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International Journal of Mathematics and Computational Science

Vol. 1, No. 3, 2015, pp. 98-101

http://www.aiscience.org/journal/ijmcs

Liaqat Ali Khan*

Department of Mathematics, Faculty of Science, King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Abstract

Mathematics is based on deductive reasoning though man's first experience with mathematics was of an inductive nature. This

means that the foundation of mathematics is the study of some logical and philosophical notions. We elaborate in simple terms

that the deductive system involves four things: (1) A set of primitive undefined terms; (2) Definitions evolved from the

undefined terms; (3) Axioms or postulates; (4) Theorems and their proofs. We also include some historical remarks on the

nature of mathematics.

Keywords

Mathematics Education, Deductive Reasoning, Inductive Reasoning, Primitive Undefined Terms, Axioms, Theorem,

Direct Proof, Indirect Proof, Platonism, Formalism

Received: April 4, 2015 / Accepted: April 15, 2015 / Published online: May 5, 2015

@ 2015 The Authors. Published by American Institute of Science. This Open Access article is under the CC BY-NC license.

http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/

1. Introduction experiment successfully say a thousand times, then another

twenty successful trails would lend credence to the result, but

Mathematics is not only concerned with everyday problems,

we have no assurance whatever that the experiment will not

but also with using imagination, intuition and reasoning to

fall on the very next trail. On the other hand in a deductive

find new ideas and to solve puzzling problems. One method

system, once we accept the hypothesis, the validity of our

used by mathematicians in discovering new ideas is to

conclusion is inevitable provided each implication in the

perform experiments. This is called the "experimental

reasoning process is a logical consequence of what which

method" or "inductive reasoning". When a scientist takes a

proceeds it. Here "consistency" of a logical system means

large number of careful observations and from them infers

that no theorem of the system contradicts another and

some probable results or when he repeats an experiment

"validity" means that the system's rules of proof never allow

many times and from these data arrives at some probable

a false inference from true premises.

conclusion, he is using inductive reasoning. That is to say,

from a large number of specific cases he obtains a single

general inference. 2. Deductive Reasoning

The other method is based on reasoning rather than on System

experiments or observations. This is called "deductive

As mentioned above, mathematics is based on deductive

reasoning". When a mathematician begins with a set of

reasoning though man's first experience with mathematics

acceptable conditions, called the hypothesis and by a series

was of an inductive nature. The ancient Egyptians and

of logical implications reaches a valid conclusion, he

Babylonians developed many mathematical ideas through

employs deductive reasoning. The major difference in the

observation and experimentation and made use of this

two methods is implied in the two words: “probable” with

mathematics in their daily life. Then the Greeks became

respect to inductive reasoning and `valid' relative to

* Corresponding author

E-mail address: akliaqat@gmail.com

International Journal of Mathematics and Computational Science Vol. 1, No. 3, 2015, pp. 98-101 99

interested in philosophy and logic and placed a great chooses must be simple in form and as small in number as

emphasis on reasoning. For example, in Geometry, the possible. They usually appeal to the intuition, more or less,

axiomatic development was first developed by them from but it is important to distinguish the intuitive ideas behind

500 to 300 BC, and was described in detail by Euclid around them and the part they play in the theory. It is not completely

300 BC. They accepted a few most basic mathematical true to say that a primitive term has no formal meaning. It

assumptions and used them to prove deductively most of the may have content because of the logical position we put in it.

geometric facts we know today. Our high school geometry is DEFINITIONS: A definition, Bertrand Russell says, is a

an excellent example of a deductive system. Recall that in the

declaration that a certain newly introduced term or

study of geometry, we began with a set of undefined terms,

combination of terms is to mean the same as a certain other

such as point, line etc. We then made some definitions, for

combination of terms, of which the meaning is already

example, those of angle, parallel lines, perpendicular lines, known. It assigns a meaning to a term by means of primitive

triangle etc. Next, we listed a number of statements terms and terms already defined.

concerning these undefined and defined terms which we

accepted to be true without proof; these assumptions we It is to be observed that although we employ definitions, yet

called, axioms or postulates. Finally, we were able to prove a "definitions" does not appear among our primitive ideas

considerable number of propositions or theorems by because, strictly speaking, the definitions are no part of our

deductive reasoning. subject. Practically, of course, if we introduce no definitions,

our formulae would very soon become so lengthy, as to be

In summary, we observe that the study of foundations of

unimaginable.

mathematics involves an abstract deductive system consisting

of: In spite of the fact that definitions are theoretically

superfluous, it is nevertheless true, that they often convey

1. A set of primitive undefined terms;

more important information than is contained in the

2. Definitions evolved from the undefined terms; proposition in which they are used. Definitions clarify and

3. Axioms or postulates; simplify expressions. We need to define our terms so that we

can use short names for complex ideas. Also definitions

4. Theorems and their proofs. contain an analysis of a common idea and can, therefore,

We now discuss each of them as follow. classify, that we wish to single out quadrilaterals with

opposite parallel sides. We may do this by means of a

UNDEFINED TERMS: To build a mathematical system

definition: "a parallelogram is a quadrilateral whose opposite

based on logic, the mathematician begins by using some

sides are parallel". If we assume in this definition that

words to express their ideas, such as `number' or a `point'.

`quadrilateral', `opposite sides' and `parallel' have been

These words are undefined and are sometimes called

defined previously, then what we have done is to define the

`primitive terms'. These words usually have some meaning

class of parallelograms.

because of experience we have had with them. It may seem

strange that in mathematics, a field with which precision and AXIOMS AND POSTULATES: At the start of every

accuracy are commonly associated, we do not (and cannot) mathematical theory (such as Real Numbers System, Group

`start from scratch' but find it necessary to begin with a set of Theory, Topology, Quantum Mechanics), some kinds of

undefined terms. Why do we not start with precise foundations are needed. For this purpose, a set of

definitions? An attempt to define any of the fundamental independent fundamental statements is asserted. These

undefined terms, such as point, set, number or element assertions are called axioms and postulates. Both the axioms

demonstrate that we are soon led to what is referred to as and the postulates have their roots in antiquity. To quote

‘circular reasoning’. For example, let us try to define `point'. Aristotle, "Every demonstrative science must start from

What is a `point'? A point is a position at which something indemonstrable principles. Otherwise, the steps of

exists. But what is meant by position? The location of an demonstration would be endless". Both the axioms and the

object, naturally. But what does location of an object imply: a postulates presumably are principles, so clearly true that we

point. So we are back where we started. In a like manner, an accept them without a corresponding proof. In Euclid's time

attempt to define any of the other undefined terms of (300 BC), axioms referred specifically to an assumption in

mathematics would also result in circular reasoning. Hence, it geometry. Today the distinction is disregarded and both terms

should now be clear that the use of primitive terms is are used interchangeably.

indispensable because they serve as the foundation upon The axioms of a mathematical theory are usually stipulated at

which the system rests. the beginning of the theory, immediately after announcing

For obvious reasons, the primitive terms, a mathematician the primitive terms. These terms are the bricks with which we

100 Liaqat Ali Khan: What is Mathematics - an Overview

build up these axioms. The axioms may contain such statement that the sum of the angles of a triangle is two right

statements as: "Things equal to the same thing are equal to angles is true, but it is no longer true in "Riemannian

one another". "Every line is a set of points". They are geometry". In "classical mechanics" mass is indestructible,

necessary if we are to avoid an infinite regression which but in "quantum theory", a mass can be destroyed and

would certainly result if we only accepted what we could replaced by energy.

prove. Once the axioms have been chosen, we become more

severe about the subsequent propositions.

3. Some Remarks and Quotes

THEOREMS AND THEIR PROOFS: A `theorem' is a

statement whose truth is established by formal proof. The A. The above described Deductive System is also called

bulk of any branch of mathematics consists of the collection Formalism. In fact, there are two dominant schools of

of theorems that pertain to that particular area. Much of the thought about the nature of Mathematics: one is the

beauty of mathematics lies in the sequential development of Platonist or Realist (deriving from Plato) and the other is

the subject through the proofs of its theorems. A `proof' is a Formalist. The Platonists believe that mathematical objects

chain of reasoning that succeeded in establishing a exist independent of us and inhabit a world of their own.

conclusion by showing that it follows logically from They are not invented by us but rather discovered.

premises that already are known to be true. In proving a Formalists on the other hand believe that there are no such

theorem, we may use our undefined and defined terms, and things as mathematical objects. Mathematics consists of

our axioms and of course any theorem we prove, the more definitions, axioms and theorems invented by

knowledge we have at our disposal to prove additional mathematicians and have no meaning in themselves

theorems. In any mathematical theory, to prove the first except that which we ascribe to them. This school of

theorem, A (say), the only arguments that can be used are the thought was introduced by David Hilbert in 1921.

axioms. And to prove a second theorem, B (say), we may use

During the 1920's shock waves had run through the

the axioms and Theorem A and similarly for the subsequent

science of physics, because of Heisenberg's Uncertainty

theorems. Hence we state the principle: "a proof

Principle (introduced first by the German physicist Werner

demonstrates the validity of a proposition using an argument

Heisenberg in 1927). This principle states that you can

based entirely on the axioms and the previously established

never simultaneously know the exact position and the

theorems".

exact speed of an object. In 1931, a 25 year old Austrian

Kinds of Proofs: There are two kinds of proof: direct proof mathematician Kurt Gödel shocked the worlds of

and indirect proof. Most theorems have the form "a statement mathematics and philosophy by showing that there are

p implies another statement q". To demonstrate such a mathematical truths which simply cannot be proved.

statement we proceed with an assumption usually called the

Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) was regarded as a brilliant

hypothesis in the following ways:

mathematician and perhaps the greatest logician since

Assert p (i.e. suppose p is given). From this we construct a Aristotle. His famous “incompleteness theorem” was a

demonstration that ends with the statement q. fundamental result about axiomatic systems, showing that

This program makes up what we called a "direct proof". in any axiomatic mathematical system, there are

propositions that cannot be proved or disproved within the

The `indirect proof', also called "proof by contradiction" axioms of the system. In particular the consistency of the

(reductio ad absurdum, in Latin), depends essentially on the axioms cannot be proved. This ended a hundred years of

notion of negation. This idea can be stated in the following attempts to establish axioms which would put the whole of

form: mathematics on an axiomatic basis. These included some

"To prove the Theorem A indirectly, we affirm its negation. major attempts by several logicians and mathematicians of

From this we construct an argument that concludes with the that time (such as Germans' Richard Dedekind (1831-

negation of a result already known to be true. This is a 1916), Georg Cantor (1845-1918), Friedrich Frege (1848-

legitimate proof of Theorem A". 1925), David Hilbert (1862-1943), Ernst Zermelo (1871-

1953), Italian's Giuseppe Peano (1858-1932), ), Dutch

Truth of Assertions: We have spoken of the truth of certain

L.E.J. Brouwer (1881-1966), British Bertrand Russell

assertions. What does the word `truth' mean in this context?

(1872-1970)).

A proposition is true if it can be proved by means of the

axioms and theorems proved previously. Notice that a B. Gödel's results did not destroy the fundamental idea of

theorem may be true in one theory but false in another; it all formalism, but it did demonstrate that any system would

depends on the initial axioms. In "plane geometry", the have to be more comprehensive than that envisaged by

International Journal of Mathematics and Computational Science Vol. 1, No. 3, 2015, pp. 98-101 101

Hilbert and others. In fact, these results were a landmark [4] Alain Connes, A view of Mathematics (38 pages),

in 20th-century mathematics, showing that mathematics is http://www.alainconnes.org/docs/maths.pdf

not a finished object, as had been believed. It also implies [5] J. J. O'Connor and E F Robertson, The MacTutor History of

that a computer can never be programmed to answer all Mathematics archive (2000), http://www-history.mcs.st-

and.ac.uk/

mathematical questions. Among physicists, Gödel is

known as the man who proved that time travel to the past [6] Richard Courant and Herbert Robbins, What Is

was possible under Einstein's equations. Mathematics? : An Elementary Approach to Ideas and

Methods (1941); second edition, revised by Ian Stewart

C. Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we (Oxford University Press, 1996).

never know what we are talking about, nor whether what [7] Underwood Dudley, What Is Mathematics For? , Notices of

we are saying is true – (Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and AMS, Vol. 57, No. 5 (2010), 608-613.

Logic (1917) Ch. 4). [8] Paul Ernest, The Nature of Mathematics;

D. "Obvious" is the most dangerous word in mathematics https://www.academia.edu/3188583/

THE_NATURE_OF_MATHEMATICS_AND_TEACHING.

(E.T. Bell, 1883-1960).

[9] Leonard Gillman, Review of “What Is Mathematics?”, by

E. To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and Richard Courant and Herbert Robbins, revised by Ian

practiced, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Stewart , Amer. Math. Monthly, 105 (1998), 485-488.

Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behaviour of any [10] Arend Heyting, Intuitionistic Views on the Nature of

kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not Mathematics, Synthese, 27(1/2), On the Foundations of

thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is one needs to Mathematics, (May - Jun., 1974), pp. 79-91.

know. (George Spencer Brown, 1923-) [11] Reuben Hersh, What is Mathematics, Really? (Oxford

University Press, 1997).

F. Pure mathematics is on the whole distinctly more useful

than applied. For what is useful above all is technique, and [12] T. W. Körner, The Pleasures of Counting (Cambridge

University Press, 1996).

mathematical technique is taught mainly through pure

mathematics. (G.H. Hardy, 1877-1947) [13] Kenneth Kunen, The Foundations of Mathematics (Studies in

Logic: Mathematical Logic and Foundations) (College

G. As one ancient stated, teaching is not a matter of pouring Publications, 2009).

knowledge from one mind into another as one pours water

[14] Robert H. Lewis, What is Mathematics? The Most

from one glass into another. It is more like one candle Misunderstood Subject,

igniting another. Each candle burns with its own fuel. http://www.fordham.edu/info/20603/what_math

H. For more than two thousand years some familiarity with [15] Ernst Snapper, "The three crises in mathematics: Logicism,

mathematics has been regarded as an indispensable part of intuitionism and formalism", Math. Magzine, 52(4) (1979),

207-216.

the intellectual equipment of every cultured person. Today

the traditional place of mathematics in education is in [16] Ernst Snapper, What is Mathematics?, Amer. Math. Monthly,

87(7) (1979), 551-557.

grave danger. (Richard Courant and Herbert Robbins)

[17] Ian Stewart, Concepts of Modern Mathematics (Dover

Publications, 1975).

Acknowledgement [18] David Tall, The Transition to Formal Thinking in

Dedicated to my teacher Professor B. A. Saleemi. Mathematics, Mathematics Education Research Journal, 20(2)

(2008), 5-24.

[19] Alan Weir, "Formalism in the Philosophy of Mathematics",

References The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015

Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =

[1] Joseph Auslander, Review of "What is Mathematics, Really?" <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/formalism-

by Reuben Hersh, SIAM Review, 42(1) (2000), 138-143. mathematics/>.

[2] Briane E. Blank, Review of "The Pleasures of Counting” by T. [20] Richard B. Wells, Mathematics and Mathematical Axioms

W. Körner, Notices Amer. Math. Soc. 45 (1998), 396-400. (Ch. 23, 2006, 42 pages),

http://www.mrc.uidaho.edu/~rwells/Critical%20Philosophy%

[3] Douglas M. Campbell, John C. Higgins, Mathematics: People, 20and%20Mind/Chapter%2023.pdf

Problems, Results (Volume 2, Taylor & Francis, 1984).

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