The monastery, the math, and the university

So Alan Liddell over at More Right has essentially reinvented the concept of the “math” as found in Neil Stephenson’s novel Anathem. I don’t know whether Liddell has ever read Anathem, and I’ll assume for the sake of argument that he hasn’t. If he has, then he should own up to having taking inspiration, since Liddell’s “antimodern university” is so similar to Stephenson’s “math” that Liddell’s work is plagiarism if it’s not independent invention.

For those who haven’t read Anathem, it’s a science fiction novel set in the future of an alternate history of Western Civilation. In this future, the pursuit of scientific knowledge has become deliberately detached from political and technological progress, and the scientists have retreated into a system of walled mini-cities called “maths”, which have very limited and tightly controlled access to the outside world. The book does have some kind of plot, but really the plot of the book is much less interesting than the world, and the opening third of the novel is the engaging part, as it explains the reasons and consequences of the withdrawal of scientists from the rest of the world and into a private society of pure intellect.

Stephenson is no kind of reactionary, as far as I know, and Liddell’s antimodern university is motivated by different concerns than those which spur the creation of the maths in the novel. Stephenson’s backstory involves a vaguely described global catastrophe brought on by misused technology, so the maths exist to protect the world from science, while Liddell is more concerned with protecting science from the world. But the scientific communities they describe are remarkably similar. In both cases scientific inquiry is restricted to an isolated, quasi-monastic community, with high walls (both literal and metaphorical) to prevent too much movement between the two realms. The math/university controls its own food supply, defense, and even procreation, and is responsible for educating its own from a very young age. In both cases there is some traffic between the intellectual and political worlds, if only because the rest of the world needs someone to design their stuff, but the traffic is regulated, supervised, and mostly one way (from science -> politics rather than the reverse).

Stephenson does add one thing which Liddell omits, but which I think would be both inevitable and desirable: he gives the maths a liturgy. Any society existing in isolation for so long would develop its own communal rituals, and Stephenson describes the mathic rites with care and creativity, and in doing so take the teeth out of the barbed name “rationalist religion”. He embraces the religious part, and gives his scientist-monks their own cathedrals, hymns, and holidays, making the maths the only rationalist community that I’ve ever wished I join.


3 thoughts on “The monastery, the math, and the university

  1. I’m a bit confused about the last paragraph – you say that ritualistic tendencies are inevitable, but it’s not clear from your example whether you believe they should be prescribed or let to be developed naturally by the community.

    BTW, the “rationalist” communities formed in the West by LessWrong have begun to acquire ritualistic tendencies…

    • I’m not sure whether, in practice, there’s a big difference between stipulated and evolved rituals. All evolved rituals are in fact stipulated by some authority at some point in the past, and the process of community development is largely a process of choosing which stipulations to continue honoring. IOWs, if you’re starting a community from scratch, go ahead and stipulate your rituals, but expect that they’ll look pretty different in another century.

      I am vaguely aware of the LW class of evolving rationalist rituals. We’ll see if any of them stick. It seems to be one of the many ways in which the rationalist community is slowly and painfully recapitulating the history of religion.

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