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The Practice of Finitism: Epsilon Calculus and Consistency Proofs in Hilbert's Program

Abstract

After a brief flirtation with logicism around 1917, David Hilbertproposed his own program in the foundations of mathematics in 1920 and developed it, in concert with collaborators such as Paul Bernays andWilhelm Ackermann, throughout the 1920s. The two technical pillars of the project were the development of axiomatic systems for everstronger and more comprehensive areas of mathematics, and finitisticproofs of consistency of these systems. Early advances in these areaswere made by Hilbert (and Bernays) in a series of lecture courses atthe University of Göttingen between 1917 and 1923, and notably in Ackermann's dissertation of 1924. The main innovation was theinvention of the ∈-calculus, on which Hilbert's axiom systemswere based, and the development of the ∈-substitution methodas a basis for consistency proofs. The paper traces the developmentof the ``simultaneous development of logic and mathematics'' throughthe ∈-notation and provides an analysis of Ackermann'sconsistency proofs for primitive recursive arithmetic and for thefirst comprehensive mathematical system, the latter using thesubstitution method. It is striking that these proofs use transfiniteinduction not dissimilar to that used in Gentzen's later consistencyproof as well as non-primitive recursive definitions, and that thesemethods were accepted as finitistic at the time.

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Zach, R. The Practice of Finitism: Epsilon Calculus and Consistency Proofs in Hilbert's Program. Synthese 137, 211–259 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1026247421383

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Keywords

  • Axiomatic System
  • Mathematical System
  • Simultaneous Development
  • Recursive Definition
  • Main Innovation