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Mathematics and ethics

  1. Oct 1, 2007 #1
    I have a question to those of you who plan their career in mathematics, esp. pure mathematics, or already work as mathematicians. Aren't you disconcerted by the possible lack of any meaningful application of your future work? I mean the ethical side of it - does the fact that your work might not help to improve anyone's life at all bother you? Clearly many areas of maths do have useful applications in physics, engineering, biology etc., but some are very unlikely to have any "real world" (=outside mathematics) effect, e.g. very advanced algebraic topology or number theory, and other only have influence which is very indirect or obscure. Is it ethical to pursue such topics, devote your time and resources, for their own sake while there are so many appaling real problems around? Of course it can be argued that even highly theoretical research may some day yield tangible results (as in mathematical physics), but this way everything can be justified by saying "it might be useful some day", even most esoteric research. I plan a scientific career in mathematics or theoretical computer science (complexity theory etc.), and I wonder whether I should devote my efforts towards something which can really improve this world and not only be "beautiful and useless".
    Last edited: Oct 1, 2007
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 1, 2007 #2
    Frankly, I'm doing it because it interests me. If you want to do things solely to help people, go work in a soup kitchen.

    Maybe that's a little harsh...really the "you never know what will be useful" argument strongly underestimates the value of seemingly obscure research in providing a basis for applications 20 or 30 years down the road. Engineers improve the world. Researchers figure out new stuff for the sake of figuring out new stuff, that eventually might be useful to the engineers. There's a lot of middle ground depending on where your career takes you, for example industrial research often expects shorter-term results that can turn a profit.
  4. Oct 1, 2007 #3
    Who would have known that Riemannian Geometry would be applied to Einstein's General Relativity?
  5. Oct 1, 2007 #4
    I agree with Asphodel,

    I'm a Software Engineer not becuase I want to help my company make money or to help developers be more efficient at what they do by using IBM's software but because I enjoy Programming and money.

    So whatever it is you do, do what you enjoy. If you can put food on the table I don't see the problem.

    If your not getting paid for what you enjoy then thats called a hobby and you need to find a real job that you don't like as much to support your hobby.
    Last edited: Oct 1, 2007
  6. Oct 1, 2007 #5
    ethics ha! my life is my own. i don't owe it to anyone so i'll do what i enjoy regardless of what affect it has.
  7. Oct 1, 2007 #6
    Seems a bit to selfish for me, but meh to each their own.

    As for me, my pursuit in mathematics is simply due to the fact that I cannot see myself doing anything else but mathematics. If my work will ever be used, well that's up for debate, but I don't think it really matters to much. In essence, you can reduce many jobs to be "unethical".

    I believe it was Hardy that argued that mathematicians were more ethical because none of what they did could be applied to war, however, even hardy's work in number theory can be used and applied to the "real world."

    If you have a desire to improve the world do so. I grew up in a third world country, so I to have this desire to help others, but I also know that my I won't be able to do anything as part of the peace corp because I lack motivation to do such a thing. All I can ever do really is visit my home country, and work on projects there. However, there is no way I would ever be able to do that for a living.
  8. Oct 1, 2007 #7
    Well that's just wrong. Although trigonometry has probably killed significantly more people than number theory.
  9. Oct 1, 2007 #8
    It depends on how long your time line is... Almost all "useless" research turns out to be eventually useful. If you have the ability and you are interested in it, basic research will do the World more good eventually than another cell phone or missile. Who would have thought that Newton's work would lead to visiting the Moon or Riemannian Geometry to geopostioning satellites?
  10. Oct 1, 2007 #9
    I dont find math that cant be directly applied to be unethical. On the contrary, I find adding to the base of knowledge to be more ethical than an engineer simply helping his company make more money
  11. Oct 1, 2007 #10
    Want to help out? Help out. Want to do some math? Do math. Tons of people on this earth -if you don't do it someone else will. So don’t worry about it.
  12. Oct 1, 2007 #11


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    what a joke. you might better argue that people whose work is useful to the defense department are evil, as argue that those whose work is not so useful are evil.

    i.e. pure mathematicians live the hippocratic oath: "first do no harm".
    Last edited: Oct 2, 2007
  13. Oct 2, 2007 #12


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    Pure mathematics is key to a lot of defence/communication agencies.

    It's not harmless... :biggrin:
  14. Oct 2, 2007 #13
    As long as you have Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, I see no harm in mathematicians. (I'm not a mathematician, though.)
  15. Oct 2, 2007 #14


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    thats my point j, the defense department offers a lot of grant money to mathematicians who will take it and make their talents useful for war. but some of us refuse to take this money or to do this insidious applied work. hence by allowing our own work to remain useless we do good, or at least we do no harm.

    but recall saint augustine's warning:

    "The good Christian should beware of matheamticians and all those who make empty prophesies. The danger already exists that the mathematicians have a made a covenant with the devil, to darken the spirit and confine man in the bonds of Hell."
    Last edited: Oct 2, 2007
  16. Oct 2, 2007 #15
    Which was my point in the next sentence.
  17. Oct 2, 2007 #16
    Right, I was agreeing that Hardy's idea that it was harmless is wrong, not you. Sorry if that was unclear.
  18. Oct 2, 2007 #17

    matt grime

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    You are clearly a complete idiot.

  19. Oct 2, 2007 #18

  20. Oct 3, 2007 #19
    There are obviously a few things that your parents forgot to teach you.
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2007
  21. Oct 3, 2007 #20
    Sorry, this just needed repeating.
  22. Aug 29, 2010 #21
    Despite the materialistic applications mathematical research is unique in its own way and as William Thruston quotes it is the quest for human understanding of mathematics rather than just looking after some limited applications.It also seems very likely that having understood much of the things in a field formally(i mean rigorously) it may be clear at some point what applications it may take...(i did not exactly quote Thruston, for his precise views read "proof and progress in mathematics" available in arXiv.org
  23. Aug 29, 2010 #22
    Well this certainly seems to be a touchy subject...

    Personally, I think it's a wonderful thing when mathematics (even the most abstract fields) can be put into application. Now, this is not to say that I condone using math for waging war but the fact that everyday mathematicians are working with other scientists and experts to advance different fields is something that I admire. For example, mathematical biology is so fascinating to me because it illustrates the importance of mathematics in all natural things.. I guess I just find a certain beauty in it.
  24. Aug 31, 2010 #23
    I know Hardy was already mentioned, but I laughed when I read his definition of a 'useful' science...

    "a science is said to be useful if its development tends to accentuate the existing inequalities in the distribution of wealth, or more directly promotes the destruction of human life"

    G H Hardy
  25. Aug 31, 2010 #24
    I do have the feeling that I should be doing something more directly useful fairly often. However, what I tell myself is that if I end up researching math I will also probably be teaching, and that will be the useful thing I do (I imagine most pure math people are in the same position). Or, besides for that, if one feels the need to be useful they can do useful stuff outside work.

    The above doesn't always convince me, but it works well enough...
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