[FOM] Convincing math-blind people that math is different

Timothy Y. Chow tchow at alum.mit.edu
Mon Dec 22 22:52:36 EST 2014

I have recently been mulling over a certain unusual angle on the 
philosophy of mathematics that leads to what I think is an interesting 
question.  Roughly speaking, the question is whether it is possible to 
convince a math-blind person that mathematical knowledge is qualitatively 
different from other kinds of knowledge.

By a math-blind person, I mean someone who lacks the internal experience 
of mathematical proof and the feeling of certainty and objectivity that 
mathematical proof (usually) confers.  If we want, we could even take the 
extreme Kripkensteinian route: the math-blind person can't comprehend what 
a syntactic rule is, thinks "grue" is a natural concept and is baffled by 
"green," etc.  But we'll assume that the math-blind person is a normal 
person in non-mathematical areas, and in particular has a deep 
understanding of human social interactions and activities.

Those of us who are not math-blind are (mostly) convinced that there is 
something qualitatively different about mathematical knowledge compared to 
other kinds of knowledge.  My question is, is there a way to convince a 
math-blind person that this qualitative difference exists?

Math-blindness blocks perhaps the most natural route.  Instinctively, most 
mathematicians want to talk about the *certainty* of mathematical 
knowledge.  Now, there are familiar difficulties with the concept of 
mathematical certainty, having to do with the difficulty of being certain 
that there is no error in a proof, or the question of which axioms, if 
any, are certain.  But even leaving those difficulties aside, 
math-blindness presents a much simpler obstacle.  The math-blind person 
has no idea what we're talking about when we talk about the subjective 
experience of certainty.  All the math-blind person can see is that 
mathematicians *claim* to be certain.  But religious fanatics also claim 
to be certain, and most mathematicians want to distance mathematical 
knowledge from religious fanaticism.  The math-blind person can, of 
course, test this alleged certainty by seeing whether the community ever 
changes its mind about the "certain" facts.  But on this score, the 
religious fanatics will probably outdo the mathematicians, who must 
publish errata on an embarrassingly regular basis.

Similarly, *unanimity* doesn't seem to be a good litmus test either.  Is 
there unanimity about whether an arbitrary angle can be trisected using 
compass and straightedge alone?  Sure, say the mathematicians.  But wait, 
asks the math-blind person.  What about those angle-trisectors over there? 
Oh, they don't count.  Well, if it is permitted to exclude some groups of 
"wackos" in order to achieve "unanimity," then it seems that there are 
plenty of other areas of knowledge where there is "unanimity" among the 
"in group."

The best candidate I have been able to come up with so far is that in 
mathematics, it is possible on rare occasions for an "outsider" with no 
credentials among the "in group" to be able to make a very brief statement 
about an alleged error in the accepted body of knowledge, and have it be 
immediately acknowledged to be correct, even when the error has 
significant consequences.  I feel that I'm on the right track here, but 
I'm not sure that I've really "nailed it."  For example, an error in, say, 
Google Maps can survive for a rather long time, and anybody can point out 
the error and have it be universally acknowledged after a rather brief 
verification process.  One response might be, "Whether something is a 
one-way street *is* a mathematical fact."  This point of view seems to put 
us squarely in the fictionalist camp, where mathematical facts are 
agreed-upon conventions.  But even if you are a fictionalist, there seems 
to be a distinction between definitional conventions and chains of logical 
inference.  Google Maps is perhaps mathematical insofar as one regards all 
definitional conventions as part of mathematics, but intuitively there is 
still something different about mathematical knowledge and traffic 
conventions that is not captured by the outsider-can-find-an-error 

I am wondering if someone can come up with a better criterion, or 
alternatively, argue convincingly that there is no way to convince the 
math-blind person that mathematical knowledge is qualitatively different 
from other kinds of knowledge.


More information about the FOM mailing list