Saturday, July 24, 2010

Invention, Discovery and Creativity in Mathematics

Non-philosophers I meet sometimes ask: do I think mathematical facts are invented or discovered? IMO, this is a weird question - and not one that comes up much in the phil math literature- because the contrast between invention and discovery is not very well defined. For example, did Alexander Gram Bell *invent* the telephone, or did he *discover* that putting components together in a certain way would build a telephone? Intuitively, one might say both.

Maybe what people mean to be asking by this question is just this: do mathematicians bring new mathematical objects into existence, or do they discover already existing objects? For, paradigmatic cases of invention typically do involve creating a new physical object, while paradigmatic cases of discovery involves visiting an already existing physical object. So e.g. Columbus discovered America (because it already existed and he went to visit it) whereas Bell invented the telephone, by physically creating the first prototype.

However, the contrast between invention and discovery can't really just track the distinction between cases where a new object is made vs. not. This is because making a new thing isn't required for invention *or* discovery. Consider an imaginary scenario where Bell just thought up a plan for a telephone, and told someone else who physically constructed the first one years later. Bell would still have invented at telephone, if he though up the plan and then worked out from known principles that the plan would work, but never made one.

While we are talking about invention and discovery, I think there's a third notion -artistic creation (e.g. what happens when someone composes a story or a poem)- which bears an interesting relationship to mathematical discovery. When a writer writes a story, they are putting down a sequences of sentences which already exists as an abstract object.

I mean, suppose that the story teller composes a story today. If a linguist said yesterday 'no intelligible sequence of English sentences has property P', the and the sequence or sentence which the story teller writes down today has property P, then then the linguist's claim yesterday was false. The domain of potential counterexamples to linguistics claims today, already contains all sequences of English sentences which literary ingenuity could ever devise. Note also that to compose a story or poem doesn't require writing it down anywhere, (the person in the Borges story who has time stop so he can finish writing a poem before he gets shot still counts as creating the poem). For this reason the task of literary "creation" doesn't really seem to involve creating anything, (neither a physical artifact, nor an abstract string of sentences), but rather directing your attention to an abstract object that already exists - carefully sorting out which string of sentences will combine certain varied and subtle properties in the right way.

Now, if I'm right about this- the creativity of a poet or novelist doesn't need to involve creating any new object, but rather amounts to discovering a pre-existing string of sentences which has a certain property - this suggests a potential confusion about the relationship between mathematical creativity and ontology. Arguably, mathematical creativity is much like literary creativity. But, if mathematical creativity is like literary creativity, it does not follow from this that the mathematician creates the mathematical objects he describes, or that he creates anything else. For (if the above is right) literary creativity isn't a matter of bringing new objects into being, but rather a matter of discovering, amid the combinatorial explosion of possible sequences of English sentences, one that has a certain special features.

Why Math and Morals Aren't Companions in Guilt

Intuitively, many people feel that epistemic worries about moral facts (if there are moral facts, how to explain why our moral intuitions should be even even remotely correct about them?) are WAY more serious than epistemic worries about mathematical facts (if there are mathematical facts, how to explain why our mathematical intuitions should be even even remotely correct about them?). But is there really a difference here?

Well, here's one thing that I think does make a difference: mathematical claims about number theory have direct and specific consequences for stuff that we can check by logic and/or scientific observation.

-what will happens whenever a person or a computer to successfully applies a certain syntactic alogorithm
-how many apples-or-oranges do you have when you have n apples and m oranges (cf Frege for why this is a logical fact)

This matters because, plausibly, the need to get these concrete applications right likely prevents our beliefs about number theory from getting too off the wall - whereas, our moral intuitions have no such multitude of consequences which are directly checkable by logic and observation.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Epistemology verses Foundations in Philosophy of Math

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.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Are mathematical truths "substantive"?

One thing that that has caused me great puzzlement (in the past few years), is the question of whether math tells us anything 'substantive'. I want to suggest that our intuitive notion of "substantiveness" combines two distinct notions, which come apart in this case.

- mathematical truths DONT rule out any physically or even metaphysically possible states of the world. (This is just another way of putting the truism that mathematical truths are necessary, hence compatible with every metaphysically possible world. I like putting things this way, because it doesn't suggest that necessary mathematical truths arise from something (mathematical objects?) causally blocking any person that tries to being both more than three feet long and less than two feet long)

- mathematical truths DO combine with our background beliefs to lead us to form expectations we wouldn't have formed otherwise (e,g. about the results of future counting procedures, about the programs)

Presumably you admit that these are at least nominally different properties. But you might still wonder *how* these two things could come apart. How could knowing any proposition be useful, if this proposition didn't rule out any possible states of the world? Here's what I think the answer to that is in a nutshell:

Some mathematical facts (i.e. facts which are derivable from math and logic alone) which are useful because they tell us that whenever one description of the world holds, then so does another (e.g. anything that accelerates from standstill at this rate for this amount of time travels that distance, anything that's less than two feet long isn't three feed long.)

And here's the answer in more detail.