I have been invited to give a plenary General Public Lecture at the 95th annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Pacific Division), which will be held in Riverside, California, June 17-20, 2014. The talk is sponsored by the BEST conference, which is meeting as a symposium at the larger AAAS conference.
This is truly a rare opportunity to communicate with a much wider community of scholars, to explain some of the central ideas and methods of set theory and the foundations of mathematics to a wider group of nonspecialist but mathematics-interested researchers. I hope to explain a little about the exciting goings-on in the foundations of mathematics. Frankly, I feel deeply honored for the opportunity to represent my field in this way.
The talk will be aimed at a very general audience, the general public of the AAAS meeting, which is to say, mainly, scientists. I also expect, however, that there will be a set-theory contingent present of participants from the BEST conference, which is a symposium at the conference — but I shall not take a stand here on whether mathematics is a science; you’ll have to come to my talk for that!
Abstract. Let me tell you the story of infinity and what is going on in the foundations of mathematics. For over a century, mathematicians have explored the soaring transfinite tower of different infinity concepts. Yet, fundamental questions at the foundation of this tower remain unsettled. Indeed, researchers in set theory and the foundations of mathematics have uncovered a pervasive independence phenomenon, whereby foundational mathematical questions are often in principle neither provable nor refutable. Presented with what may be these inherent limitations on our mathematical reasoning, we now face difficult philosophical questions on the nature of mathematical truth and the meaning of mathematical existence. Does mathematics need new axioms? Some mathematicians point the way the way towards what they describe as an ultimate theory of mathematical truth. Some adopt a scientific attitude, judging new mathematical axioms and theories by their predictions and explanatory power. Others propose a multiverse mathematical foundation with pluralist truth. In this talk, I shall take you from the basic concept of infinity and some simple paradoxes up to the continuum hypothesis and on to the higher infinity of large cardinals and the raging philosophical debates.