Proof style and understanding in mathematics I: Visualization, unification and axiom choice

Abstract

Mathematical investigation, when done well, can confer understanding. This bare observation shouldn’t be controversial; where obstacles appear is rather in the effort to engage this observation with epistemology. The complexity of the issue of course precludes addressing it tout court in one paper, and I’ll just be laying some early foundations here. To this end I’ll narrow the field in two ways. First, I’ll address a specific account of explanation and understanding that applies naturally to mathematical reasoning: the view proposed by Philip Kitcher and Michael Friedman of explanation or understanding as involving the unification of theories that had antecedently appeared heterogeneous. For the second narrowing, I’ll take up one specific feature (among many) of theories and their basic concepts that is sometimes taken to make the theories and concepts preferred: in some fields, for some problems, what is counted as understanding a problem may involve finding a way to represent the problem so that it (or some aspect of it) can be visualized. The final section develops a case study which exemplifies the way that this consideration – the potential for visualizability – can rationally inform decisions as to what the proper framework and axioms should be. The discussion of unification (in sections 3 and 4) leads to a mathematical analogue of Goodman’s problem of identifying a principled basis for distinguishing grue and green. Just as there is a philosophical issue about how we arrive at the predicates we should use when making empirical predictions, so too there is an issue about what properties best support many kinds of mathematical reasoning that are especially valuable to us. The issue becomes pressing via an examination of some physical and mathematical cases that make it seem unlikely that treatments of unification can be as straightforward as the philosophical literature has hoped. Though unification accounts have a grain of truth (since a phenomenon (or cluster of phenomena) called “unification” is in fact important in many cases) we are far from an analysis of what “unification” is..

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Jamie Tappenden
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

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