Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Contrast w/ Tait "The Platonism of Mathematics"

Both my view (Lumpist Platonism) and Tait's might be considered unusual or quirky versions of platonism. Platonism (in phil math) is the view that mathematical objects exist.

I think that the world is fundamentally (something like) a space-time manifold [as opposed to a set of facts, or a set of objects and relations], and that all statements are true or false in virtue of how the manifold is. This includes statements about objects, and different statements about objects will correspond to very different claims about the state of the manifold (e.g. saying that there's a table vs that there's a whirlpool vs a trade deficit vs. a marriage contract vs. a number or string of symbols or a proposition). So facts obtain, and objects and relations exist, in virtue of how the physical stuff of the world is configured, not vice versa. Necessary truths (like all statements of pure math) correspond to the trivial claim about the state of the manifold (one that doesn't rule out any possible configurations).

Tait, as I understand him, thinks that mathematical sentences show that objects exist by constructing suitable objects. He writes "A proof is a presentation or construction of an object: A is true when there is an object of type A and we prove A by constructing such an object."

Both of these views contrast with what you might call a "two worlds" version of platonism. On this view: in addition to whatever objects exist in virtue of the physical stuff of the world comporting itself a certain way, there is also an "extra" component of reality. So far as I understand the force of the word "extra" here, the point of saying that there's an extra component of reality is this: An infinite and putatively exhaustive description of the world given purely in the language of microphysics e.g. (this point has that property, this point has that property etc.) would be missing out on the existence of sets, *in some stronger sense then the sense than in which it would be missing out on rabbits and trade deficits*.

Tait and I also agree that sentences are the right place to start when considering how semantics relates to metaphysics and ontology. For a sentence to be meaningful you just need the whole sentence to somehow make a claim about the world. Thinking about particular words in the sentence as having favored relations with particular chunks of matter will help in some cases but not others.

However, I disagree with Tait on some really important points:

Firstly, I don't really understand what he means by construction. The best sense I can make of the idea of constructing mathematical objects (how can you bring an abstract object into being?) is that it's something like the way I can create a) a marriage contract with another person by signing things the courthouse, or b) the set with ur-elements {Sharon's mullet} by giving myself an ill-judged haircut and thereby bringing a particular mullet-token into being, and hence it's corresponding singleton. But if this is what he had in mind, then...
a) it has the (at the very least) wildly counterintuitive to say that there wasn't a number between 3 and 5 before someone wrote down a proof inscription.
b) quantification in math works very weirdly and differently from quantification in general. For, since people have only written finitely many proofs there will be some number - say 347892-, such that no one has inscribed a proof of "3457892 has a sucessor". On the other hand, we certainly have inscribed proofs of "Ax if x is a natural number then x has a successor". So it would seem that the general statement is true. But the instance is (at the moment) false.

Secondly, Tait doesn't seem to allow that quantified statements of arithmetic (like, say, the Godel sentences for various formal systems) already have truth values now. He seems to think we are free to choose which kinds of proofs to construct (i.e. what formal system to adopt). And then he says that "the incompleteness of formal systems such as elementary number theory can be proved by induction, is best seen as an incompleteness with respect to what can be expressed in the system rather than with the rules of inference." And he points out that by extending the language (and adding suitable instances of the induction schema) you can prove the Godel sentence (and con) for this system.

But when I wonder about e.g. con(PA+X) [it's pretty hard to wonder about con(PA) imho] or con(ZFC), I'm not just wondering whether I could extend my formal system in such a way as to allow these sentences (or their negation) to be derived. Obviously, I could start making derivations (and hence constructing objects, for Tait) in any formal system I want. Nor am I pondering what kind of lifestyle choice to adopt in the future. Rather, I think that *right now*, I understand what it means to ask whether there's a proof of 0=1 from ZFC. And this is what I want to know. Is this sentence provable in that formal system or not? Is there such a proof or not?To the extent that we can ever be sure that we really understand something, and are asking a sharply meaningful question, this is it! [I think this may be why my advisor PK disagrees with Tait too]

Overall, I'm tempted to suspect that Tait is getting into bed with unattractive antirealism because he wants to avoid an epistemological problem. He sees how (/doesn't worry about how) you could know that something exists if you are able to bring it into existence (construct it). Such knowledge is sometimes called "maker's knowledge". And then he wants to say what mathematical knowledge is, in such a way that all mathematical knowledge turns out to be accessible in this way - which leads to weird consequences about large numbers, and unknown arithmetical facts.

In contrast, if you use the ...ahem... magic of Sharon's thesis, to provide a general naturalistic mechanism for how physical creatures could have gotten a faculty of reliable rational insight into abstract mathematical/logical truths :) , then you don't have to do any of this fancy (and potentially distorting) footwork.


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