Dienstag, 18. Februar 2014

Mathematics, Demonstrative Reasoning and Plausible Reasoning:

A short excerpt of the preface of "MATHEMATICS AND PLAUSIBLE REASONING", Georg Polya, 1954


Strictly speaking, all our knowledge outside mathematics and demonstrative logic (which is, in fact, a branch of mathematics) consists of conjectures. There are, of course, conjectures and conjectures. There are highly respectable and reliable conjectures as those expressed in certain general laws of physical science. There are other conjectures, neither reliable nor respectable, some of which may make you angry when you read them in a newspaper. And in between there are all sorts of conjectures, hunches, and guesses.

We secure our mathematical knowledge by demonstrative reasoning, but we support our conjectures by plausible reasoning, A mathematical proof is demonstrative reasoning, but the inductive evidence of the physicist, the circumstantial evidence of the lawyer, the documentary evidence of the historian, and the statistical evidence of the economist belong to plausible reasoning.

The difference between the two kinds of reasoning is great and manifold. Demonstrative reasoning is safe, beyond controversy, and final. Plausible reasoning is hazardous, controversial, and provisional. Demonstrative reasoning penetrates the sciences just as far as mathematics does, but it is in itself (as mathematics is in itself) incapable of yielding essentially new knowledge about the world around us. Anything new that we learn about the world involves plausible reasoning, which is the only kind of reasoning for which we care in everyday affairs. Demonstrative reasoning has rigid standards, codified and clarified by logic (formal or demonstrative logic), which is the theory of demonstrative reasoning. The standards of plausible reasoning are fluid, and there is no theory of such reasoning that could be compared to demonstrative logic in clarity or would command comparable consensus.


Another point concerning the two kinds of reasoning deserves our attention. Everyone knows that mathematics offers an excellent opportunity to learn demonstrative reasoning, but I contend also that there is no subject in the usual curricula of the schools that affords a comparable opportunity to learn plausible reasoning. I address myself to all interested students of mathematics of all grades and I say: Certainly, let us learn proving, but also let us learn guessing.

This sounds a little paradoxical and I must emphasize a few points to avoid possible misunderstandings.

Mathematics is regarded as a demonstrative science. Yet this is only one of its aspects. Finished mathematics presented in a finished form appears as purely demonstrative, consisting of proofs only. Yet mathematics in the making resembles any other human knowledge in the making. You have to guess a mathematical theorem before you prove it; you have to guess the idea of the proof before you carry through the details. You have to combine observations and follow analogies; you have to try and try again. The result of the mathematician's creative work is demonstrative reasoning, a proof; but the proof is discovered by plausible reasoning, by guessing. If the learning of mathematics reflects to any degree the invention of mathematics, it must have a place for guessing, for plausible inference.

There are two kinds of reasoning, as we said: demonstrative reasoning and plausible reasoning. Let me observe that they do not contradict each other; on the contrary, they complete each other. In strict reasoning the principal thing is to distinguish a proof from a guess, a valid demonstration from an invalid attempt. In plausible reasoning the principal thing is to distinguish a guess from a guess, a more reasonable guess from a less reasonable guess. If you direct your attention to both distinctions, both may become clearer.

A serious student of mathematics, intending to make it his life's work, must learn demonstrative reasoning; it is his profession and the distinctive mark of his science. Yet for real success he must also learn plausible reasoning; this is the kind of reasoning on which his creative work will depend. The general or amateur student should also get a taste of demonstrative reasoning: he may have little opportunity to use it directly, but he should acquire a standard with which he can compare alleged evidence of all sorts aimed at him in modern life. But in all his endeavors he will need plausible reasoning. At any rate, an ambitious student of mathematics, whatever his further interests may be, should try to learn both kinds of reasoning, demonstrative and plausible.



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