Theorem - Relation With Scientific Theories

Relation With Scientific Theories

Theorems in mathematics and theories in science are fundamentally different in their epistemology. A scientific theory cannot be proven; its key attribute is that it is falsifiable, that is, it makes predictions about the natural world that are testable by experiments. Any disagreement between prediction and experiment demonstrates the incorrectness of the scientific theory, or at least limits its accuracy or domain of validity. Mathematical theorems, on the other hand, are purely abstract formal statements: the proof of a theorem cannot involve experiments or other empirical evidence in the same way such evidence is used to support scientific theories.

Nonetheless, there is some degree of empiricism and data collection involved in the discovery of mathematical theorems. By establishing a pattern, sometimes with the use of a powerful computer, mathematicians may have an idea of what to prove, and in some cases even a plan for how to set about doing the proof. For example, the Collatz conjecture has been verified for start values up to about 2.88 × 1018. The Riemann hypothesis has been verified for the first 10 trillion zeroes of the zeta function. Neither of these statements is considered to be proven.

Such evidence does not constitute proof. For example, the Mertens conjecture is a statement about natural numbers that is now known to be false, but no explicit counterexample (i.e., a natural number n for which the Mertens function M(n) equals or exceeds the square root of n) is known: all numbers less than 1014 have the Mertens property, and the smallest number which does not have this property is only known to be less than the exponential of 1.59 × 1040, which is approximately 10 to the power 4.3 × 1039. Since the number of particles in the universe is generally considered to be less than 10 to the power 100 (a googol), there is no hope to find an explicit counterexample by exhaustive search.

Note that the word "theory" also exists in mathematics, to denote a body of mathematical axioms, definitions and theorems, as in, for example, group theory. There are also "theorems" in science, particularly physics, and in engineering, but they often have statements and proofs in which physical assumptions and intuition play an important role; the physical axioms on which such "theorems" are based are themselves falsifiable.

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