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Peressini - 'Confirming Mathematical Theories; An Ontologically Agnostic Stance'

Peressini - 'Confirming Mathematical Theories; An Ontologically Agnostic Stance'

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Published by Kam Ho M. Wong
looking at math and its proofs agnostically
looking at math and its proofs agnostically

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Published by: Kam Ho M. Wong on Jun 27, 2014
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ANTHONY PERESSINI
CONFIRMING MATHEMATICAL THEORIES:AN ONTOLOGICALLY AGNOSTIC STANCE
ABSTRACT. The Quine/Putnam indispensability approach to the confirmation of math-ematical theories in recent times has been the subject of significant criticism. In this paperI explore an alternative to the Quine/Putnam indispensability approach. I begin with a vanFraassen-like distinction between
 accepting the adequacy
 of a mathematical theory and
believing in the truth
 of a mathematical theory. Finally, I consider the problem of movingfrom the adequacy of a mathematical theory to its truth. I argue that the prospects for justifying this move are qualitatively worse in mathematics than they are in science.
1.
 INTRODUCTION
Of late it has become customary for philosophers to speak of the “con-firmation” of pure mathematical theories. This notion derives from theQuine/Putnam indispensability account which maintains that the confirm-ation of mathematical theories involves nothing beyond ordinary scientificconfirmation: pure mathematical theories, in virtue of being an indispens-able part of our accepted scientific theories, enjoy the same confirmation.Quine rarely applies the concept of “confirmation” to scientific theories,and even less often to mathematical theories. My discussion here, con-sequently, does not target strict Quineans (if any such exist); rather, myremarks are directed toward the contemporary discussion of mathematicalPlatonism that has
 grown out 
 of the Quine/Putnam approach. In this arena,the contemporary import of the Quinean move to accept the truth of math-ematics because mathematics plays an indispensable role in our scientifictheories can be fairly characterized as a move to understand mathematicaltheories as being
 confirmed 
 because they participate (indispensably) in
confirmed 
 scientific theories. Finally, my project here is not to argue dir-ectly against contemporary indispensability approaches – that can befoundelsewhere.
1
In this paper, I seek to offer an alternative to indispensabilityconsiderations as way of thinking about the
 reasons
 we have to believethat mathematical theories are true in a sense that entails the existence of mathematical objects.
2
In spite of the problems with the indispensability account, it seemspromising to approach the confirmation of mathematical theories in a way
Synthese
 118:
 257–277, 1999.© 1999
 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
 
258
 ANTHONY PERESSINI
parallel to the confirmation of scientific theories. Care must be taken, how-ever, not to force mathematics into the mold of science. Serious attentionmust be paid to the particular mathematical methodologies involved.A fundamental problem with certain versions of the indispensabilityapproach is that they depict mathematical theory as being confirmationallydependent on science in an implausible way. Unlike discarded scientifictheories, pure mathematical theories do not “dry up and blow away” if their usefulness in science ceases; rather, they retain whatever status theyhad
 qua
 pure mathematical theory. On the other hand, when a scientifictheory is no longer useful in science, it does in an important sense, “dryup and blow away”. This is because its role in empirical science was its(sole) source of confirmation. Pure mathematical theories, on the otherhand, appear to have their own internal sources of confirmation – and thisconfirmation is independent of how/whether the theory is used in science. Ipropose to pay particular attention to this confirmational independence andnot merely “chalk it up” to appearance. In what follows, respecting thisconfirmational independence of pure mathematical theories will be takenas an adequacy condition for an account of mathematical confirmation.In developing my account, I begin with a van Fraassen-like distinctionbetween accepting the adequacy of a theory and believing the truth of atheory; I then work out an appropriate sense of “adequacy” for the math-ematical setting. This
 mathematical
 adequacy will be determined by theconfirmational methodology of pure mathematics. In particular, the math-ematical adequacy of a theory is what is being
 directly confirmed 
 by themethodology of pure mathematics – just as empirical adequacy is what isbeing directly confirmed by the methodology in
 science
. I argue that theconfirmational independence of pure mathematics is due to the fact thatthe criterion for accepting a theory of pure mathematics, its mathematicaladequacy, is independent of the evidential support at work in science. Inext consider the problem of moving from the mathematical
 adequacy
 of a theory to its
 truth
. The question becomes: at what point, if ever, doesa theory’s mathematical adequacy commit us to its truth? I argue that theprospects for justifying this move are qualitatively worse in mathematicsthan they are in science.
2.
 ACCEPTING AND BELIEVING
The debate between scientific realists, and empiricists (led by vanFraassen) has suggested a subtle shift in how we think about confirmation.It is no longer to be taken for granted that in confirming a scientific theory,we simply confirm the
 truth
 of the theory’s statements. The idea that we
 
CONFIRMING MATHEMATICAL THEORIES
 259may accept a scientific theory as empirically adequate without
 believing
all of it to be true is a possibility that has enough merit to have sustainedconsiderable discussion. At the very least, this possibility has forced philo-sophers to recognize that the empirical adequacy of a scientific theory iswhat is
 most directly
 confirmed by the activity of scientists, and that to passfrom empirical adequacy to the truth of the theory requires an additionalstep.
3
2.1.
 Some Terminology
The propositional attitudes picked out by the terms “believe” and “accept”are really not as different as might be thought. In fact, the latter may beanalyzed in terms of the former. To believe a
 theory
 is to believe that thestatements that make it up are true.
4
To accept a theory is to believe thatthe theory is “adequate” in some relevant sense, but not necessarily that allof the statements that make it up are true. We may also speak of acceptingindividual statements: to accept a statement
 p
 (in the context of an accep-ted theory of which it is a part) is to believe it to be “adequate” in somesense, but not necessarily to believe that
 p
 is true. Thus the statements of atheory
 T 
 have a natural partition into the statements that are believed (
b
)and the statements that are merely accepted (
a
). In describing a statementas
 merely
 accepted the implication is, of course, that it is not believed.Similarly, when a theory is described as merely accepted, the implicationwill be that it is not believed and thus that
 T 
a
 is non-empty.Analyzing the concept of acceptance in terms of belief avoids animportant criticism that has been successfully leveled against certainpresentations ofit. Ithasbeen argued thatdichotomous (either/or) accountsof propositional attitudes like acceptance are too coarsely grained. We donot accept or reject hypotheses rather, we assign
 degrees of belief 
 to them.
5
Notice, however, that since acceptance of 
 
 is analyzed as believing
 
empirically adequate, if belief comes in degree, then so does acceptance.The essential feature of the idea of acceptance is not that it be an either/oraffair, but rather that it be an attitude toward an hypothesis distinct frombelieving it true. In this discussion, belief, and consequently acceptance,will be understood as being a “matter of degree”.2.2.
 Adequacy in Science
To accept an hypothesis is to believe it “adequate” in some relevant sense.In the confirmational setting of science, “adequate” gets fleshed out interms of empirical adequacy. What it means for a scientific theory to beempirically adequate is that it “gets things right” with respect to what wecan (even potentially) observe. The idea is that an empirically adequate

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