Philosophy of mathematics

The philosophy of mathematics has two major themes: mathematical realism and mathematical anti-realism.

It is a profound puzzle that on the one hand mathematical truths seem to have a compelling inevitability, but on the other hand the source of their "truthfulness" remains elusive. Investigations into this issue are known as the foundations of mathematics program.

Philosophy of mathematics today proceeds along several different lines of inquiry, by philosophers of mathematics, logicians, and mathematicians, and there are many schools of thought on the subject. The schools are addressed separately in the next section, and their assumptions explained.

A major question considered in mathematical Platonism is: Precisely where and how do the mathematical entities exist, and how do we know about them? Is there a world, completely separate from our physical one, that is occupied by the mathematical entities? How can we gain access to this separate world and discover truths about the entities? One proposed answer is the Ultimate Ensemble, a theory that postulates that all structures that exist mathematically also exist physically in their own universe.

Hilbert was initially a deductivist, but, as may be clear from above, he considered certain metamathematical methods to yield intrinsically meaningful results and was a realist with respect to the finitary arithmetic. Later, he held the opinion that there was no other meaningful mathematics whatsoever, regardless of interpretation.

Formalists are relatively tolerant and inviting to new approaches to logic, non-standard number systems, new set theories etc. The more games we study, the better. However, in all three of these examples, motivation is drawn from existing mathematical or philosophical concerns. The "games" are usually not arbitrary.

The main critique of formalism is that the actual mathematical ideas that occupy mathematicians are far removed from the string manipulation games mentioned above. Formalism is thus silent on the question of which axiom systems ought to be studied, as none is more meaningful than another from a formalistic point of view.

Embodied mind theorists thus explain the effectiveness of mathematics—mathematics was constructed by the brain in order to be effective in this universe.

For experimental evidence suggesting that human infants can do elementary arithmetic, see Brian Butterworth.

A more radical defense is denial of physical reality, i.e. the mathematical universe hypothesis. In that case, a mathematician's knowledge of mathematics is one mathematical object making contact with another.

Many practicing mathematicians have been drawn to their subject because of a sense of beauty they perceive in it. One sometimes hears the sentiment that mathematicians would like to leave philosophy to the philosophers and get back to mathematics—where, presumably, the beauty lies.

Philosophers have sometimes criticized mathematicians' sense of beauty or elegance as being, at best, vaguely stated. By the same token, however, philosophers of mathematics have sought to characterize what makes one proof more desirable than another when both are logically sound.