Philosophers of Mathematics - Aesthetics

Aesthetics

Many practicing mathematicians have been drawn to their subject because of a sense of beauty they perceive in it. One sometimes hears the sentiment that mathematicians would like to leave philosophy to the philosophers and get back to mathematics—where, presumably, the beauty lies.

In his work on the divine proportion, H.E. Huntley relates the feeling of reading and understanding someone else's proof of a theorem of mathematics to that of a viewer of a masterpiece of art—the reader of a proof has a similar sense of exhilaration at understanding as the original author of the proof, much as, he argues, the viewer of a masterpiece has a sense of exhilaration similar to the original painter or sculptor. Indeed, one can study mathematical and scientific writings as literature.

Philip J. Davis and Reuben Hersh have commented that the sense of mathematical beauty is universal amongst practicing mathematicians. By way of example, they provide two proofs of the irrationality of the √2. The first is the traditional proof by contradiction, ascribed to Euclid; the second is a more direct proof involving the fundamental theorem of arithmetic that, they argue, gets to the heart of the issue. Davis and Hersh argue that mathematicians find the second proof more aesthetically appealing because it gets closer to the nature of the problem.

Paul Erdős was well known for his notion of a hypothetical "Book" containing the most elegant or beautiful mathematical proofs. There is not universal agreement that a result has one "most elegant" proof; Gregory Chaitin has argued against this idea.

Philosophers have sometimes criticized mathematicians' sense of beauty or elegance as being, at best, vaguely stated. By the same token, however, philosophers of mathematics have sought to characterize what makes one proof more desirable than another when both are logically sound.

Another aspect of aesthetics concerning mathematics is mathematicians' views towards the possible uses of mathematics for purposes deemed unethical or inappropriate. The best-known exposition of this view occurs in G.H. Hardy's book A Mathematician's Apology, in which Hardy argues that pure mathematics is superior in beauty to applied mathematics precisely because it cannot be used for war and similar ends. Some later mathematicians have characterized Hardy's views as mildly dated, with the applicability of number theory to modern-day cryptography.

Read more about this topic:  Philosophers Of Mathematics

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Famous quotes containing the word aesthetics:

    What is the use of aesthetics if they can neither teach how to produce beauty nor how to appreciate it in good taste? It exists because it behooves rational human beings to provide reasons for their actions and assessments. Even if aesthetics are not the mathematics of beauty, they are the proof of the calculation.
    Franz Grillparzer (1791–1872)

    For aesthetics is the mother of ethics.... Were we to choose our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth. I believe—not empirically, alas, but only theoretically—that for someone who has read a lot of Dickens to shoot his like in the name of an idea is harder than for someone who has read no Dickens.
    Joseph Brodsky (b. 1940)

    Nothing is beautiful, except man alone: all aesthetics rests upon this naïveté, which is its first truth. Let us immediately add the second: nothing is ugly except the degenerating man—and with this the realm of aesthetic judgment is circumscribed.
    Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)