Here's a short piece by the New Scientist on the status of Mochizuki's purported proof of the ABC conjecture. More than 2 years after the 500-page proof has been made public, the mathematical community still hasn't been able to decide whether it's correct or not. (Recall my post on this from May 2013; little change seems to have taken place since then.)
Going back to my dialogical conception of mathematical proofs as involving a proponent who formulates the proof and opponents who must check it, this stalemate can be viewed from at least two perspectives: either Mochizuki is not trying hard enough as a proponent, or the mathematical community is not trying hard enough as opponent.
[Mochizuki] has also criticised the rest of the community for not studying his work in detail, and says most other mathematicians are "simply not qualified" to issue a definitive statement on the proof unless they start from the very basics of his theory.
Some mathematicians say Mochizuki must do more to explain his work, like simplifying his notes or lecturing abroad.
(Of course, it may well be that both are the case!). And so for now, the proof remains in limbo, as well put by the New Scientist piece. Mathematics, oh so human!
The great historian of logic and mathematics Ivor Grattan-Guinness passed away about a month ago, aged 73. I only heard it yesterday, when Stephen Read posted a link to the Guardian obituary on Facebook. From the obituary:
He rescued the moribund journal Annals of Science, founded the journal History and Philosophy of Logic, and was on the board of Historia Mathematica from its inception. A member of the council of the Society for Psychical Research, he wrote Psychical Research: A Guide to Its History (1982). In 1971 the British Society for the History of Mathematics was founded: Ivor served as its president (1986-88) and instituted a formal constitution.
Indeed, many of us owe him eternal gratitude for founding the journal History and Philosophy of Logic, which continues to be the main journal for studies combining historical and philosophical perspectives on logic. Ivor's work and scholarship spans over an impressive range of topics and areas, and is bound to continue to influence many generations of scholars to come. It is a great loss.
As readers will have noticed, since yesterday there has been an outpour of expressions of sorrow for the passing of Patrick Suppes everywhere on the internet. He was without a doubt one of the most influential philosophers of science in the 20th century, and so all the love and appreciation is richly deserved. I do not have anything much to add to what others who knew him better have been saying, but I thought of posting a link to the video podcast of a lecture he delivered at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy some two years ago, titled ‘A neuroscience perspective on the foundations of mathematics’. (Back then I even wrote a blog post about the lecture, just before it took place.)
As much as it is sad to see dear, talented people passing away, I think it is comforting to note that Suppes lived his life to the fullest until the very end, for example by flying across the ocean to give a lecture on a new, exciting topic at age 90. The vitality he displays in the lecture is truly impressive, and a lovely reminder of his decisive contributions to philosophy and the sciences.
Alexander Grothendieck, who is viewed by many as the greatest mathematician of the 20th century, has passed away yesterday after years of living in total reclusion. (To be honest, I did not even know he was still alive!) He was a key figure in the development of the modern theory of algebraic geometry, among others, but to philosophers and logicians he is perhaps best known as one of the major forces behind the establishment of category theory as a new foundational framework for mathematics.
So far, I’ve only seen obituaries in French (Libération and Le Monde), as Grothendieck (of German origin) lived almost all of his life in France (I expect that soon obituaries in English will be available too). His life story is almost as remarkable as his mathematical achievements: his father died in Auschwitz in 1942, while he was sent to a concentration camp in France with his mother. In all of his adult life, he was as passionate about pacifism as he was about mathematics (and perhaps even more), and continuously engaged in a number of activist initiatives like lecturing on category theory in a forrest of bombed Vietnam to protest against the war. He seems to have basically stopped doing any mathematics in the 1970s, but the influence of his work in the field is bound to remain colossal in many years or even centuries to come.
Today my research group in Groningen (with the illustrious online participation of Tony Booth, beaming in from the UK) held a seminar session where we discussed Fabienne Peter’s 2013 paper ‘The procedural epistemic value of deliberation’. It is a very interesting paper, which defends the view that deliberation has not only epistemic value (as opposed to ‘merely’ ethical, practical value), but also that it has procedural epistemic value (as the title suggests), as opposed to ‘merely’ instrumental value. I'll argue here that I agree with the thesis, but not for the reasons offered by Peter in her paper.
The paper begins with the following observation:
An important question one can ask about collective deliberation is whether it increases or decreases the accuracy of the beliefs of the participants. But this instrumental approach, which only looks at the outcome of deliberation, does not exhaustively account for the epistemic value that deliberation might have. (Peters 2013, 1253)
One way to spell out this idea is the following: suppose there were two knowledge-producing procedures with the exact same accuracy, i.e. which would produce the same amount of true beliefs and avoid the same amount of false beliefs. Moreover, procedure D involves deliberation, while procedure O relies entirely on an oracle, for example. If we can show that procedure D is superior to procedure O on purely epistemic grounds, then we can establish that deliberation has procedural epistemic value, rather than merely instrumental epistemic value (i.e. increase accuracy).
In December, I will be presenting at the Aesthetics in Mathematics conference in Norwich. The title of my talk is Beauty, explanation, and persuasion in mathematical proofs, and to be honest at this point there is not much more to it than the title… However, the idea I will try to develop is that many, perhaps even most, of the features we associate with beauty in mathematical proofs can be subsumed to the ideal of explanatory persuasion, which I take to be the essence of mathematical proofs.
As some readers may recall, in my current research I adopt a dialogical perspective to raise a functionalist question: what is the point of mathematical proofs? Why do we bother formulating mathematical proofs at all? The general hypothesis is that most of the defining criteria for what counts as a mathematical proof – and in particular, a good mathematical proof – can be explained in terms of the (presumed) ultimate function of a mathematical proof, namely that of convincing an interlocutor that the conclusion of the proof is true (given the truth of the premises) by showing why that is the case. (See also this recent edited volume on argumentation in mathematics.) Thus, a proof seeks not only to force the interlocutor to grant the conclusion if she has granted the premises; it seeks also to reveal something about the mathematical concepts involved to the interlocutor so that she also apprehends what makes the conclusion true – its causes, as it were. On this conception of proof, beauty may well play an important role, but this role will be subsumed to the ideal of explanatory persuasion.
Mathematics has been much in the news recently, especially with the announcement of the latest four Fields medalists (I am particularly pleased to see the first woman, and the first Latin-American, receiving the highest recognition in mathematics). But there was another remarkable recent event in the world of mathematics: Thomas Hales has announced the completion of the formalization of his proof of the Kepler conjecture. The conjecture: “what is the best way to stack a collection of spherical objects, such as a display of oranges for sale? In 1611 Johannes Kepler suggested that a pyramid arrangement was the most efficient, but couldn't prove it.” (New Scientist)
We are pleased to announce the completion of the Flyspeck project, which has constructed a formal proof of the Kepler conjecture. The Kepler conjecture asserts that no packing of congruent balls in Euclidean 3-space has density greater than the face-centered cubic packing. It is the oldest problem in discrete geometry. The proof of the Kepler conjecture was first obtained by Ferguson and Hales in 1998. The proof relies on about 300 pages of text and on a large number of computer calculations.
Eric Schwitzgebel recently took up the question of whether an infinitely extended life must be boring. The discussion ended (when I looked at it) with Eric’s fruitfully suggesting that we look at various cognitive architectures and their capacities for boredom over the long run.
No doubt there are many kinds of minds. Let’s radically simplify the problem, in hopes of arriving at a precise answer for at least one case. (After all, if a mind without much to think about can escape boredom, then presumably a more amply stocked mind can too.) The mind I want consider thinks only of natural numbers and number theory (algebraic and analytic). Its “perceptions” consist in presentations of random natural numbers. Will it be bored?
Hitler does not like Gödel's theorem one bit. Perhaps surprisingly, he displays a sophisticated understanding of the implications and presuppositions of the theorem. (In other words, there's some very solid philosophy of logic in the background -- I think I could teach a whole course only on the material presupposed here.)
(Courtesy of Diego Tajer, talented young logician from Buenos Aires, giving continuation to the best Monty Python tradition!)
A few weeks ago I had a post on different ways of counting infinities; the main point was that two of the basic principles that hold for counting finite collections cannot be both transferred over to the case of measuring infinite collections. Now, as a matter of fact I am equally (if not more) interested in the question of counting finite collections at the most basic level, both from the point of view of the foundations of mathematics (‘but what are numbers?’) and from the point of view of how numerical cognition emerges in humans. In fact, to me, these two questions are deeply related.
In a lecture I’ve given a couple of times to non-academic, non-philosophical audiences (so-called ‘outreach lectures’) called ‘What are numbers for people who do not count?’, my starting point is the classic Dedekindian question, ‘What are numbers?’ But instead of going metaphysical, I examine people’s actual counting habits (including among cultures that have very few number words). The idea is that Benacerraf’s (1973) challenge of how we can have epistemic access to these elusive entities, numbers, should be addressed in an empirically informed way, including data from developmental psychology and from anthropological studies (among others). There is a sense in which all there is to explain is the socially enforced practice of counting, which then gives rise to basic arithmetic (from there on, to the rest of mathematics). And here again, Wittgenstein was on the right track with the following observation in the Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics:
This is how our children learn sums; for one makes them put down three beans and then another three beans and then count what is there. If the result at one time were 5, at another 7 (say because, as we should now say, one sometimes got added, and one sometimes vanished of itself), then the first thing we said would be that beans were no good for teaching sums. But if the same thing happened with sticks, fingers, lines and most other things, that would be the end of all sums.
“But shouldn’t we then still have 2 + 2 = 4?” – This sentence would have become unusable. (RFM, § 37)
In his Two New Sciences (1638), Galileo presents a puzzle about infinite collections of numbers that became known as ‘Galileo’s paradox’. Written in the form of a dialogue, the interlocutors in the text observe that there are many more positive integers than there are perfect squares, but that every positive integer is the root of a given square. And so, there is a one-to-one correspondence between the positive integers and the perfect squares, and thus we may conclude that there are as many positive integers as there are perfect squares. And yet, the initial assumption was that there are more positive integers than perfect squares, as every perfect square is a positive integer but not vice-versa; in other words, the collection of the perfect squares is strictly contained in the collection of the positive integers. How can they be of the same size then?
Galileo’s conclusion is that principles and concepts pertaining to the size of finite collections cannot be simply transposed, mutatis mutandis, to cases of infinity: “the attributes "equal," "greater," and "less," are not applicable to infinite, but only to finite, quantities.” With respect to finite collections, two uncontroversial principles hold:
Part-whole: a collection A that is strictly contained in a collection B has a strictly smaller size than B.
One-to-one: two collections for which there exists a one-to-one correspondence between their elements are of the same size.
What Galileo’s paradox shows is that, when moving to infinite cases, these two principles clash with each other, and thus that at least one of them has to go. In other words, we simply cannot transpose these two basic intuitions pertaining to counting finite collections to the case of infinite collections. As is well known, Cantor chose to keep One-to-one at the expenses of Part-whole, famously concluding that all countable infinite collections are of the same size (in his terms, have the same cardinality); this is still the reigning orthodoxy.
I'm currently running a series of posts at M-Phi with sections of a paper I'm working on, 'Axiomatizations of arithmetic and the first-order/second-order divide', which may be of interest to at least some of the NewAPPS readership. It focuses on the idea that, when it comes to axiomatizing arithmetic, descriptive power and deductive power cannot be combined: axiomatizations that are categorical (using a highly expressive logical language, typically second-order logic) will typically be intractable, whereas axiomatizations with deductively better-behaved underlying logics (typically, first-order logic) will not be categorical -- i.e. will be true of models other than the intended model of the series of the natural numbers. Based on a distinction proposed by Hintikka between the descriptive use and the deductive use of logic in the foundations of mathematics, I discuss what the impossibility of having our arithmetical cake and eating it (i.e. of combining deductive power with expressive power to characterize arithmetic with logical tools) means for the first-order logic vs. second-order logic debate.
Formal/mathematical philosophy is a well-established approach within philosophical inquiry, having its friends as well as its foes. Now, even though I am very much a formal-approaches-enthusiast, I believe that fundamental methodological questions tend not to receive as much attention as they deserve within this tradition. In particular, a key question which is unfortunately not asked often enough is: what counts as a ‘good’ formalization? How do we know that a given proposed formalization is adequate, so that the insights provided by it are indeed insights about the target phenomenon in question? In recent years, the question of what counts as adequate formalization seems to be for the most part a ‘Swiss obsession’, with the thought-provoking work of Georg Brun, and Michael Baumgartner & Timm Lampert. But even these authors seem to me to restrict the question to a limited notion of formalization, as translation of pieces of natural language into some formalism. (I argued in chapter 3 of my book Formal Languages in Logic that this is not the best way to think about formalization.)
However, some of the pioneers in formal/mathematical approaches to philosophical questions did pay at least some attention to the issue of what counts as an adequate formalization. In this post, I want to discuss how Tarski and Carnap approached the issue, hoping to convince more ‘formal philosophers’ to go back to these questions. (I also find the ‘squeezing argument’ framework developed by Kreisel particularly illuminating, but will leave it out for now, for reasons of space.)
( From the graphic novel Logicomix, taken from this blog post by Richard Zach.)
“He doesn’t want to prove this or that, but to find out how things really are.” This is how Russell describes Wittgenstein in a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell (as reported in M. Potter’s wonderful book Wittgenstein's Notes on Logic, p. 50 – see my critical note on the book). This may well be the most accurate characterization of Wittgenstein’s approach to philosophy in general, in fact a fitting description of the different phases Wittgenstein went through. Indeed, if there is a common denominator to the first, second, intermediate etc. Wittgensteins, it is the fundamental nature of the questions he asked: different answers, but similar questions throughout. So instead of proving ‘this or that’, for example, he asks what a proof is in the first place.
As some of you may have seen, we will be hosting the workshop ‘Proof theory and philosophy’ in Groningen at the beginning of December. The idea is to focus on the philosophical significance and import of proof theory, rather than exclusively on technical aspects. An impressive team of philosophically inclined proof theorists will be joining us, so it promises to be a very exciting event (titles of talks will be made available shortly).
For my own talk, I’m planning to discuss the main structural rules as defined in sequent calculus – weakening, contraction, exchange, cut – from the point of view of the dialogical conception of deduction that I’ve been developing, inspired in particular (but not exclusively) by Aristotle’s logical texts. In this post, I'll do a bit of preparatory brainstorming, and I look forward to any comments readers may have!
Some months ago I wrote two posts on the concept of indirect proofs: one presenting a dialogical conception of these proofs, and the other analyzing the concept of ‘proofs through the impossible’ in the Prior Analytics. Since then I gave a few talks on this material, receiving useful feedback from audiences in Groningen and Paris. Moreover, this week we hosted the conference ‘Dialectic and Aristotle’s Logic’ in Groningen, and after various talks and discussions I have come to formulate some new ideas on the topic of reductio proofs and their dialectical/dialogical underpinnings. So for those of you who enjoyed the previous posts, here are some further thoughts and tentative answers to lingering questions.
Recall that the dialogical conception I presented in previous posts was meant to address the awkwardness of the first speech act in a reductio proof, namely that of supposing precisely that which you intend to refute by showing that it entails an absurdity. From studies in the literature on math education, it is known that this first step can be very confusing to students learning the technique of reductio proofs. On the dialogical conception, however, no such awkwardness arises, as there is a division of roles between the agent who supposes the initial thesis to be refuted, and the agent who in fact derives an absurdity from the thesis.
“That's the problem with false proofs of true theorems: it's not easy to produce a counterexample.”
This is a comment by Jeffrey Shallit in a post on a purported proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. (Incidentally, the author of the purported proof comments at M-Phi occasionally.) In all its apparent simplicity, this remark raises a number of interesting philosophical questions. (Being the pedantic philosopher that I am, I'll change a bit the terminology and use the phrase 'incorrect proof' instead of 'false proof', which I take to be a category mistake.)
First of all, the remark refers to a pervasive but prima facie slightly puzzling feature of mathematical practice: mathematicians often formulate alternative proofs of theorems that have already been proved. This may appear somewhat surprising on the assumption that mathematicians are (solely) in the business of establishing (mathematical) truths; now, if a given truth, a theorem, has already been established, what is the point of going down the same road again? (Or more precisely, going to the same place by taking a different road.) This of course shows that the assumption in question is false: mathematicians are not only interested in theorems, in fact they are mostly interested in proofs. (This is one of the points of Rav’s thought-provoking paper ‘Why do we prove theorems?’)
There are several reasons why mathematicians look for new proofs of previously established theorems, and John Dawson Jr.’s excellent ‘Why do mathematicians re-prove theorems?’ discusses a number of these reasons. The original proof may be seen as too convoluted or not sufficient explanatory – ideally, a proof shows not only that P is the case, but also why P is the case (more on this below). Alternatively, the proof may rely on notions and concepts alien to the formulation and understanding of the theorem itself, giving rise to concerns of purity. Indeed, recall that Colin McLarty motivates his search for a new proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem in these terms: “Fermat’s Last Theorem is just about numbers, so it seems like we ought to be able to prove it by just talking about numbers”. This is not the case of the currently available proof by Wiles, which relies on much heavier machinery.
"A person's Erdős–Bacon number is the sum of one's Erdős number—which measures the "collaborative distance" in authoring mathematical papers between that person and Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős—and one's Bacon number—which represents the number of links, through roles in films, by which the individual is separated from American actor Kevin Bacon. The lower the number, the closer a person is to Erdős and Bacon, and this reflects a small world phenomenon in academia and entertainment."--Wikipedia. [HT: Wayne Myrvold] So, for example Bertrand Russell's Bacon number is the result of an appearance in a Bollywood film.
Those of you who have been following some of my blog posts
will recall my current research project ‘Roots of Deduction’, which aims at
unearthing (hopefully without damaging!) the conceptual and historical origins
of the very concept of a deductive argument as one where the truth of the
premises necessitates the truth of the conclusion. In particular, this past
year we’ve been reading the Prior
Analytics in a reading group, which has been a fantastic experience (highly
recommended!). For next year, the plan is to switch from logic to mathematics,
and look more closely into the development of deductive arguments in Greek
But here’s the catch: the members of the project are all much
more versed in the history of logic than in the history of mathematics, so we
can’t count on as much previous expertise for mathematics as we could in the
case of (Aristotelian) logic. Moreover, the history of ancient Greek
mathematics is a rather intimidating topic, with an enormous amount of
secondary literature and a notorious scarcity of primary sources (at least for
the earlier pre-Euclid period, which is what we would be interested in). So it
seems prudent to focus on a few specific aspects of the topic, and for now I
have in mind specifically the connections between mathematics and logic (and
philosophy) in ancient Greece. More generally, our main interest is not on the
‘contentual’ part of mathematical theories, but rather on the ‘structural’
part, in particular the general structure of arguments and the emergence of
necessarily truth-preserving arguments.
Last week I was in Munich for the excellent ‘Carnap on logic’ conference, which brought together pretty much everyone who’s someone in the world of Carnap scholarship. (And that excludes me -- still don’t know exactly why I was invited in the first place…) My talk was a comparison between Carnap’s notion of explication and my own conception of formalization, as developed in my book Formal Languages in Logic. In particular, I proposed a cognitive, empirically informed account of Carnap’s notion of the fruitfulness of an explication.
Anyway, I learned an awful lot about Carnap, and got to meet some great people I hadn’t yet met. But perhaps the talk I enjoyed most was Steve Awodey’s ‘On the invariance of logical truth’ (for those of you who have seen Steve lecturing before, this will come as no surprise…). The main point of Steve’s talk was to defend the claim that the notion of (logical) invariance that is now more readily associated with Tarski, in particular his lecture ‘What are logical notions?’ (1966, published posthumously in 1986), is already to be found in the work of Carnap of the 1930s. This in itself was already fascinating, but then Steve ended his talk by drawing some connections between the invariance debate in philosophy of logic and his current work on homotopy type theory. Now, some of you will remember that I am truly excited about this new research program, and since I’ve also spent quite some time thinking about invariance criteria for logicality (more on which below), it was a real treat to hear Steve relating the two debates. In particular, he gave me (yet another) reason to be excited about the homotopy type theory program, which is the topic of this blog post.
"The usual implicit assumption is that mathematical English could be formalized in a set-theoretic foundation such as ZFC, and this requires various conventions on what we can and can’t say in mathematical English. The goal of informal type theory is to develop conventions for a version of mathematical English whose “implicit underlying foundation” is instead type theory — specifically, homotopy type theory."--Mike Shulman.
"Writing a 500 pp. book on an entirely new subject, with 40 authors,
in 9 months is already an amazing achievement....But even more astonishing, in my humble opinion, is the mathematical
and logical content: this is an entirely new foundation, starting from
scratch and reaching to ,
the Yoneda lemma, the cumulative hierarchy of sets, and a new
constructive treatment of the real numbers — with a whole lot of new and
fascinating mathematics and logic along the way...But for all that, what is perhaps most remarkable about the book is what is not
in it: formalized mathematics. One of the novel things about HoTT is
that it is not just formal logical foundations of mathematics in principle: it
really is code that runs in a computer proof assistant... At the risk of sounding a bit grandiose, this represents something of a
“new paradigm” for mathematics: fully formal proofs that can be run on
the computer to ensure their absolute rigor, accompanied by informal
exposition that can focus more on the intuition and examples. Our goal
in this Book has been to provide a first, extended example of this new
style of doing mathematics."--Steve Awodey.
"I believe that [W.E.] Johnson, like McTaggart and Aristotle, deserves commentators." A.N. Prior (1949) MIND.
"Mesmerized by Homo economicus, who acts solely on egoism, economists
shy away from altruism almost comically. Caught in a shameful act of
heroism, they aver: "Shucks, it was only enlightened self interest."
Sometimes it is. At other times it may be only rationalization (spurious
for card-carrying atheists): "If I rescue somebody's son, someone will
I will not waste ink on face-saving tautologies. When the governess of
infants caught in a burning building reenters it unobserved in a
hopeless mission of rescue, casuists may argue; "She did it only to get
the good feeling of doing it. Because other-wise she wouldn't have done
it." Such argumentation (in Wolfgang Pauli's scathing phrase) is not
even wrong. It is just boring, irrelevant, and in the technical sense of
old-fashioned logical positivism "meaning-less." You do not understand
the logic and history of consumer demand theory — Pareto, W. E. Johnson,
Slutsky, Allen-Hicks, Hotelling, Samuelson, Houthakker,... — if you
think that is its content."--P. Samuelson (1993), The American Economic Review.
There is a school of thought that locates the origins of analytical philosophy in the Cambridge of the philosopher-economist, Sidgwick and his students. After all, in Sidgwick's writings we find all the analytical virtues, and it is, thus, no surprise that Rawls and Parfit treat him as our vital interlocuter. Those (that is, the circle around Sidwick) recognized in Boole's work -- to quote W.E. Johnson -- "the first great revolution in the study of formal logic...comparable in importance with that of the algebraical symbolists in the sixteenth century." (2.6, p. 136) While it is not the story I tend to tell (say, here and here), I like this approach because it reminds us of the non-trivial overlap between logicians and economists so distinctive of Cambridge between 1870-1940, and thus, puts Keynes (father and son) and Ramsey back into the origin of analytical philosophy.
Now, the logician-economist, W.E. Johnson (1858 – 1931), is a test-case for this school of thought. (Recall the significance of Johnson to of our very own Mohan [and here].) For, while Johnson does not belong to the British Idealists, he does not figure in the stories we tell about our origins at all (selective evidence: Landini's Russell nor Candlish's The Russel/Bradley Dispute do not even mention Johnson). Even Wikipidia claims that his "Logic was dated at the time of its publication, and Johnson can be seen as a member of the British logic "old guard" pushed aside" by Russell and Whitehead. Wikipedia fits our narrative of progress; yet what to make of Prior's judgment?
It is fair to say that the ‘received view’ about deductive inference, and about inference in general, is that it proceeds from premises to conclusion so as to produce new information (the conclusion) from previously available information (the premises). It is this conception of deductive inference that gives rise to the so-called ‘scandal of deduction’, which concerns the apparent lack of usefulness of a deductive inference, given that in a valid deductive inference the conclusion is already ‘contained’, in some sense or another, in the premises. This is also the conception of inference underpinning e.g. Frege’s logicist project, and much (if not all) of the discussions in the philosophy of logic of the last many decades. (In fact, it is also the conception of deduction of the most famous ‘deducer’ of all times, Sherlock Holmes.)
That an inference, and a deductive inference in particular, proceeds from premises to conclusion may appear to be such an obvious truism that no one in their sane mind would want to question it. But is this really how it works when an agent is formulating a deductive argument, say a mathematical demonstration?
Continuing on NewAPPS’ recentobsession with number theory, today I came across an interesting Slate article
on the new proof of the ‘bounded gaps’ conjecture. The whole article is worth
reading, but there is one particularly priceless quote (hyperlink in the
If you start thinking
really hard about what “random” really means,
first you get a little nauseated, and a little after that you find you’re
doing analytic philosophy. So let’s not go down
A few days ago
Eric had a post about an insightful text that has been making the rounds on the
internet, which narrates the story of a mathematical ‘proof’ that is for now
sitting somewhere in a limbo between the world of proofs and the world of
non-proofs. The ‘proof’ in question purports to establish the famous ABC
conjecture, one of the (thus far) main open questions in number theory. (Luckily,
a while back Dennis posted an extremely helpful and precise exposition of the
ABC conjecture, so I need not rehearse the details here.) It has been proposed
by the Japanese mathematician Shinichi
Mochizuki, who is widely regarded as an extremely talented mathematician. This
is important, as crackpot ‘proofs’ are proposed on a daily basis, but in many
cases nobody bothers to check them; a modicum of credibility is required to get
your peers to spend time checking your purported proof. (Whether this is fair
or not is beside the point; it is a sociological fact about the practice of
mathematics.) Now, Mochizuki most certainly does not lack credibility, but his
‘proof’ has been made public quite a few months ago, and yet so far there is no
verdict as to whether it is indeed a proof of the ABC conjecture or not. How
could this be?
As it turns out, Mochizuki
has been working pretty much on his own for the last 10 years, developing new
concepts and techniques by mixing-and-matching elements from different areas of
mathematics. The result is that he created his own private mathematical world,
so to speak, which no one else seems able (or willing) to venture into for now.
So effectively, as it stands his ‘proof’ is not communicable, and thus cannot
be surveyed by his peers.
Kim sympathizes with his frustrated colleagues, but suggests a
different reason for the rancor. “It really is painful to read other
people’s work,” he says. “That’s all it is… All of us are just too lazy
to read them.” Kim is also quick to defend his friend. He says Mochizuki’s reticence
is due to being a “slightly shy character” as well as his assiduous
work ethic. “He’s a very hard working guy and he just doesn’t want to
spend time on airplanes and hotels and so on.” O’Neil, however, holds Mochizuki accountable, saying that his refusal to cooperate places an unfair burden on his colleagues. “You don’t get to say you’ve proved something if you haven’t
explained it,” she says. “A proof is a social construct. If the
community doesn’t understand it, you haven’t done your job.”--Has the ABC Conjecture been solved? [HT: Clerk Shaw on Facebook]
This piece is a nice inside perspective on the 'political economy' and social epistemology of mathematical proof.
An annoyingly inaccurate, but touching obituary in the Washington Post. Not only did he solve one of the grand conjectures - and one of the easiest to explain to non-mathematicians - but he launched a subliterature in epistemology, by providing the classic case of indirect evidence of the existence of a proof.
Fields-medalist Terence Tao (among other feats, he spotted the mistake in Nelson’s purported proof of the inconsistency of arithmetic back
in 2011) has a blog post on the meaning of rigor in
mathematical practice. He files this post under the heading ‘career advice’,
but the post in fact touches upon some key issues in the philosophy of
mathematics, such as: What is the role of intuitions for mathematical knowledge?
What is the role of formalism and rigor in mathematics? How are ‘formal’ and ‘informal’
While Tao’s post is not intended to be a contribution to
the philosophy of mathematics as such, and while one may miss some of the depth
of the discussions found in the philosophical literature and elsewhere, I find
it illuminating to see how a practicing mathematician (and a brilliant one at
that) conceptualizes the role of rigor in mathematical practice. (Also, much of
what he says fits in nicely with some of the views about formalisms and proofs
that I’ve been defending in recent years, as I will argue below -- something that I couldn't let go unnoticed!)
A few days ago I wrote a post on a dialogical
conceptualization of indirect proofs. Not coincidentally, much of my thinking
on this topic at the moment is prompted by the Prior Analytics, as we are currently holding a reading group of the
text in Groningen. We are still making our way through the
text, but here are some potentially interesting preliminary findings.
I am deeply convinced that the emergence of the technique of
indirect proofs marks the very birth of the deductive method, as it is a
significant departure from more ‘mundane’ forms of argumentation (as I argued
before). So it is perhaps not surprising that the first fully-fledged logical text in
history, the Prior Analytics, offers a sophisticated account of indirect