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No, not even maths is certain

Thanks to Gödel, we know that there will never be a fixed method of determining whether a mathematical proposition is true, any more than there is a fixed way of determining whether a scientific theory is true. Nor will there ever be a fixed way of generating new mathematical knowledge. Therefore progress in mathematics will always depend on the exer­cise of creativity. It will always be possible, and necessary, for mathematicians to invent new types of proof. They will validate them by new arguments and by new modes of explanation depending on their ever improving understanding of the abstract entities involved. Gödel’s own theorems were a case in point: to prove them, he had to invent a new method of proof. I said the method was based on the ‘diagonal argument’, but Gödel extended that argument in a new way. Nothing had ever been proved in this way before; no rules of inference laid down by someone who had never seen Gödel’s method could possibly have been prescient enough to designate it as valid. Yet it is self-evidently valid. Where did this self-evidentness come from? It came from Gödel’s understanding of the nature of proof. Gödel’s proofs are as compelling as any in mathematics, but only if one first understands the explanation that accompanies them.

So explanation does, after all, play the same paramount role in pure mathematics as it does in science. Explaining and understanding the world – the physical world and the world of mathematical abstractions – is in both cases the object of the exercise. Proof and observation are merely means by which we check our explanations. [235-6]

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