The nature and role of intuition in mathematical epistemology

Philosophia 26 (3-4):279-319 (1998)
Abstract
Great intuitions are fundamental to conjecture and discovery in mathematics. In this paper, we investigate the role that intuition plays in mathematical thinking. We review key events in the history of mathematics where paradoxes have emerged from mathematicians' most intuitive concepts and convictions, and where the resulting difficulties led to heated controversies and debates. Examples are drawn from Riemannian geometry, set theory and the analytic theory of the continuum, and include the Continuum Hypothesis, the Tarski-Banach Paradox, and several works by Gödel, Cantor, Wittgenstein and Weierstrass. We examine several fallacies of intuition and determine how far our intuitive conjectures are limited by the nature of our sense-experience, and by our capacities for conceptualization. Finally, I suggest how we can use visual and formal heuristics to cultivate our mathematical intuitions and how the breadth of this new epistemic perspective can be useful in cases where intuition has traditionally been regarded as out of its depth
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