[FOM] Am I a Platonist?
Martin Davis
martin at eipye.com
Mon Oct 27 21:35:20 EST 2003
In a telephone conversation, Harvey Friedman once accused me of being an
"extreme Platonist". I did not recognize myself in that description, and
have thought for a long time about how to express my actual views in a
coherent manner.
I take it for granted that our minds are the result of the activity of a
brain that evolved to deal with the exigencies of life faced by our
hunter-gatherer ancestors. I find it a source of wonder that as the result
of a kind of logical "over-spill", our minds can obtain mathematical
knowledge. I believe that mathematical knowledge is objective knowledge,
that (as G\"odel has remarked), we have no ability to alter the properties
of the natural numbers. We might decide that for every natural number to be
the sum of three squares (rather than the four that Lagrange established to
be the case) would be aesthetically pleasing, but we have no more ability
to make this so than we have to alter the diameter of the earth. This
contrasts with works of fiction where a writer can certainly produce a
desired ending to order. I regard this objectivity as crucial, and regard
questions concerning the actual "existence" of numbers or even measurable
cardinals as having no clear content, and in any case, being beside the point.
I regard this objectivity as a hard-won result of mathematical practice and
in no way given to some kind of a priori sense or intuition. It is a source
of wonder and delight that with our finite brains, evolved for very
different purposes, we are able to obtain objective knowledge about things
that are infinite. Surveying the history of mathematics, we see
mathematicians as almost reluctantly being driven to consider the infinite.
Aristotle provided a safe mathematician's playground with his notion of
"potential" infinity, suggesting avoidance of any dealings with the
"actual" infinite. Gauss explicitly warned mathematicians in a similar vein.
In the 17th century Torricelli stunned his contemporaries by flouting the
Aristotelian doctrine by exhibiting a geometric body that was infinite in
extent, but had a finite volume. This discovery of what was OBJECTIVELY
the case about the relation between the finite and the infinite was not the
result of metaphysical speculation, but the direct result of the reach of
our mathematical powers. When Cantor began his study of transfinite
numbers, it was not at all clear that this could be carried out in a
satisfactory manner, and of course many refused (and continue to refuse) to
accept it. But the work of the set theorists continue to develop this
domain, and even when assumptions that transcend ZFC are used, the
objective nature of their results seems compelling. In a recent talk by
John Steel, he spoke of the striking way in which bifurcations in the
higher transfinite don't happen. As he put it, "There is only one road
up." To my mind this is clear evidence that one is dealing with objective
knowledge.
In a recent post, Harvey Friedman has raised the question of the
possibility of the coherence of a belief that every sentence in some
language has a determinate truth value while accepting that this truth
value will never be found by the human race. He mentions in particular,
sentences of enormous length. But the fact is that there are many perfectly
ordinary sentences of which it is perfectly coherent to believe they have a
definite truth value which we are unable to determine. Does a planet
recently discovered about some very distant star contain life? Or more
mundanely, is the number of leaves on trees on my property at this moment even?
The name I suggest for my point of view is Empirical Objectivism:
"empirical" because our understanding of the entities occurring in
mathematics is not the result of any transcendent intuition, but rather of
direct experience as practicing mathematicians, and "objectivism" to
express the belief in the objective character of mathematical truth.
G\"odel was certainly not an empirical objectivist, but he approached that
stance in the following statement from his 1951 Gibbs lecture: "If
mathematics describes an objective world just like physics, there is no
reason why inductive methods should not be applied in mathematics just the
same as in physics. The fact is that in mathematics we still have the same
attitude today that in former times one had toward all science, namely we
try to derive everything by cogent proofs from the definitions (that is,
from the essences of things). Perhaps this method, if it claims monopoly,
is as wrong in mathematics as it was in physics." Of course in mathematics
we don't have the check that experiment provides in physics. But that
comparison belongs in another post.
Martin
Martin Davis
Visiting Scholar UC Berkeley
Professor Emeritus, NYU
martin at eipye.com
(Add 1 and get 0)
http://www.eipye.com
More information about the FOM
mailing list