Skolem and pessimism about proof in mathematics

Paul J Cohen


Attitudes towards formalization and proof have gone through large swings during the last 150 years. We sketch the development from Frege's first formalization, to the debates over intuitionism and other schools, through Hilbert's program and the decisive blow of the Gödel Incompleteness Theorem. A critical role is played by the Skolem–Lowenheim Theorem, which showed that no first-order axiom system can characterize a unique infinite model. Skolem himself regarded this as a body blow to the belief that mathematics can be reliably founded only on formal axiomatic systems. In a remarkably prescient paper, he even sketches the possibility of interesting new models for set theory itself, something later realized by the method of forcing. This is in contrast to Hilbert's belief that mathematics could resolve all its questions. We discuss the role of new axioms for set theory, questions in set theory itself, and their relevance for number theory. We then look in detail at what the methods of the predicate calculus, i.e. mathematical reasoning, really entail. The conclusion is that there is no reasonable basis for Hilbert's assumption. The vast majority of questions even in elementary number theory, of reasonable complexity, are beyond the reach of any such reasoning. Of course this cannot be proved and we present only plausibility arguments. The great success of mathematics comes from considering ‘natural problems’, those which are related to previous work and offer a good chance of being solved. The great glories of human reasoning, beginning with the Greek discovery of geometry, are in no way diminished by this pessimistic view. We end by wishing good health to present-day mathematics and the mathematics of many centuries to come.



  • One contribution of 13 to a Discussion Meeting Issue ‘The nature of mathematical proof ’.

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