and of better quality in non-fiction.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

You probably should take my assignment of real-world analogues to Arbran philosophers with a grain of salt, since my grounding in philosophy is pretty much nonexistent. That said, given the emphasis on the world of perfect forms in Anathem, and with the caveat that I know nothing about immanent realism, it seems to me that Platonism is probably the correct parallel.

As I say, the question is both meaningless and huge, by which I mean meaningless in its hugeness. When stated as baldly as 'is there a 3?' it seems too abstract to matter, though at the same time obviously touching on the fundamental nature of the universe. The sub-questions Stephenson spins off from this dispute have a greater connection to the practical matters of everyday life, and therefore strike me as more meaningful. Which, I suppose, means I don't have much of a future in philosophy.

Andrew Stevens said...

You were correct. Stephenson is unquestionably talking about Platonic realism. Your description made that clear. Immanent realism agrees that abstract entities exist and that they are independent of us and our thinking, but believe they adhere in physical objects themselves. Redness exists in red objects, not outside space-time, etc. To be fair to Stephenson, now that I think of it, I am aware of some immanent realists who deny that this is a sufficient explanation for mathematics and adhere to Platonic realism with regard to numbers. I am not terribly persuaded by these claims since they seem to want to assign reality to various classes of infinity in set theory (which, since there is no physical correspondent must have some sort of Platonic existence if it exists at all), whereas I am perfectly happy with a fictionalist account of these classes.

The sub-questions Stephenson spins off from this dispute have a greater connection to the practical matters of everyday life, and therefore strike me as more meaningful.

The reason why I say that it is not at all a meaningless question is because your answer to the fundamental question will (if you are rational) determine (most of) your answers to the many, many sub-questions which have a greater connection to everyday life. I suppose the major difference between philosophers (or people who are interested in philosophy) and non-philosophers is that philosophers are systemic thinkers rather than piecemeal thinkers. A non-philosopher asks "Should I do x?" on a case-by-case basis. A philosopher resolves his moral philosophy first and then asks "Should I do x?"

Of course, I'm the first to agree that the philosopher's way is, really, a quite unnatural way to think and has some serious limitations of its own. E.g. I spent my entire twenties deciding whether I wanted to be successful before I solved most (though not even close to all) of my philosophical conundrums and decided that I did. Most people don't even ask themselves the question "Do I want to be successful?" because they view the answer as obvious.

So the problem with philosophers (or amateurs like myself, since I decided I didn't want to be successful in philosophy) is that they spend a lot of time locked up in solving extremely difficult questions before they can answer the (apparently) easy, or practical, ones.

Non-philosophers have the problem that philosophy is inescapable. All human actions are based on a value system and a conception of reality. Even rejecting the need for values and the existence of reality is a philosophy. Rejecting philosophy simply leads one to be enslaved to an entirely unexamined implicit philosophy, usually soaked up second-hand from the surrounding culture or from some guru or other. This may not be so bad. Received wisdom is in fact often wise. (Going with the guru is more hit-and-miss.) But, if you ignore the "abstract" questions and settle on answering all of the little "practical" questions, you'll be very lucky if you don't end up with a real dog's breakfast of a philosophy, riddled with inconsistencies and not even be aware of it.

ianras said...

> When stated as baldly as 'is there a 3?' it seems too abstract to matter, though at the same time obviously touching on the fundamental nature of the universe.

When it's stated as 'is there a 3?', it seems like a question that one can ignore totally. You don't have to believe in 3 existing outside the human mind to know that with three glasses of wine, you can't drive home or with three hours sleep, you'll soon be tired. But if you're, say, a theoretical mathematician, then it denies your whole work's worth. How do you find the volume of a sphere in eight dimensions? The question is meaningless; it doesn't represent an aspect of the physical world. More mundanely but more immediately, what is pi? Well, pi is (for the sake of concision) the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. But only a perfect circle. But they don't exist in physical reality (Well, as far as I know). So, pi is a nonsense of the same type as that dream I had about a talking dragon. And the dismissal of pi kind of brings down the entire scientific enterprise.

Andrew Stevens said...

I'm not sure if I'm reading Ianras's comment correctly, but he apparently believes that he has invalidated the entire scientific enterprise simply by pointing out that there probably aren't any "perfect circles" in the world. To which I can only reiterate my point that people who don't actually study philosophy often end up with a complete dog's breakfast of a philosophy.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Andrew:

I think I've misrepresented matters if it seems that the philosophical questions Anathem does delve into are entirely mundane. Certainly the examples I list at the end of the paragraph you quoted from strike me as sufficiently lofty.

ianras:

Well, yes, on one level there is clearly a 3, but if so, where? Is there an actual 3 somewhere we're all thinking about when we use the term 3, and if so, what is its nature?

Alison said...

I think it can be difficult for very clever people, who never meet their intellectual match, to develop depth of philosophical thought. I often get the impression with Neal Stephenson that he has never engaged with a really clever person who has challenged his world view (Stephen Pinker is another who gives this impression). Not having read Anathem, is it possible that he is almost correcting this deficiency in his life, by fictionally recreating the intellectual struggle that he lacks? And yet, this can neve work, because the single mind inevitably sets up straw opposition, which too-easily collapses.

Now, if he really wants to struggle with that opposition - for instance the way in which abstractions 'exist' - let him struggle with Spinoza and Kant, not with Plato. Or let him struggle with Platonic Realism as championed by Blake or Yeats. Let him try to thread those types of struggle through his works. Because these are struggles that are difficult in real life because the two sides live in different mental worlds, which barely touch.

I am saying 'let him' because by stepping out of his comfort zone he would give his great intellectual power a real work-out. But to do this he would have to step from a stage where he is a big thinker, to a much larger stage, where he will have a lot to learn.

Andrew Stevens said...

Ah, actually Abigail's interpretation makes more sense. My apologies to Ianras if he meant it to be a reductio ad absurdum of the nominalist argument. I wasn't sure I was reading the comment correctly when I responded, but I should have been more charitable. Mea culpa, if that's what Ianras meant (and I now think that it was).

The immanent realist view is that universals exist only if they are instantiated in particulars, never apart from the things themselves (as the Platonists would have it). However, a universal is identical in each of its instances and so it is possible to abstract it and think about it separately from any instance. When so abstracted, it exists as a mental fact in the human mind (different people thinking about the number 3 would have separate instantiations of the same universal).

This view solves the epistemological problems of Platonism and does not commit us to an excessive ontology, but I do believe it is vulnerable to attack by the Platonists (though not by the Nominalists since I don't believe any nominalist account can be satisfactory).

Andrew Stevens said...

Alison, Stephenson is defending Platonism, not attacking it. Since I believe nominalism is untenable, Stephenson is really most guilty of taking on an easy target. However, it is probably a fact that most people in modern Western culture are nominalists, by default, so Stephenson is arguably performing a public service. I think even most modern scientists tend to be nominalists as they are still infected by positivism, long after the positivist program collapsed.

I don't know who would be the best defender of nominalism post-Quine. (Quine began as a nominalist. Indeed, he wished to deny virtually all metaphysics. But he abandoned nominalism when he could not find a nominalist grounding of mathematics.) Keith Campbell may be the best modern nominalist.

ianras said...

> I wasn't sure I was reading the comment correctly when I responded, but I should have been more charitable. Mea culpa, if that's what Ianras meant

Yeah, I was trying to show how nominalism eats itself. Or rather one of the ways.

> However, it is probably a fact that most people in modern Western culture are nominalists,

Almost all of the people I know with college degrees are materialists of some stripe and a disconcerting amount of them see ultimately any appeal to something other than science as special pleading. I have no problem with the leglessness of nominalism being discussed often and extensively.

Andrew, I'm only a casual reader of philosophy so I'd be delighted if you could explicate on how immanent realists account for purely abstract maths.

Andrew Stevens said...

Ianras, that's an excellent question. To get back to Alison's objection, perhaps Stephenson, if he is a Platonic realist, should have taken on the immanent realists instead of the nominalists. I don't think nominalists can explain the objectivity of mathematics and science at all. But some Platonic realists insist that immanent realism is just nominalism in disguise. If they are correct, then the Platonic realists would win the day.

I see where you're going with the idea that the ideal pi doesn't actually exist in reality and therefore it would appear that immanent realists have much the same problem as nominalists. I'm not certain this is the case. When we're thinking about a number which exists in abstraction, but not in reality, like pi, it seems like fictionalism is fine. I.e. when we think about pi, we're thinking about a universal which does not actually exist and is not instantiated, like the dragon of your example. It is purely a mental construct. However, approximations of pi do exist and the abstractions we do concerning pi will also be approximately true for the approximations of pi. I believe this also has to be the Platonist conception for why abstract mathematics about abstract numbers (which they claim exist in an ideal form, but which are not instantiated in our world) nevertheless leads to conclusions which can be empirically verified using actual instantiations of approximations of that ideal. I.e. I'm not certain this is a problem unique to immanent realist accounts and not to Platonic realist accounts.

Unlike the nominalist account, however, the immanent realist account agrees that numbers, as abstract entities, actually exist and there are definite instantiations of all the natural numbers up to (at least) the number of particles in the universe. Moreover, the relations between these universals also actually exist (1+1=2 and so forth), so there are no problems with rational numbers at all and no problem with the existence of mathematical laws, which nominalism can't account for. Uninstantiated universals have never struck me as particularly problematic. If there is an uninstantiated shade of blue, I see no reason why science can't deal with it on an equal footing with all the other instantiated shades in the blue continuum. Even if that particular universal doesn't exist, generalizations about universals in the same class will apply to them all.

I should say that I am only committed to the falsity of nominalism. I prefer immanent realism to Platonic realism since immanent realism gives a stronger epistemological account (if abstract objects exist outside of space-time, then how are we, who apparently exist entirely inside space-time, able to attain knowledge about them?) and because immanent realism's ontology is less excessive (Occam's Razor, though I hesitate to mention it since William of Ockham is history's foremost proponent of nominalism). On the epistemological question, I don't think this is a terribly difficult problem for Platonism. Godel's mathematical intuition is fine with me. If I am mistaken, and there are fatal flaws in the immanent realist account, I am prepared to abandon it for Platonic realism. The real test of immanent realism is probably infinity. Does the non-existence of infinity pose a real problem for mathematics? Is a fictionalist account adequate for infinity? Since I am merely an applied mathematician, this question is too lofty for me to adequately answer. I don't think that calculus poses a problem, but some parts of set theory might. I'm not sure that those have actually led to empirically verifiable results though (yet).

Alison said...

Alison, Stephenson is defending Platonism, not attacking it.

Sorry I would have replied earlier but I've been out all day.

Gosh, that is certainly a more exciting position to take, and sets him against more or less everyone.

Would love to say more but I can see that annoyingly I can't get by on guesswork this time.

Niall said...

At the risk of talking about the actual book for a minute ...

Abigail, I think this is a really excellent review. The observation about Stephenson pushing the moment When It Changed further back is spot-on (the earlier sf novels fit into this too, because what are sf novels other than stories about a moment When It Changes that hasn't happened yet?). Presumably his next book will be a prehistoric epic about the evolution of language itself.

I'm torn on the YA aspect. On the one hand, it's not something that really occurred to me when I was reading it, I think because the YA-style story is, as you say, so schematic, more the bones of the book than the flesh. On the other hand, there's clearly something in it. I do think it's somewhat interesting that (for example) the something like the Norton Award has not yet "claimed" any books not published as YA, in the way that, say, the Nebula has "claimed" a non-genre sf novel; I have occasionally seen YA advocates describing this or that novel as "YA-friendly" (One For Sorrow got that label, as I recall), but I haven't seen anyone claiming that a non-YA-published novel is in fact YA. I look forward to your Little Brother thoughts for many reasons, not the least of which is whatever its similarities to Anathem, it was actually published as YA (at least in the US).

I didn't feel that Stephenson was being mocking when he talked about iconographies; more flattering his readers, to be honest. That and other instances like it were one of the few aspects of the book that rubbed me up the wrong way. Nor did I find the closeness of the historical parallels hard to swallow; that sort of thing *is* tricky in straight AH, like KSR's The Years of Rice and Salt, but the many-worlds aspect of Anathem provides a ready explanation, in that there aren't going to be a finite number of universes, and by definition if a timeline can exist it will exist. In fact, in a way I find it more surprising that the Strangers have arrived in a timeline that's as different as it is -- by some logics, you'd expect that sort of travel to happen between the closest universes.

And then there's the fantasy issue: again, you're clearly on to something, but I can't help thinking that if he'd wanted to write an epic fantasy he could have written an epic fantasy. It seems to me he must have some reason for wanting to tie his stories to the real world, even if he's drawing on epic fantasy tools. Anathem has a plot reason, obviously, but I wonder whether part of it isn't audience; whether or not sf and fantasy are separate forms of writing, they certainly have distinct (if overlapping) audiences, and I wonder if Stephenson's would follow him to full secondary world fantasy. Actually, it probably would, but I suspect there are a lot of readers of Anathem who didn't find that final reveal to creak, as you did, but found it to be a sort of perfect cadence, settling down into the sort of story they're most comfortable with. (There was certainly an element of that for me.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Andrew:

The immanent realist view is that universals exist only if they are instantiated in particulars, never apart from the things themselves (as the Platonists would have it).

I have to say, from a layman's perspective, this seems like handwaving.

Alison:

As Andrew says, Anathem is told from the perspective of a Platonist, though it isn't short of vigorous attacks on Platonism, nor of the protagonist's occasional waffling on whether he actually believes that the perfect 3 exists somewhere. Still, as I said, the questions that truly interest Stephenson are a little closer to the ground, and particularly the question of what role intellectual pursuit - whether technically oriented, purely mathematical, or even purely philosophical - should have in our day to day life, and whether a detente between scientifically-minded and spiritually-minded people is at all possible.

Niall:

Presumably his next book will be a prehistoric epic about the evolution of language itself.

Surely that was already covered in Snow Crash?

I think Anathem's relationship to epic fantasy is the same as its relationship to the YA genre/marketing category/snowflake: it borrows tropes, attitudes, and methods from both, but isn't really part of either. As YA-friendly as the novel's plot is, I wouldn't necessarily give it to a young teen - as successful as I found the combination of plot and pondering, I'm pretty sure young readers would be overwhelmed by the latter (we might say that Anathem is the ultimate distillation of the recent trend of YA books by authors of adult fiction - a YA novel intended solely or at least primarily for adult readers). By the same token, and as you say, Anathem clearly isn't an epic fantasy novel, and clearly Stephenson didn't intend for it to be one, but he's perfectly comfortable using tools from that genre's toolbox.

I think I would have been alright with the similarities between Arbre and Earth being explained by the novel's McGuffin if it weren't for the absence of non-white cultures. As I said, if the story is a metaphor, then we can say that Stephenson's focus is on the growth of Western philosophy and civilization (which are, at any rate, the primary source of science and technology since the Enlightenment) and handwave that absence away, but once we're asked to buy the book as an internally consistent, realistic world with ties to our own, that absence takes on a more sinister meaning. That's the creak I was talking about - I can swallow Arbre as Earth's mirror, I can swallow Arbre's Eurocentrism, and I can swallow that this whole thing is supposed to be entirely real, but not all three at once.

Martin said...

It is a very minor point but I thought Cord was his cousin, not sister?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The word Erasmas uses is 'sib'. When Jesry questions this Erasmas says something to the effect that in some families it's not entirely clear how people are related to one another. What I took from this is that not even Erasmas and Cord are sure whether they're full siblings, half siblings, or step-siblings, but as the word cousin is used to describe someone else (the person Erasmas meets at his old home, who tells him that his mother has moved on and where he can find Cord) but never Cord, I assume that sister is closer to the mark.

Niall said...

Surely that was already covered in Snow Crash?

That was more about fundamental language than the evolution of language, wasn't it? i.e. use of language to tap into existing brain structures, rather than the co-development of language and those structures.

As I said, if the story is a metaphor, then we can say that Stephenson's focus is on the growth of Western philosophy and civilization (which are, at any rate, the primary source of science and technology since the Enlightenment) and handwave that absence away, but once we're asked to buy the book as an internally consistent, realistic world with ties to our own, that absence takes on a more sinister meaning.

I don't really see the difference, I'm afraid. Whether or not Arbre has ties to our world, I think we're meant to take it as an internally consistent, realistic construct (this is where I don't see the mocking that you do, perhaps); similarly there's plenty of "straight" epic fantasy which is flawed in part because it draws on a very limited range of ethnicities.

I'm trying to work out why the culture angle doesn't bother me (or at least, come up with a reason that isn't "I'm being a bit racist"). Partly, I think, it's that the ending is an argument that the Mathic world has been too inward-focused, ie too focused on one set of ideas, and needs to go out and engage with the rest of the world. On the other hand, there's still the underlying cosmology. I don't know; it's hard to articulate, and has something to do with the fact that we're not talking about representation of cultural difference (as is usually the case in fantasy), we're talking about representation of ideas about the nature of reality, where in theory one idea actually is right and another actually is wrong. It doesn't strike me as culturally imperialist to write a universe where nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, despite the fact that Einstein benefitted from the shoulders that Western science stands on; similar thing here, perhaps.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

(I think a dominant theme in Snow Crash is the importance of language in human development, and the direct line one can draw from language to the modern, technological age, but that's really straying into a different topic.)

I don't really see the difference, I'm afraid.

The difference is in the kind of story Anathem is trying to be. If it's a parable about the development of scientific ideas, then it's understandable that the focus would be on Western culture and thought*. If it's a secondary world fantasy, then as you say the overwhelming whiteness of the worlds in these novels is an unfortunate fact of the genre, and though it's disappointing that Stephenson didn't rise above that tendency it also isn't terribly surprising that he didn't. If, however, Anathem is a science fiction novel describing a cosmology that includes our world, then we can use Arbre to draw certain conclusions about Earth, or at least Stephenson's perception of it. Especially given that Arbre is supposed to be the template upon which Earth is based, and given the close similarities in the development of Western culture on both planets, the absence of non-white cultures is troubling. It means that these cultures and their development on Earth are an afterthought, with no original in the world of perfect forms - to make a really, really reductive reading, that there are no black people in heaven.

I'm not sure I see where you're going with the Einstein comparison. Yes, clearly there has to be an Einstein, but why does it follow that he has to be white, or a direct intellectual descendant of Newton, Copernicus, and Pythagoras? The comparison to The Years of Rice and Salt is instructive - in the timeline described by that story, the Newton analogue is a Bedouin.

* Only, not really. You can ignore non-European cultures in a story about the growth of science after the Enlightenment, but not in a depiction that goes all the way back to Ancient Greece.

Niall said...

It means that these cultures and their development on Earth are an afterthought, with no original in the world of perfect forms - to make a really, really reductive reading, that there are no black people in heaven.

This is where you lose me -- I don't see why this follows.

Clearly, race wasn't really on Stephenson's mind when he was writing Anathem, and it could be better thought-through from that regard. But within the terms of the cosmology he's established, I don't see an implied judgement about the value of non-white cultures. Our world is linked to Arbre by historical parallelism, not just by philosophical parallelism. Kim Stanley Robinson only got a Bedouin Newton by killing all the white people; Stephenson is writing about a world where a Western tradition of thought is *more* concentrated and highly developed than it is in our own. My understanding of platonism is far from complete, but even within the novel I don't think platonic perfection is understood to *necessarily* equate to goodness -- presumably there is a platonic ideal of racism along with a platonic ideal of blue and everything else. Moreover Arbre isn't at the top of the Wick, it's just one level up one branch of it from us. Now, clearly in some ways Arbre *is* better than our world, and I think Stephenson does mean to suggest some degree of social enlightenment as you move up the Wick. But equally clearly, in other ways Arbre is *not* better than our world, and still contains prejudice, otherwise the end of the book wouldn't be necessary. What you're saying, I think, is that there's the implication that any way in which Arbre is different to Earth is an improvement; and what I'm saying, I think, is that any way in which Arbre is different to Earth is in approximation to an ideal form, and judgements of *better* or *worse* have to be applied to that secondarily. Actually my guess, if I had to make a guess, is that Stephenson sees the various branches of the Wick as historical, with the intellectual content trickling down through all branches. Our world exists in the white people branch. Which, unfortunately, we knew.

(Of course, in the trailer for the book, Raz is of Asian descent. If the trailer was made in consultation with Stephenson -- I don't know whether it was or not -- there may just be some cue in the novel that we're both missing. We know that Arbran humans have sufficiently different bone structure to us to *look* different, after all. In fact, skimming the passage where they encounter the first non-Arbran, I get this: "Close up, there was no doubt that she was, as Cord had put it, "not from Arbre". There was no one thing about her face that would prove this. But the colour and texture of her skin and hair, the bone structure, the sculpture of the outer ear, the shape of the teeth, were all just different enough" (559). So maybe we're both wrong, and Stephenson means to imply there aren't any black *or* white people -- as we know them -- in Arbre. Which you could see as problematic in wholly other ways ...)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

First, I think maybe we should draw a more rigid distinction between race and culture, since as you say there are enough differences, and certainly biological ones, between Arbre and Earth to make any discussion of the former somewhat pointless. In the original post I deliberately stressed the cultural side of the equation - the fact that the philosophy Stephenson was interested in was Western philosophy, and that on Arbre no advances in science or philosophy seem to have been made by cultures not descended from the Ancient Greece-Rome-Christian Europe line.

Second, you say that being an ideal form isn't necessarily a value judgment, and I do see what you mean, but I think there's a difference between positing deviations between Arbre and Earth history and positing whole swathes of Earth history and culture that don't exist on Arbre. Arbre may not be inherently better than Earth just because it's further up the wick, but as I understand the meaning of platonic ideal, it is Earth's essential form (or, given the multiple inheritance model the book posits, a more essential form). My interpretation of this is that if you boil Earth down to, as you put it, something more concentrated, you'd lose non-Western cultures. Especially given the tendency in fiction, and science fiction in particular, to ignore away these cultures, this strikes me as a troubling statement.

Niall said...

I think we also need another clarification, which is whether we're talking about non-Western cultures per se, or contributions of thinkers from non-Western cultures to the ideas Stephenson is discussing.

If the former, I don't think it really comes under the scope of the novel -- we know the maths have seen many cultures rise and fall; presumably they have all the regional diversity they do in our world -- and if the latter, I'm not sure what Stephenson could have done. The foundational assumption of the book is that certain arguments of Western philosophy and science about the nature of reality are correct, and that therefore other arguments are incorrect; by definition you're not going to have many contributions to that by thinkers from non-Western cultures. You sign up for that bias, that value judgment, on page one, and the revelation that Arbre serves as our Platonic realm doesn't change it or make it any worse.

The exception to this is if Platonism has been independently theorised in other cultures or if significant contributions to their arguments have already been made by thinkers in other cultures -- which is not a question I know the answer to. If it has, then I agree with you that it's a big problem that Anathem doesn't acknowledge it, since it's meant to be about the ideas and not the culture. But if it hasn't, and if we're not considering Protas et al to be "white" themselves, it seems to me that what's objectionable is that our history has unfolded so as to give a particular cultural lineage the privilege of reaching certain conclusions first, rather than anything in the book per se.

Andrew Stevens said...

The immanent realist view is that universals exist only if they are instantiated in particulars, never apart from the things themselves (as the Platonists would have it).

I have to say, from a layman's perspective, this seems like handwaving.


I can't tell if you're referring just to that one sentence or to the entire post. Since I find that sentence by far the easiest of my post to parse, I assume it's the entire post.

Perhaps the problem is that I lapsed into philosophical terminology without defining the terms. I have in front of me two pencils. They are not the same pencil, but they are both yellow. What there are two of are called "particulars": the pencils are particulars. What is or can be common to multiple particulars are called "universals" - yellowness is a universal (as is the number 3). A universal is capable of being present in multiple instances as yellowness is in different pencils. A particular doesn't have "instances" and can only be present in one place at a time and particulars are not "present in" things.

It is important to understand that by "universal" I don't mean a word or concept. I don't think the pencil has a concept of yellowness in it. I attribute yellowness itself to the pencil.

All propositions about mathematics are about universals. 1 + 1 = 2 is a proposition about the universals 1 and 2 and the predicate identity (which is itself a universal). We can see that numbers are universals because they can have multiple instances. I have two pencils, but I could also have two oranges. Every pair of objects is an instance of the number 2 and also an instance of the number 1 + 1 (since they are identical).

The philosophical questions about universals are:

1) Do universals exist?
2) If not, why does it seem as if they do? (I.e. why do we have words and ideas apparently referring to them and knowledge apparently about them? Indeed, virtually all of our knowledge which we would consider science rather than history or gossip is about universals and it is hard to imagine language existing at all or our having anything to say without universals.)
3) If universals do exist, does their existence depend upon the existence of particulars?

If you answer "no" to question 1, you are a nominalist and must answer question 2. If you answer "yes" to question 1, you are a realist and must answer question 3. If you answer "yes" to question 3, you are an immanent realist. If you answer "no," you're a Platonic realist.

The immanent realist view could be seen as the "common sense" view. When we ask where "yellowness" is, the immanent realist says it exists in yellow things (e.g. the pencil), which seems eminently sensible. The Platonic realist agrees with this, but also believes that yellowness, the property itself, is a real and objective thing that exists independently outside of space and time. (I should stress that immanent realists do not deny that the property itself exists; they just believe it exists in the particulars and not in some free-floating form outside of space-time.) Platonists also believe that properties exist which are not instantiated. I.e. there is a property of being a dragon, even though there are no dragons. There are very good reasons why Platonists say these things (it is not just mystic mumbo-jumbo), but I think even the most dedicated Platonist would agree that, on its face, this appears implausible.

While Stephenson was writing about Platonic realism vs. nominalism, the real debate in philosophy is probably between Platonic realism as exemplified by David Lewis (modal realism with its multiple worlds - Lewis believes all universals, including the ones that don't exist in our world, are instantiated in some other world) and the much more parsimonious, but more problematic, solution of immanent realism as offered by David Armstrong. Nominalism doesn't have many defenders inside philosophy post-Quine, at least not with respect to mathematics, but is very common outside of philosophy. In quantum mechanics, the argument between Lewis and Armstrong (or Plato and Aristotle) would be analogous to the Everett-Wheeler Many Worlds Interpretation versus the de Broglie-Bohm pilot wave interpretation (with, I hope, Copenhagen as discarded as nominalism). I should stress that I agree that Lewis's solution is a workable solution (as nominalism is not). Indeed, while I favor the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation, I do agree that Many Worlds is also a possible interpretation (as Copenhagen is not).

The argument against immanent realism would seem to be "how can we reason truly about universals which don't actually exist"? I.e. we can say that a googol + 1 = a googol and one, but we have gotten to numbers which are (probably) larger than the number of particles in the universe. So the numbers we are discussing don't actually exist. However, a fictionalist account strikes me as just fine here. The laws of mathematics are instantiated. Laws are universals and, like all universals (in the immanent realist view), have instances which are identical in all their instances. When we talk about numbers which don't exist, we are creating fictions. But since the laws we are talking about applying to them actually do exist, it is still meaningful to talk about what relations would hold between non-existent universals if they existed.

I doubt that's any clearer. Still, immanent realism is the easiest position of the three possible positions to define and explain since it's by far the closest to the "common sense" view of the world. That doesn't make it true, but that is why I defend it as long as it remains defensible.

Andrew Stevens said...

Oh, I should say that, while it seems like Stephenson was greatly influenced by David Lewis, there are, of course, lots of philosophers who are Platonic realists who think Lewis is nuts. (More accurately, everyone agrees Lewis is a brilliant philosopher. Many people think his multiple worlds thesis is nuts.)

In the "philosophical jokes" category, David Lewis appears in the well-known "Proofs that P" joke as:

Lewis: "Most people find the claim that not-p completely obvious and when I assert p they give me an incredulous stare. But the fact that they find not- p obvious is no argument that it is true; and I do not know how to refute an incredulous stare. Therefore, p."

Andrew Stevens said...

The exception to this is if Platonism has been independently theorised in other cultures or if significant contributions to their arguments have already been made by thinkers in other cultures -- which is not a question I know the answer to. If it has, then I agree with you that it's a big problem that Anathem doesn't acknowledge it, since it's meant to be about the ideas and not the culture. But if it hasn't, and if we're not considering Protas et al to be "white" themselves, it seems to me that what's objectionable is that our history has unfolded so as to give a particular cultural lineage the privilege of reaching certain conclusions first, rather than anything in the book per se.

The answer to your question is not that I know of. Mathematical Platonism was not developed in India, even though India took an Idealistic turn in its philosophy, probably because there was no alliance between mathematicians and philosophers as there was in Greece. It also didn't develop in China whose philosophy always tended to be disinterested in questions with no (apparent) practical import. Chinese philosophy tended to be humanist and practical.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Niall:

Again, you're bumping up against my problem with the shift in the book's genre. As you say, Stephenson is interested in the question of platonic realism versus nominalism, and therefore he's posited a world in which that question is the central issue of philosophy. That's fine, but then he turns around and connects that world to ours through an inheritance model that places all other philosophies, and the cultures that brought them into being, on a lesser standing, as questions less imperative to our understanding of the universe. That's a perfectly valid approach to take as a personal preference, and certainly Anathem does sufficient work to explain why Stephenson thinks this issue is primal, but as a statement about the nature of the world it ties into some ugly tendencies of the genre, and gave me pause.

I also think you're ignoring the book's didactic nature, the way it functions not merely as a story or a personal philosophical statement but as a Sophie's World-esque primer on philosophy. The fact that there's no acknowledgment of the (false?) equivalence Stephenson draws between philosophy and Western philosophy basically has the effect of claiming that non-Western cultures haven't made contributions to philosophy, period, not just the philosophy Stephenson is interested in.

Finally, Anathem isn't only about philosophy but about the development of science and the scientific method, and as I've said you can't ignore the contributions of non-Western cultures if you're telling a story about the development of science that starts thousands of years before the Enlightenment. On Arbre there's a dark age following the fall of Rome, and then a resurgence of science and rationalism. On Earth, mathematics in particular flourished in the Muslim world during that period, and possibly other disciplines as well (where's Nic when you need her?), and these were the shoulders European scientists stood on when they dragged Europe into the age of reason.

David Moles said...

The fact that there's no acknowledgment of the (false?) equivalence Stephenson draws between philosophy and Western philosophy basically has the effect of claiming that non-Western cultures haven't made contributions to philosophy, period, not just the philosophy Stephenson is interested in.

I think this pretty much is the claim that Anathem makes. It's a literalization of Whitehead: "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." Since Anathem posits that Plato's philosophy is literally and provably true, any philosophy that is not a footnote to Plato -- unless it happens to replicate his findings -- is in Stephenson's world here pretty much broken by definition.

David Moles said...

(It may be because I've just come off Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates, but I see Stephenson, in relation to non-Western philosophy, as a Christian missionary among sophisticated heathens, admiring their many fine qualities while shaking his head at the intricate, fundamentally pointless structures of ritual and doctrine they've erected on a foundation of meaningless superstition, if not actual Satanic misdirection.)

Niall said...

The fact that there's no acknowledgment of the (false?) equivalence Stephenson draws between philosophy and Western philosophy basically has the effect of claiming that non-Western cultures haven't made contributions to philosophy, period, not just the philosophy Stephenson is interested in.

I disagree with this. The focus of Anathem's interest in philosophy is so obviously narrow that I just don't think the inference of the general sentiment is supportable. I'd agree that Anathem implies that philosophy outside the Western tradition hasn't made a substantial contribution to our understanding of the nature of reality -- as I said, that's the foundational assumption of the book. But I don't see that it also implies that philosphy outside the Western tradition hasn't made a substantial contribution to, say, ethics, because that sort of thing just isn't on the table in Anathem.

Finally, Anathem isn't only about philosophy but about the development of science and the scientific method

Yes, but in that it diverges from our world, doesn't it? It was my impression that the Arbrans don't have some of the higher mathematics we have -- they've developed a scientific tradition based primarily in pure reason and logic instead, not as well as. (Although clearly they must have some mathematics.) So, yes, Arabic contributions to mathematics aren't as significant on Arbre as they are on Earth. I find it difficult to attach a value judgement to that, though.

(I don't know what Nic will think of the book, but I'll be interested to see. Her objection to The Years of Rice and Salt, as I understand it, is that in the absence of Western Europe, it's ridiculous that the progression of scientific and technological history follows the same path and timeline as it did in our world [i.e. you wouldn't necessarily expect there to be a precise bedouin analog to Newton, and you certainly wouldn't expect there to be one after the same number of hundreds of years have passed]. I don't know whether Anathem's history of ideas will be too similar to ours for her to believe in, or too different. Or, indeed, just right.)

Andrew Stevens said...

The original view of the Arabs as primarily preservers and transmitters of knowledge is actually more close to correct than the revisionist view that is popular today. Most of the great advances in mathematics usually attributed to the Arabs were made by Indian mathematicians and transmitted via the Arabs. (Arabic numerals were invented by Hindus as was most of the algebra normally attributed to Arabs.) The Muslim world's major original contributions were in optics (which were huge), astronomy, and medicine. But they actually made surprisingly little progress considering that they were by far the most advanced culture of the time. However, the Indians were crucial in mathematics.

The Arabs did make major contributions to philosophy, but primarily by commenting on Aristotle, similar to Western medieval philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas. In this regard, though, Averroes and Avicenna were essential in medieval philosophy. To the extent that they are neglected, it is because medieval philosophy is neglected, due to its obsession with theology. In all fairness, Averroes and Avicenna were the least theological of the medieval philosophers and the ones most deserving of the title philosopher rather than theologian.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't see that it also implies that philosphy outside the Western tradition hasn't made a substantial contribution to, say, ethics, because that sort of thing just isn't on the table in Anathem

Oh, come on. That's like saying that it's OK that there are no black people in Sunnydale because for all we know they're in their own neighborhoods, doing their own thing off-screen. I mean, I see what you're saying - that these philosophies and cultures aren't something Stephenson is interested in - but surely you can see why it would be troubling that their very existence has been left out of Earth's 'canonical' form?

Per Andrew's reminder that Eastern philosophy is closer to theology, it occurs to me that there were several perfect opportunities for Stephenson to bring non-European influences into the mix, since religion is a major theme in the novel. But each of the three of the religions he introduces us to - Bazianism, Counter-Bazianism, and the Church of Kelx - is a reflection of a certain aspect of Christianity.

It was my impression that the Arbrans don't have some of the higher mathematics we have -- they've developed a scientific tradition based primarily in pure reason and logic instead, not as well as

That can't be right. Arbre has advanced materials engineering, a super-internet with intelligent search and data-sifting algorithms, knowledge of general relativity and, since the whole novel hinges on the many-worlds theory, of quantum mechanics. I don't see how you get to any of these without higher math.

Andrew Stevens said...

This doesn't affect the substance of your comment, but it's just medieval philosophy (both Western and Arab) which I called theology, though Indian philosophy would also qualify for the most part. Chinese philosophy is actually surprisingly free of theological influence. It's just that it's so practical that it doesn't really have anything to say on issues like mathematical Platonism. Chinese philosophers just weren't much interested in "lofty" questions. Confucianism, Mohism, and Legalism have much to recommend them as ethical systems, but have no opinions on metaphysics. There's more metaphysics in Taoism, but of a quasi-theological bent.

Niall said...

That's like saying that it's OK that there are no black people in Sunnydale because for all we know they're in their own neighborhoods, doing their own thing off-screen.

I don't see why. The reason it's a problem there are no black people in Sunnydale is that we know that real communities aren't like that. But Anathem isn't, and doesn't pretend to be, about the whole of philosophy. It's about one set of ideas.

I don't think bringing in non-Western theology to be contrasted with the cosmic rightness of Western philosophy would have been a great idea.

As for mathematics, I should have said the Avout -- isn't that the point of the Ita? To enable the rest of the Avout to concentrate on pure reason? I'm pretty sure their belief in the HTW and the polycosm comes from reasoned proofs of the kind discussed throughout the book, not from any mathematical underpinning. As I say, it was my impression that mathematics is less significant to the history of theorics than it has been to the history of science -- that it's mostly a part of practical disciplines, a part of engineering. But I could be wrong.

I'm not sure we're quite going around in circles yet, but we must be close. Yes, it's a clear bias in the novel; no, I don't see negative connotations flowing from that bias in the way that you do, I'm afraid.

Andrew Stevens said...

The reason it's a problem there are no black people in Sunnydale is that we know that real communities aren't like that.

It is trivially easy to find a suburb in the United States which has less racial diversity than Sunnydale. Perhaps not in California, but the problem isn't the lack of black people (who only make up 6% of California's population and much less in the suburbs), but the lack of Asians and Latinos (who would certainly be living in any suburb Buffy's mother could afford to live).

Most television shows set in the suburbs nowadays are probably more racially diverse than most suburbs really are. Where television really falls down is in urban environments. Angel's LA is much further off the mark than Buffy's Sunnydale. And don't get me started on Seinfeld or Friends, which featured the whitest New York City anyone has ever seen.

Niall said...

Yes, fair point; I should have said people of colour in general.

Andrew Stevens said...

I'm ashamed to say that I live in a suburb which is 93% white and less than 2% black. (Even the "big city" where I work is 82% white and 8% black.) Of course, that's in the Upper Midwest where almost nobody sets television shows. It was quite a shock when I first came here from a city which was 30% white.

ianras said...

Andrew, you're clearly much better equipped to deal with this than I but:

> "When we're thinking about a number which exists in abstraction, but not in reality, like pi, it seems like fictionalism is fine. I.e. when we think about pi, we're thinking about a universal which does not actually exist and is not instantiated, like the dragon of your example. It is purely a mental construct. However, approximations of pi do exist and the abstractions we do concerning pi will also be approximately true for the approximations of pi."

...strikes me as falling prey to one of the same traps as nominalism. Maybe this is because I'm taking the nominalists' 'mental' as your 'mental' but to say pi is ultimately a mental idealisation means that pi is a function of psychology which is a function of neurology and therefore could, theoretically, be manipulated to be a round 3 or 64 or 12,012 and that approximations of pi have no *real* link to the mathematician's pi. So the argument ends up eating itself.

I don't know; I'm probably totally misrepresenting you. I suppose it depends on how mystical one lets one's 'mental' be.

Andrew Stevens said...

Well, if it makes you feel better, trying to justify immanent realism here has shaken my confidence in its explanatory power. I still think I'm fine with pi, though. When I'm doing real calculations, I often round to, say, five significant digits before doing them and then assume the answer is "close enough" to the exact answer (which may or may not even be calculable). My "mental construct" of the ideal pi is "close enough" to an (imperfect) circle's real ratio of circumference to diameter, in that sense, that it will give me true conclusions. If I tried to make it 3, or 64, or 12,012, my manipulations would no longer yield "close enough" results and would be empirically falsified.

I'm here reminded of the old joke: an engineer believes his equations are approximations of reality, a scientist believes reality is an approximation of his equations, a mathematician doesn't care.

Where my confidence has been shaken is in the ability of immanent realism to explain the laws of mathematics. I am not 100% clear how a universal mathematical law can exist only in its instantiations and still be certain (as I believe it is) on fictional constructs. (I am unsatisfied with accepting a Tarskian theory of truth here - the law is true because it is true in all its instances.) Or, perhaps more to the point, if a law only exists in its instances, how can it also govern those instances? I'll have to reread my Armstrong to see how he handles the issue or, indeed, whether he does. I am certainly not clever enough to say that this blows up the theory of immanent realism. Just because I haven't thought of a solution in a couple of days doesn't mean there isn't a solution.

Of course, regardless of the answer to the realist problem, we can at least agree that there is something wrong with a scientist who cheerfully believes in quarks, electrons, and black holes, but doesn't believe in numbers.

Simen said...

I don't believe I've commented here before, but I feel like I should after reading this post. Here's to hoping it doesn't get lost in the flood of ontology, etc.

First, thanks for writing such a clear review. I've read a few reviews/impressions of Anathem, and apart from the general idea of monasteries devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, they gave me no idea as to what the novel was about. It was like they refused to treat it as a mere novel. At the peril of losing any geek cred I might have, I got to admit that I haven't read anything by Neal Stephenson. And I wasn't really tempted to begin a massive book by a to me unknown author when I had no clue what it was about. So, while there may well be clear reviews of this book elsewhere, this is the first of the kind I've read. So, thank you. And thanks for writing a great blog in general.

As for Little Brother, that book I've actually read, and I found it rather shallow. To its credit, it's the only book I've read start to finish on a computer, so it's got to have something going for it. But by no means does it justify its didacticism by engaging deeply with moral, political, or philosophical issues. To the degree that it does engage with these issues, as I said, I found it to be quite shallow. But we clearly have different tastes in YA literature (I'm referring to your His Dark Materials post, where I'm inclined to reach the opposite conclusions -- and which if anything is a low point on this blog, in my mind), so maybe you'll like it.

Regarding the debate about nominalism and realism that's going on in this comment field in general, I'd like to add that I think several people here are too quick to ascribe anything to a commonsense view. I tend to believe ordinary people have few or no coherent philosophical positions, and hence that very few if any philosophical positions can be said to be common sense. Besides, being commonsensical is no predictor of truth value, and it certainly doesn't follow that if something is common belief, or feels intuitive, it is therefore more likely to be true, or that those who hold the opposite need to have stronger arguments than those who defend the common sense view.

Ordinary people can get by quite easily without having a coherent position on these matters because they never consider the questions explicitly, and they never stretch their implicit beliefs into the loops and corner cases -- which philosophers are so fond of -- that would force them to deal with any contradictions they might have in them. Therefore, I believe that in this matter, as in other matters, ordinary people, by which I mean simply people who haven't read the philosophical literature on the matter or considered the problem in those terms, have traits in common with several philosophical positions. Their underlying systems probably are a knot of platonism, nominalism, conceptualism, and so on. There are probably many contradictions to be found, but only if you look, and naturally, philosophers who are trying to find a coherent common sense view tend to overlook them, or explain them away, and everyone else never bothers to look in the first place.

I don't think mathematicians or scientists are any "better", either. You can do excellent science and you can be at the very top in all areas of mathematics except foundations and still have no coherent view on ontology. You can probably do as good work in math or science if you have a contradictory view of if (given that there is a correct answer) you have the wrong view, as you would have done if you had the right position on the matter. Practical mathematical and scientific methodology simply doesn't touch on these issues, except, as I said, in the foundations of math. It may be that these are important questions, but if they are, they are questions that aren't essential to doing good science and mathematics, or to living day-to-day life.

Andrew Stevens said...

I'll be brief, for a change.

Regarding the debate about nominalism and realism that's going on in this comment field in general, I'd like to add that I think several people here are too quick to ascribe anything to a commonsense view. I tend to believe ordinary people have few or no coherent philosophical positions, and hence that very few if any philosophical positions can be said to be common sense. Besides, being commonsensical is no predictor of truth value, and it certainly doesn't follow that if something is common belief, or feels intuitive, it is therefore more likely to be true, or that those who hold the opposite need to have stronger arguments than those who defend the common sense view.

Thomas Reid truly said, "Common Sense holds nothing of Philosophy, nor needs her aid. But, on the other hand, Philosophy ... has no other root but the principles of Common Sense; it grows out of them, and draws its nourishment from them: severed from this root, its honours wither, its sap is dried up, it dies and rots."

However, far be it for me to say that most people actually believe common sense views. If they did, then philosophy would be no worse for having nobody study it. The problem is that there is so much bad philosophy out there which crowds out defensible common sense views because people have grasped on to the very queer idea that strange and counter-intuitive notions are more likely to be correct. It absolutely 100% is the case that intuitive or common sense views are more likely to be true and people who are arguing against them absolutely do need stronger arguments than the people defending the common sense view. See G.E. Moore's refutation of skepticism for why this is so.

I have no opinion on whether scientists or mathematicians are "better" (I assume we're talking in terms of knowledge of philosophy). Certainly greater knowledge of philosophy wouldn't have a whole lot of effect on mathematics and science. Most scientists and mathematicians have reasonably respectable views of the foundations of their fields and that's all you really need.

Simen said...

I didn't say that "strange and counter-intuitive notions are more likely to be correct". Nor do I know anyone who believes it. Before considering arguments or evidence, it is rarely if ever advisable to make yourself an opinion, but of course, we almost always come to a question with a pre-formed opinion. It is a fact of human psychology that we more often set out to prove or disprove a conclusion than we set out to reach one. That doesn't make a kind of belief conservatism, where what we already believe is given weight, any more of a good epistemology.

There is, of course, the separate fact that often, the obvious is obvious because we have good evidence or elementary proofs of it. But those only enter into it once you decide to give the answer the same scrutiny as any other answer. Also, a surprisingly large number of commonsensical views turn out to lack foundations.

It is not the case, although theism or polytheism has been the norm in society for many thousand years, that the atheist carries more of a burden of proof than the theist. The logical task of justifying atheism didn't become lighter just because theism is no longer common sense (the rhetorical task is something else). The same goes for almost any other discussion which pits common sense against some more unintuitive notion.

Far be it from me to celebrate philosophical castles in the air. It is, after all, often the case that what we think we know is true. But that is something we need to justify to ourselves and each other with arguments and evidence. Given a reasonable standard of evidence, this will either be easy, or it will expose that what we thought we knew was false.

I'd like to see a more reasoned defense of common sense than simply "See G.E. Moore's refutation of skepticism for why this is so." Moore gives little more than a grand Fuck You to the skeptics. His refutation isn't a refutation. It's more like the people who feel philosophy is fantastic bullshit and refuse to engage in it than it is a legitimate philosophical inquiry. To be fair to Moore, he does argue something: that this level of resolution is all that's needed. The deeper question has no significance, according to him. But as far as I know, this is not something he simply asserts as common sense and moves on. Moore, and everyone else, has to argue for their conclusions. That's what philosophy is for. After all, it's not like this is a hot dispute in our general culture; nothing depends on the answer, everyone's working under an implicit system which pretty much assumes one answer, etc. While common sense is often adequate (but not always: see, for instance, the shape of the Earth, the existence of god(s), or xenophobia), we have philosophy to delve deeper than simply reasserting it and lazily defending it from jabs from skeptics. "One alternative doesn't make sense" is hardly a proof that another alternative is true, unless the two are direct opposites in every respect, which is rare.

Simen said...

One more thing: all this (what I said, or what you said, whatever turns out to be true) only holds when there *is* a common sense view. As I wrote in my first comment here, I think in philosophy, there often isn't. These are simply not questions people consider explicitly, and their implicit systems, in my experience, turn out to be a mess of several philosophical views that is nonetheless coherent in practice (you don't run into the contradictions in practice, because they rely on corner cases that you don't have to deal with in everyday life). This is a personal observation, but I feel reasonably confident in it. If I'm right, then arguing about common sense makes little sense in this case, because there literally is nothing to argue about. Whatever the epistemic status of common sense, if there is no coherent common sense view of the matter, it makes little sense to assert or argue about the common sense, intuitive view. I don't believe anything is very intuitive to most people when it comes to universals, because the question is too far removed from everyday reality to make sense unless you enter the world of philosophy, in which case you leave whatever intuitions you had coming in at the door.

Andrew Stevens said...

Your opinion of Moore's refutation is a common one, but mistaken. In fact, Moore's refutation is an entirely correct form of argument. Logic and philosophy are much easier to get wrong unless you understand why it's a good argument.

In order for an argument to be good and valid and sound, a couple of things must hold (in addition to conclusions following from the premises and premises being being true). 1) The premises must be more certain than the conclusion. This is clear when you think about it. If the conclusion was more initally plausible than the premises, then one can dispense with the argument and simply assert the conclusion. Propping up the conclusion with shakier premises is unnecessary. 2) The premises must be more certain than the contradiction of the conclusion. This is less obvious and often eludes people. But it's clearly a necessary part of logic. If you've constructed an argument around (apparently) sound premises and reached a conclusion which is absurd and contradicts something more certain than your premises, then it's clear one of your premises is false or you've reasoned badly, but clearly we should conclude that something is wrong with your argument. Thus, Moore's refutation of all skeptical arguments. All skeptical arguments reach the conclusion that I don't know that I have two hands, but all skeptical arguments are based on premises of greater or lesser plausibility and I guarantee at least one of the premises for any skeptical argument will be less certain than the fact that I know that I have two hands.

The problem with dispensing with common sense and intuitive premises is that those are more certain than virtually any argument can be. E.g. most epistemological skeptical arguments rely on the premise "We ought to have reasons for believing things." On its face, this seems initially very plausible, but it's clearly false since it's self-refuting. Nobody has ever given me a reason to believe it.

However, otherwise, it's not clear that we actually disagree about much here. Your definition of "common sense" is much more expansive than mine is, which is leading you to assumptions about my views which are not correct. E.g. you have included theism, which I would certainly exclude because it's not "common." (Different societies have different theistic beliefs. And, of course, like G.E. Moore, I'm an atheist.) You have also included things like the shape of the earth and (for no good reason that I can tell) xenophobia. The burden of proof in showing that the earth was round rather than flat (which our initial perceptions make it certainly appear) was indeed on the people arguing that the earth was round. They discharged their burden (long before Columbus, however).

It is also possible that different common sense beliefs can collide, though I can't say how common this is. In those cases, the less certain gets thrown over in favor of the more certain.

When I described immanent realism as the "common sense" view, I was contrasting with Platonic realism. I likely agree with you that there's no particular common sense view on whether or not universals exist. Nominalism stands refuted because it leads to absurd conclusions (like the subjectivity of mathematics), the contradiction of which is more certain than the premises of nominalism (one of which is almost always a dogmatic materialism). However, once we agree that universals exist, I maintain that it is initially more plausible that the universals exist in the particular things rather than in an abstract free-floating way outside of space-time. This is what I described as the "common sense" view. It's possible that it is false, which I have granted many times. All common sense views are defeasible, so long as an argument against it can be constructed based on premises which are more certain than the common sense view. Nevertheless I believe I have prima facie justification for this belief.

But that has gotten us way off the thread. I'd try to rerail it, but I haven't read Anathem, though perhaps I will one of these days.

Simen said...

The premise assumes the conclusion, so it isn't more plausible than the conclusion.

And if there's no epistemic imperative to have reasons for your beliefs, I suppose you're perfectly happy with my belief in nominalism, and accept it without argument.

As for why I included xenophobia as common sense: in many, perhaps most societies through history, there has been a perception that outsiders to the relevant in-group (religion, ethnicity, society, etc.) are obviously inferior to members of the group. I would say, then, that this would be common sense in these societies. But I wouldn't say it is more likely to be correct for that matter, and I think it's wrong to demand that opponents of this "obvious truth" justify their beliefs better than those who hold the opposite. Likewise, theism has been the norm in most societies at most times. In some societies at some times, atheism was virtually nonexistent. I would say, then, that theism was common sense at that time and place, but that this is not an argument against atheism.

As for the shape of the Earth, a round Earth would account just as well for the observations of everyday people at the time they believed it to be flat, so at the time, there would be no stronger burden of proof for round earth-ers.

But you may be right: we may be talking past each other, operating with different definitions. You're also obviously correct that this is far afield. As I said, I haven't read Anathem either. At least my first comment in this thread was partially on topic.

Andrew Stevens said...

The premise assumes the conclusion, so it isn't more plausible than the conclusion.

I don't know what you mean by this. Are you referring to Moore's refutation of skepticism? You're right if what you're saying is that he's not making an argument at all. He's simply asserting that he knows that he has two hands and that this is more initially plausible than at least one of the premises of any skeptical argument. And thus the argument is refuted since we ought to reject that less plausible premise before we can accept the conclusion of the skeptical argument.

As for the epistemic imperative of beliefs, I lean towards phenomenal conservatism. "If it seems to you that P, then you are prima facie justified in believing P." It seems to me that I have two hands, so I am prima facie justified in having two hands. It seems to me that the Sun revolves around the Earth so I am prima facie justified in believing the Sun revolves around the Earth. (That belief, which obviously I don't actually hold, happens to be false.) Etc. If it seems to you that nominalism is true (and I'm not sure anybody has claimed this, so much as been convinced of nominalism by argumentation), then I agree that you have a prima facie justification for believing in nominalism, but this is a defeasible justification. If you are presented with better evidence or arguments, then rationally you should change your opinion.

Where Descartes went wrong (and led almost all of Western culture with him) was in his implicit assumption that avoiding error was more important than believing true things and his insistence that we shouldn't believe anything unless it was certain. (Another self-refuting argument. Are we certain we shouldn't believe something unless we're certain?) It is true, of course, that "common sense" was wrong about the Sun revolving around the Earth, but it's a perfectly understandable error (the actual solution - that the Earth is revolving around the Sun and simultaneously rotating around to give the illusion of the opposite is an incredible theory which happens to be true). Making panicky overreactions ("perhaps I'm wrong about everything") is no way to do philosophy.

You are correct, of course, that a round earth is as good an explanation for the perceptions as a flat earth (a better one, in fact), but the flat earth was the simpler explanation given our initial perceptions. Once we can see ships disappearing over the horizon, the round earth becomes a much better explanation.

(Given the premise of the novel, I don't think the nominalism-realism debate was too off-topic, though Ms. Nussbaum is the best judge of that. But here we're just delving into basic epistemology.)

Andrew Stevens said...

Typo in that last comment. For "It seems to me that I have two hands, so I am prima facie justified in having two hands" read "It seems to me that I have two hands, so I am prima facie justified in believing I have two hands."

andrewducker said...

Coming in 18 months later, merely to comment that I thought that "concent" also derived from "concentric", as that was their design...

Aaron Fown said...

"This, however, leaves us bumping up against the very real problem that when Stephenson writes about human civilization, what he's really talking about is Western civilization. There is no mention of any culture not descended down the Greece-Rome-Christian Europe line in Anathem, no analogues to India, China, Arabia or Persia."

I don't think this is an accurate statement. Setting aside the whole Vale lore thing and its obvious parallels with Asian monastic orders, one must remember that a key plot point (which I will not divulge) involves the use of tiles to solve mathematical problems. This is clearly a reference to Persian/Arabian culture, and its use of tiles to demonstrate mathematical proofs and concepts. Indeed, many Mosques are decorated with tiling arrangements that are, at their root, mathematical formulae. This connection was made explicit when a large part of the preparations for the ascent into space took places in an elaborately tiled ancient Concent, on a arid, desert content that is environmentally analogous to the Arabian Peninsula. In my mind, this location was clearly an Arabian-analogue, and I found myself painting it mentally in the washed out colors of the peninsula. Another connection to this culture is in the way that some of the mathic chants include dancing portions to detail more complex three dimensional mathematics. This is analogous to the dances of the Mevlevi Order, better known as the whirling dervishes, which are often compared to complex multidimensional geometry.

Guy said...

The tiling problem in Anathem has more relationship to Penrose tiling than Persion/Arabic tiling I think, so I don't think this is a answer to the perception that the book is eurocentric. I agree that the Vale lore thing is a nod to asian martial arts though.

However, I don't think the book, within its own world, does neglect or avoid addressing the diverse culture of our earth (if Arbe is an upwick analog of our Earth), because of the difference is chronology - something which I think has been mis-identified in this post and the comments. My reading of the Arbe timeline was that Arbe is well into the future, thousands of years, and that the timeline of events does not correspond to our events such as the rise of Ancient Greece, or the fall of Ancient Rome, but instead Earth's contemporary time corresponds to the Praxic age, and perhaps right now, just before the Terrible Events. Given that Arbe is then 4000 years or so in the future, the idea of finding parallels to historical Earth's racial culture doesn't really make sense. Either because this history was lost due to the Terrible Events, or perhaps because races have interbred (the "we'll all be caramel colored in the future" argument).I can also imagine is that "diversity" of Arbe's saeculer is fundamentally different to diversity in our world due to their relationships to Maths. In a world in which maths create, preserve and guard cultural developments and hold them back until their release during Aperts, which are far apart, there muist be slingshot effect to their transmission outside the mathic world, spreading quickly far and wide and reducing the heterogeneity of the saecular world. Maybe thats reading into it too much, but my point is just to say that in Stephenson's world building in Anathem, their are many conceivable reasons why Arbe is different from Earth.

By the way, one group of Aliens is most certainly from Earth, which made me laugh when Stephenson was describing the horribly weird food they were eating. This section of the book (the dinner parties) also maybe me want to get a sense of the Arbans actually looked like, which is masterfully neglected. We start the book imagining the protagonist as human like us, and because of our investment develop only the vaguest sense later that he is actually a freaky 6 nostrilled 4 eyed bug looking alien. Or something worse!

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Guy:

It's been several years since I read Anathem, but as I recall the timeline at the beginning of the book, it goes something like: Ancient Greece/Rome/Christianity analogues, the Praxic age (which as you say is the analogue to our contemporary era), 4000 years during which scientific progress was limited to the Maths and cultural changes are simply not spoken of. I agree that it makes no sense that Greece and Rome would have the same power over people 4000 years in the future as they have on us, and that no nations or cultures that emerged in the interim would have a meaningful effect at all, but that's the world that Stephenson created.

Alan Oak said...

Abigail, I just finished Anathem and was considering writing a review. You've already done the work for me. Your review is basically what I was thinking—but in much better detail, of course, as I haven't done the thought-work of an essay.

I think, though, that I'm more disappointed in the literary style than you are. Even though the plot structure is good, the flatness of the characters, including Erasmus, makes the stakes in the story emotionally unimportant, at least for me. While reading, I was always curious to see what happened next, yet I was never hopeful or fearful.

Still, it's a book about the development of knowledge, and it does that well. It's a lot to expect Stephenson to accomplish everything in one book. Had he, though, it would have gone beyond being a good book to being a great book. Based on comments above about his development as a writer, he may get there yet.

And I'll add this: He's made me want to study philosophy, mathematics, and physics!

Redshirt said...

Great review! I just re-read Anathem and found your blog and have enjoyed reading the review and the comments immensely.

As regards race in Arbre, there are a few discrete references to race - Samman is subtly described as different looking (ethnically) then the rest of the people in the Cocent. His food is described as "spicier" than that the Avout are given.

Also, when Erarasmas first encounters the Ringing Vale in a group in their red shirts, he describes them loosely as "not belonging to this particular region" (roughly), probably meaning they were a group of Asians in a northern European city.

Post a Comment