Infinity and the Observer: Radical Constructivism and the Foundations of Mathematics

Constructivist Foundations 7 (2):116-125 (2012)
Problem: There is currently a great deal of mysticism, uncritical hype, and blind adulation of imaginary mathematical and physical entities in popular culture. We seek to explore what a radical constructivist perspective on mathematical entities might entail, and to draw out the implications of this perspective for how we think about the nature of mathematical entities. Method: Conceptual analysis. Results: If we want to avoid the introduction of entities that are ill-defined and inaccessible to verification, then formal systems need to avoid introduction of potential and actual infinities. If decidability and consistency are desired, keep formal systems finite. Infinity is a useful heuristic concept, but has no place in proof theory. Implications: We attempt to debunk many of the mysticisms and uncritical adulations of Gödelian arguments and to ground mathematical foundations in intersubjectively verifiable operations of limited observers. We hope that these insights will be useful to anyone trying to make sense of claims about the nature of formal systems. If we return to the notion of formal systems as concrete, finite systems, then we can be clear about the nature of computations that can be physically realized. In practical terms, the answer is not to proscribe notions of the infinite, but to recognize that these concepts have a different status with respect to their verifiability. We need to demarcate clearly the realm of free creation and imagination, where platonic entities are useful heuristic devices, and the realm of verification, testing, and proof, where infinities introduce ill-defined entities that create ambiguities and undecidable, ill-posed sets of propositions. Constructivist content: The paper attempts to extend the scope of radical constructivist perspective to mathematical systems, and to discuss the relationships between radical constructivism and other allied, yet distinct perspectives in the debate over the foundations of mathematics, such as psychological constructivism and mathematical constructivism
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