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Prof. Tomasz Szarek – I’ve met people who have inspired me

Prof. Tomasz Szarek – I’ve met people who have inspired me

Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Informatics
Szarek Tomasz 4469

Tomasz Szarek (born 19 September 1968 in Rzeszów) – professor of Mathematics, doctor of Philosophy. In 1992 he graduated from the Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice and in 1994 from the University of Silesia in 1994 in Theoretical Mathematics. Three years later he received his PhD in Mathematical Sciences at the Institute of Mathematics of the Polish Academy of Sciences, defending the dissertation entitled “Asymptotic Stability of Markov Operators acting on Measures in Polish Spaces”, written under the supervision of Prof. Andrzej Lasota. In 1999 he graduated in Philosophy at the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Cracow (MPhil). 

In 2004 he was awarded the tile of doktor habilitowany from the Jagiellonian University on the basis of his work “Invariant Measures for Nonexpansive Markov Operators on Polish Spaces”. In 2008 he was awarded the tile of Professor of Mathematical Sciences. He is concerned with the theory of stochastic processes, stochastic dynamical systems and the theory of fractals. He has been visiting professor at numerous universities abroad including the University of Chicago, the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences in New York, Cambridge University and the University of Toronto. He has also lived for a few years in L’Aquila in Italy where he worked at the local university.

He also focuses on philosophy and has recently published a monograph devoted to the American analytical philosopher Alvin Plantinga, entitled “Alvin Plantinga i spory o istnienie Boga” (“Alvin Plantinga and  Debates on the Existence of God”, Wydawnictwo Marek Derewiecki, Kęty 2015).

His greatest success is his family ─ a wife and two children. He likes long walks, literature, conversations with his daughter about the books they’ve read and Italian cuisine (wine included). He runs. He doesn’t watch television or read newspapers and tries to avoid the Internet. He is an absolute ignoramus when it comes to modern technology, and requires his daughter’s help to operate the more complicated devices. He is interested in the Jewish Kabbalah, process philosophy and Christian mysticism. 



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- Professor, you have a triple MA: twice in Mathematics (the Silesian University of Technology in 1992 and the University of Silesia in 1994) and in Philosophy at the Pontifical Academy of Theology in 1999. As if that wasn’t enough, you also hold a double PhD title: in Mathematics in 1997 and Philosophy in 2013. For the record, I also have to mention your habilitation in Mathematics in 2004 and the title of Professor of Mathematical Sciences in 2008. This is probably enough, isn’t it, Professor?

- I suppose so. I don’t think I’ll be studying anything formally any more. But you know, there are people behind all this. Specific people who have either inspired me or encouraged me to study. I studied at the University of Technology in Gliwice and originally it was technical physics. A very interesting faculty anyway: the Faculty of Fundamental Technological Research so for the first three years we studied maths and physics, and mechanics. I did finish my studies and did an MA in mathematical applications. But this was where I became interested in mathematics and the University of Silesia was closest. And when I was studying mathematics, I was asking myself some rather basic questions, questions about the basics of mathematics in fact, and from there there’s a direct route to philosophy. It was in Cracow that I studied philosophy and this is important, too, because it was there that I had the chance to talk to Fr. Józef Tischner and meet him in classes. I wrote my MA in a seminar with Bishop Życiński but Michał Heller featured as well. This was a rather exceptional environment, which brought me to my third MA. But it really is irrelevant, in fact. I am a mathematician, first and foremost. I also dabble in philosophy but I can say that I am what the Americans call a “professional amateur”. I go slightly beyond this amateurishness but I wouldn’t call myself a philosopher. However, I am a mathematician. And I am a mathematician because I met Prof. Lasota, one of the most outstanding post-war Polish mathematicians, who convinced me to devote myself to mathematics and discovered some talents in me which I doubted and which I still doubt to this day.  But I do dabble in mathematics and follow this fascinating path. It is a great, interesting and exciting life. But will I study anything else? I study things all the time because I have a wide scope of interests. At the minute, I am somehow close to literature. I regret that I have never learnt foreign languages in a more organised way and that I haven’t studied some philology because this can also be a fascinating activity.  But it’s hard to find the time for everything.

- But you devote a great deal of time to philosophy. You have recently published a monograph dedicated to the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga.

- I have, indeed. With Plantinga the situation goes like this. I was in the United States for quite a long period of time, with no family, and my afternoons and evenings were free. I already knew that there was someone like Alvin Plantinga, because I had become acquainted with his works during my seminar. I bought his books and set about reading. The reading had a greatly inspiring effect on me, mostly because Plantinga asks fundamental questions. I generally have quite a critical attitude to contemporary science –why? Because contemporary science doesn’t ask fundamental questions. I dare say we busy ourselves with things which are of quite an exiguous  nature. Of course, there may be several reasons for this. And one of these reasons may be a lack of courage, courage to ask fundamental, basic questions. A question, say, about existence, about what there is and why it is there. These issues come up in Plantinga. He deals with theism, including contemporary arguments for the existence of God, in my opinion wrongly called proofs. This is interesting, anyway, because literature talks about arguments and ways, for example St. Thomas’ ways. On the other hand Gilson,  an outstanding expert on St. Thomas, referred to the ways as proofs. These are arguments which, in my opinion, are worth investigating as there’s an advanced logical apparatus at play here. The development of logic, which is something of particular interest to me as a mathematician, has often been inspired by these classic questions and been connected with attempts to find some contradictions in the arguments presented. To take, say, the arguments of Anselm of Canterbury and the ontological proof of God’s existence. These have inspired the development of logic to this day. What I have in mind is modal logic which is undergoing intense development at the moment. This might be another paradox, I am an educated mathematician of sorts but I have learnt a great deal of logic for the purposes of my philosophical studies.

- Amongst others, you specialise in Fractal Theory. Laypeople associate them with beautiful figures which can only be admired, but what are the applications of fractals?

- Of course we look at modern science mainly through the prism of application. I object to such an approach because I think that the knowledge itself is already a value. We come across this approach as early as the level of student education where we are asked such questions as “what am I going to get out of this and what is it all for?”.  At first fractals ─ here we go back to the times of Cantor so late 19th century,  were mathematical oddities. I mean, they were observations which served to construct an entire string of, seemingly pathological, mathematical objects in topology. In the 1990s, or 1980s to be more precise, because Barnsley is the 1980s, an American mathematician Michael Barnsley formalised the approach to fractals and he did so together with his student John Hutchinson. Fractals were looked at in a formal way as fixed points for certain objects ─ operators. Barnsley was first to observe that fractals can be very useful. He set up the Fractals Company, which specialised in coding images using fractals. We all know that fractals are such lovely colourful pictures with an amazing self-similar structure. If we look at a fractal from a certain perspective, we see something we could see in a smaller scale should we view the fractal from closer up. The monumental bible of fractal theory, the first large monograph “Fractals Everywhere” has a nice picture of a Peruvian girl on the cover, and the picture is a fractal as well!  Barnsley noticed that fractals can be used for economical sending of images and the American army got their hands on that quite quickly. That research was then carried on for military purposes. It turns out that image coding, this complicated fractal image, can be sent by providing just some basic mapping, a few functions. Everyone, even at home with technological progress and better and better computers, is able to generate this image. Instead of sending detailed information, what gets sent is an image coded in certain mapping. This is hugely economical. And this is where the first fractal applications come in. There are some ridiculous applications as well. I was recently a juror in a competition for the best paper in mathematical applications and I read one of the submitted  papers written by two Ukrainian mathematicians who had used the theory of fractals to predict, and this was geological research, the existence of  solutional caves in Ukraine. It was all quite absurd because they would mark on the map the caves which had already been discovered and, working on the supposition that the layout of all caves would have to have a self-similar structure of an appropriate fractal dimension, they would predict the existence of new caves.  Of course, this is quite absurd from a mathematical and methodological point of view, but they had found such an application of fractals nevertheless.  

- Professor, coming back to your other speciality, I am going to ask a slightly provocative question: do arguments for the existence of God have any sense whatsoever? 

- Absolutely! What I have said is a kind of fundamental issue which we encounter every day if only we reflect on our lives, as long as our lives are not consumer lives, devoid of all reflection, and we ask ourselves some questions. It turns out, and this was my discovery inspired by Plantinga, that theism, or the philosophy which deals with the problem of the God’s existence, can be approached in a rational way. All those discussions on the existence of God can be conducted rationally. What is this rationality about? As we already know, say from Euclid, science is constructed in an axiomatic manner; we assume certain basic premises, certain axioms. Of course, we may argue as to those axioms and the development in geometry shows best that the answers may differ here. Nevertheless, if we assume certain axioms, then the reasoning we engage in is purely logical and we do so consistently. And it is by making certain assumptions, for example concerning the fact that the first being exists, but also more detailed assumptions, because we have to add that theism itself is not uniform, and you can become involved in a rational discourse. The variety of concepts within theism can be observed, for example, in process theology or process philosophy, with their originator being, nota bene, the outstanding mathematician Alfred Whitehead. In this instance, the being, or God is not unchangeable, God is a being which undergoes change, within the nature of God there is a value referred to as the “superjective nature of God”, which is that part of God’s nature which we sort of interfere in.  

It must be added that the development of logic in the Middle Ages was inspired by proof for God’s existence. The deliberations of St. Thomas Aquinas or Anselm of Canterbury are fantastic examples of argumentation. Coincidentally, the proof of Anselm of Canterbury is the most often discussed problem in the history of philosophy. Why? Because the question of existence, the question whether existence is a predicate or whether it can be affirmed, these are important problems from a philosophical point of view. Debates over the existence of God have brought about the development of logic. One of the scientists most prominently involved in these discussions is the Australian philosopher Graham Oppy, by the way a declared agnostic. He has nevertheless written many monographs concerning the arguments for the existence of God. So the philosophy of God can be practised from a variety of viewpoints, and that’s how it’s done.

- Very interesting.  Professor, two more personal questions at the end. You were born in Rzeszów and spent most of your life in Silesia. Why the Tri-City then, and what is life here like for you?

- Gdańsk women are the prettiest in Poland, aren’t they?

- I knew it!  

- My wife is from Gdańsk. Apart from having moved around Poland, I also lived in Italy for a few years and have spent a lot of time in the United States. But even in Poland, which you didn’t mention, , I was working at the University of Wrocław right before coming to Gdańsk and was about to be employed at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń. I chose Gdańsk for personal reasons and that’s where I will probably settle for good. That is, it looks like I’m not moving out of Gdańsk, I might not be staying at the University of Gdańsk, I don’t know that, but I think I will be living in the Tri-City somewhere. Living in Gdańsk is good. I must say that this is a friendly city for outsiders, people like me. I did live for a while in Cracow and I was there recently for a few days and don’t regret that I moved to Gdańsk. Gdańsk is a great city, nice people, a city open to newcomers!

-That’s right, that’s the tradition. You’ve said that you don’t watch television or read newspapers, so what are the best ways for you to spend your evenings or weekends?

- I don’t as much watch television as I cannot switch it on. I go further in this aversion to modern media. It is true that I don’t read newspapers, and I’m not greatly interested in what is happening in  social and political life. And how do I spend my free time? Like everyone, I am in dire need of free time. And when I do get it, then I spend it with a book. I read a lot, on many subjects. And it must be such a skill that, should fate deprive me of all the skills I have, this is the one I would like to keep. I am addicted to reading. It is the most important activity I do, almost physiological.  But then there are walks, conversations with my daughter, family life – these are all fantastic things. Now I spend a lot of time talking to my daughter, she’s just finished primary school, and these are generally conversations about the books we’ve read. Because at our home reading is contagious. Oh, yes, and I run! Recently I sustained an injury, so I don’t run so much, but I try to keep moving. And this is generally in the fresh air, by myself, with my thoughts to keep me company. I also like long walks.   

- So you won’t be watching the Euro 2016 finals?

- I don’t know whether I will or not! Maybe yes, maybe no. This is not something which is very important for me and which I have been waiting for impatiently. I happened to be watching the penalties in the match between Poland and … Portugal, I’m not sure, is that right?  I was just crossing the Market Square in Cracow after midnight and saw great interest and excitement at the jumbotron. Poles were taking their penalties. Błaszczykowski should have scored!

- Thank you for the conversation, Professor.

Gdańsk, 5 July 2016

Interview: Dr Tadeusz Zaleski
Photography : Piotr Pędziszewski


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