Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Parsons and Intuitability

I've just been summarizing CH1 of Charles Parsons' Mathematical Thought and it's Objects. It set me thinking that Parsons is oddly concerned with whether you can "see"/percieve/intuit mathematical objects. I say oddly, because IMO what matters for assuaging worries about the weirdness of mathematical objects or the weirdness of our knowing about them (which seems to be part of his aim) isn't whether we can strictly speaking *see*/perceive/intuit abstracta, but rather a) whether positing abstracta isn't a violation of Occam's razor and b) how there can be enough of a connection between mathematical facts and our dispositions to form beliefs about them, for what we have to count as knowledge.

I mean: even in the empirical case, questions about what we can see, as opposed to merely inferring from what we see are super murky. Who knows whether you can "see" that the light is on vs. that the electricity is back on vs. that Jones succeeded at his task etc. as opposed to inferring them or justifiably and reliably forming true beliefs about these subjects)? What matters (for the epistemology worry b) is just that there needs to be some suitable and clear reliable mechanism at work leading you to form true beliefs on these subjects - as there obviously is in the empirical case of the light. Once we see how this reliable mechanism could work, it's (in my opinion) a matter of indifference whether you want to describe this mechanism as seeing the light and then immediately and unconsciously but justifiably inferring that the electricity is back on vs. directly seeing that the electricity is back on.

And the same goes for knowledge of mathematical objects. What we'd like is something that was like perception in the sense that it provided an unproblematic mechanism whereby we could get the relevant kind.Once we have that in place, we can say whatever we like about whether someone staring at a piece of paper can see/percieve/intuit that there's a proof of SS0+S0=SSS0 in PA, or a palindrome containing the word 'adam' vs. merely reliably and justifiably infer these statements from the concrete object that they do see. The million dollar question is how we manage to do this putative seeing/inferring correctly.

Similarly, if someone thinks that construing math as stating truths about genuine abstract objects is a violation of Occam's razor, (as per objection a) they aren't going to be impressed by claims to "see" the abstract object (a string) in the concrete object (a series of inkmarks). When the Platonist stares at the sheet of paper and says they are seeing that there's a proof SS0+S0=SSS0, the Fictionalst will say that they are seeing that there would have to be a proof in the relevant mathematical fiction, and the modalist will say you are seeing that a certain proof is possible.

My point here is not to knock Parson's interest in the relationship between concrete things you can see and abstract mathematical objects. Hearing him talk about this connection was a decisive inspiration for my own view, and I think it's absolutely crucial to think about the concrete physical processes going on when we form and revise mathematical beliefs, if you want to understand how creatures like us could know about (or even think about) something as abstract as math. But I would claim that the key point about string inscriptions isn't what they represent/allow us to intuit (can you stare through the string inscription to the string itself?, can you at least see that a certain string exists?), but (as it were) what you take these inscriptions to represent, i.e. how you are willing to form and revise your beliefs about other things, like strings as abstract objects, in response to seeing them. This is what starts to give us traction in linking up our dispositions to form mathematical beliefs to mathematical facts, to answer challenge (b). (IMO answering challenge (a) requires something else entirely, namely Lumpism, but more about that in the next post)

No comments:

Post a Comment