What Makes Math Real?

Plato’s Ideas Show another way to think about how mathematics works

Plato in front of building, which are both in front of a math-filled background.
(Photo: Thomas T/Unsplash; Collage: Alex Russell/UC Davis)

For UC Davis philosopher, Elaine Landry, thought experiments like ‘if a tree falls in the forest, will it make a noise?’ is one way to conceptualize how mathematicians and physicists think when they solve problems.

'If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a noise?' The realist will say yes, it does because noises are independent of us. The nonrealist will say no, it doesn't because noises are phenomenal experiences, so that they’re ideas in us. I want to break out of those poles.” — Elaine Landry

In her research paper, "Plato Was Not a Mathematical Platonist," Landry argues that Plato shows a better way to think about what’s real in mathematics.  

Separating being from method

To Landry, in mathematics, the ability to use numbers and other abstract objects to solve problems come with strings attached. But these strings are a result of consuming a false dichotomy. Either we discover these independently existing objects or we create them so they depend on us.

“We're still having debates about whether mathematical objects exist or don't exist, whether they're discovered or created,” said Landry. “What I'm saying is the create/discover debate is a false debate.”

Picture of the Author
Elaine Landry

Landry writes that Plato’s ideas written thousands of years ago show another way to think about how mathematics works. Rather than arguing over whether numbers and other objects in mathematics exist independently of us, Landry’s reading of Plato shows that it’s enough to treat those objects as if they exist for methodological purposes — that is, for the sake of being able to solve problems.

Read the full story by Alex Russell here: Philosopher Draws Insights From Plato to Argue What Makes Math Real | UC Davis College of Letters and Science

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