Foundations of mathematics

Foundations of mathematics

Foundations of mathematics is a term sometimes used for certain fields of mathematics, such as mathematical logic, axiomatic set theory, proof theory, model theory, and recursion theory. The search for foundations of mathematics is also a central question of the philosophy of mathematics: On what ultimate basis can mathematical statements be called true?

Philosophical foundations of mathematics

ummary of the three philosophies

;Platonism:“Platonists, such as Kurt Gödel, hold that numbers are abstract, necessarily existing objects, independent of the human mind” [Anglin (1994) p. 218]

;Formalism:“Formalists, such as David Hilbert (1862-1943), hold that mathematics is no more or less than mathematical language. It is simply a series of games...” [Anglin (1994) p. 218]

;Intuitionism:“Intuitionists, such as L. E. J. Brouwer (1882-1966), hold that mathematics is a creation of the human mind. Numbers, like fairy tale characters, are merely mental entities, which would not exist if there were never any human minds to think about them.” [Anglin (1994) p. 218]


The foundational philosophy of "Platonist mathematical realism", as exemplified by mathematician Kurt Gödel, proposes the existence of a world of mathematical objects independent of humans; the truths about these objects are "discovered" by humans. In this view, the laws of nature and the laws of mathematics have a similar status, and the effectiveness ceases to be unreasonable. Not our axioms, but the very real world of mathematical objects forms the foundation. The obvious question, then, is: how do we access this world? [Anglin 1991 p. 218]


The foundational philosophy of "formalism", as exemplified by David Hilbert, is based on axiomatic set theory and formal logic. Virtually all mathematical theorems today can be formulated as theorems of set theory. The truth of a mathematical statement, in this view, is then nothing but the claim that the statement can be derived from the axioms of set theory using the rules of formal logic. [Anglin 1991 p. 218]

Merely the use of formalism alone does not explain several issues: why we should use the axioms we do and not some others, why we should employ the logical rules we do and not some others, why do "true" mathematical statements (e.g., the laws of arithmetic) appear to be true, and so on. In some cases these may be sufficiently answered through the study of formal theories, in disciplines such as reverse mathematics and computational complexity theory. Formal logical systems also run the risk of inconsistency; in Peano arithmetic, this arguably has already been settled with several proofs of consistency, but there is debate over whether or not they are sufficiently finitary to be meaningful. Gödel's second incompleteness theorem establishes that logical systems of arithmetic can never contain a valid proof of their own consistency. What Hilbert wanted to do was prove a logical system "S" was consistent, based on principles "P" that only made up a small part of "S". But Gödel proved that the principles "P" could not even prove "P" to be consistent, let alone "S"!


The foundational philosophy of "intuitionism" or "constructivism", as exemplified in the extreme by Brouwer and more coherently by Stephen Kleene, requires proofs to be "constructive" in nature – the existence of an object must be demonstrated rather than inferred from a demonstration of non-existence. For example, as a consequence of this the form of proof known as reductio ad absurdum is suspect. [Anglin 1991 p. 218]

Some modern theories in the philosophy of mathematics deny the existence of foundations in the original sense. Some theories tend to focus on mathematical practice, and aim to describe and analyze the actual working of mathematicians as a social group. Others try to create a cognitive science of mathematics, focusing on human cognition as the origin of the reliability of mathematics when applied to the real world. These theories would propose to find foundations only in human thought, not in any objective outside construct. The matter remains controversial.

Foundational crisis

The "foundational crisis of mathematics" (in German: "Grundlagenkrise der Mathematik") was the early 20th century's term for the search for proper foundations of mathematics.

After several schools of the philosophy of mathematics ran into difficulties one after the other in the 20th century, the assumption that mathematics had any foundation that could be stated within mathematics itself began to be heavily challenged.

One attempt after another to provide unassailable foundations for mathematics was found to suffer from various paradoxes (such as Russell's paradox) and to be inconsistent: an undesirable situation in which every mathematical statement that can be "formulated" in a proposed system (such as 2 + 2 = 5) can also be "proved" in the system.

Various schools of thought on the right approach to the foundations of mathematics were fiercely opposing each other. The leading school was that of the formalist approach, of which David Hilbert was the foremost proponent, culminating in what is known as Hilbert's program, which thought to ground mathematics on a small basis of a logical system proved sound by metamathematical finitistic means. The main opponent was the intuitionist school, led by L. E. J. Brouwer, which resolutely discarded formalism as a meaningless game with symbols (van Dalen, 2008). The fight was acrimonious. In 1920 Hilbert succeeded in having Brouwer, whom he considered a threat to mathematics, removed from the editorial board of "Mathematische Annalen", the leading mathematical journal of the time.

Gödel's incompleteness theorems, proved in 1931, showed that essential aspects of Hilbert's program could not be attained. In Gödel's first result he showed how to construct, for any sufficiently powerful and consistent finitely axiomatizable system – such as necessary to axiomatize the elementary theory of arithmetic – a statement that can be shown to be true, but that does not follow from the rules of the system. It thus became clear that the notion of mathematical truth can not be reduced to a purely formal system as envisaged in Hilbert's program. In a next result Gödel showed that such a system was not powerful enough for proving its own consistency, let alone that a simpler system could do the job. This dealt a final blow to the heart of Hilbert's program, the hope that consistency could be established by finitistic means (it was never made clear exactly what axioms were the "finitistic" ones, but whatever axiomatic system was being referred to, it was a 'weaker' system than the system whose consistency it was supposed to prove). Meanwhile, the intuitionistic school had failed to attract adherents among working mathematicians, and floundered due to the difficulties of doing mathematics under the constraint of constructivism.

In a sense, the crisis has not been resolved, but faded away: most mathematicians either do not work from axiomatic systems, or if they do, do not doubt the consistency of ZFC, generally their preferred axiomatic system. In most of mathematics as it is practiced, the various logical paradoxes never played a role anyway, and in those branches in which they do (such as logic and category theory), they may be avoided.

A working perspective

To give an example, in number theory there is a huge body of doctrine, a tiny fraction of which has been developed in a particular axiomatic system, say Peano arithmetic (PA). Most of this work could be developed in PA; as a famous example, the prime number theorem is provable in PRA (Sudac (2001)), a much weaker theory than PA. But the working number theorist is concerned with proving theorems from initial assumptions which are obviously true using proof methods which are obviously correct, not with any particular logical system. In fact, the "crisis"-causing assertions discovered by Gödel "are" assertions about Diophantine equations, one of the main avenues in number theory. It may or may not be the case that there is a fundamental limit to what humans can understand about numbers (i.e., there may be true number-theoretical principles which cannot be perceived as being true by any human), but Gödel's theorem does not tell us which of these is the case, and we have no way of knowing. It may or may not be that we are required to introduce principles which are not expressible in the language of first order arithmetic in order to decide questions which are (e.g. the consistency of PA), but Gödel's theorem does not tell us which of these is the case, and again we have no way of knowing. It is often asserted that in light of Gödel's theorem one must introduce set-theoretical principles in order to decide certain number theoretical questions, but this assertion is unjustified. Gödel's theorem does not put any such constraints on the nature of the principles involved (i.e. the language in which they must be expressed). The attitude of the working number theorist is thus a reasonable one: one does not spend time thinking about such things, as there is simply no way to know. Instead one continues to prove theorems, and true principles which may be outside this or that logical system will be appealed to as required. Such principles will be introduced by people thinking about and solving actual problems, on the frontline. The problems (assuming there is no limit to what humans can understand about numbers) will be solved by people carrying on in the same way as they did before.


*cite book | author=W. S. Anglin | title=Mathematics. A Concise History and Philosophy | publisher=Springer Verlag | location=New York | origyear=1994 | year=1996 | edition=Corrected 2nd printing edition | id=ISBN 0387942807 "Chapter 39 Foundations" contains concise descriptions, for the 20th century, of Platonism (with respect to Gödel), Formalism (with respect to Hilbert), and Intuitionism (with respect to Brouwer).
* Goodman, N.D. (1979), "Mathematics as an Objective Science", in Tymoczko (ed., 1986).
* Hart, W.D. (ed., 1996), "The Philosophy of Mathematics", Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
* Hersh, R. (1979), "Some Proposals for Reviving the Philosophy of Mathematics", in (Tymoczko 1986).
* Hilbert, D. (1922), "Neubegründung der Mathematik. Erste Mitteilung", "Hamburger Mathematische Seminarabhandlungen" 1, 157–177. Translated, "The New Grounding of Mathematics. First Report", in (Mancosu 1998).
*cite book | first=Stephen C. | last=Kleene | title=Introduction to Meta-Mathematics| publisher=North-Holland Pub. Co | location=Amsterdam NY| origyear=1952 | year=1991 | edition=Tenth impression 1991 | id=ISBN 0-7204-2103-9 :In Chapter III "A Critique of Mathematic Reasoning, §11. The paradoxes", Kleene discusses Intuitionism and Formalism in depth. Throughout the rest of the book he treats, and compares, both Formalist (classical) and Intuitionist logics with an emphasis on the former. Extraordinary writing by an extraordinary mathematician.
* Mancosu, P. (ed., 1998), "From Hilbert to Brouwer. The Debate on the Foundations of Mathematics in the 1920s", Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
* Putnam, Hilary (1967), "Mathematics Without Foundations", "Journal of Philosophy" 64/1, 5–22. Reprinted, pp. 168–184 in W.D. Hart (ed., 1996).
* Putnam, Hilary (1975), "What is Mathematical Truth?", in Tymoczko (ed., 1986).
*A. S. Troelstra (no date but later than 1990), "A History of Constructivism in the 20th Century",, A detailed survey for specialists: §1 Introduction, §2 Finitism & §2.2 Actualism, §3 Predicativism and Semi-Intuitionism, §4 Brouwerian Intuitionism, §5 Intuitionistic Logic and Arithmetic, §6 Intuitionistic Analysis and Stronger Theories, §7 Constructive Recursive Mathematics, §8 Bishop's Constructivism, §9 Concluding Remarks. Approximately 80 references.
* Tymoczko, T. (1986), "Challenging Foundations", in Tymoczko (ed., 1986).
* Tymoczko, T. (ed., 1986), "New Directions in the Philosophy of Mathematics", 1986. Revised edition, 1998.
* van Dalen D. (2008), "Brouwer, Luitzen Egbertus Jan (1881-1966)", in Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland. URL: [13-03-2008]
* Weyl, H. (1921), "Über die neue Grundlagenkrise der Mathematik", "Mathematische Zeitschrift" 10, 39–79. Translated, "On the New Foundational Crisis of Mathematics", in (Mancosu 1998).
* Wilder, Raymond L. (1952), "Introduction to the Foundations of Mathematics", John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY.
* Jeremy Avigad (2003) "Number theory and elementary arithmetic", Philosophia Mathematica Vol. 11, pp. 257-284

ee also

* Bishop-Keisler controversy
* Brouwer-Hilbert controversy
* Controversy over Cantor's theory
* Epistemology
* Euclid's Elements
* Kaina Stoicheia
* Liar paradox
* New Foundations
* Philosophy of mathematics
* Principia Mathematica
* Quasi-empiricism in mathematics
* The Simplest Mathematics

External links

* [ What is Foundations of Mathematics?]
* [ Logic and Mathematics]
* [ Foundations of Mathematics mailing list]

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