[FOM] Convincing math-blind people that math is different
Timothy Y. Chow
tchow at alum.mit.edu
Wed Dec 24 23:59:22 EST 2014
On Wed, 24 Dec 2014, Auke Booij wrote:
> So here's a radical idea: mathematical knowledge is not qualitatively
> different from most other kinds of (academic) knowledge.
I am glad that you have taken the time to articulate this point of view.
I think you have pinpointed the crux of the matter, that anyone who wishes
to argue for the distinctiveness of mathematical knowledge must address.
However, first I would like to back up one step. It seems to me that you
might agree that there is at least a tangible distinction between what
I'll call "mathematical/scientific knowledge" and other kinds of
knowledge, even if you deny any kind of sharp boundary within that
category (namely, between mathematical knowledge and scientific
knowledge). In any case, whether or not you believe this, I think I can
sketch a way that such a distinction could be demonstrated to a math-blind
person pretty convincingly. I will do this now. The description may also
help to clarify, by way of example, what kinds of capabilities I envision
the idealized math-blind person to have.
The demonstration is simple to describe. I build a computer and implement
an algorithm that prints out, on paper, a million digits of some constant
that hasn't been explicitly computed before---say, sqrt(12523599347).
Then I build a completely different kind of computer and implement a
completely different algorithm. I announce that my new system will print
out exactly the same million digits. Then I hit the "go" button and the
machine duly churns out the predicted million digits. The math-blind
person can verify that the million digits are indeed the same.
This sort of demonstration would seem to have no analogue in other fields
of knowledge. For example, we might be able to find two people who are
able to recite the entire Koran word-for-word, but this is because the
Koran has already been written out explicitly for all to examine. The
first million digits of sqrt(12523599347) have not been written out
before, as far as the math-blind person can see. All non-scientific
examples I can think of that involve agreed-upon conventions (e.g., laws,
works of art) require that a community spend considerable time drawing up
the conventions explicitly, and explicitly disseminating that knowledge.
The way in which an algorithm encodes an enormous number of digits seems
to be a uniquely mathematical/scientific phenomenon.
Although I find this to be a convincing demonstration of the qualitative
difference between mathematical/scientific knowledge and other kinds of
knowledge, I am not sure that it serves as a demonstration of the
distinction between mathematical knowledge and scientific knowledge. We
are, after all, still in the realm of finite predictions of finite
experiments with finite results. If, as I would like to propose, a
math-blind person lacks the ability to *extrapolate* or *abstract*, then
it seems to me that we are stymied at this point.
Tim
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