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Blame It on the Genius

Pattern interruption is a good thing:  when a pattern is broken, we wake up, go off the autopilot.   So, here's an intriguing case of pattern interruption to learn from.

2000: Boston philantropist announces a $1,000,000 dollar prize for a solution to 1904 Poincare's conjecture about 3D space.

2002: Grigori Perelman, a Russian mathematician posts a paper with mathematical proof that addresses the obstacles to Poincore's conjecture, thus, qualifying for the prize;  this is followed by a brief teaching gig in U.S.; he then declines the Fields Medal (= Nobel in math, in effect), and drops out (or, so it seems).

How come?

Perelman's explanation: "I have been utterly disappointed in mathematics and I want to try something else."

Public reaction?  Perelman is another "beautiful mind" (1), an "eccentric" mind that drops out...

I see this kind of reaction as a cliche case of externalization.  Externalization is finger-pointing.  In this case, the externalization is: there is, of course, nothing wrong with the science per se (in this case, math), and the problem is naturally with the scientist. 

Visually, it's an easy case to make, right?  With the name like Grigori (think Rasputin) and a disheveled beard (think Joaquin Phoenix), and the Diogenes-like rejection of the societal values (walks away from a million bucks!), the temptation to externalize is, indeed, strong.

But, wait a second!  Why not take the beautiful mind at his word, at face value.  What's not clear?  Grigori is "utterly disappointed" with mathematics.  Can Grigori be right and the mathematics be, indeed, disappointing?  Why not?

And, while at it, let us quickly review what constitutes a mental disorder:  symptoms + impaired functioning &/or distress.  If you have symptoms (or you act/think/feel strange) that, in and of itself, does not qualify for a disorder.  You have to be impaired and/or to experience distress.

But if your symptoms (behaviors, eccentricities, odditities, etc.) do not cause you distress and do not result in any functional impairment or distress, then there is no diagnosis.  Is Gregori's behavior different from what we would expect?  Sure.  He's breaking a few patterns for us.  But do we know that he is distressed?  Not exactly.  Just because he self-exhiled, it doesn't mean that he isn't blissful.  Is he failing to function?  We don't know: but, surely, just because he walks away from fame and fortune, we aren't going to say that he is failing to function.  Or has failure to accept a million bucks become a mandatory litmus test of sanity? 

So, all this arm-chair diagnosing of him misses the point: he seems mad because he isn't like us.  He doesn't seem to value what we value.  And oops: our ego is wounded.  So, to defend ourselves, we blame the genius.

Patterns Broken

Ok, so what do we have in the way of pattern interruption? 

Perelman walks away from fame and fortune.  Why not?  A million dollars in modern day St. Petersburg can mean a lot of unwanted attention.  This could have been a rational self-preservation move.  Could have Grigori walked away from fame and fortune to preserve, at a minimum, his quality of life status quo, and, at a maximum, to possibly protect his life?  Of course.  We don't know.  But we judge...  Anything to save our societal face and to protect our own value system!

Another pattern break: Perelman, the math genius, walks away from math.  Why not?  Who'd know better about math than a math genius?

Speaking of pattern breaks.  While at it, let me break one too.  If, as progressively Daoist-sounding science tells us, everything is interrelated, then isn't everything one?  And if everything is one, what is there to count?

2 + 2 Just Doesn’t Add Up

I am no genius but I too have big, big problem with math.  Here it is.

Philosophically, my problem with math is that… there is nothing to count.

“The nature of the phenomena is nondual” is the first verse of the Dzogchen Six Vajra Verses… If the nature of phenomena is nondual, i.e. singular, there is no “phenomena” in plural.  All is one.  There is no such thing as “two”!

Nor is there a zero… After all, emptiness – as the absence of matter – doesn’t exist. Absence or Emptiness or Void has no proto-material substrate to physically manifest so as to qualify for existence.

If there is no zero, if all is one, there can be no separation, discreteness or heterogeneity. The separation we see is the artifact of our sensorium and of our discursive, dualistic mind. The mind divides the continuous homogeneity of all that exists into “this” and “that.”Even this semantic connective tissue of the word“and” that we insert between “this-and-that" is too in the quotation marks of subjectivity. In the objective oneness of it all there is no “and” that would punctuate the oneness of what exists with the Swiss-cheese holes of emptiness.

So, since there is no nothingness or separateness or discreteness, and since everything that exists is seamlessly interconnected, there are no multiples.

What is there for math to count, right, Grigori?



Reference: Jaschan Hoffman, "A Beautiful Mind: an eccentric Russian mathematician solved a famously unsolved problem, then dropped out" New Times Book Review, Dec. 13, 2009