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Believing the axioms. I

  • Penelope Maddy (a1)

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§0. Introduction. Ask a beginning philosophy of mathematics student why we believe the theorems of mathematics and you are likely to hear, “because we have proofs!” The more sophisticated might add that those proofs are based on true axioms, and that our rules of inference preserve truth. The next question, naturally, is why we believe the axioms, and here the response will usually be that they are “obvious”, or “self-evident”, that to deny them is “to contradict oneself” or “to commit a crime against the intellect”. Again, the more sophisticated might prefer to say that the axioms are “laws of logic” or “implicit definitions” or “conceptual truths” or some such thing.

Unfortunately, heartwarming answers along these lines are no longer tenable (if they ever were). On the one hand, assumptions once thought to be self-evident have turned out to be debatable, like the law of the excluded middle, or outright false, like the idea that every property determines a set. Conversely, the axiomatization of set theory has led to the consideration of axiom candidates that no one finds obvious, not even their staunchest supporters. In such cases, we find the methodology has more in common with the natural scientist's hypotheses formation and testing than the caricature of the mathematician writing down a few obvious truths and preceeding to draw logical consequences.

The central problem in the philosophy of natural science is when and why the sorts of facts scientists cite as evidence really are evidence. The same is true in the case of mathematics. Historically, philosophers have given considerable attention to the question of when and why various forms of logical inference are truth-preserving. The companion question of when and why the assumption of various axioms is justified has received less attention, perhaps because versions of the “self-evidence” view live on, and perhaps because of a complacent if-thenism.

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Believing the axioms. I

  • Penelope Maddy (a1)

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