Ernest Hobson addresses the British Association in 1910, Part 2

Ernest Hobson was President of Section A of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1910. The Association met in Sheffield, in September and Hobson addressed Section A - Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Below is the second part of his lecture.

To read the first part of Hobson's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1910, Part 1

To read the third part of Hobson's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1910, Part 3

Ernest Hobson, the President, continued his Address:-

All attempts to characterise the domain of Mathematics by means-of a formal definition which shall not only be complete, but which shall also rigidly mark off that domain from the adjacent provinces of Formal Logic on the one side and of Physical Science on the other side, are almost certain to meet with but doubtful success; such success as they may attain will probably be only transient, in view of the power which the science has always shown of constantly extending its borders in unforeseen directions. Such definitions, many of which have been advanced, are apt to err by excess or defect, and often contain distinct traces of the personal predilections of those who formulate them. There was a time when it would have been a tolerably sufficient description of Pure Mathematics to say that its subject-matter consisted of magnitude and geometrical form. Such a description of it would be wholly inadequate at the present day. Some of the most important branches of modern Mathematics, such as the theory of groups, and Universal Algebra, we concerned, in their abstract forms, neither with magnitude nor with number, nor with geometrical form. That great modern development, Projective Geometry, has been so formulated as to be independent of all metric considerations. Indeed the tendency of mathematicians under the influence of the movement known as the Arithmetisation of Analysis, a movement which has become a dominant one in the last few decades, is to banish altogether the notion of measurable quantity as a conception necessary to Pure Mathematics; Number, in the extended meaning it has attained, taking its place. Measurement is regarded as one of the applications, but as no part of the basis, of mathematical analysis. Perhaps the least inadequate description of the general scope of modern Pure Mathematics - I will not call it a definition - would be to say that it deals with form, in a very general sense of the term; this would include algebraic form, geometrical form, functional relationship, the relations of order in any ordered set of entities such as numbers and the analysis of the peculiarities of form of groups of operations. A strong tendency is manifested in many of the recent definitions to break down the line of demarcation which was formerly supposed to separate Mathematics from formal logic; the rise and development of symbolic logic has no doubt emphasised this tendency. Thus Mathematics has been described by the eminent American mathematician and logician B O Peirce as 'the Science which draws necessary conclusions,' a pretty complete identification of Mathematics with logical procedure in general. A definition which appears to identify all Mathematics with the Mengenlehre, or Theory of Aggregates, has been given by E Papperitz:

'The subject-matter of Pure Mathematics consists of the relations that can be established between any objects of thought when we regard those objects as contained in an ordered manifold; the law of order of this manifold must be subject to our choice.'
The form of definition which illustrates most strikingly the tendencies of the modern school of logistic is one given by Mr Bertrand Russell. I reproduce it here, in order to show how wide is the chasm between the modes of expression of adherents of this school and those of mathematicians under the influence of the ordinary traditions of the science. Mr Russell writes (in Principles of Mathematics):
'Pure Mathematics is the class of all propositions of the form "p implies q" where p and q are propositions containing one or more variables, the same in the two propositions, and neither p nor q contains any constants except logical constants. And logical constants are all notions definable in terms of the following. Implication, the relation of a term to a class of which it is a member the notion of 'such that', the notion of relation, and such further notions as may be involved in the general notion of propositions of the above form. In addition to these, Mathematics uses a notion which is not a constituent of the propositions which it considers-namely, the notion of truth.'
The belief is very general amongst instructed persons that the truths of Mathematics have absolute certainty, or at least that there appertains to them the highest degree of certainty of which the human mind is capable. It is thought that a valid mathematical theorem is necessarily of such a character as to compel belief in any mind capable of following the steps of the demonstration. Any considerations tending to weaken this belief would he disconcerting and would cause some degree of astonishment. At the risk of this, I must here mention two facts which axe of considerable importance as regards an estimation of the precise character of mathematical knowledge. In the first place, it is a fact that frequently, and at various times, differences of opinion have existed among mathematicians, giving rise to controversies as to the validity of whole lines of reasoning and affecting the results of such reasoning; a considerable amount of difference of opinion of this character exists among mathematicians at the present time. In the second place, the accepted standard of rigour, that is, the standard of what is deemed necessary to constitute a valid demonstration, has undergone change in the course of time. Much of the reasoning which was formerly regarded as satisfactory and irrefutable is now regarded as insufficient to establish the results which it was employed to demonstrate. It has even been shown that results which were once supposed to have been fully established by demonstrations are, in point of fact, affected with error. I propose here to explain in general terms how these phenomena are possible.

In every subject of study, if one probes deep enough, there are found to be points in which that subject comes in contact with general philosophy, and where differences of philosophical view will have a greater or less influence on the attitude of the mind towards the principles of the particular subject. This is not surprising when we reflect that there is but one universe of thought, that no department of knowledge can be absolutely isolated, and that metaphysical and psychological implications are a necessary element in all the activities of the mind. A particular department, such as Mathematics, is compelled to set up a more or less artificial frontier, which marks it off from general philosophy. This frontier consists of a set of regulative ideas in the form of indefinables and axioms, partly ontological assumptions, and partly postulations of a logical character. To go behind these, to attempt to analyse their nature and origin, and to justify their validity, is to go outside the special department and to touch on the domains of the metaphysician and the psychologist. Whether they are regarded as possessing apodictic certainty or as purely hypothetical in character, these ideas represent the data or premisses of the science, and the whole of its edifice is dependent upon them. They serve as the foundation on which all is built, as well as the frontier on the side of philosophy and psychology. A set of data ideally perfect in respect of precision and permanence is unattainable - or at least has not yet been attained; and the adjustment of frontiers is one of the most frequent causes of strife. As a matter of fact, variations of opinion have at various times arisen within the ranks of the mathematicians as to the nature, scope, and proper formulation of the principles which form the foundations of the science, and the views of mathematicians in this regard have always necessarily been largely affected by the conscious or unconscious attitude of particular minds towards questions of general philosophy. It is in this region, I think, that the source is to be found of those remarkable differences of opinion amongst mathematicians which have come into prominence at various times, and have given rise to much controversy as to fundamentals. Since the time of Newton and Leibniz there has been almost unceasing discussion as to the proper foundations for the so-called infinitesimal calculus. More recently, questions relating to the foundations of geometry and rational mechanics have much occupied the attention of mathematicians. The very great change which has taken place during the last half-century in the dominant view of the foundations of mathematical analysis - a change which has exercised a great influence extending through the whole detailed treatment of that subject - although critical in its origin, has been constructive in its results. The Mengenlehre, or theory of aggregates, had its origin in the critical study of the foundations of analysis, but has already become a great constructive scheme, is indispensable as a method in the investigations of analysis, provides the language requisite for the statement in precise form of analytical theorems of a general character, and, moreover, has already found important applications in geometry. In connection with the Mengenlehre there has arisen a controversy amongst mathematicians which is at the present time far from having reached a decisive issue. The exact point at issue is one which may be described as a matter of mathematical ontology; it turns upon the question of what constitutes a valid definition of a mathematical object. The school known as mathematical 'idealists' admit, as valid objects of mathematical discussion, entities which the rival 'empiricist' school regard as nonexistent for mathematical thought, because insufficiently defined. It is clear that the idealist may build whole superstructures on a foundation which the empiricist regards as made of sand, and this is what has actually happened in some of the recent developments of what has come to be known as Cantorism. The difference of view of these rival schools, depending as it does on deep-seated differences of philosophical outlook, is thought by some to be essentially irreconcilable. This controversy was due to the fact that certain processes of reasoning, of very considerable plausibility, which had been employed by G Cantor, the founder of the Mengenlehre, had led to results which contained flat contradictions. The efforts made to remove these contradictions, and to trace their source, led to the discussion, disclosing much difference of opinion, of the proper definitions and principles on which the subject should be based.

The proposition 7 + 5 = 12, taken as typical of the propositions expressing the results of the elementary operations of arithmetic has since the time of Kant given rise to very voluminous discussion amongst philosophers, in relation to the precise meaning and implication of the operation and the terms. It will, however, be maintained, probably by the majority of mankind, that the theorem retains its validity as stating a practically certain and useful fact, whatever view philosophers may choose to take of its precise nature - as, for example, whether it represents, in the language of Kant, a synthetic or an analytic judgment. It may, I think, be admitted that there is much cogency in this view; and, were Mathematics concerned with the elementary operations of arithmetic alone, it could fairly be held that the mathematician, like the practical man of the world, might without much risk shut his eyes and ears to the discussions of the philosophers on such points. The exactitude of such a proposition, in a sufficiently definite sense for practical purposes, is empirically verifiable by sensuous intuition, whatever meaning the metaphysician may attach to it. But Mathematics cannot be built up from the operations of elementary arithmetic without the introduction of further conceptual elements. Except in certain very simple cases no process of measurement, such as the determination of an area or a volume, can be carried out with exactitude by a finite number of applications of the operations of arithmetic. The result to be obtained appears in the form of a limit, corresponding to an interminable sequence of arithmetical operations. The notion of 'limit,' in the definite form given to it by Cauchy and his followers, together with the closely related theory of the arithmetic continuum, and the notions of continuity and functionality, lie at the very heart of modern analysis. Essentially bound up with this central doctrine, of limits is the concept of a non-finite set of entities, a concept which is not directly derivable from sensuous intuition, but which is nevertheless a necessary postulation in mathematical analysis. The conception of the infinite, in some form, is thus indispensable in Mathematics; and this conception requires precise characterisation by a scheme of exact definitions,. prior to all the processes of deduction required in obtaining the detailed results of analysis. The formulation of this precise scheme gives an opening to differences of philosophical opinion which has led to a variety of views as to the proper character of those definitions which involve the concept of the infinite. Here is the point of divergence of opinion among mathematicians to which I have alluded above. Under what conditions is a non-finite aggregate of entities a properly defined object of mathematical thought, of such a character that no contradictions will arise in the theories based upon it? That is the question to which varying answers have been offered by different mathematical thinkers. No one answer of a completely general character has as yet met with universal acceptance. Physical intuition offers no answer to such a question; it is one which abstract thought alone can settle. It cannot be altogether avoided, because, without the notion of the infinite, at least in connection with the central conception of the 'limit,' mathematical analysis as a coherent body of thought falls to the ground.

Both in geometry and in analysis our standard of what constitutes a rigorous demonstration has in the course of the nineteenth century undergone an almost revolutionary change. That oldest text-book of science in the world, 'Euclid's Elements of Geometry,' has been popularly held for centuries to be the very model of deductive logical demonstration. Criticism has, however, largely invalidated this view. It appears that, at a large number of points, assumptions not included in the preliminary axioms and postulates are made use of. The, fact that these assumptions usually escape notice is due to their nature and origin. Derived as they are from our spatial intuition, their very self-evidence has allowed them to be ignored, although their truth is not more obvious empirically than that of other assumptions derived from the same source which are included in the axioms and postulates explicitly stated as part of the foundation of Euclid's treatment of the subject. The method of superimposition, employed by Euclid with obvious reluctance, but forming an essential part of his treatment of geometry, is, when regarded from his point of view, open to most serious objections as regards its logical coherence. In analysis, as in geometry, the older methods of treatment consisted of processes of deduction eked out by the more or less surreptitious introduction, at numerous points in the subject, of assumptions only justifiable by spatial intuition. The, result of this deviation from the purely deductive method was more disastrous in the case of analysis than in geometry, because it led to much actual error in the theory. For example, it was held until comparatively recently that a continuous function necessarily possesses a differential coefficient, on the ground that a curve always has a tangent. This we now know to be quite erroneous, when any reasonable definition of continuity is employed. The first step in the discovery of this error was made when it occurred to Ampère that the existence of the differential coefficient could only be asserted as a theorem requiring proof; and he himself published an attempt at such proof. The erroneous character of the former belief on this matter was most strikingly exhibited when Weierstrass produced a function which is everywhere continuous, but which nowhere possesses a differential coefficient; such functions can now be constructed ad libitum. It is not too much to say that no one of the general theorems of analysis is true without the introduction of limitations and conditions which were entirely unknown to the discoverers of those theorems. It has been the task of mathematicians under the lead of such men as Cauchy, Riemann, Weierstrass, and G Cantor, to carry out the work of reconstruction of mathematical analysis, to render explicit all the limitations of the truth of the general theorems, and to lay down the conditions of validity of the ordinary analytical operations. Physicists and others often maintain that this modern extreme precision amounts to an unnecessary and pedantic purism, because in all practical applications of Mathematics only such functions are of importance as exclude the remoter possibilities contemplated by theorists. Such objections leave the true mathematician unmoved; to him it is an intolerable defect that, in an order of ideas in which absolute exactitude is the guiding ideal, statements should be made, and processes employed, both of which are subject to unexpressed qualifications, as conditions of their truth or validity. The pure mathematician has developed a specialised conscience, extremely sensitive as regards sins against logical precision. The physicist, with his conscience hardened in this respect by the rough-and-tumble work of investigating the physical world, is apt to regard the more tender organ of the mathematician with that feeling of impatience, not unmingled with contempt, which the man of the world manifests for what he considers to be over-scrupulosity and unpracticality.

It is true that we cannot conceive how such a science as Mathematics could have come into existence apart from physical experience. But it is also true that physical percepts, as given directly in unanalysed experience, are wholly unfitted to form the basis of an exact science. Moreover, physical intuition fails altogether to afford any trustworthy guidance in connection with the concept of the infinite, which, as we have seen, is in some form indispensable in the formation of a coherent system of mathematical analysis. The hasty and uncritical extension to the region of the infinite of results which are true and often obvious in the region of the finite, has been a fruitful source of error in the past, and remains as a pitfall for the unwary student in the present. The notions derived from physical intuition must be transformed into a scheme of exact definitions and axioms before they are available for the mathematician, the necessary precision being contributed by the mind itself. A very remarkable fact in connection with this process of refinement of the rough data of experience is that it contains an element of arbitrariness, so that the result of the process is not necessarily unique. The most striking example of this want of uniqueness in the conceptual scheme so obtained is the case of geometry, in which it has been shown to be possible to set up various sets of axioms, each set self-consistent, but inconsistent with any other of the sets, and yet such that each set of axioms, at least under suitable limitations, leads to results consistent with our perception of actual space-relations. Allusion is here made, in particular, to the well-known geometries of Lobachevsky and of Riemann, which differ from the geometry of Euclid in respect of the axiom of parallels, in place of which axioms inconsistent with that of Euclid and with one another are substituted. It is a matter of demonstration that any inconsistency which might be supposed to exist in the scheme known as hyperbolic geometry, or in that known as elliptic geometry, would necessarily entail the existence of a corresponding inconsistency in Euclid's set of axioms. The three geometries therefore, from the logical point of view, are completely on a par with one another. An interesting mathematical result is that all efforts to prove Euclid's axiom of parallels, i.e., to deduce it from his other axioms, are doomed to necessary failure; this is of importance in view of the many efforts that have been made to obtain the proof referred to. When the question is raised which of these geometries is the true one, the kind of answer that will be given depends a good deal on the view taken of the relation of conceptual schemes in general to actual experience. It is maintained by M Poincaré, for example, that the question which is the true scheme has no meaning; that it is, in fact, entirely a matter of convention and convenience which of these geometries is actually employed in connection with spatial measurements. To decide between them by a crucial test is impossible, because our space perceptions are not sufficiently exact in the mathematical sense to enable us to decide between the various axioms of parallels. Whatever views are taken as to the difficult questions that arise in this connection, the contemplation and study of schemes of geometry wider than that of Euclid, and some of them including Euclid's geometry as a special case, is of great interest not only from the purely mathematical point of view, but also in relation to the general theory of knowledge, in that, owing to the results of this study, some change is necessitated in the views which have been held by philosophers as to what is known as Kant's space-problem.

To read the third part of Hobson's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1910, Part 3


JOC/EFR April 2007

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