“Since the time of Pythagoras, mathematicians have wondered about the nature of mathematical truth, the ontology of mathematical entities and the reasons for the validity of proof and, more generally, mathematical knowledge. From the Enlightenment until the middle of the 19th century, the prevailing scientific ideology saw mathematics as the only way of reaching a truth that is final, absolute and totally independent of the human mind's capacity to understand it. The basic notions of mathematics were thought to reflect essential properties of the cosmos and the theorems to be the truths of a higher reality.... Yet, in the 19th century this traditional belief was undermined in the minds of some people and eventually led to a serious foundational crisis in mathematics. The first of the discoveries which caused the loss of faith, dating from the time of the Renaissance, was that of the imaginary numbers (i.e. those involving the square root of minus one)....

“The foundational crisis of mathematics (in German: Grundlagenkrise der Mathematik) was the early 20th century's term for the search for proper foundations of mathematics.

“After several schools of the philosophy of mathematics ran into difficulties one after the other in the 20th century, the assumption that mathematics had any foundation that could be stated within mathematics itself began to be heavily challenged.

“One attempt after another to provide unassailable foundations for mathematics was found to suffer from various paradoxes (such as Russell's paradox) and to be inconsistent: an undesirable situation in which every mathematical statement that can be formulated in a proposed system (such as 2 + 2 = 5) can also be proved in the system.

“Various schools of thought on the right approach to the foundations of mathematics were fiercely opposing each other. The leading school was that of the formalist approach, of which David Hilbert was the foremost proponent, culminating in what is known as Hilbert's program, which thought to ground mathematics on a small basis of a logical system proved sound by metamathematical finitistic means. The main opponent was the intuitionist school, led by L. E. J. Brouwer, which resolutely discarded formalism as a meaningless game with symbols. The fight was acrimonious. In 1920 Hilbert succeeded in having Brouwer, whom he considered a threat to mathematics, removed from the editorial board of

*Mathematische Annalen*, the leading mathematical journal of the time.

“Gödel's incompleteness theorems, proved in 1931, showed that essential aspects of Hilbert's program could not be attained. In Gödel's first result he showed how to construct, for any sufficiently powerful and consistent recursively axiomatizable system -- such as necessary to axiomatize the elementary theory of arithmetic on the (infinite) set of natural numbers -- a statement that can be shown to be true, but that does not follow from the rules of the system. It thus became clear that the notion of mathematical truth can not be reduced to a purely formal system as envisaged in Hilbert's program. In a next result Gödel showed that such a system was not powerful enough for proving its own consistency, let alone that a simpler system could do the job. This dealt a final blow to the heart of Hilbert's program, the hope that consistency could be established by finitistic means... Meanwhile, the intuitionistic school had not attracted many adherents among working mathematicians, due to difficulties of constructive mathematics.

“In a sense, the crisis has not been resolved, but faded away: most mathematicians either do not work from axiomatic systems, or if they do, do not doubt the consistency of ZFC (the Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory with the axiom of choice), generally their preferred axiomatic system....

“It may or may not be the case that there is a fundamental limit to what humans can understand about numbers (i.e., there may be true number-theoretical principles which cannot be perceived as being true by any human), but Gödel's theorem does not tell us which of these is the case, and we have no way of knowing.”

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