When it rains, it pours: after not blogging for a month, I now have a second thing to blog about in as many days. Aeon, an online magazine, asked me to write a short essay responding to the question above, so I did. My essay is here. Spoiler alert: my thesis is that yes, there’s something “mysterious” about math, but the main mystery is why there isn’t even more mystery than there is. Also—shameless attempt to get you to click—the essay discusses the “discrete math is just a disorganized mess of random statements” view of Luboš Motl, who’s useful for putting flesh on what might otherwise be a strawman position. Comments welcome (when aren’t they?). You should also read other interesting responses to the same question by Penelope Maddy, James Franklin, and Neil Levy. Thanks very much to Ed Lake at Aeon for commissioning these pieces.
Update (4/22): On rereading my piece, I felt bad that it didn’t make a clear enough distinction between two separate questions:
- Are there humanly-comprehensible explanations for why the mathematical statements that we care about are true or false—thereby rendering their truth or falsity “non-mysterious” to us?
- Are there formal proofs or disproofs of the statements?
Interestingly, neither of the above implies the other. Thus, to take an example from the essay, no one has any idea how to prove that the digits 0 through 9 occur with equal frequency in the decimal expansion of π, and yet it’s utterly non-mysterious (at a “physics level of rigor”) why that particular statement should be true. Conversely, there are many examples of statements for which we do have proofs, but which experts in the relevant fields still see as “mysterious,” because the proofs aren’t illuminating or explanatory enough. Any proofs that require gigantic manipulations of formulas, “magically” terminating in the desired outcome, probably fall into that class, as do proofs that require computer enumeration of cases (like that of the Four-Color Theorem).
But it’s not just that proof and explanation are incomparable; sometimes they might even be at odds. In this MathOverflow post, Timothy Gowers relates an interesting speculation of Don Zagier, that statements like the equidistribution of the digits of π might be unprovable from the usual axioms of set theory, precisely because they’re so “obviously” true—and for that very reason, there need not be anything deeper underlying their truth. As Gowers points out, we shouldn’t go overboard with this speculation, because there are plenty of other examples of mathematical statements (the Green-Tao theorem, Vinogradov’s theorem, etc.) that also seem like they might be true “just because”—true only because their falsehood would require a statistical miracle—but for which mathematicians nevertheless managed to give fully rigorous proofs, in effect formalizing the intuition that it would take a miracle to make them false.
Zagier’s speculation is related to another objection one could raise against my essay: while I said that the “Gödelian gremlin” has remained surprisingly dormant in the 85 years since its discovery (and that this is a fascinating fact crying out for explanation), who’s to say that it’s not lurking in some of the very open problems that I mentioned, like π’s equidistribution, the Riemann Hypothesis, the Goldbach Conjecture, or P≠NP? Conceivably, not only are all those conjectures unprovable from the usual axioms of set theory, but their unprovability is itself unprovable, and so on, so that we could never even have the satisfaction of knowing why we’ll never know.
My response to these objections is basically just to appeal yet again to the empirical record. First, while proof and explanation need not go together and sometimes don’t, by and large they do go together: over thousands over years, mathematicians learned to seek formal proofs largely because they discovered that without them, their understanding constantly went awry. Also, while no one can rule out that P vs. NP, the Riemann Hypothesis, etc., might be independent of set theory, there’s very little in the history of math—including in the recent history, which saw spectacular proofs of (e.g.) Fermat’s Last Theorem and the Poincaré Conjecture—that lends concrete support to such fatalism.
So in summary, I’d say that history does present us with “two mysteries of the mathematical supercontinent”—namely, why do so many of the mathematical statements that humans care about turn out to be tightly linked in webs of explanation, and also in webs of proof, rather than occupying separate islands?—and that these two mysteries are very closely related, if not quite the same.