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.
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
. 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 <
holds for each ordinary positive naturalnumber
, 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
. Butin 1966, Abraham Robinson’s book
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 . The name of Robinson’s theory is often abbreviated toNSA.
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
The volume of essays edited by W.D. Hart  is an excellent introduction to these issues.
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.