Some people really are driven to just calculate stuff
(pushing language itself around), and others seem to
want to know "what does it mean?" Ie. what are the
representations of this language.
Logicians call this semantics: it's a model for the syntax.
I'm a theoretical physics grad student, and see plenty of this.
Most physicists seem to just want to calculate stuff, and don't
care where the symbols "live".
For me, a calculation is rarely enlightening. I want the context,
the type theory that tells me how the pieces talk to each other.
First off, minor thing, but as Jeremy has pointed out, your terminology is wrong; "representation theory" means something else. You seem to mean something more like "model theory".
But anyway -- I'm a mathematician, and I've noticed something like this too when I've dealt with physicists or their writings. But before I discuss physicists, let's discuss mathematicians, because I think you've mischaracterized them a little.
(Note, all claims here are just based on my experience.)
You talk about considering syntax vs. considering the different models of the syntax. But most mathematicians, unless they are logicians or set theorists or something, don't take either of those views. They take the Platonic view -- they're discussing a world of mathematical objects; the statements just describe it. They're not considering the statements as primary and then considering multiple models of it, they're considering the one true world of mathematical objects and describing it with statements (which might have other models, but who cares). This point of view breaks down somewhat when you have to deal with things like the continuum hypothesis and such, but that sort of thing doesn't really come up in ordinary mathematics.
(Note though that taking the Platonic view does not necessarily mean taking the "theory of programming" perspective the article discusses. I mean, I wouldn't take Aaronson's view, that computation is prior to everything else; that's pretty incompatible with it. But to my mind, computation is fundamentally about finite strings over a finite alphabet. Talking about computation with higher types -- where the Church-Turing thesis can fail -- as though it were, well, computation, feels really weird to me.)
Also, another terminological correction: Most mathematicans don't care about type theory. They care about types, at least implicitly, though they might not use that term; but they are not going to consider types as an object of study in and of themself. But yes -- when you want to understand a mathematical object, one of the first questions is, "What sort of object is that?" or "What space does that live in?"
So anyway -- yeah, physicists. I've noticed this too, and I don't know what to make of it. Where physicists don't tend to fully specify their, let's call it an ontology, and have a hard time answering questions like "What sort of object is that?" or "So that's a function from what to what?" Where they don't seem to properly distinguish between a mathematical model or description, and a method of calculation that's useful when working with that model or description. (I have so often failed to get an answer to, "So are virtual particles an actual physical phenomenon predicted by the quantum field theory, or are they just part of a useful method of calculation for working with quantum field theory?") Where they seem to care primarily about methods for getting numbers out, rather than building full, coherent models.
It's all weirdly instrumentalist, which to me seems backwards from what you'd expect -- like, mathematical Platonism is a philosophical question, but the physical world is definitely real! And sure, maybe the bits we can't measure are more of a philosophical question too -- especially since one can quite possibly come up with multiple isomorphic usable models for the laws of physics, whatever they turn out to be -- but still, mathematicians have no trouble just treating their mathematical objects as real things to be reasoned about, so this kind of instrumentalist view among physicists seems weird to me.
I hadn't even considered the possibility that they were thinking "syntax-first", so to speak! But I guess that does kind of sum it up pretty nicely. Bugs the hell out of me, though. Makes it pretty difficult to talk about the math of their theories with them, too.
I really do mean representation theory, in the widest sense of the word. Wide because I am trying to make connections here, not distinctions.
So for instance, of course group representations. On the one hand there is an abstract group multiplication, and on the other side we are representing this as a geometric action.
The same thing goes for "bigger" gadgets, lie algebras, hall algebras, etc. All kind of algebraic objects that we can define abstractly (syntactically) but then lo! it is actually represented by some kind of (geometric?) action.
And then in a more logical vein you have the lattice type theories. Boolean algebras, heyting algebras. These things have topological representations (or is it functions on topological spaces). And then to denotational semantics of lambda calculus. And it's all kind of a syntax on one side, and a semantics on the other.
I don't know much about models of set theory, but I'm assuming these also involve a kind of "active" representation of syntax. I would also include things like algebraic topology, topological quantum field theory. These are all "functors" which act to represent an algebraic gadget in a more dynamic way (i'm possibly over-generalizing here.)
Anyway, there's no concrete definition for what I mean by a "representation" so that's why i gave some examples. It's quite mysterious imho.
> So anyway -- yeah, physicists.
Well, it's easy to criticize physicists, but I also think mathematicians are guilty of this. Ok, so they define their calculations rigorously (not always), but then it's gloves off and away we go! I've come to realize that the whole program of categorification is an attempt to bring more context to these calculations (this is what I would call type theory for mathematics btw.) And most mathematics is written down as calculations, without this context. Probably because it's much harder to categorify everything. The simplest example of what I mean is this: "why keep track of a (finite) set when you can just say how many elements are in the set?" And so on. I really do think that alot of mathematicians are just as guilty as physicists of the "shut up and calculate" attitude. But, they are certainly much more humble :-)