FOM: Foundationalism
John Mayberry
J.P.Mayberry at bristol.ac.uk
Sun Sep 13 08:57:01 EDT 1998
I want to make a couple of brief points in reply to recent postings by
Colin McLarty and Reuben Hersh
To Colin McLarty's posting: It would be silly to say that Descartes,
Newton, and Riemann were not doing mathematics. But it is nevertheless
true that standards of rigour in proof and in definition have been
enormously sharpened since they did their work. Clearly simply going
back to their standards is not a serious option. But we don't have to
deny Newton (along with Leibniz) credit for the proof of the
Fundamental Theorem of Calculus just because the proofs of that result
contained in our Analysis textbooks go far beyond theirs in point of
rigour.
To Reuben Hersh's posting: Hersh claims that "foundationalism" is "the
demand for a secure foundation to make mathematics indubitable". I
should have thought that the demand for a "secure foundation" for a
subject that purports to deal in rigorous proof is not an unreasonable
one. But "indubitable"? Surely any scientist worth his salt should be
willing to submit even his most cherished convictions to scrutiny, and
that involves, "doubting" them, at least in some sense. But what is
required here is serious, particular doubt, not just general, nominal
doubt. When we encounter a proposition that, as a matter of
(sociological) fact, is taken by mathematicians as a first principle,
we should ask ourselves whether we can raise a *mathematically*
intelligible and usable objection to its validity, or to its status as
a *first* principle (e.g. by deriving it from something more
fundamental). If we cannot raise such an objection, then we have no
*serious* doubt, though we may express *nominal* doubt, perhaps on the
grounds that absolute certainty is an unattainable ideal, or perhaps by
way of reserving the right to call the principle in question should it
subsequently occur to us how this might be done in a mathematically
significant way. However, I fear that views of the foundations of
mathematics such as Hersh's "Humanism", precisely by calling
*everything* indiscriminately into doubt, discourage us from taking ANY
foundational principle sufficiently seriously to subject it to the kind
of doubt that can be mathematically fruitful. To pursue "indubitable"
foundations is, no doubt, to pursue a will-o-the-wisp; to pursue
"secure foundations" is an essential part of mathematics.
-----------------------------
John Mayberry
School of Mathematics
University of Bristol
J.P.Mayberry at bristol.ac.uk
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