Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 1, No 1 (2005)

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On Mathematical Naturalism and the Powers of Symbolisms

Murray Code


Advances in modern mathematics indicate that progress in this field of knowledge depends mainly on culturally inflected imaginative intuitions, or intuitive imaginings—which mysteriously result in the growth of systems of symbolism that are often efficacious, although fallible and very likely evolutionary. Thus the idea that a trouble-free epistemology can be constructed out of an intuition-free mathematical naturalism would seem to be question begging of a very high order. I illustrate the point by examining Philip Kitcher’s attempt to frame an empiricist philosophy of mathematics, which he calls “mathematical naturalism,” wherein he proposes to explain novelty in mathematics by means of the notion of ‘rational interpractice transitions,’ only to end with an appeal to science to supply a meaning for rationality. A more promising naturalistic approach is adumbrated by Noam Chomsky who begins with a straightforward acceptance of mind and language as ‘natural’ or concrete facts which bespeak the need for a linguistic faculty. This indicates in turn that there may also be a mathematical faculty capable of generating and exploiting the powers of mathematical symbolisms in a manner analogous to the linguistic faculty.

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