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Monday 16 January 2023

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Why maths, our best tool to describe the universe, may be fallible
Our laws of nature are written in the language of mathematics. But maths itself is only as dependable as the axioms it is built on, and we have to assume those axioms are true
MATHEMATICS 10 January 2023
By Michael Brooks
New Scientist Default Image
Jamie Mills

You might think that mathematics is the most trustworthy thing humans have ever come up with. It is the basis of scientific rigour and the bedrock of much of our other knowledge too. And you might be right. But be careful: maths isn’t all it seems. “The trustworthiness of mathematics is limited,” says Penelope Maddy, a philosopher of mathematics at the University of California, Irvine.

Maddy is no conspiracy theorist. All mathematicians know her statement to be true because their subject is built on “axioms” – and try as they might, they can never prove these axioms to be true.

This article is part of a special series on the limits of knowledge, in which we explore:
How can we understand quantum reality if it is impossible to measure?
How AI is shifting the limits of knowledge imposed by complexity
Why some aspects of physical reality must be experienced to be known

Logic underpins knowledge – but what if logic itself is flawed?

An axiom is essentially an assumption based on observations of how things are. Scientists observe a phenomenon, formalise it and write down a law of nature. In a similar way, mathematicians use their observations to create an axiom. One example is the observation that there always seems to be a unique straight line that can be drawn between two points. Assume this to be universally true and you can build up the rules of Euclidean geometry. Another is that 1 + 2 is the same as 2 + 1, an assumption that allows us to do arithmetic. “The fact that maths is built on unprovable axioms is not that surprising,” says mathematician Vera Fischer at the University of Vienna in Austria.
These axioms might seem self-evident, but maths goes a lot further than arithmetic. Mathematicians aim to uncover things like the properties of numbers, the ways in which they are all related to one another and how they can be used to model the real world. These more complex tasks are still worked out through theorems and proofs built on axioms, but the relevant axioms might have to change. Lines between points have different properties on curved surfaces than flat ones, for example, which means the underlying axioms have to be different in different geometries. We always have to be careful that our axioms are reliable and reflect the world we are trying to model with our maths.

Set theory
The gold standard for mathematical reliability is set theory, which describes the properties of collections of things, including numbers themselves. Beginning in the early 1900s, mathematicians developed a set of underpinning axioms for set theory known as ZFC (for “Zermelo-Fraenkel”, from two of its initiators, Ernst Zermelo and Abraham Fraenkel, plus something called the “axiom of choice”).

ZFC is a powerful foundation. “If it could be guaranteed that ZFC is consistent, all uncertainty about mathematics could be dispelled,” says Maddy. But, brutally, that is impossible. “Alas, it soon became clear that the consistency of those axioms could be proved only by assuming even stronger axioms,” she says, “which obviously defeats the purpose.”

Read more: Infinity has long baffled mathematicians – have we now figured it out?

Maddy is untroubled by the limits: “Set theorists have been proving theorems from ZFC for 100 years with no hint of a contradiction.” It has been hugely productive, she says, allowing mathematicians to create no end of interesting results, and they have even been able to develop mathematically precise measures of just how much trust we can put in theories derived from ZFC.

In the end, then, mathematicians might be providing the bedrock on which much scientific knowledge is built, but they can’t offer cast-iron guarantees that it won’t ever shift or change. In general, they don’t worry about it: they shrug their shoulders and turn up to work like everybody else. “The aim of obtaining a perfect axiomatic system is exactly as feasible as the aim of obtaining a perfect understanding of our physical universe,” says Fischer.

Read more: 5 mind-bending numbers that could reveal the secrets of the universe

At least mathematicians are fully aware of the futility of seeking perfection, thanks to the “incompleteness” theorems laid out by Kurt Gödel in the 1930s. These show that, in any domain of mathematics, a useful theory will generate statements about this domain that can’t be proved true or false. A limit to reliable knowledge is therefore inescapable. “This is a fact of life mathematicians have learned to live with,” says David Aspero at the University of East Anglia, UK.

All in all, maths is in pretty good shape despite this – and nobody is too bothered. “Go to any mathematics department and talk to anyone who’s not a logician, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, the axioms are just there’. That’s it. And that’s how it should be. It’s a very healthy approach,” says Fischer. In fact, the limits are in some ways what makes it fun, she says. “The possibility of development, of getting better, is exactly what makes mathematics an absolutely fascinating subject.”