Uncertainty, Debate, and Imprecision in Mathematics

If you remember anything about the mathematics courses you took in high school, it is that mathematics is the one subject in which there is absolute certainty and precision in all its answers. Unlike history, social science, and the humanities, which offer a variety of interpretations of subject matter, mathematics is unified and absolute.  Two plus two equals four and that is that. If you answer a math problem wrong, there is no sense in arguing a different interpretation with the teacher. Even the “hard sciences,” such as physics, may revise long-established conclusions, as new evidence comes in and new theories are developed. But mathematical truths are seemingly forever. Or are they?

You might not know it, but there has been a revolution in the human understanding of mathematics in the past 150 years that has undermined the belief that mathematics holds the key to absolute truth about the nature of the universe. Even as mathematical knowledge has increased, uncertainty has also increased, and different types of mathematics have been created that have different premises and are incompatible with each other. The value of mathematics remains clear. Mathematics increases our understanding, and science would not be possible without it. But the status of mathematics as a source of precise and infallible truth about reality is less clear.

For over 2000 years, the geometrical conclusions of the Greek mathematician Euclid were regarded as the most certain type of knowledge that could be obtained. Beginning with a small number of axioms, Euclid developed a system of geometry that was astonishing in breadth. The conclusions of Euclid’s geometry were regarded as absolutely certain, being derived from axioms that were “self-evident.”  Indeed, if one begins with “self-evident” truths and derives conclusions from those truths in a logical and verifiable manner, then one’s conclusions must also be undoubtedly true.

However, in the nineteenth century, these truths were undermined by the discovery of new geometries based on different axioms — the so-called “non-Euclidean geometries.” The conclusions of geometry were no longer absolute, but relative to the axioms that one chose. This became something of a problem for the concept of mathematical “proof.” If one can build different systems of mathematics based on different axioms, then “proof” only means that one’s conclusions are derivable from one’s axioms, not that one’s conclusions are absolutely true.

If you peruse the literature of mathematics on the definition of “axiom,” you will see what I mean. Many authors include the traditional definition of an axiom as a “self-evident truth.” But others define an axiom as a “definition” or “assumption,” seemingly as an acceptable alternative to “self-evident truth.” Surely there is a big difference between an “assumption,” a “self-evident truth,” and a “definition,” no? This confusing medley of definitions of “axiom” is the result of the nineteenth century discovery of non-Euclidean geometries. The issue has not been fully cleared up by mathematicians, but the Wikipedia entry on “axiom” probably represents the consensus of most mathematicians, when it states: “No explicit view regarding the absolute truth of axioms is ever taken in the context of modern mathematics, as such a thing is considered to be irrelevant.”  (!)

In reaction to the new uncertainty, mathematicians responded by searching for new foundations for mathematics, in the hopes of finding a set of axioms that would establish once and for all the certainty of mathematics. The “Foundations of Mathematics” movement, as it came to be called, ultimately failed. One of the leaders of the foundations movement, the great mathematician Bertrand Russell, declared late in life:

I wanted certainty in the kind of way in which people want religious faith. I thought that certainty is more likely to be found in mathematics than elsewhere. But I discovered that many mathematical demonstrations, which my teachers expected me to accept, were full of fallacies, and that, if certainty were indeed discoverable in mathematics, it would be in a new kind of mathematics, with more solid foundations than those that had hitherto been thought secure. But as the work proceeded, I was continually reminded of the fable about the elephant and the tortoise. Having constructed an elephant upon which the mathematical world could rest, I found the elephant tottering, and proceeded to construct a tortoise to keep the elephant from falling. But the tortoise was no more secure than the elephant, and after some twenty years of arduous toil, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing more that I could do in the way of making mathematical knowledge indubitable. (The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell)

Today, there are a variety of mathematical systems based on a variety of assumptions, and no one yet has succeeded in reconciling all the systems into one, fundamental, true system of mathematics. In fact, you wouldn’t know it from high school math, but some topics in mathematics have led to sharp divisions and debates among mathematicians. And most of these debates have never really been resolved — mathematicians have simply grown to tolerate the existence of different mathematical systems in the same way that ancient pagans accepted the existence of multiple gods.

Some of the most contentious issues in mathematics have revolved around the concept of infinity. In the nineteenth century, the mathematician Georg Cantor developed a theory about different sizes of infinite sets, but his arguments immediately attracted criticism from fellow mathematicians and remain controversial to this day. The central problem is that measuring infinity, assigning a quantity to infinity, is inherently an endless process. Once you think you have measured infinity, you simply add a one to it, and you have something greater than infinity — which means your original infinity was not truly infinite. Henri Poincare, one of the greatest mathematicians in history, rejected Cantor’s theory, noting: “Actual infinity does not exist. What we call infinite is only the endless possibility of creating new objects no matter how many exist already.”  Stephen Simpson, a mathematician at Pennsylvania University likewise argues “What truly infinite objects exist in the real world?” Objections to Cantor’s theory of infinity led to the emergence of new mathematical schools of thought such as finitism and intuitionism, which rejected the legitimacy of infinite mathematical objects.

Cantor focused his mental energies on concepts of the infinitely large, but another idea in mathematics was also controversial — that of the infinitely small, the “infinitesimal.” To give you an idea of how controversial the infinitesimal has been, I note that Cantor himself rejected the existence of infinitesimals! In Cantor’s view, the concept of something being infinitely small was inherently contradictory — if something is small, then it is inherently finite! And yet, infinitesimals have been used by mathematicians for hundreds of years. The infinitesimal was used by Leibniz in his version of calculus, and it is used today in the field of mathematics known as “non-standard analysis.” There is still no consensus among mathematicians today about the existence or legitimacy of infinitesimals, but infinitesimals, like imaginary numbers, seem to be useful in calculations, and as long as it works, mathematicians are willing to tolerate them, albeit not without some criticism.

The existence of different types of mathematical systems leads to some strange and contradictory answers to some of the simplest questions in mathematics. In school, you were probably taught that parallel lines never meet. That is true in Euclidean geometry, but not in hyperbolic geometry. In projective geometry, parallel lines meet at infinity!

Or consider the infinite decimal 0.9999 . . .  Is this infinite decimal equal to 1? The common sense answer that students usually give is “of course not.” But most mathematicians argue that both numbers are equivalent! Their logic is as follows: in the system of “real numbers,” there is no number between 0.999. . . and 1. Therefore, if you subtract 0.999. . .  from 1, the result is zero. And that means both numbers are the same!

However, in the system of numbers known as “hyperreals,” a system which includes infinitesimals, there exists an infinitesimal number between 0.999. . .  and 1. So under this system, 0.999. . .  and 1 are NOT the same! (A great explanation of this paradox is here.) So which system of numbers is the correct one? There is no consensus among mathematicians. But there is a great joke:

How many mathematicians does it take to screw in a light bulb?

0.999 . . .

The invention of computers has led to the creation of a new system of mathematics known as “floating point arithmetic.” This was necessary because, for all of their amazing capabilities, computers do not have enough memory or processing capability to precisely deal with all of the real numbers. To truly depict an infinite decimal, a computer would need an infinite amount of memory. So floating point arithmetic deals with this problem by using a degree of approximation.

One of the odd characteristics of the standard version of floating point arithmetic is that there is not one zero, but two zeros: a positive zero and a negative zero. What’s that you say? There’s no such thing as positive zero and negative zero? Well, not in the number system you were taught, but these numbers do exist in floating point arithmetic. And you can use them to divide by zero, which is something else I bet you thought you couldn’t do.  One divided by positive zero equals positive infinity, while one divided by negative zero equals negative infinity!

What the history of mathematics indicates is that the world is not converging toward one, true system of mathematics, but creating multiple, incompatible systems of mathematics, each of which has its own logic. If you think of mathematics as a set of tools for understanding reality, rather than reality itself, this makes sense. You want a variety of tools to do different things. Sometimes you need a hammer, sometimes you need a socket wrench, sometimes you need a Phillips screwdriver, etc. The only true test of a tool is how useful it is — a single tool that tried to do everything would be unhelpful.

You probably didn’t know about most of the issues in mathematics I have just mentioned, because they are usually not taught, either at the elementary school level, the high school level, or even college. Mathematics education consists largely of being taught the right way to perform a calculation, and then doing a variety of these calculations over and over and over. . . .

But why is that? Why is mathematics education just about learning to calculate, and not discussing controversies? I can think of several reasons.

One reason may be that most people who go into mathematics tend to have a desire for greater certainty. They don’t like uncertainty and imprecise answers, so they learn math, avoid mathematical controversies or ignore them, and then teach students a mathematics without uncertainty. I recall my college mathematics instructor declaring to class one day that she went into mathematics precisely because it offered sure answers. My teacher certainly had that much in common with Bertrand Russell (quoted above).

Another reason surely is that there is a large element of indoctrination in education generally, and airing mathematical controversies among students might have the effect of undermining authority. It is true that students can discuss controversies in the social sciences and humanities, but that’s because we live in a democratic society in which there are a variety of views on social issues, and no one group has the power to impose a single view on the classroom. But even a democratic society is not interested in teaching controversies in mathematics — it’s interested in creating good workers for the economy. We need people who can make change, draw up a budget, and measure things, not people who challenge widely-accepted beliefs.

This utilitarian view of mathematics education seems to be universal, shared by democratic and totalitarian governments alike. Forcing students to perform endless calculations without allowing them to ask “why” is a great way to bore children and make them hate math, but at least they’ll be obedient citizens.

One thought on “Uncertainty, Debate, and Imprecision in Mathematics

  1. Pingback: The Mythos of Mathematics | Mythos/Logos

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