International Journal of Mathematics and Computational Science
Vol. 1, No. 3, 2015, pp. 98-101
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What is Mathematics - an Overview
Liaqat Ali Khan
Department of Mathematics, Faculty of Science, King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Mathematics is based on deductive reasoning though man's first experience with mathematics was of an inductive nature. This
means that the foundation of mathematics is the study of some logical and philosophical notions. We elaborate in simple terms
that the deductive system involves four things: (1) A set of primitive undefined terms; (2) Definitions evolved from the
undefined terms; (3) Axioms or postulates; (4) Theorems and their proofs. We also include some historical remarks on the
nature of mathematics.
Mathematics Education, Deductive Reasoning, Inductive Reasoning, Primitive Undefined Terms, Axioms, Theorem,
Direct Proof, Indirect Proof, Platonism, Formalism
Received: April 4, 2015 / Accepted: April 15, 2015 / Published online: May 5, 2015
@ 2015 The Authors. Published by American Institute of Science. This Open Access article is under the CC BY-NC license.
Mathematics is not only concerned with everyday problems,
but also with using imagination, intuition and reasoning to
find new ideas and to solve puzzling problems. One method
used by mathematicians in discovering new ideas is to
perform experiments. This is called the "experimental
method" or "inductive reasoning". When a scientist takes a
large number of careful observations and from them infers
some probable results or when he repeats an experiment
many times and from these data arrives at some probable
conclusion, he is using inductive reasoning. That is to say,
from a large number of specific cases he obtains a single
The other method is based on reasoning rather than on
experiments or observations. This is called "deductive
reasoning". When a mathematician begins with a set of
acceptable conditions, called the hypothesis and by a series
of logical implications reaches a valid conclusion, he
employs deductive reasoning. The major difference in the
two methods is implied in the two words: “probable” with
respect to inductive reasoning and `valid' relative to
deductive reasoning. For example, if we perform an
experiment successfully say a thousand times, then another
twenty successful trails would lend credence to the result, but
we have no assurance whatever that the experiment will not
fall on the very next trail. On the other hand in a deductive
system, once we accept the hypothesis, the validity of our
conclusion is inevitable provided each implication in the
reasoning process is a logical consequence of what which
proceeds it. Here "consistency" of a logical system means
that no theorem of the system contradicts another and
"validity" means that the system's rules of proof never allow
a false inference from true premises.
2. Deductive Reasoning
As mentioned above, mathematics is based on deductive
reasoning though man's first experience with mathematics
was of an inductive nature. The ancient Egyptians and
Babylonians developed many mathematical ideas through
observation and experimentation and made use of this
mathematics in their daily life. Then the Greeks became
International Journal of Mathematics and Computational Science Vol. 1, No. 3, 2015, pp. 98-101 99
interested in philosophy and logic and placed a great
emphasis on reasoning. For example, in Geometry, the
axiomatic development was first developed by them from
500 to 300 BC, and was described in detail by Euclid around
300 BC. They accepted a few most basic mathematical
assumptions and used them to prove deductively most of the
geometric facts we know today. Our high school geometry is
an excellent example of a deductive system. Recall that in the
study of geometry, we began with a set of undefined terms,
such as point, line etc. We then made some definitions, for
example, those of angle, parallel lines, perpendicular lines,
triangle etc. Next, we listed a number of statements
concerning these undefined and defined terms which we
accepted to be true without proof; these assumptions we
called, axioms or postulates. Finally, we were able to prove a
considerable number of propositions or theorems by
In summary, we observe that the study of foundations of
mathematics involves an abstract deductive system consisting
1. A set of primitive undefined terms;
2. Definitions evolved from the undefined terms;
3. Axioms or postulates;
4. Theorems and their proofs.
We now discuss each of them as follow.
UNDEFINED TERMS: To build a mathematical system
based on logic, the mathematician begins by using some
words to express their ideas, such as `number' or a `point'.
These words are undefined and are sometimes called
`primitive terms'. These words usually have some meaning
because of experience we have had with them. It may seem
strange that in mathematics, a field with which precision and
accuracy are commonly associated, we do not (and cannot)
`start from scratch' but find it necessary to begin with a set of
undefined terms. Why do we not start with precise
definitions? An attempt to define any of the fundamental
undefined terms, such as point, set, number or element
demonstrate that we are soon led to what is referred to as
‘circular reasoning’. For example, let us try to define `point'.
What is a `point'? A point is a position at which something
exists. But what is meant by position? The location of an
object, naturally. But what does location of an object imply: a
point. So we are back where we started. In a like manner, an
attempt to define any of the other undefined terms of
mathematics would also result in circular reasoning. Hence, it
should now be clear that the use of primitive terms is
indispensable because they serve as the foundation upon
which the system rests.
For obvious reasons, the primitive terms, a mathematician
chooses must be simple in form and as small in number as
possible. They usually appeal to the intuition, more or less,
but it is important to distinguish the intuitive ideas behind
them and the part they play in the theory. It is not completely
true to say that a primitive term has no formal meaning. It
may have content because of the logical position we put in it.
DEFINITIONS: A definition, Bertrand Russell says, is a
declaration that a certain newly introduced term or
combination of terms is to mean the same as a certain other
combination of terms, of which the meaning is already
known. It assigns a meaning to a term by means of primitive
terms and terms already defined.
It is to be observed that although we employ definitions, yet
"definitions" does not appear among our primitive ideas
because, strictly speaking, the definitions are no part of our
subject. Practically, of course, if we introduce no definitions,
our formulae would very soon become so lengthy, as to be
In spite of the fact that definitions are theoretically
superfluous, it is nevertheless true, that they often convey
more important information than is contained in the
proposition in which they are used. Definitions clarify and
simplify expressions. We need to define our terms so that we
can use short names for complex ideas. Also definitions
contain an analysis of a common idea and can, therefore,
classify, that we wish to single out quadrilaterals with
opposite parallel sides. We may do this by means of a
definition: "a parallelogram is a quadrilateral whose opposite
sides are parallel". If we assume in this definition that
`quadrilateral', `opposite sides' and `parallel' have been
defined previously, then what we have done is to define the
class of parallelograms.
AXIOMS AND POSTULATES: At the start of every
mathematical theory (such as Real Numbers System, Group
Theory, Topology, Quantum Mechanics), some kinds of
foundations are needed. For this purpose, a set of
independent fundamental statements is asserted. These
assertions are called axioms and postulates. Both the axioms
and the postulates have their roots in antiquity. To quote
Aristotle, "Every demonstrative science must start from
indemonstrable principles. Otherwise, the steps of
demonstration would be endless". Both the axioms and the
postulates presumably are principles, so clearly true that we
accept them without a corresponding proof. In Euclid's time
(300 BC), axioms referred specifically to an assumption in
geometry. Today the distinction is disregarded and both terms
are used interchangeably.
The axioms of a mathematical theory are usually stipulated at
the beginning of the theory, immediately after announcing
the primitive terms. These terms are the bricks with which we
100 Liaqat Ali Khan: What is Mathematics - an Overview
build up these axioms. The axioms may contain such
statements as: "Things equal to the same thing are equal to
one another". "Every line is a set of points". They are
necessary if we are to avoid an infinite regression which
would certainly result if we only accepted what we could
prove. Once the axioms have been chosen, we become more
severe about the subsequent propositions.
THEOREMS AND THEIR PROOFS: A `theorem' is a
statement whose truth is established by formal proof. The
bulk of any branch of mathematics consists of the collection
of theorems that pertain to that particular area. Much of the
beauty of mathematics lies in the sequential development of
the subject through the proofs of its theorems. A `proof' is a
chain of reasoning that succeeded in establishing a
conclusion by showing that it follows logically from
premises that already are known to be true. In proving a
theorem, we may use our undefined and defined terms, and
our axioms and of course any theorem we prove, the more
knowledge we have at our disposal to prove additional
theorems. In any mathematical theory, to prove the first
theorem, A (say), the only arguments that can be used are the
axioms. And to prove a second theorem, B (say), we may use
the axioms and Theorem A and similarly for the subsequent
theorems. Hence we state the principle: "a proof
demonstrates the validity of a proposition using an argument
based entirely on the axioms and the previously established
Kinds of Proofs: There are two kinds of proof: direct proof
and indirect proof. Most theorems have the form "a statement
p implies another statement q". To demonstrate such a
statement we proceed with an assumption usually called the
hypothesis in the following ways:
Assert p (i.e. suppose p is given). From this we construct a
demonstration that ends with the statement q.
This program makes up what we called a "direct proof".
The `indirect proof', also called "proof by contradiction"
(reductio ad absurdum, in Latin), depends essentially on the
notion of negation. This idea can be stated in the following
"To prove the Theorem A indirectly, we affirm its negation.
From this we construct an argument that concludes with the
negation of a result already known to be true. This is a
legitimate proof of Theorem A".
Truth of Assertions: We have spoken of the truth of certain
assertions. What does the word `truth' mean in this context?
A proposition is true if it can be proved by means of the
axioms and theorems proved previously. Notice that a
theorem may be true in one theory but false in another; it all
depends on the initial axioms. In "plane geometry", the
statement that the sum of the angles of a triangle is two right
angles is true, but it is no longer true in "Riemannian
geometry". In "classical mechanics" mass is indestructible,
but in "quantum theory", a mass can be destroyed and
replaced by energy.
3. Some Remarks and Quotes
A. The above described Deductive System is also called
Formalism. In fact, there are two dominant schools of
thought about the nature of Mathematics: one is the
Platonist or Realist (deriving from Plato) and the other is
Formalist. The Platonists believe that mathematical objects
exist independent of us and inhabit a world of their own.
They are not invented by us but rather discovered.
Formalists on the other hand believe that there are no such
things as mathematical objects. Mathematics consists of
definitions, axioms and theorems invented by
mathematicians and have no meaning in themselves
except that which we ascribe to them. This school of
thought was introduced by David Hilbert in 1921.
During the 1920's shock waves had run through the
science of physics, because of Heisenberg's Uncertainty
Principle (introduced first by the German physicist Werner
Heisenberg in 1927). This principle states that you can
never simultaneously know the exact position and the
exact speed of an object. In 1931, a 25 year old Austrian
mathematician Kurt Gödel shocked the worlds of
mathematics and philosophy by showing that there are
mathematical truths which simply cannot be proved.
Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) was regarded as a brilliant
mathematician and perhaps the greatest logician since
Aristotle. His famous “incompleteness theorem” was a
fundamental result about axiomatic systems, showing that
in any axiomatic mathematical system, there are
propositions that cannot be proved or disproved within the
axioms of the system. In particular the consistency of the
axioms cannot be proved. This ended a hundred years of
attempts to establish axioms which would put the whole of
mathematics on an axiomatic basis. These included some
major attempts by several logicians and mathematicians of
that time (such as Germans' Richard Dedekind (1831-
1916), Georg Cantor (1845-1918), Friedrich Frege (1848-
1925), David Hilbert (1862-1943), Ernst Zermelo (1871-
1953), Italian's Giuseppe Peano (1858-1932), ), Dutch
L.E.J. Brouwer (1881-1966), British Bertrand Russell
B. Gödel's results did not destroy the fundamental idea of
formalism, but it did demonstrate that any system would
have to be more comprehensive than that envisaged by
International Journal of Mathematics and Computational Science Vol. 1, No. 3, 2015, pp. 98-101 101
Hilbert and others. In fact, these results were a landmark
in 20th-century mathematics, showing that mathematics is
not a finished object, as had been believed. It also implies
that a computer can never be programmed to answer all
mathematical questions. Among physicists, Gödel is
known as the man who proved that time travel to the past
was possible under Einstein's equations.
C. Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we
never know what we are talking about, nor whether what
we are saying is true – (Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and
Logic (1917) Ch. 4).
D. "Obvious" is the most dangerous word in mathematics
(E.T. Bell, 1883-1960).
E. To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and
practiced, requires years of contemplation. Not activity.
Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behaviour of any
kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not
thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is one needs to
know. (George Spencer Brown, 1923-)
F. Pure mathematics is on the whole distinctly more useful
than applied. For what is useful above all is technique, and
mathematical technique is taught mainly through pure
mathematics. (G.H. Hardy, 1877-1947)
G. As one ancient stated, teaching is not a matter of pouring
knowledge from one mind into another as one pours water
from one glass into another. It is more like one candle
igniting another. Each candle burns with its own fuel.
H. For more than two thousand years some familiarity with
mathematics has been regarded as an indispensable part of
the intellectual equipment of every cultured person. Today
the traditional place of mathematics in education is in
grave danger. (Richard Courant and Herbert Robbins)
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