The epistemology of math task: Get a true theory of what under what circumstances a person counts as knowing something. Or, at least, square our beliefs about what people have or lack knowledge of what particular mathematical beliefs, with general beliefs about what’s required for knowledge (e.g. causal contact.

The foundations of math task: extend our mathematical knowledge.

I claim that making this distinction matters a lot, because:

Arguments that are helpful for foundations of math are (in themselves) useless for the epistemology task. Suppose we have a working derivation D of certain facts of arithmetic from logic. And suppose we have a perfectly adequate, intuition-matching story about what it takes to count as knowing the relevant logical facts.

This still does not allow us to account for current knowledge of arithmetic (i.e. reconcile our theory of knowledge with the intuition that people now know things about arithmetic). This is because - in general - it is not enough for S to know that P, for P to be true, S to believe that P, and P to be derive*able* from things which S knows. In general, the subject S needs to have some kind of access to the derivation. The mere fact that I believe that P, and P can be proved from other things that I know, hardly suffices to establish that what I have counts as knowledge. If a lawyer is asked to show that some contractor knew that a bridge was safe, it doesn’t suffice to show that one *could* derive from laws of physics and facts about the blueprint which the contractor knew that the bridge was safe - we also need to suppose that the contractor did derive it, or get testimony from someone who derived it or the like.

Hence, a foundational argument which derives (say) one body of mathematics from premises that are more certain is not directly relevant to the general epistemological project.

Conversely, an accurate epistemology of mathematics can be almost perfectly useless to the task of setting some shaky region of mathematical theory on firmer foundations. For example, one classic account of knowledge is reliablism. If we modify reliablism so as to apply non-trivially to mathematics (following suggestions by Linnebo and Field) we get the idea that someone has knowledge if they have a true belief which is reliable in the sense that: they accept a sentence which expresses p, and if that sentence had not expressed a truth, they would not have accepted it. This is a perfectly decent candidate for a general account of mathematical knowledge. But note that, even supposing that it is right, it does nothing to help satisfy foundational desires for, say, more secure foundation for the axiom of choice. If someone has foundational worries about the axiom of choice, they have worries about whether it is true. They might express these worries by saying ‘how do you know that the axiom of choice holds?’ but the emphasis here is on truth, not on knowledge. It would be silly to respond by saying that we know AC because AC is true, and we have reliable beliefs (as defined above) to that effect. What the foundation-seeker really wants is to know whether AC. They want to acquire knowledge about whether AC, not get a general theory of what it would take to count as knowing AC.

So, I have been trying to argue that it’s important to make a distinction between the epistemological project of trying to come up with a general theory of when someone knows something about math, and the foundational project of trying to make it the case that we know more things about math, by supplementing inadequate arguments with additional arguments that appeal to premises which are already known. The one focuses on the most bland an uncontroversial cases of mathematical knowledge, and tries to reconcile our other beliefs about the nature of knowledge with our particular judgments about this case. The other seeks out the most controversial regions of mathematical claims, and seeks to secure knowledge for us about these claims, by connecting them to claims that are more securely known. Enticing answers to one project can easily seem to frustratingly miss the point for someone who is interested in the other, as shown in the examples above. Hence it’s important to make the distinction.

However, this is not to say that there’s no relationship between the epistemological and foundational projects. Thinking about big picture issues about justification in general, can influence your judgments about particular cases. A kind of trivial example of this is intuitions about what you can take for granted, while still counting as being justified. Just off the top of one’s head, it can seem attractive to say that someone doesn’t count as knowing that P if all they can give is a circular justification for P, an infinite regress of justifications, or a justification that comes to a halt at a certain point. But when you consider these three options together and notice that they exhaust all the possibilities, you will likely be inclined to give up the principle that someone who can only give a justification of one of these kinds must thereby not count as having knowledge. So, if two realists about AC are attempting to provide and evaluate firmer foundations for AC, it may be helpful for them to general questions about what’s required for knowledge and justification – to make sure that their evaluation of the evidence in this case, doesn’t depend on assumptions about justification which turn out to be incoherent or conflict with what they take to be sufficient evidence more generally.

The foundations of mathematics and epistemology are different (though not inherently disjoint things). Research suggests that the human mind favors a fundamentally connectionist framework in terms of knowledge and knowledge aggregation (e.g. Churchland 1987). While mathematics is the fundamental language of truth, certain disciplines, such as the study of "fuzzy sets" may provide a framework for modeling epistemology.

ReplyDeleteThe axiom of choice is one of the fundamental axioms of the language of math, and has very special properties in that it allows us to extend, under certain circumstances, properties from finite sets to infinite sets. This comes at a (somewhat abstract) price, e.g. the Vitali set and Banach-Tarski paradox, among others. But nevertheless, it provides an indispensable tool for the structure of mathematics.