Auld Lang Sine
In 1939 Ludwig Wittgenstein gave a series of lectures on mathematics in his Cambridge rooms. Alan Turing was among a small cadre of students who attended. David Leavitt, Turing’s biographer, writes of the lectures as if Turing got the better of Wittgenstein. Read the class transcripts, compiled from the students’ notes, and you might conclude otherwise.
The conflict centered about the Platonic nature of mathematics. Are the descriptions mathematicians derive embodiments of the natural phenomena they address? The details matter, of course, but in some sense the argument appears moot at this point. Turing’s invention, one on every desk and lap and palm—flying planes, guiding surgery, reconstructing evolution—appears to refute Wittgenstein the world over.
Wittgenstein would likely beg to differ, thank you very much. Useful things, however ubiquitous, can be contingent or even ludicrous. We could even go so far as to ask whether computers are false—or antibiotics or any one of civilization’s intrinsics—however mission-critical to our (historically passing) way of being. Like ritual sacrifice or birds of omen or, sadly for some still among us, the antebellum South.
However deductive modernity might be, the beginning is ever fucking nigh.