Safety and Pluralism in Mathematics

Erkenntnis:1-19 (forthcoming)
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A belief one has is safe if either (i) it could not easily be false or (ii) in any nearby world in which it is false, it is not formed using the method one uses to form one’s actual belief. It seems our mathematical beliefs are safe if mathematical pluralism is true: if, loosely put, almost any consistent mathematical theory is true. It seems, after all, that in any nearby world where one’s mathematical beliefs differ from one’s actual beliefs, one would believe some other true, consistent theory. Focusing on Justin Clarke-Doane’s recent discussion, I argue the thesis that mathematical beliefs are safe given pluralism faces some obstacles. I argue (i) is true of mathematical belief given pluralism only if we deny plausible claims about the interpretation of non-pluralists who many of us could easily be. Unless strong metasemantic theses are true, it is plausible many of us could easily deny or refuse to believe a consistent and true mathematical theory we actually believe. Since philosophical arguments and controversies permeate the methodology of foundational mathematics, I argue we cannot confidently distinguish the methods we use in mathematics between worlds, thus raising doubts about (ii).

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James Andrew Smith
University of California, Riverside

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