Parsons’s Mathematical Thought: Sec. 47, Induction and the concept of natural number

Why does the principle of mathematical induction hold for the natural numbers? Well, arguably, “induction falls out of an explanation of the meaning of the term ‘natural number’”.

How so? Well, the thought can of course be developed along Frege’s lines, by simply defining the natural numbers to be those objects which have all the properties of zero which are hereditary with respect to the successor function. But it seems that we don’t need to appeal to impredicative second-order reasoning in this way. Instead, and more simply, we can develop the idea as follows.

Put ‘N’ for ‘. . . is a natural number’. Then we have the obvious ‘introduction’ rules, (i) N0, and (ii) from Nx infer N(Sx), together with the extremal clause (iii) that nothing is a number that can’t be shown to be so by rules (i) and (ii).

Now suppose that for some predicate φ we are given both φ(0) and φ(x) → φ(Sx). Then plainly, by repeated instances of modus ponens, φ is true of 0, S0, SS0, SSS0, . . .. Hence, by the extremal clause (iii), φ is true of all the natural numbers. So it is immediate that the induction principle holds for φ – e.g. in the form of this elimination rule for N:
Thus far, then, Parsons.

So: two initial issues about this, one of which Parsons himself touches on, the other of which he seems to ignore.

First, as an argument warranting induction doesn’t this go round in a circle? For doesn’t the observation that each and every instance φ(SS . . . S0) is derivable given φ(0) and φ(x) → φ(Sx) itself depend on an induction? Parsons says that, yes, “As a proof of induction, this is circular. . . . Nonetheless, . . . it is no worse than arguments for the validity of elementary logical rules.” This of course doesn’t count against the claim that “induction falls out of an explanation of the meaning of the term ‘natural number’” – it is just that the “falling out” is so immediate that we can’t count as fully grasping the idea of a natural number while not finding inductive arguments primitively compelling (in something like Peacocke’s sense). I’m minded to agree with Parsons here.

But, second, some will complain that Parsons’s preferred way of seeing induction as given to us in the very notion of ‘natural number’ is actually not significantly different from Frege’s way, because the extremal clause (iii) is essentially second order. It will be said: the idea in (iii) is that something is a natural number if belongs to all sets which contain 0 and are closed under applications of the successor function – which is just Frege’s second-order definition put in set terms. Now, Parsons doesn’t address this familiar line of thought. However, I in fact agree with his implicit assumption that his preferred line of thought does not presuppose second-order ideas. In headline terms, just because the notion of transitive closure can be defined defined in second-order terms, that doesn’t make it a second-order notion (compare: we can define identity in second-order terms, but that surely doesn’t make identity a second-order notion!). And it is arguable that the child who picks up the notion of an ancestor doesn’t thereby exhibit a grasp of second-order quantification. But more really needs to be said about this (for a little more, see my Introduction to Gödel’s Theorems, §23.5).

To be continued

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