# [FOM] Convincing Edward Nelson that PA is consistent

Timothy Y. Chow tchow at math.princeton.edu
Wed Jun 20 17:21:33 EDT 2018

```On Wed, 20 Jun 2018, Arnon Avron wrote:
> In your posting you refer to two types of people: the skeptical
> formalists (who are somehow more reasonable than the strict formalists)
> and the ultrafinitists. I understand from your message that Nelson was
> both. But *should* an ultrafinitist be a (skeptical) formalist?
> Conversely: *Should* a skeptical (or even strict) formalist be an
> ultrafinitist? If so - why? If not - how would you convince a very
> skeptical formalist who is not an ultrafinitist that PA is consistent?

First let me try to be a bit more careful about what the terms "skeptical
formalist" and "ultrafinitist" mean.

"Ultrafinitist" presumably should mean someone who objects to concepts
such as "arbitrarily long finite string" or "arbitrarily long finite
proof."

"Skeptical formalist" presumably should mean someone whose primary view of
mathematics is that it is a game played with formal symbols, and that much
mathematical discourse should not be interpreted as being *meaningful*.
But if the formalist is not "strict" then it means that the formalist
accepts *some* mathematical statements and arguments as being meaningful
and correct.  To repeat my most basic example, anyone but a strict
formalist would agree that if you repeatedly apply the rule "prepend an S"
to the symbol "0" then you will never get a string with some symbol other
than S or 0 in it.

To convince a very skeptical formalist who is not an ultrafinitist that PA
is consistent---well, that may not be possible.  Since he or she is not an
ultrafinitist, that at least means that there is some hope that some
conventionally defined formal system such as PRA will capture a (proper)
subset of the arguments that the skeptical formalist accepts.  Then it is
just a matter of assessing whether that system is strong enough to prove
Con(PA).  If the skeptical formalist won't accept any system that is
strong enough to prove Con(PA), then there's no hope of convincing him or
her that PA is consistent.

As for what someone *should* believe---I don't think that any of these
views entails any of the others.  For example, you could be an