The Absolutely Simplest Question You Definitely Cannot Answer

What is Math?

Book agent John Brockman’s Edge site is like crack if you’re into reading some of the world’s smartest thinkers address compelling questions related to their own typically cutting-edge research, or larger issues about the role of science in human culture.

Reuben Hersh is one such Edge intellectual. He’s professor emeritus in the University of New Mexico’s department of mathematics and statistics and author of the 1999 book What Is Mathematics, Really?, right.

Hersh’s 1997 mind-blowing elaboration on numeracy, below, is proof perfect, not only of the maxim that the more one understands a subject, the more simple and elemental their questions become but, that those questions—the simplest ones—are always the hardest to answer.

What is a number? Like, what is two? Or even three? This is sort of a kindergarten question, and of course a kindergarten kid would answer like this: (raising three fingers). Or two (raising two fingers). That’s a good answer and a bad answer. .It’s good enough for most purposes, actually. But if you get way beyond kindergarten, far enough to risk asking really deep questions, it becomes: what kind of a thing is a number?

Now, when you ask “What kind of a thing is a number?” you can think of two basic answers—either it’s out there some place, like a rock or a ghost; or it’s inside, a thought in somebody’s mind. Philosophers have defended one or the other of those two answers. It’s really pathetic, because anybody who pays any attention can see right away that they’re both completely wrong.

A number isn’t a thing out there; there isn’t any place that it is, or any thing that it is. Neither is it just a thought, because after all, two and two is four, whether you know it or not.

Then you realize that the question is not so easy, so trivial as it sounds at first. One of the great philosophers of mathematics, Gottlob Frege, made quite an issue of the fact that mathematicians didn’t know the meaning of One. What is One? Nobody could answer coherently. Of course Frege answered, but his answer was no better, or even worse, than the previous ones. And so it has continued to this very day, strange and incredible as it is. We know all about so much mathematics, but we don’t know what it really is.



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