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Did Einstein and Plato get it right?. A TOK Presentation on the place of Mathematics in our world. A personal view. An essay title for May 2010. Discuss the claim that some areas of knowledge are discovered and others are invented.

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Did einstein and plato get it right

Did Einstein and Plato get it right?

A TOK Presentation on the place of Mathematics in our world.

A personal view

An essay title for may 2010
An essay title for May 2010

Discuss the claim that some areas of knowledge are discovered and others are invented.

Note: this is on the 2010 list, so is not one of the titles this grade 12 will have.


  • This presentation looks into the very heart of mathematics. What is it? Where does it come from?

  • This study might come under the heading “mathematical philosophy” or “meta-mathematics”, both of which sound a bit pretentious. I prefer the title of “foundations”.

Two great thinkers



Two great thinkers

Plato s ideal forms
Plato’s ideal forms

  • Plato thought ideal (or perfect) forms exist

  • … such as perfect justice

  • … or a perfect triangle

  • He understood a perfect triangle could not be drawn with ruler and pencil …

  • … but it still exists, as an ideal form,

  • … as an abstract rather than physical object

From plato to platonism
From Plato to Platonism

  • Modern Platonism enshrines three ideas:

  • Existence

  • Abstraction

  • Independence

  • Applied to mathematical foundations this means Platonists believe mathematical objects exist as abstract realities independent of mankind

Platonism s great rival formalism
Platonism’s great rival: Formalism

  • Formalists essentially reject the idea of independent existence

  • They believe abstract ideas used by mathematicians are created by these mathematicians

  • Mathematics could not exist without the mathematicians

  • Mathematics is a mental construction

My thesis
My thesis

  • Mathematics is more than a game

  • It is not simply a creation of mankind

  • Rather, it is Nature’s language: it defines the ideal forms Plato described

  • Mathematics actually describes how the universe works

  • So, I am a Platonist

Formalism v platonism
Formalism v. Platonism

  • Formalists believe mathematics is like a game of chess

  • Choose the rules carefully to avoid contradictions

  • Any match with reality is a fluke, or the result of a fortuitous choice of rules

Formalism v platonism1
Formalism v. Platonism

  • Platonists, (also called realists) however, believe Mathematics is describing the way the universe is.

  • It’s very structure is independent of man-kind

Why is this division important
Why is this division important?

  • The nature of the foundations of Mathematics determines its uses and future development

  • Therefore the issue is a contemporary one, with implications across the whole spectrum of knowledge

  • In particular, its relationship with the sciences is fundamental

My belief
My belief

  • Mathematical objects (5, a triangle, sin30) are not man-made but are parts of nature

  • Mathematics is attempting to describe the way the universe is

  • The rules of Mathematics are not created by mankind, but are rather discovered (or uncovered) by mankind

Analogies to other areas of knowledge
Analogies to other Areas of Knowledge

  • Science claims the same thing; it tries to explain the way the universe works

  • Artists attempt an identical feat

  • All three are giving us different perspectives on reality

  • However, their means of approaching the subject vary considerably

Various approaches to reality
Various approaches to reality

  • The scientist relies on experimentation, observation, and the Scientific Method

  • They use reason and sense perception as their main Ways of Knowing

Various approaches to reality1
Various approaches to reality

  • The artist works at a far more subjective level

  • They appeal to emotion, sense perception and language to convey their vision of reality

Various approaches to reality2
Various approaches to reality

  • The Mathematician uses only (mainly?) reason (perhaps guided by perception and emotion)

  • Mathematical truths are the most objective truths from any area of knowledge

Einstein s belief
Einstein’s belief

  • “The creative principle resides in mathematics. In a certain sense, therefore, I hold it true that pure thought can grasp reality, as the ancients dreamed. “– Albert Einstein

Heisenberg s thoughts
Heisenberg’s thoughts

  • “I think that modern physics has definitely decided in favor of Plato. In fact the smallest units of matter are not physical objects in the ordinary sense; they are forms, ideas which can be expressed unambiguously only in mathematical language.”

    – Werner Heisenberg

Knowledge issues
Knowledge Issues

  • Platonists have a few significant problems to handle, namely:

  • Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem

  • Paradoxes

  • Axioms: an act of faith?

G del s incompleteness theorem
Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem

  • In the 1930’s Gödel showed Mathematics could never be complete

  • This result was proved from within Mathematics itself

  • There will always be true statements we can never prove true

Kurt Gödel


  • For a Platonist, a paradox, like the Russell Paradox, that leads to a contradiction can not be allowed to stand

  • In severe cases they require mathematicians to re-write whole sections of the subject

Bertrand Russell


  • At the most fundamental level, axioms, upon which all of mathematics is built, rely on no more than an act of faith as, by definition, they can never be proved

  • Modern axiom sets are extremely complex and abstract in nature (in contrary to the simplistic and obvious laws of nature scientists and mathematicians hope to uncover)

  • The big question is, “are axioms invented, or are they the fundamental rules of nature waiting to be discovered?”

The formalist case
The Formalist Case

  • We chose axioms, they are not God-given

  • If mathematics describes all of creation, how can it be incomplete, as Gödel proved

  • Does Nature allow paradoxes? If not, how can mathematics?

David Hilbert – a formalist

The platonist defense
The Platonist Defense

  • Our axioms are not as well refined as they need to be. In time they will become clearer and more obvious

  • Mathematics is ‘incomplete’ because Nature is ‘incomplete’: Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle shows this

  • We don’t allow paradoxes – we have not yet discovered the ideal axioms which avoids them

David Hilbourne -- a Platonist

The platonist s attack
The Platonist’s Attack

  • Besides, if mathematics is formalist, surely, being a creation of mankind, it would not apply universally. The argument goes, “Would a suitably advanced alien race discover (in their number system) the same value we have for p?”

  • If it is no more than a type of game how comes it is so fundamentally useful in our technological world? Chess is not useful like this.


And then there is neptune
and then there is Neptune …

Uranus was discovered in 1781, and by 1846 had almost completed one orbit of the Sun.

But its position did not accurately match the prediction of Newton’s Law of Gravity.

But the “error” could be explained by the existence of a more distant planet.

Urbain Le Verrier, in Paris, predicted where this new planet would be found.

Neptune was first observed on 23 September that year, where Le Verrier has predicted.

Le Verrier had discovered Neptune “with the point of his pencil”.

François Arago

Any other choice
Any other choice?

  • There has been one more serious attempt to put mathematics onto a firm philosophical foundation:



  • Let by Brouwer in 1908. He maintained that the natural numbers were intuitive to all, and therefore could safely be used as the basis of all mathematics. Anything that could not be constructed in a finite number of steps from these natural numbers was not allowable.

L.E.J. Brouwer --- a constructivist

Constructivism no thanks
Constructivism – no thanks

  • Nice idea, but a bit of a dramatic position to take; too draconian for most mathematicians.

  • If you stick to constructivist rules many of the proofs of established mathematics would no longer work.

  • Result: Most of Maths would have to go!

  • Constructivists are considered by many mathematicians as a bit of a fringe element – a weird sect, best ignored.


  • The arguments against the formalist school are so convincing that the formalist view must be rejected

  • Constructivism is too restricting – nothing left

  • I believe in the Platonic school of thought that places Mathematics at the heart of our universe

  • The problems Platonist’s face are temporary, and will be removed when suitable axioms are discovered