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Published by Richard Kaye

An essay on problems concerning the nature of existence of "impossibly small" abstract objects in mathematics, and structuralism.

An essay on problems concerning the nature of existence of "impossibly small" abstract objects in mathematics, and structuralism.

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On the existence of inﬁnitesimals

Richard KayeSchool of MathematicsUniversity of Birmingham26th May 2010

Abstract

So-called nonstandard mathematics uses inﬁnite and inﬁnitesimal num-bers to develop mathematics, especially calculus, without the use of thenotion of limit. These methods are rigorous and all results are provablein usual mathematics or ZFC, and these nonstandard numbers are typi-cal of modern mathematics in that they abstract familiar operations andconcepts (in this case, of

limit

in the

–

δ

analysis) as mathematical ob- jects in their own right. This makes them a good test case for the studyof what a mathematical object is, and issues relating to mathematicaltruth and knowledge. This paper studies from a mathematical and quasi-philosophical point of view the potential existence of such nonstandardnumbers for problemms of existence, realism and platonism of mathemat-ical objects, and indeed to develop ideas of what mathematical objectsreally are. Structuralist and utilitarian views are emphasised and we con-clude suggestions for a theory of ‘pure structuralism’ that might unitemathematical and general thought.

Contents

1 Introduction 22 Mathematical existence 43 Existence of inﬁnitesimals 144 The case for ‘pure’ structuralism 215 Questions for further research 24

This is the second version of this paper and was a complete rewrite of anearlier one. I continue to be interested in the material here and I am still devel-oping it. This paper is issued as a preview of work in progress. All commentsare most welcome! Part of the material here was used as the basis of a collo-quium to the Philosophy Department of Warwick University, in the summer of 2010, and there was a long and useful discussion afterwards.1

1 Introduction

The nature of mathematical objects, whether they are abstract or real, howone might reason about them, and how one might understand the meaning of statements concerning them, are substantial and interesting philosophical ques-tions.

1

It is quite common in such discussion to direct attention towards the caseof natural numbers, 0,1,2,..., as examples of mathematical objects, because of their comparative simplicity and their familiarity in the non-mathematical worldas well as with them being objects of on-going research in pure mathematics.Because of this familiarity and because they are so fundamental makes naturalnumbers rather atypical examples of the kind of mathematical objects usuallyfound in mathematical practice, and therefore not necessarily the most usefulexamples for our philosophical questions. This paper will comment on the im-portant questions of the nature of mathematical objects by focusing on anotherexample, that of

inﬁnitesimal numbers

. It is hoped that by looking at num-bers that have seemingly contradictory or impossible nature but nevertheless—according to mainstream mathematics—incontrovertibly exist, we may learnsomething about the nature of mathematical objects. In any case, these areparticularly interesting numbers in their own right, with many potential appli-cations.Inﬁnitesimals are numbers that are ‘so small that there is no way to seethem or to measure them’. More formally, in an ordered ﬁeld, a positive num-ber

x

is

inﬁnitesimal

if 0

< x <

1

/n

holds for each ordinary positive naturalnumber

n

, i.e. of the form 1 + 1 +

···

+ 1. Newton and Leibniz both used in-ﬁnitesimals in the development of their calculus, but were famously criticised byBerkeley. In the nineteenth century Cauchy, and also Riemann and Weierstrassand many others, replaced the notion of inﬁnitesimal with that of

limit

. Butin 1966, Abraham Robinson’s book

Non-standard Analysis

showed that the useof techniques from ﬁrst-order logic, in particular the Completeness, Soundnessand Compactness Theorems, the notion of inﬁnitesimal could be put on a ﬁrmfoundation and be useful enough to develop the calculus in the way Newton andLeibniz intended [9]. The name of Robinson’s theory is often abbreviated toNSA.

2

Thus, according to Robinson at least, inﬁnitesimals exist and can be usedproﬁtably in analysis. However this does not completely deal with questions todo with such numbers, questions I will associate with their ‘existence’ for reasonsthat will hopefully become clear. For example, the fact that the existence of inﬁnitesimals follows from other axioms of mathematics (or set theory) canbe used as a way to focus on those axioms and provide a testing ground forquestions about those axioms: whether we believe them, or in what sense webelieve they model the (or a) valid mathematical universe.This paper attempts to be a mathematician’s view on questions on the natureof mathematics, mathematical objects and their existence, and mathematical

1

The volume of essays edited by W.D. Hart [4] is an excellent introduction to these issues.

2

Robinson called the new numbers in his system ‘non-standard’ to distinguish them fromthe ‘standard’ numbers or usual numbers of other kinds of mathematics. Thus ‘standard’and ‘non-standard’ are technical terms with precise meanings. Unfortunately, many peoplereading ‘Non-standard Analysis’ see it incorrectly as meaning the activity of analysis done ina non-standard way, and this easily becomes a pejorative term for the subject, which is mostunfortunate. Most recent authors write ‘nonstandard’ without the hyphen to emphasise thetechnical meaning of the word, and I will follow this convention here.

2

reasoning. There are a range of mathematical ideas here, which I attempt to tell‘straight’ without over-simpliﬁcation, and where there is a choice concentratingon the mathematical view. I make comments on the underlying philosophywhere I am able, without being particularly thorough. A more thorough detailedexamination of these ideas might constitute a new research project in its ownright, or possibly more than one.The paper is organised as follows. After this introduction, the ﬁrst mainsection, Section 2, contains descriptions of four main points of view of math-ematical research, as a working mathematician would see them. These fourviewpoints are not mutually exclusive, nor do I claim that the list is complete.I suggest ways in which the four views merge into each other, but these are notthe only ways. (Indeed this property of mathematics that it can be looked atin diﬀerent ways and at diﬀerent levels simultaneously is one of its strengths.)In the following section, Section 3, I shall present the case for and against in-ﬁnitesimal numbers in each of the four views. My presentation is again mostlymathematical, though I try to make speculative suggestions wherever possible.Section 4, contains my personal conclusions from this thought, which are thatthe structuralist view is essential, not just for mathematics, but for everydaythought and arguments too. However, the structuralist view as sometimes pre-sented (e.g. Parson’s essay [7] reprinted in Hart [4, Chapter XIII]) has problemswhich must be addressed. My suggestion is essentially that the structuralistaccount des not go far enough, and this section concludes with what mightbe described as a brief manifesto, or research proposal, for what I call ‘purestructuralism’. I conclude with a list of research questions that arise out of thediscussion that I think are worthy of further study. An appendix presents sometechnical information on nonstandard mathematics for the interested reader.The four viewpoints are as follows. Firstly, what I call the view from aunifying theory is the idea that all mathematics can be done or perhaps evenis best done as if from a single unifying theory. A set theory such as ZFC istypically used. I mention this view ﬁrst because it seems to be the most com-mon ground for the majority of mathematicians. It is also a useful simplifyingview for mathematical practice: it may not be optimum for all work or repre-sent the full views of any particular working mathematician but it is ideal for aﬁrst presentation of new work. Secondly, there is what I call the pluralist view,where the main work of mathematics is in looking at a large variety of diﬀer-ent number systems, with ‘number’ being taken in the widest possible sense,and I would include geometrical arguments within these terms. The underly-ing theory is weakened but the construction of these systems is still possiblein ZFC. These number systems are regarded as the most important aspect of mathematics and a number of them are more fundamental than others becauseof their ease of construction and applications. Chief amongst these systems arethose for natural numbers, integers, rationals, reals and complexes. The thirdof my viewpoints is the structuralist one, that a system of numbers or othermathematical objects takes abstract meaning through what it does rather thanwhat it is—the axioms it satisﬁes rather than the way it is constructed. Here,the axioms take priority, but constructions are still required to show that suchobjects still exist. The most important feature that this brings to bear for us is

canonicity

. Remarkably often it is possible to prove that two systems satisfyingthe same axioms are isomorphic, the number systems are ‘naturally forced uponus’, or canonical, and sometimes even more: sometimes the canonicity itself is3