Lectures on the philosophy of mathematics, Oxford, Michaelmas term 2019

This will be a series of self-contained lectures on the philosophy of mathematics, given at Oxford University in Michaelmas term 2019. We will be meeting in the Radcliffe Humanities Lecture Room at the Faculty of Philosophy every Friday 12-1 during term.

All interested parties are welcome. The lectures are intended principally for students preparing for philosophy exam paper 122 at the University of Oxford.

Euclid detail from The School of Athens painting by Raphael

The lectures will be organized loosely around mathematical themes, in such a way I hope that brings various philosophical issues naturally to light. The lectures will be based on my new book, forthcoming with MIT Press.

There are tentative plans to make the lectures available by video. I shall post further details concerning this later.

Lecture 1. Numbers. Numbers are perhaps the essential mathematical idea, but what are numbers? We have many kinds of numbers—natural numbers, integers, rational numbers, real numbers, complex numbers, hyperreal numbers, surreal numbers, ordinal numbers, and more—and these number systems provide a fruitful background for classical arguments on incommensurability and transcendentality, while setting the stage for discussions of platonism, logicism, the nature of abstraction, the significance of categoricity, and structuralism.

Lecture 2. Rigour. Let us consider the problem of mathematical rigour in the development of the calculus. Informal continuity concepts and the use of infinitesimals ultimately gave way to formal epsilon-delta limit concepts, which provided a capacity for refined notions, such as uniform continuity, equicontinuity and uniform convergence. Nonstandard analysis resurrected the infinitesimal concept on a more secure foundation, providing a parallel development of the subject, which can be understood from various sweeping perspectives. Meanwhile, increasing abstraction emerged in the function concept, which we shall illustrate with the Devil’s staircase, space-filling curves and the Conway base 13 function. Whether the indispensibility of mathematics for science grounds mathematical truth is put in question on the view known as fictionalism.

Lecture 3. Infinity. We shall follow the allegory of Hilbert’s hotel and the paradox of Galileo to the equinumerosity relation and the notion of countability. Cantor’s diagonal arguments, meanwhile, reveal uncountability and a vast hierarchy of different orders of infinity; some arguments give rise to the distinction between constructive and non-constructive proof. Zeno’s paradox highlights classical ideas on potential versus actual infinity. Time permitting, we shall count into the transfinite ordinals.

Lecture 4. Geometry. Classical Euclidean geometry, accompanied by its ideal of straightedge and compass construction and the Euclidean concept of proof, is an ageless paragon of deductive mathematical reasoning. Yet, the impossibility of certain constructions, such as doubling the cube, trisecting the angle or squaring the circle, hints at geometric realms beyond Euclid, and leads one to the concept of constructible and non-constructible numbers. The rise of non-Euclidean geometry, especially in light of scientific observations and theories suggesting that physical reality may not be Euclidean, challenges previous accounts of what geometry is about and changes our understanding of the nature of geometric and indeed mathematical ontology. New formalizations, such as those of Hilbert and Tarski, replace the old axiomatizations, augmenting and correcting Euclid with axioms on completeness and betweenness. Ultimately, Tarski’s decision procedure hints at the tantalizing possibility of automation in our geometrical reasoning.

Lecture 5. Proof. What is proof? What is the relation between proof and truth? Is every mathematical truth, true for a reason? After clarifying the distinction between syntax and semantics, we shall discuss new views on the dialogical nature of proof. With formal proof systems, we shall highlight the importance of soundness, completeness and verifiability in any such system, outlining the central ideas used in proving the completeness theorem. The compactness theorem distills the finiteness of proofs into an independent purely semantic consequence. Computer-verified proof promises increasing significance; it’s role is well illustrated by the history of the four-color theorem. Nonclassical logics, such as intuitionistic logic, arise naturally from formal systems by weakenings of the logical rules.

Lecture 6. Computability. What is computability? Gödel defined the primitive recursive functions, a robust class of computable functions, yet he gave reasons to despair of a fully satisfactory answer. Nevertheless, Turing’s machine concept, growing out of a careful philosophical analysis of computability, laid a foundation for the contemporary computer era; the widely accepted Church-Turing thesis asserts that Turing has the right notion. The distinction between computable decidability and computable enumerability, highlighted by the undecidability of the halting problem, shows that not all mathematical problems can be solved by machine, and a vast hierarchy looms in the Turing degrees, an infinitary information theory. Complexity theory refocuses the subject on the realm of feasible computation, with the still-unsolved P vs. NP problem standing in the background of nearly every serious issue in theoretical computer science.

Lecture 7. Incompleteness. The Hilbert program, seeking to secure the consistency of higher mathematics by finitary reasoning about the formal system underlying it, was dashed by Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which show that no consistent formal system can prove even its own consistency, let alone the consistency of a higher system. We shall describe several proofs of the first incompleteness theorem, via the halting problem, via self-reference, and via definability. After this, we’ll discuss the second incompleteness theorem, the Rosser variation, and Tarski on the non-definability of truth. Ultimately, one is led to the inherent hierarchy of consistency strength underlying all mathematical theories.

Lecture 8. Set theory. We shall discuss the emergence of set theory as a foundation of mathematics. Cantor founded the subject with key set-theoretic insights, but Frege’s formal theory was naive, refuted by the Russell paradox. Zermelo’s set theory, in contrast, grew ultimately into the successful contemporary theory, founded upon the cumulative conception. Set theory was simultaneously a new mathematical subject, with its own motivating questions and tools, but also a new foundational theory, with a capacity to represent essentially arbitrary abstract mathematical structure. Sophisticated technical developments, including especially the forcing method and discoveries in the large cardinal hierarchy, led to a necessary engagement with deep philosophical concerns, such as the criteria by which one adopts new mathematical axioms and set-theoretic pluralism.

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