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The philosophy of mathematics is the
The philosophy of mathematics has two major themes: mathematical realism and mathematical anti-realism.
The origin of mathematics is of arguments and disagreements. Whether the birth of mathematics was by chance or induced by necessity during the development of similar subjects, such as physics, remains an area of contention.
Many thinkers have contributed their ideas concerning the nature of mathematics. Today, some[
These earlier Greek ideas of numbers were later upended by the discovery of the irrationality of the square root of two. Hippasus, a disciple of Pythagoras, showed that the diagonal of a unit square was incommensurable with its (unit-length) edge: in other words he proved there was no existing (rational) number that accurately depicts the proportion of the diagonal of the unit square to its edge. This caused a significant re-evaluation of Greek philosophy of mathematics. According to legend, fellow Pythagoreans were so traumatized by this discovery that they murdered Hippasus to stop him from spreading his heretical idea. Simon Stevin was one of the first in Europe to challenge Greek ideas in the 16th century. Beginning with Leibniz, the focus shifted strongly to the relationship between mathematics and logic. This perspective dominated the philosophy of mathematics through the time of Frege and of Russell, but was brought into question by developments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A perennial issue in the philosophy of mathematics concerns the relationship between logic and mathematics at their joint foundations. While 20th-century philosophers continued to ask the questions mentioned at the outset of this article, the philosophy of mathematics in the 20th century was characterized by a predominant interest in
It is a profound puzzle that on the one hand mathematical truths seem to have a compelling inevitability, but on the other hand the source of their "truthfulness" remains elusive. Investigations into this issue are known as the foundations of mathematics program.
At the start of the 20th century, philosophers of mathematics were already beginning to divide into various schools of thought about all these questions, broadly distinguished by their pictures of mathematical
Surprising and counter-intuitive developments in formal logic and set theory early in the 20th century led to new questions concerning what was traditionally called the foundations of mathematics. As the century unfolded, the initial focus of concern expanded to an open exploration of the fundamental axioms of mathematics, the axiomatic approach having been taken for granted since the time of
At the middle of the century, a new mathematical theory was created by Samuel Eilenberg and Saunders Mac Lane, known as category theory, and it became a new contender for the natural language of mathematical thinking. As the 20th century progressed, however, philosophical opinions diverged as to just how well-founded were the questions about foundations that were raised at the century's beginning. Hilary Putnam summed up one common view of the situation in the last third of the century by saying:
When philosophy discovers something wrong with science, sometimes science has to be changed—Russell's paradox comes to mind, as does Berkeley's attack on the actual infinitesimal—but more often it is philosophy that has to be changed. I do not think that the difficulties that philosophy finds with classical mathematics today are genuine difficulties; and I think that the philosophical interpretations of mathematics that we are being offered on every hand are wrong, and that "philosophical interpretation" is just what mathematics doesn't need.: 169–170
Philosophy of mathematics today proceeds along several different lines of inquiry, by philosophers of mathematics, logicians, and mathematicians, and there are many schools of thought on the subject. The schools are addressed separately in the next section, and their assumptions explained.
This section needs additional citations for verification. (February 2007)
Mathematical realism, like
Many working mathematicians have been mathematical realists; they see themselves as discoverers of naturally occurring objects. Examples include Paul Erdős and Kurt Gödel. Gödel believed in an objective mathematical reality that could be perceived in a manner analogous to sense perception. Certain principles (e.g., for any two objects, there is a collection of objects consisting of precisely those two objects) could be directly seen to be true, but the continuum hypothesis conjecture might prove undecidable just on the basis of such principles. Gödel suggested that quasi-empirical methodology could be used to provide sufficient evidence to be able to reasonably assume such a conjecture.
Within realism, there are distinctions depending on what sort of existence one takes mathematical entities to have, and how we know about them. Major forms of mathematical realism include Platonism and Aristotelianism.
Mathematical anti-realism generally holds that mathematical statements have truth-values, but that they do not do so by corresponding to a special realm of immaterial or non-empirical entities. Major forms of mathematical anti-realism include formalism and fictionalism.
Contemporary schools of thought
The view that claims that
Mathematical Platonism is the form of realism that suggests that mathematical entities are abstract, have no spatiotemporal or causal properties, and are eternal and unchanging. This is often claimed to be the view most people have of numbers. The term Platonism is used because such a view is seen to parallel
A major question considered in mathematical Platonism is: Precisely where and how do the mathematical entities exist, and how do we know about them? Is there a world, completely separate from our physical one, that is occupied by the mathematical entities? How can we gain access to this separate world and discover truths about the entities? One proposed answer is the
Full-blooded Platonism is a modern variation of Platonism, which is in reaction to the fact that different sets of mathematical entities can be proven to exist depending on the axioms and inference rules employed (for instance, the law of the
Set-theoretic realism (also set-theoretic Platonism)
Max Tegmark's mathematical universe hypothesis (or mathematicism) goes further than Platonism in asserting that not only do all mathematical objects exist, but nothing else does. Tegmark's sole postulate is: All structures that exist mathematically also exist physically. That is, in the sense that "in those [worlds] complex enough to contain self-aware substructures [they] will subjectively perceive themselves as existing in a physically 'real' world".
- The concepts of mathematics can be derived from logical concepts through explicit definitions.
- The theorems of mathematics can be derived from logical axioms through purely logical deduction.
Gottlob Frege was the founder of logicism. In his seminal Die Grundgesetze der Arithmetik (Basic Laws of Arithmetic) he built up arithmetic from a system of logic with a general principle of comprehension, which he called "Basic Law V" (for concepts F and G, the extension of F equals the extension of G if and only if for all objects a, Fa equals Ga), a principle that he took to be acceptable as part of logic.
Frege's construction was flawed.
Modern logicists (like Bob Hale, Crispin Wright, and perhaps others) have returned to a program closer to Frege's. They have abandoned Basic Law V in favor of abstraction principles such as Hume's principle (the number of objects falling under the concept F equals the number of objects falling under the concept G if and only if the extension of F and the extension of G can be put into one-to-one correspondence). Frege required Basic Law V to be able to give an explicit definition of the numbers, but all the properties of numbers can be derived from Hume's principle. This would not have been enough for Frege because (to paraphrase him) it does not exclude the possibility that the number 3 is in fact Julius Caesar. In addition, many of the weakened principles that they have had to adopt to replace Basic Law V no longer seem so obviously analytic, and thus purely logical.
Formalism holds that mathematical statements may be thought of as statements about the consequences of certain string manipulation rules. For example, in the "game" of Euclidean geometry (which is seen as consisting of some strings called "axioms", and some "rules of inference" to generate new strings from given ones), one can prove that the Pythagorean theorem holds (that is, one can generate the string corresponding to the Pythagorean theorem). According to formalism, mathematical truths are not about numbers and sets and triangles and the like—in fact, they are not "about" anything at all.
Another version of formalism is often known as
A major early proponent of formalism was
Hilbert was initially a deductivist, but, as may be clear from above, he considered certain metamathematical methods to yield intrinsically meaningful results and was a realist with respect to the finitary arithmetic. Later, he held the opinion that there was no other meaningful mathematics whatsoever, regardless of interpretation.
Other formalists, such as Rudolf Carnap, Alfred Tarski, and Haskell Curry, considered mathematics to be the investigation of formal axiom systems. Mathematical logicians study formal systems but are just as often realists as they are formalists.
Formalists are relatively tolerant and inviting to new approaches to logic, non-standard number systems, new set theories etc. The more games we study, the better. However, in all three of these examples, motivation is drawn from existing mathematical or philosophical concerns. The "games" are usually not arbitrary.
The main critique of formalism is that the actual mathematical ideas that occupy mathematicians are far removed from the string manipulation games mentioned above. Formalism is thus silent on the question of which axiom systems ought to be studied, as none is more meaningful than another from a formalistic point of view.
In mathematics, intuitionism is a program of methodological reform whose motto is that "there are no non-experienced mathematical truths" (
A major force behind intuitionism was
In intuitionism, the term "explicit construction" is not cleanly defined, and that has led to criticisms. Attempts have been made to use the concepts of Turing machine or computable function to fill this gap, leading to the claim that only questions regarding the behavior of finite algorithms are meaningful and should be investigated in mathematics. This has led to the study of the computable numbers, first introduced by Alan Turing. Not surprisingly, then, this approach to mathematics is sometimes associated with theoretical computer science.
Like intuitionism, constructivism involves the regulative principle that only mathematical entities which can be explicitly constructed in a certain sense should be admitted to mathematical discourse. In this view, mathematics is an exercise of the human intuition, not a game played with meaningless symbols. Instead, it is about entities that we can create directly through mental activity. In addition, some adherents of these schools reject non-constructive proofs, such as using proof by contradiction when showing the existence of an object or when trying to establish the truth of some proposition. Important work was done by Errett Bishop, who managed to prove versions of the most important theorems in real analysis as constructive analysis in his 1967 Foundations of Constructive Analysis.
God created the natural numbers, all else is the work of man.
Ultrafinitism is an even more extreme version of finitism, which rejects not only infinities but finite quantities that cannot feasibly be constructed with available resources. Another variant of finitism is Euclidean arithmetic, a system developed by John Penn Mayberry in his book The Foundations of Mathematics in the Theory of Sets. Mayberry's system is Aristotelian in general inspiration and, despite his strong rejection of any role for operationalism or feasibility in the foundations of mathematics, comes to somewhat similar conclusions, such as, for instance, that super-exponentiation is not a legitimate finitary function.
Structuralism is an
The ante rem structuralism ("before the thing") has a similar ontology to
The in re structuralism ("in the thing") is the equivalent of Aristotelian realism. Structures are held to exist inasmuch as some concrete system exemplifies them. This incurs the usual issues that some perfectly legitimate structures might accidentally happen not to exist, and that a finite physical world might not be "big" enough to accommodate some otherwise legitimate structures.
The post rem structuralism ("after the thing") is anti-realist about structures in a way that parallels nominalism. Like nominalism, the post rem approach denies the existence of abstract mathematical objects with properties other than their place in a relational structure. According to this view mathematical systems exist, and have structural features in common. If something is true of a structure, it will be true of all systems exemplifying the structure. However, it is merely instrumental to talk of structures being "held in common" between systems: they in fact have no independent existence.
Embodied mind theories
The cognitive processes of pattern-finding and distinguishing objects are also subject to neuroscience; if mathematics is considered to be relevant to a natural world (such as from realism or a degree of it, as opposed to pure solipsism).
Its actual relevance to reality, while accepted to be a trustworthy approximation (it is also suggested the evolution of perceptions, the body, and the senses may have been necessary for survival) is not necessarily accurate to a full realism (and is still subject to flaws such as illusion, assumptions (consequently; the foundations and axioms in which mathematics have been formed by humans), generalisations, deception, and hallucinations). As such, this may also raise questions for the modern scientific method for its compatibility with general mathematics; as while relatively reliable, it is still limited by what can be measured by empiricism which may not be as reliable as previously assumed (see also: 'counterintuitive' concepts in such as quantum nonlocality, and action at a distance).
Another issue is that one numeral system may not necessarily be applicable to problem solving. Subjects such as complex numbers or imaginary numbers require specific changes to more commonly used axioms of mathematics; otherwise they cannot be adequately understood.
Alternatively, computer programmers may use
Embodied mind theorists thus explain the effectiveness of mathematics—mathematics was constructed by the brain in order to be effective in this universe.
The most accessible, famous, and infamous treatment of this perspective is
Aristotelian realism holds that mathematics studies properties such as symmetry, continuity and order that can be literally realized in the physical world (or in any other world there might be). It contrasts with Platonism in holding that the objects of mathematics, such as numbers, do not exist in an "abstract" world but can be physically realized. For example, the number 4 is realized in the relation between a heap of parrots and the universal "being a parrot" that divides the heap into so many parrots. Aristotelian realism is defended by James Franklin and the Sydney School in the philosophy of mathematics and is close to the view of Penelope Maddy that when an egg carton is opened, a set of three eggs is perceived (that is, a mathematical entity realized in the physical world). A problem for Aristotelian realism is what account to give of higher infinities, which may not be realizable in the physical world.
The Euclidean arithmetic developed by John Penn Mayberry in his book The Foundations of Mathematics in the Theory of Sets also falls into the Aristotelian realist tradition. Mayberry, following Euclid, considers numbers to be simply "definite multitudes of units" realized in nature—such as "the members of the London Symphony Orchestra" or "the trees in Birnam wood". Whether or not there are definite multitudes of units for which Euclid's Common Notion 5 (the whole is greater than the part) fails and which would consequently be reckoned as infinite is for Mayberry essentially a question about Nature and does not entail any transcendental suppositions.
Karl Popper was another philosopher to point out empirical aspects of mathematics, observing that "most mathematical theories are, like those of physics and biology, hypothetico-deductive: pure mathematics therefore turns out to be much closer to the natural sciences whose hypotheses are conjectures, than it seemed even recently." Popper also noted he would "admit a system as empirical or scientific only if it is capable of being tested by experience."
Contemporary mathematical empiricism, formulated by
Putnam strongly rejected the term "
The most important criticism of empirical views of mathematics is approximately the same as that raised against Mill. If mathematics is just as empirical as the other sciences, then this suggests that its results are just as fallible as theirs, and just as contingent. In Mill's case the
For a philosophy of mathematics that attempts to overcome some of the shortcomings of Quine and Gödel's approaches by taking aspects of each see Penelope Maddy's Realism in Mathematics. Another example of a realist theory is the embodied mind theory.
For experimental evidence suggesting that human infants can do elementary arithmetic, see Brian Butterworth.
Mathematical fictionalism was brought to fame in 1980 when
Having shown how to do science without using numbers, Field proceeded to rehabilitate mathematics as a kind of
Another fictionalist, Mary Leng, expresses the perspective succinctly by dismissing any seeming connection between mathematics and the physical world as "a happy coincidence". This rejection separates fictionalism from other forms of anti-realism, which see mathematics itself as artificial but still bounded or fitted to reality in some way.
By this account, there are no metaphysical or epistemological problems special to mathematics. The only worries left are the general worries about non-mathematical physics, and about
Social constructivism sees mathematics primarily as a social construct, as a product of culture, subject to correction and change. Like the other sciences, mathematics is viewed as an empirical endeavor whose results are constantly evaluated and may be discarded. However, while on an empiricist view the evaluation is some sort of comparison with "reality", social constructivists emphasize that the direction of mathematical research is dictated by the fashions of the social group performing it or by the needs of the society financing it. However, although such external forces may change the direction of some mathematical research, there are strong internal constraints—the mathematical traditions, methods, problems, meanings and values into which mathematicians are enculturated—that work to conserve the historically-defined discipline.
This runs counter to the traditional beliefs of working mathematicians, that mathematics is somehow pure or objective. But social constructivists argue that mathematics is in fact grounded by much uncertainty: as mathematical practice evolves, the status of previous mathematics is cast into doubt, and is corrected to the degree it is required or desired by the current mathematical community. This can be seen in the development of analysis from reexamination of the calculus of Leibniz and Newton. They argue further that finished mathematics is often accorded too much status, and folk mathematics not enough, due to an overemphasis on axiomatic proof and peer review as practices.
The social nature of mathematics is highlighted in its
Contributions to this school have been made by Imre Lakatos and Thomas Tymoczko, although it is not clear that either would endorse the title.[clarification needed] More recently Paul Ernest has explicitly formulated a social constructivist philosophy of mathematics. Some consider the work of Paul Erdős as a whole to have advanced this view (although he personally rejected it) because of his uniquely broad collaborations, which prompted others to see and study "mathematics as a social activity", e.g., via the Erdős number. Reuben Hersh has also promoted the social view of mathematics, calling it a "humanistic" approach, similar to but not quite the same as that associated with Alvin White; one of Hersh's co-authors, Philip J. Davis, has expressed sympathy for the social view as well.
Beyond the traditional schools
Rather than focus on narrow debates about the true nature of mathematical truth, or even on practices unique to mathematicians such as the proof, a growing movement from the 1960s to the 1990s began to question the idea of seeking foundations or finding any one right answer to why mathematics works. The starting point for this was Eugene Wigner's famous 1960 paper "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences", in which he argued that the happy coincidence of mathematics and physics being so well matched seemed to be unreasonable and hard to explain.
Popper's two senses of number statements
Realist and constructivist theories are normally taken to be contraries. However, Karl Popper argued that a number statement such as "2 apples + 2 apples = 4 apples" can be taken in two senses. In one sense it is irrefutable and logically true. In the second sense it is factually true and falsifiable. Another way of putting this is to say that a single number statement can express two propositions: one of which can be explained on constructivist lines; the other on realist lines.
Philosophy of language
This section possibly contains original research. (February 2023)
Innovations in the philosophy of language during the 20th century renewed interest in whether mathematics is, as is often said,[
Mohan Ganesalingam has analysed mathematical language using tools from formal linguistics.
Indispensability argument for realism
This argument, associated with
- One must have ontologicalcommitments to all entities that are indispensable to the best scientific theories, and to those entities only (commonly referred to as "all and only").
- Mathematical entities are indispensable to the best scientific theories. Therefore,
- One must have ontological commitments to mathematical entities.
The justification for the first premise is the most controversial. Both Putnam and Quine invoke naturalism to justify the exclusion of all non-scientific entities, and hence to defend the "only" part of "all and only". The assertion that "all" entities postulated in scientific theories, including numbers, should be accepted as real is justified by confirmation holism. Since theories are not confirmed in a piecemeal fashion, but as a whole, there is no justification for excluding any of the entities referred to in well-confirmed theories. This puts the nominalist who wishes to exclude the existence of sets and non-Euclidean geometry, but to include the existence of quarks and other undetectable entities of physics, for example, in a difficult position.
Epistemic argument against realism
Field developed his views into
The argument hinges on the idea that a satisfactory
Another line of defense is to maintain that abstract objects are relevant to mathematical reasoning in a way that is non-causal, and not analogous to perception. This argument is developed by
A more radical defense is denial of physical reality, i.e. the mathematical universe hypothesis. In that case, a mathematician's knowledge of mathematics is one mathematical object making contact with another.
This section needs additional citations for verification. (November 2015)
Many practicing mathematicians have been drawn to their subject because of a sense of beauty they perceive in it. One sometimes hears the sentiment that mathematicians would like to leave philosophy to the philosophers and get back to mathematics—where, presumably, the beauty lies.
In his work on the
Philip J. Davis and Reuben Hersh have commented that the sense of mathematical beauty is universal amongst practicing mathematicians. By way of example, they provide two proofs of the irrationality of √. The first is the traditional proof by contradiction, ascribed to Euclid; the second is a more direct proof involving the fundamental theorem of arithmetic that, they argue, gets to the heart of the issue. Davis and Hersh argue that mathematicians find the second proof more aesthetically appealing because it gets closer to the nature of the problem.
Paul Erdős was well known for his notion of a hypothetical "Book" containing the most elegant or beautiful mathematical proofs. There is not universal agreement that a result has one "most elegant" proof; Gregory Chaitin has argued against this idea.
Philosophers have sometimes criticized mathematicians' sense of beauty or elegance as being, at best, vaguely stated. By the same token, however, philosophers of mathematics have sought to characterize what makes one proof more desirable than another when both are logically sound.
Another aspect of aesthetics concerning mathematics is mathematicians' views towards the possible uses of mathematics for purposes deemed unethical or inappropriate. The best-known exposition of this view occurs in G. H. Hardy's book A Mathematician's Apology, in which Hardy argues that pure mathematics is superior in beauty to applied mathematics precisely because it cannot be used for war and similar ends.
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