Year: 2009

The end of civilization as we knew it

Well, that really takes the biscuit. The University Library tea room has stopped using china cup and saucers like a civilized place, and started using disposable paper cups.

Ye gods, what is the world coming to?

Once upon a time, when the world was a bit younger, there was a comfortable tea room in the basement, with proper wooden furniture, and proper tea, and proper home-made cakes (made, it seemed, by proper grannies). There you could while away the time, and meet friends, and talk philosophy, or plot the revolution, or flirt, or all three, as the occasion demanded.

But then the tea room was moved and it all went plastic. And the coffee-flavoured beverage became vile, and the cakes beneath description. Now even the Earl Grey has to be drunk out of horrible paper cups. What was a place of some homely comfort — a happy escape from the Borgesian infinity of bookstacks above — now has all the bleak charm of an airport waiting room in one of RyanAir’s more unlovely small destinations. No doubt it saves pennies. But it means you just no longer want to pop over to the Library for tea — and so those chance meetings, those happenstance conversations, those quick browsings, that leaven the academic grind and spark new ideas, won’t happen.

Heck, I’m coming over all Roger Scruton.

Entailment – a blast from the past

I promised — foolishly, as I’m quite snowed under with other things too! —  to introduce a paper of Neil Tennant’s on entailment and deducibility next week at our logic reading group. So as background I thought it might be of interest to take a trip down memory lane, and at the meeting today talk a little about discussions of entailment from Lewy and Smiley that were in the air when Tennant was first tackling entailment. I dashed off some notes today before the reading group: those who don’t know or don’t remember what those Cambridge heroes were up to might be interested in this (necessarily brief and partial) nostalgia trip: ‘Entailment, with nods to Lewy and Smiley‘. [Nov. 20: further slight tidying up.]

The Autonomy of Mathematical Knowledge, §§3.1-3.2

Hilbert writes
Just as the physicist investigates his apparatus … the mathematician has to secure his theorems by a critique of this proofs, and for this he needs proof theory. (p. 61)
Indeed: if you are physicist getting surprising results (or worse) thrown up by your apparatus, then you take a hard look at the apparatus — and that’s a matter of doing more physics, of course.  If you are mathematician getting surprising results (or worse, contradictions!) then you’ll want to take a hard look at your purported proofs and the assumptions you’ve been using/smuggling in — and that’s a matter of doing more mathematics. In particular, “Proof theory” is a mathematical tool to help the mathematician put his own house in order, removing any need to search for philosophical “foundations” to ensure consistency. Or at least, that’s the kind of line that we’ve seen Franks attributing to Hilbert.
Sometimes, however, Franks seems to claim more. For example, he comments on the quote from Hilbert above that “Hilbert wants to demonstrate the reliability [of mathematical techniques] is self-witnessing”. Reliability for what? Mathematical truth? Self-witnessing in what sense? Franks doesn’t say.
To see that there is an issue here, suppose you are the kind of set theorist who thinks that mathematics aims to reveal the truth about the universe of pure sets. Then proving consistency is of course not enough. We believe, for example, that ZFC + V = L is consistent, but our set theorist typically doesn’t think that that is the correct theory of the universe of sets. But then what are our techniques for theory-choice here? And what makes them reliable? Proof theory is evidently no help in answering that question for the set-theorist. (To hope to get from consistency-proofs to reliability-for-truth, we’d need to endorse the kind of position Hilbert advances in the Frege-Hilbert correspondence. My point here is that this is a further move, that takes us contentiously beyond the thought that the devices of proof theory might give us a mathematical response to the threat of inconistency.)

Hilbert writes

Just as the physicist investigates his apparatus … the mathematician has to secure his theorems by a critique of this proofs, and for this he needs proof theory. (p. 61)

Indeed: if you are a physicist getting surprising results (or worse) thrown up by your apparatus, then you will take a hard look at the apparatus — but that’s a matter of doing more physics, of course, and doesn’t involve going outside the methods of physics.  If you are mathematician getting surprising results (or worse, contradictions!) then you’ll similarly want to take a hard look at your purported proofs and the assumptions you’ve been using/smuggling in — and that’s a matter of doing more mathematics. In particular, formalization and “proof theory” is a mathematical tool to help the mathematician put his own house in order, removing any need to search for philosophical “foundations” to ensure consistency. Or at least, that’s the kind of line that we’ve seen Franks attributing to Hilbert.

Sometimes, however, Franks seems to claim more for the project of a Hilbertian proof theory. For example, he comments on the quote  above that

Hilbert wants to demonstrate that the reliability [of mathematical techniques] is self-witnessing.

Reliability for what? Mathematical truth? Self-witnessing in what sense? Franks doesn’t say.

I won’t dwell on this, but to see quickly that there is an issue here, suppose you are the kind of set theorist who thinks that mathematics aims to reveal the truth about a unique universe of pure sets which is there for us to explore. For such a theorist, proving consistency of our theory is not enough. We believe, for example, that ZFC + V = L is consistent, but our set theorist typically doesn’t think that that makes it the correct theory of the universe of sets. But then what are the techniques for theory-choice here? And why are they reliable? Proof theory is plainly not much help in answering that question for our set-theorist or for witnessing that his methods are in good order. I’m not saying that the question isn’t answerable from  a naturalist perspective, in a broad sense of “naturalism”– cf. Maddy’s discussions of such questions: I’m just noting that taking a Hilbertian line on the significance of consistency proofs — as explained by Franks — falls well short of completing the job.

That said, the first main point of Franks’s third chapter, which is called ‘Arithmetization’, is to claim that Gödel’s “technique for the arithmetization of syntax is perhaps the most significant positive contribution to Hilbert’s program” (p. 64). Which certainly, at first sight, seems a pretty extravagant claim.

Actually, as an aside, it is not the only strange claim in §3.2. Franks writes

Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems follow without much work from an application of the fixed point theorem of Rudolf Carnap [1934] and the traditional analysis of paradoxical sentences like the “liar sentence”. Thus the substantial analytical work preceded him. The innovation in Gödel’s paper was the technique … of the arithmetization of syntax … and is what allowed Gödel to apply the fixed point theorem and the analysis of paradoxical statements to the case of provability. (p. 67)

This is hopeless. (1) The fixed point theorem wasn’t proved by Carnap until after he learnt of Gödelian incompleteness — so that “substantial analytical work” did not in fact precede Gödel. (2) The fixed point theorem for a suitable theory T is of the form that for every open sentence φ(x) there is a sentence γ such that T proves γ ↔ φ(“γ”), where “γ” is the Gödel-number, in a given scheme, for γ. So the fixed point theorem cannot precede the arithmetization of syntax: it requires arithmetization for its very statement. (3) And what on earth is “the traditional analysis of paradoxical sentences like the ‘liar sentence'” and how is that supposed to have been applied in Gödel’s incompletness proof?

Back, though, to the extravagant claim that arithmetization is the most — yes, most — significant positive contribution to Hilbert’s program (so much for Gentzen, then, and work in proof-theory downstream from him; so much for what many regard as the direct descendent of Hilbert’s program in the project of reverse mathematics). What can Franks mean?

Well, the thought is that, even if Gödel’s idea of arithmetization did lead to the incompleteness theorems that sabotaged Hilbert’s more ambitious hopes for proof theory, still this was only possible because

the same discovery vindicated Hilbert’s principal philosophical conviction: that by being cast within mathematics itself important questions about mathematics could be investigated without favouring any philosophical tendencies over others. (p. 66)

But I don’t find that particularly convincing as a defence of the extravagant claim. After all, Hilbert already had emphasized the key point that when we go metatheoretical, and move from thinking about sets (for example) to thinking about formalized-theories-about-sets, we move from considering infinite sets to considering suites of finite formal objects (wffs, and finite sequences of wffs) — and we might then hope to bring to bear, at the metatheoretical level, merely finitary formal reasoning about these suites of finite formal objects in order to prove consistency, etc. It’s the formalization that gives us a new, finitary, subject matter apt for formal investigation — apt, in other words, for mathematical treatment. The additional fact that we can arithmetically code up finite objects by mapping them to numbers means we might be able to bring some more, already familiar, mathematics to bear on these objects (just as when we co-ordinatize a space we can bring the arithmetic of the reals to bear on geometrical objects). But just as we don’t need co-ordinatization to vindicate treating geometrical objects mathematically, we don’t need arithmetization to vindicate bringing formal methods to bear on the formal objects given us when we formalize a theory and go metatheoretical.

Nerdy distractions

Moving the blog and other stuff to a new host and getting to know WordPress just a bit has — what a surprise! — taken up too much time. I’ll try to concentrate now on moving more content (leaving theme-fiddling for later). At the moment, if you are looking for logic book stuff etc. it is still online here.

Next up, I hope, something more about Curtis Franks’s book: watch this space …

Work in progress

The plan is to port here the whole old Logic Matters site (including, the pages relating to my recent books and also LaTeX for Logicians) into one better organized, and much-easier-to-update, site. Watch this space. It may take a while …

Meanwhile, all the posts from the blog previously hosted at blogspot have been imported here. I will recategorize them and delete trivia over the coming days, to make the archive more usable.

Gödel Without Tears — 5

Here now is the fifth episode on the idea of a primitive recursive function. The preamble explains why this matters and where this is going. [As always, I’ll be very glad to hear about typos/thinkos.]

The previous episodes are available:

  1. Episode 1, Incompleteness — the very idea (version of Oct. 16)
  2. Episode 2. Incompleteness and undecidability (version of Oct. 26)
  3. Episode 3. Two weak arithmetics (version of Nov. 1)
  4. Episode 4. First-order Peano Arithmetic (version of Nov. 1)

Ruse gets a beta minus.

Philosophers don’t get asked often enough to write for the newspapers and weeklies: so it is really annoying when an opportunity is wasted on second-rate maunderings. Michael Ruse writes in today’s Guardian on whether there is an “atheist schism”. And he immediately kicks off on the wrong foot.

As a professional philosopher my first question naturally is: “What or who is an atheist?” If you mean someone who absolutely and utterly does not believe there is any God or meaning then I doubt there are many in this group.

Eh? Where on earth has that “or meaning” come from? In what coherent sense of “meaning” does an atheist have to deny meaning?

It gets worse. Eventually a lot worse.

If, as the new atheists think, Darwinian evolutionary biology is incompatible with Christianity, then will they give me a good argument as to why the science should be taught in schools if it implies the falsity of religion? The first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America separates church and state. Why are their beliefs exempt?

That is so mind-bogglingly inept it is difficult to believe that Ruse means it seriously. Does Ruse really, really, think that the separation of church and state means that no scientific fact can be taught if it happens to be inconsistent with some holy book or religious dogma?

Ruse is upset by the stridency of Dawkins and others, and there is indeed a point to be argued here. But it is ironic that philosophers often complain that Dawkins misrepresents too many practising Christians (or Muslims, or whatever). For related misrepresentations — if that’s what they are — are to be found in more or less any philosophy of religion book. I blogged here a while back about the Murray/Rea introduction, and remarked then about the unlikely farrago of metaphysical views it foisted upon the church-goer, views which have precious little to do with why you actually go to evensong or say prayers for dying, and which indeed deserve to be well Dawkinsed.

The Autonomy of Mathematical Knowledge, §§2.3-2.5

To return for a moment the question we left hanging: what is the shape of Hilbert’s “naturalism” according to Franks? Well, Franks in §2.3 thinks that Hilbert’s position can be contrasted with a “Wittgensteinian” naturalism that forecloses global questions of the justification of a framework by rejecting them as meaningless. “According to Hilbert … mathematics is justified in application” (p. 44), and for him “the skeptic’s path leads to the death of all science”. Really? But, to repeat, if that is someone’s basic stance, then you’d expect him to very much want to know which mathematics is actually needed in applications, and to be challenged by Weyl’s work towards showing that a “sceptical” line on impredicative constructions in fact doesn’t lead to the death of applicable maths. Yet Hilbert seems not to show much interest in that.

At other points, however, Franks makes Hilbert’s basic philosophical thought sound less than a claim about security-through-successful-applicability and more like the Moorean point that the philosophical arguments for e.g. a skepticism about excluded middle or about impredicative constructions will always be much less secure than our tried-and-tested methods inside mathematics. But in that case, we might wonder, if the working mathematician can dismiss such skepticism, why engage in “Hilbert’s program” and look for consistency proofs?

Franks’ headline answer is “The consistency proof … is a methodological tool designed to get everyone, unambiguously, to see [that mathematical methods are in good order].” (p. 36). The idea is this. Regimenting an area of mathematics by formalisation keeps us honest (moves have to be justified by reference to explicit axioms and rules of inference, not by more intuitive but risky moves apparently warranted by intended meanings). And then we can aim to use other parts of mathematics that aren’t under suspicion — meaning, open to mathematical doubts about their probity — to check the consistency of our formalized systems. Given that formalized proofs are finite objects, and that finitistic reasoning about finite objects is agreed on all sides to be beyond suspicion, the hope would be to give, in particular, finitistic consistency proofs of mathematical theories. And thus, working inside mathematics, we mathematically convince ourselves that our theories are in good order — and hence we won’t be seduced into thinking that our theories need bolstering from outside by being given supposedly firmer “foundations”.

In sum, we might put it this way: a consistency proof — rather than being part of a foundationalist project — is supposed to be a tool to convince mathematicians by mathematical means that they don’t need to engage in such a project. Franks gives a very nice quotation from Bernays in 1922: “The great advantage of Hilbert’s procedure rests precisely on the fact that the problems and difficulties that present themselves in the grounding of mathematics are transformed from the epistemological-philosophical domain into the domain of what is properly mathematical.”

Well, is Franks construing Hilbert right here? You might momentarily think there must be a deep disagreement between Franks with his anti-foundationalist reading and (say) Richard Zach, who talks of “Hilbert’s … project for the foundation of mathematics”. But that would be superficial. Compare: those who call Wittgenstein an anti-philosopher are not disagreeing with those who rate him as a great philosopher! — they are rather saying something about the kind of philosopher he is. Likewise, Franks is emphasizing the kind of reflective project on the business of mathematics that Hilbert thought the appropriate response to the “crisis in foundations”. And the outline story he tells is, I think, plausible as far as it goes.

It isn’t the whole story, of course. But fair enough, we’re only in Ch.2 of Franks’ book! — and in any case I doubt that there is a whole story to be told that gives Hilbert a stably worked out position. It would, however, have been good to hear something about how the nineteenth century concerns about the nature and use of ideal elements in mathematics played through into Hilbert’s thinking. And I do want to hear more about the relation between consistency and conservativeness which has as yet hardly been mentioned. But still, I did find Franks’ emphases in giving his preliminary orientation on Hilbert’s mindset helpful. To be continued

The Autonomy of Mathematical Knowledge, §§2.1-2.2

Hilbert in the 1920s seems pretty confident that classical analysis is in good order. “Mathematicians have pursued to the uttermost the modes of inference that rest on the concept of sets of numbers, and not even the shadow of an inconsistency has appeared …. [D]espite the application of the boldest and most manifold combinations of the subtlest techiniques, a complete security of inference and a clear unanimity of results reigns in analysis.” (p. 41 — as before, references are to passages or quotations in Franks’ book.) These don’t sound like the words of a man who thinks that the paradoxes cause trouble for ‘ordinary’ mathematics itself — compare Weyl’s talk of the “inner instability of the foundations on which the empire is constructed” (p. 38). And they don’t sound like the words of someone who thinks that analysis either has to be revised (as an intuitionist or a predicativist supposes) or else stands in need of buttressing “from outside” (as the authors of Principia might suppose).

Franks urges that we take Hilbert at his word here: in fact, “the question inspiring [Hilbert] to foundational research is not whether mathematics is consistent, but rather whether or not mathematics can stand on its own — no more in need of philosophically loaded defense than endangered by philosophically loaded skepticism” (p. 31). So, on Franks’ reading, Hilbert in some sense wants to be an anti-foundationalist, not another player in the foundations game standing alongside Russell, Brouwer and Weyl, with a rival foundationalist programme of his own. “[Hilbert’s] considered philosophical position is that the validity of mathematical methods is immune to all philosophical skepticism, and therefore not even up for debate on such grounds” (p. 36). Our mathematical practice doesn’t need grounding on a priori principles external to mathematics (p. 38). Thus, according to Franks, Hilbert has a “naturalistic epistemology. The security of a way of knowing is born out, not in its responsibility to first principles, but in its successful functioning” (p. 40).

Functioning in what sense, however? About this, Franks is (at least here in his Ch. 2) hazy, to say the least. “The successful functioning of a science … is determined by a variety of factors — freedom from contradiction is but one of them — including ease of use, range of application, elegance, and amount of information (or systematization of the world) thereby attainable. For Hilbert mathematics is the most completely secure of our sciences because of its unmatched success.” Well, ease of use and elegance are nice if you can get them, but hardly in themselves signs of success for theories in general (there are just too many successful but ugly theories, and too many elegant failures). So that seemingly leaves (successful) application as the key to the “success”. But this is very puzzling. Hilbert, after all, wants us never to be driven out of Cantor’s paradise where — as Franks himself stresses in Ch. 1 — “mathematics is entirely free in its development”, meaning free because longer tethered to practical application. Odd then now to stress application as what essentially legitimises the free play of the mathematical imagination! (Could the idea be that some analysis proves its worth in application, and hence the worth of the mathematical methods by which we pursue it, and then other bits of mathematics pursued using the same methods get reflected glory? But someone who takes that line could hardly e.g. be as quickly dismissive of the predicative programme as Hilbert was or Franks seems to be at this point — for Weyl, recall, is arguing that actually applicable analysis can in fact all be done predicatively, and so no reflected glory will accrue to classical mathematics pursued with impredicative methods since those methods are not validated by essentially featuring in applicable maths.)

So what does Hilbert’s alleged “naturalism” amount to? To be continued.

Gödel Without Tears — 4

Here now is the fourth episode [slightly corrected] which tells you — for those who don’t know — what first-order Peano Arithmetic is (and also what Sigma_1/Pi_1 wffs are). A thrill a minute, really. Done in a bit of a rush to get it out to students in time, so apologies if the proof-reading is bad!

Here are the previous episodes:

  1. Episode 1, Incompleteness — the very idea (version of Oct. 16)
  2. Episode 2. Incompleteness and undecidability (version of Oct. 26)
  3. Episode 3. Two weak arithmetics (version of Nov. 1)
Scroll to Top