Rants of the Undead God: Instrumentalism. Thought of the Day 68.1


Hilbert’s program has often been interpreted as an instrumentalist account of mathematics. This reading relies on the distinction Hilbert makes between the finitary part of mathematics and the non-finitary rest which is in need of grounding (via finitary meta-mathematics). The finitary part Hilbert calls “contentual,” i.e., its propositions and proofs have content. The infinitary part, on the other hand, is “not meaningful from a finitary point of view.” This distinction corresponds to a distinction between formulas of the axiomatic systems of mathematics for which consistency proofs are being sought. Some of the formulas correspond to contentual, finitary propositions: they are the “real” formulas. The rest are called “ideal.” They are added to the real part of our mathematical theories in order to preserve classical inferences such as the principle of the excluded middle for infinite totalities, i.e., the principle that either all numbers have a given property or there is a number which does not have it.

It is the extension of the real part of the theory by the ideal, infinitary part that is in need of justification by a consistency proof – for there is a condition, a single but absolutely necessary one, to which the use of the method of ideal elements is subject, and that is the proof of consistency; for, extension by the addition of ideals is legitimate only if no contradiction is thereby brought about in the old, narrower domain, that is, if the relations that result for the old objects whenever the ideal objects are eliminated are valid in the old domain. Weyl described Hilbert’s project as replacing meaningful mathematics by a meaningless game of formulas. He noted that Hilbert wanted to “secure not truth, but the consistency of analysis” and suggested a criticism that echoes an earlier one by Frege – why should we take consistency of a formal system of mathematics as a reason to believe in the truth of the pre-formal mathematics it codifies? Is Hilbert’s meaningless inventory of formulas not just “the bloodless ghost of analysis? Weyl suggested that if mathematics is to remain a serious cultural concern, then some sense must be attached to Hilbert’s game of formulae. In theoretical physics we have before us the great example of a [kind of] knowledge of completely different character than the common or phenomenal knowledge that expresses purely what is given in intuition. While in this case every judgment has its own sense that is completely realizable within intuition, this is by no means the case for the statements of theoretical physics. Hilbert suggested that consistency is not the only virtue ideal mathematics has –  transfinite inference simplifies and abbreviates proofs, brevity and economy of thought are the raison d’être of existence proofs.

Hilbert’s treatment of philosophical questions is not meant as a kind of instrumentalist agnosticism about existence and truth and so forth. On the contrary, it is meant to provide a non-skeptical and positive solution to such problems, a solution couched in cognitively accessible terms. And, it appears, the same solution holds for both mathematical and physical theories. Once new concepts or “ideal elements” or new theoretical terms have been accepted, then they exist in the sense in which any theoretical entities exist. When Weyl eventually turned away from intuitionism, he emphasized the purpose of Hilbert’s proof theory, not to turn mathematics into a meaningless game of symbols, but to turn it into a theoretical science which codifies scientific (mathematical) practice. The reading of Hilbert as an instrumentalist goes hand in hand with a reading of the proof-theoretic program as a reductionist project. The instrumentalist reading interprets ideal mathematics as a meaningless formalism, which simplifies and “rounds out” mathematical reasoning. But a consistency proof of ideal mathematics by itself does not explain what ideal mathematics is an instrument for.

On this picture, classical mathematics is to be formalized in a system which includes formalizations of all the directly verifiable (by calculation) propositions of contentual finite number theory. The consistency proof should show that all real propositions which can be proved by ideal methods are true, i.e., can be directly verified by finite calculation. Actual proofs such as the ε-substitution procedure are of such a kind: they provide finitary procedures which eliminate transfinite elements from proofs of real statements. In particular, they turn putative ideal derivations of 0 = 1 into derivations in the real part of the theory; the impossibility of such a derivation establishes consistency of the theory. Indeed, Hilbert saw that something stronger is true: not only does a consistency proof establish truth of real formulas provable by ideal methods, but it yields finitary proofs of finitary general propositions if the corresponding free-variable formula is derivable by ideal methods.


Weyl and Automorphism of Nature. Drunken Risibility.


In classical geometry and physics, physical automorphisms could be based on the material operations used for defining the elementary equivalence concept of congruence (“equality and similitude”). But Weyl started even more generally, with Leibniz’ explanation of the similarity of two objects, two things are similar if they are indiscernible when each is considered by itself. Here, like at other places, Weyl endorsed this Leibnzian argument from the point of view of “modern physics”, while adding that for Leibniz this spoke in favour of the unsubstantiality and phenomenality of space and time. On the other hand, for “real substances” the Leibnizian monads, indiscernability implied identity. In this way Weyl indicated, prior to any more technical consideration, that similarity in the Leibnizian sense was the same as objective equality. He did not enter deeper into the metaphysical discussion but insisted that the issue “is of philosophical significance far beyond its purely geometric aspect”.

Weyl did not claim that this idea solves the epistemological problem of objectivity once and for all, but at least it offers an adequate mathematical instrument for the formulation of it. He illustrated the idea in a first step by explaining the automorphisms of Euclidean geometry as the structure preserving bijective mappings of the point set underlying a structure satisfying the axioms of “Hilbert’s classical book on the Foundations of Geometry”. He concluded that for Euclidean geometry these are the similarities, not the congruences as one might expect at a first glance. In the mathematical sense, we then “come to interpret objectivity as the invariance under the group of automorphisms”. But Weyl warned to identify mathematical objectivity with that of natural science, because once we deal with real space “neither the axioms nor the basic relations are given”. As the latter are extremely difficult to discern, Weyl proposed to turn the tables and to take the group Γ of automorphisms, rather than the ‘basic relations’ and the corresponding relata, as the epistemic starting point.

Hence we come much nearer to the actual state of affairs if we start with the group Γ of automorphisms and refrain from making the artificial logical distinction between basic and derived relations. Once the group is known, we know what it means to say of a relation that it is objective, namely invariant with respect to Γ.

By such a well chosen constitutive stipulation it becomes clear what objective statements are, although this can be achieved only at the price that “…we start, as Dante starts in his Divina Comedia, in mezzo del camin”. A phrase characteristic for Weyl’s later view follows:

It is the common fate of man and his science that we do not begin at the beginning; we find ourselves somewhere on a road the origin and end of which are shrouded in fog.

Weyl’s juxtaposition of the mathematical and the physical concept of objectivity is worthwhile to reflect upon. The mathematical objectivity considered by him is relatively easy to obtain by combining the axiomatic characterization of a mathematical theory with the epistemic postulate of invariance under a group of automorphisms. Both are constituted in a series of acts characterized by Weyl as symbolic construction, which is free in several regards. For example, the group of automorphisms of Euclidean geometry may be expanded by “the mathematician” in rather wide ways (affine, projective, or even “any group of transformations”). In each case a specific realm of mathematical objectivity is constituted. With the example of the automorphism group Γ of (plane) Euclidean geometry in mind Weyl explained how, through the use of Cartesian coordinates, the automorphisms of Euclidean geometry can be represented by linear transformations “in terms of reproducible numerical symbols”.

For natural science the situation is quite different; here the freedom of the constitutive act is severely restricted. Weyl described the constraint for the choice of Γ at the outset in very general terms: The physicist will question Nature to reveal him her true group of automorphisms. Different to what a philosopher might expect, Weyl did not mention, the subtle influences induced by theoretical evaluations of empirical insights on the constitutive choice of the group of automorphisms for a physical theory. He even did not restrict the consideration to the range of a physical theory but aimed at Nature as a whole. Still basing on his his own views and radical changes in the fundamental views of theoretical physics, Weyl hoped for an insight into the true group of automorphisms of Nature without any further specifications.

Conjuncted: Gauge Theory


Weyl introduced as a phase factor an exponential in which the phase α is preceded by the imaginary unit i, e.g., e+iqα(x), in the wave function for the wave equations (for instance, the Dirac equation is (iγμμ − m)ψ = 0). It is here that Weyl correctly formulated gauge theory as a symmetry principle from which electromagnetism could be derived. It had been shown that for a quantum theory of charged particles interacting with the electromagnetic field, invariance under a gauge transformation of the potentials required multiplication of the wave function by the now well-know phase factor. Yang cited Weyl’s gauge theory results as reported by Pauli as a source for Yang-Mills gauge theory; although Yang didn’t find out until much later that these were Weyl’s results. Moreover, Pauli did not explicitly mention Weyl’s geometric interpretation. It was only much after Yang and Mills published their article that Yang realized the connection between their work and geometry. Yang says

Weyl’s Lagrange Density of General Relativistic Maxwell Theory

Weyl pondered on the reasons why the structure group of the physical automorphisms still contained the “Euclidean rotation group” (respectively the Lorentz group) in such a prominent role:

The Euclidean group of rotations has survived even such radical changes of our concepts of the physical world as general relativity and quantum theory. What then are the peculiar merits of this group to which it owes its elevation to the basic group pattern of the universe? For what ‘sufficient reasons’ did the Creator choose this group and no other?”

He reminded that Helmholtz had characterized ∆o ≅ SO (3, ℜ) by the “fact that it gives to a rotating solid what we may call its just degrees of freedom” of a rotating solid body; but this method “breaks down for the Lorentz group that in the four-dimensional world takes the place of the orthogonal group in 3-space”. In the early 1920s he himself had given another characterization living up to the new demands of the theories of relativity in his mathematical analysis of the problem of space.

He mentioned the idea that the Lorentz group might play its prominent role for the physical automorphisms because it expresses deep lying matter structures; but he strongly qualified the idea immediately after having stated it:

Since we have the dualism of invariance with respect to two groups and Ω certainly refers to the manifold of space points, it is a tempting idea to ascribe ∆o to matter and see in it a characteristic of the localizable elementary particles of matter. I leave it undecided whether this idea, the very meaning of which is somewhat vague, has any real merits.

. . . But instead of analysing the structure of the orthogonal group of transformations ∆o, it may be wiser to look for a characterization of the group ∆o as an abstract group. Here we know that the homogeneous n-dimensional orthogonal groups form one of 3 great classes of simple Lie groups. This is at least a partial solution of the problem.

He left it open why it ought to be “wiser” to look for abstract structure properties in order to answer a natural philosophical question. Could it be that he wanted to indicate an open-mindedness toward the more structuralist perspective on automorphism groups, preferred by the young algebraists around him at Princetion in the 1930/40s? Today the classification of simple Lie groups distinguishes 4 series, Ak,Bk,Ck,Dk. Weyl apparently counted the two orthogonal series Bk and Dk as one. The special orthogonal groups in even complex space dimension form the series of simple Lie groups of type Dk, with complex form (SO 2k,C) and real compact form (SO 2k,ℜ). The special orthogonal group in odd space dimension form the series type Bk, with complex form SO(2k + 1, C) and compact real form SO(2k + 1, ℜ).

But even if one accepted such a general structuralist view as a starting point there remained a question for the specification of the space dimension of the group inside the series.

But the number of the dimensions of the world is 4 and not an indeterminate n. It is a fact that the structure of ∆o is quite different for the various dimensionalities n. Hence the group may serve as a clue by which to discover some cogent reason for the di- mensionality 4 of the world. What must be brought to light, is the distinctive character of one definite group, the four-dimensional Lorentz group, either as a group of linear transformations, or as an abstract group.

The remark that the “structure of ∆o is quite different for the various dimensionalities n” with regard to even or odd complex space dimensions (type Dk, resp. Bk) strongly qualifies the import of the general structuralist characterization. But already in the 1920s Weyl had used the fact that for the (real) space dimension n “4 the universal covering of the unity component of the Lorentz group SO (1, 3)o is the realification of SL (2, C). The latter belongs to the first of the Ak series (with complex form SL (k + 1,C). Because of the isomorphism of the initial terms of the series, A1 ≅ B1, this does not imply an exception of Weyl’s general statement. We even may tend to interpret Weyl’s otherwise cryptic remark that the structuralist perspective gives a “at least a partial solution of the problem” by the observation that the Lorentz group in dimension n “4 is, in a rather specific way, the realification of the complex form of one of the three most elementary non-commutative simple Lie groups of type A1 ≅ B1. Its compact real form is SO (3, ℜ), respectively the latter’s universal cover SU (2, C).

Weyl stated clearly that the answer cannot be expected by structural considerations alone. The problem is only “partly one of pure mathematics”, the other part is “empirical”. But the question itself appeared of utmost importance to him

We can not claim to have understood Nature unless we can establish the uniqueness of the four-dimensional Lorentz group in this sense. It is a fact that many of the known laws of nature can at once be generalized to n dimensions. We must dig deep enough until we hit a layer where this is no longer the case.

In 1918 he had given an argument why, in the framework of his new scale gauge geometry, the “world” had to be of dimension 4. His argument had used the construction of the Lagrange density of general relativistic Maxwell theory Lf = fμν fμν √(|detg|), with fμν the components of curvature of his newly introduced scale/length connection, physically interpreted by him as the electromagnetic field. Lf is scale invariant only in spacetime dimension n = 4. The shift from scale gauge to phase gauge undermined the importance of this argument. Although it remained correct mathematically, it lost its convincing power once the scale gauge transformations were relegated from physics to the mathematical automorphism group of the theory only.

Weyl said:

Our question has this in common with most questions of philosophical nature: it depends on the vague distinction between essential and non-essential. Several competing solutions are thinkable; but it may also happen that, once a good solution of the problem is found, it will be of such cogency as to command general recognition.

Weyl, “To understand nature, start with the group Γ of automorphisms and refrain from making the artificial logical distinction between basic and derived relations . . .”



Gauge transformations appear of primarily descriptive nature only if we consider them in their function as changes of local (in the mathematical sense) changes of trivializations. In this function they are comparable to the transformations of the coordinates in a differentiable manifold, which also seem to have a purely “descriptive” function. But the coordinate changes stand in close relation to (local) diffeomorphisms. Therefore the postulate of coordinate independence of natural laws, or of the Lagrangian density, can and is being restated in terms of diffeomorphism invariance in general relativity. Similarly, the local changes of trivializations may be read as local descriptions.

The question as to whether or not the automorphisms express crucial physical properties  has nothing to do with the specific gauge nature of the groups, but hinges on the more overarching question of physical adequateness and physical content of the theory. The question of whether or why gauge symmetries can express physical content is not much different from the Kretschmann question of whether or why coordinate invariance of the laws, respectively coordinate covariance description of a physical theory, can have physical content. In the latter case the answer to the question has been dealt with in the philosophy of physics literature in great detail. Weyl’s answer is contained in his thoughts on the distinction of physical and mathematical automorphisms.

Let us shed a side-glance at gravitational gauge theories not taken into account by Weyl. In Einstein-Cartan gravity, which later turned out to be equivalent to Kibble-Sciama gravity, the localized rotational degrees of freedom lead to a conserved spin current and a non-symmetric energy tensor. This is a structurally pleasing effect, fitting roughly into the Noether charge paradigm, although with a peculiar “crossover” of the two Noether currents and the currents feeding the dynamical equations, inherited from Einstein gravity and Cartan’s identification of translational curvature with torsion. The rotational current, spin, feeds the dynamical equation of translational curvature; the translational current, energy-momentum, feeds the rotational curvature in the (generalized) Einstein equation. It may acquire physical relevance only if energy densities surpass the order of magnitude 1038 times the density of neutron stars. By this reason the current cannot yet be considered a physically striking effect. It may turn into one, if gravitational fields corresponding to extremely high energy densities acquire empirical relevance. For the time being, the rotational current can safely be neglected, Einstein-Cartan gravity reduces effectively to Einstein gravity, and Weyl’s argument for the symmetry of the energy-momentum tensor remains the most “striking consequence” in the sense of  rotational degrees of freedom.

On the other hand, the translational degrees of freedom give a more direct expression for the Noether currents of energy-momentum than the diffeomorphisms. The physical consequences for the diffeomorphism degrees of freedom reduce to the invariance constraint for the Lagrangian density for Einstein gravity considered as a special case of the Einstein-Cartan theory (with effectively vanishing spin). Besides these minor shifts, it may be more interesting to realize that the approach of Kibble and Sciama agreed nicely with Weyl’s methodological remark that for understanding nature we better “start with the group Γ of automorphisms and refrain from making the artificial logical distinction between basic and derived relations . . . ”. This describes quite well what Sciama and Kibble did. They started to explore the consequences of localizing (in the physical sense) the translational and rotational degrees of freedom of special relativity. Their theory was built around the generalized automorphism group arising from localizing the Poincaré group.

Philosophizing Twistors via Fibration

The basic issue, is a question of so called time arrow. This issue is an important subject of examination in mathematical physics as well as ontology of spacetime and philosophical anthropology. It reveals crucial contradiction between the knowledge about time, provided by mathematical models of spacetime in physics and psychology of time and its ontology. The essence of the contradiction lies in the invariance of the majority of fundamental equations in physics with regard to the reversal of the direction of the time arrow (i. e. the change of a variable t to -t in equations). Neither metric continuum, constituted by the spaces of concurrency in the spacetime of the classical mechanics before the formulation of the Particular Theory of Relativity, the spacetime not having metric but only affine structure, nor Minkowski’s spacetime nor the GTR spacetime (pseudo-Riemannian), both of which have metric structure, distinguish the categories of past, present and future as the ones that are meaningful in physics. Every event may be located with the use of four coordinates with regard to any curvilinear coordinate system. That is what clashes remarkably with the human perception of time and space. Penrose realizes and understands the necessity to formulate such theory of spacetime that would remove this discrepancy. He remarked that although we feel the passage of time, we do not perceive the “passage” of any of the space dimensions. Theories of spacetime in mathematical physics, while considering continua and metric manifolds, cannot explain the difference between time dimension and space dimensions, they are also unable to explain by means of geometry the unidirection of the passage of time, which can be comprehended only by means of thermodynamics. The theory of spaces of twistors is aimed at better and crucial for the ontology of nature understanding of the problem of the uniqueness of time dimension and the question of time arrow. There are some hypotheses that the question of time arrow would be easier to solve thanks to the examination of so called spacetime singularities and the formulation of the asymmetric in time quantum theory of gravitation — or the theory of spacetime in microscale.

The unique role of twistors in TGD

Although Lorentzian geometry is the mathematical framework of classical general relativity and can be seen as a good model of the world we live in, the theoretical-physics community has developed instead many models based on a complex space-time picture.

(1) When one tries to make sense of quantum field theory in flat space-time, one finds it very convenient to study the Wick-rotated version of Green functions, since this leads to well defined mathematical calculations and elliptic boundary-value problems. At the end, quantities of physical interest are evaluated by analytic continuation back to real time in Minkowski space-time.

(2) The singularity at r = 0 of the Lorentzian Schwarzschild solution disappears on the real Riemannian section of the corresponding complexified space-time, since r = 0 no longer belongs to this manifold. Hence there are real Riemannian four-manifolds which are singularity-free, and it remains to be seen whether they are the most fundamental in modern theoretical physics.

(3) Gravitational instantons shed some light on possible boundary conditions relevant for path-integral quantum gravity and quantum cosmology.  Unprimed and primed spin-spaces are not (anti-)isomorphic if Lorentzian space-time is replaced by a complex or real Riemannian manifold. Thus, for example, the Maxwell field strength is represented by two independent symmetric spinor fields, and the Weyl curvature is also represented by two independent symmetric spinor fields and since such spinor fields are no longer related by complex conjugation (i.e. the (anti-)isomorphism between the two spin-spaces), one of them may vanish without the other one having to vanish as well. This property gives rise to the so-called self-dual or anti-self-dual gauge fields, as well as to self-dual or anti-self-dual space-times.

(5) The geometric study of this special class of space-time models has made substantial progress by using twistor-theory techniques. The underlying idea is that conformally invariant concepts such as null lines and null surfaces are the basic building blocks of the world we live in, whereas space-time points should only appear as a derived concept. By using complex-manifold theory, twistor theory provides an appropriate mathematical description of this key idea.

A possible mathematical motivation for twistors can be described as follows.  In two real dimensions, many interesting problems are best tackled by using complex-variable methods. In four real dimensions, however, the introduction of two complex coordinates is not, by itself, sufficient, since no preferred choice exists. In other words, if we define the complex variables

z1 ≡ x1 + ix2 —– (1)

z2 ≡ x3 + ix4 —– (2)

we rely too much on this particular coordinate system, and a permutation of the four real coordinates x1, x2, x3, x4 would lead to new complex variables not well related to the first choice. One is thus led to introduce three complex variables u, z1u, z2u : the first variable u tells us which complex structure to use, and the next two are the

complex coordinates themselves. In geometric language, we start with the complex projective three-space P3(C) with complex homogeneous coordinates (x, y, u, v), and we remove the complex projective line given by u = v = 0. Any line in P3(C) − P1(C) is thus given by a pair of equations

x = au + bv —– (3)

y = cu + dv —– (4)

In particular, we are interested in those lines for which c = −b, d = a. The determinant ∆ of (3) and (4) is thus given by

∆ = aa +bb + |a|2 + |b|2 —– (5)

which implies that the line given above never intersects the line x = y = 0, with the obvious exception of the case when they coincide. Moreover, no two lines intersect, and they fill out the whole of P3(C) − P1(C). This leads to the fibration P3(C) − P1(C) → R4 by assigning to each point of P3(C) − P1(C) the four coordinates Re(a), Im(a), Re(b), Im(b). Restriction of this fibration to a plane of the form

αu + βv = 0 —— (6)

yields an isomorphism C2 ≅ R4, which depends on the ratio (α,β) ∈ P1(C). This is why the picture embodies the idea of introducing complex coordinates.


Such a fibration depends on the conformal structure of R4. Hence, it can be extended to the one-point compactification S4 of R4, so that we get a fibration P3(C) → S4 where the line u = v = 0, previously excluded, sits over the point at ∞ of S4 = R∪ ∞ . This fibration is naturally obtained if we use the quaternions H to identify C4 with H2 and the four-sphere S4 with P1(H), the quaternion projective line. We should now recall that the quaternions H are obtained from the vector space R of real numbers by adjoining three symbols i, j, k such that

i2 = j2 = k2 =−1 —– (7)

ij = −ji = k,  jk = −kj =i,  ki = −ik = j —– (8)

Thus, a general quaternion ∈ H is defined by

x ≡ x1 + x2i + x3j + x4k —– (9)

where x1, x2, x3, x4 ∈ R4, whereas the conjugate quaternion x is given by

x ≡ x1 – x2i – x3j – x4k —– (10)

Note that conjugation obeys the identities

(xy) = y x —– (11)

xx = xx = ∑μ=14 x2μ ≡ |x|2 —– (12)

If a quaternion does not vanish, it has a unique inverse given by

x-1 ≡ x/|x|2 —– (13)

Interestingly, if we identify i with √−1, we may view the complex numbers C as contained in H taking x3 = x4 = 0. Moreover, every quaternion x as in (9) has a unique decomposition

x = z1 + z2j —– (14)

where z1 ≡ x1 + x2i, z2 ≡ x3 + x4i, by virtue of (8). This property enables one to identify H with C2, and finally H2 with C4, as we said following (6)

The map σ : P3(C) → P3(C) defined by

σ(x, y, u, v) = (−y, x, −v, u) —– (15)

preserves the fibration because c = −b, d = a, and induces the antipodal map on each fibre.


Automorphisms. Note Quote.


A group automorphism is an isomorphism from a group to itself. If G is a finite multiplicative group, an automorphism of G can be described as a way of rewriting its multiplication table without altering its pattern of repeated elements. For example, the multiplication table of the group of 4th roots of unity G={1,-1,i,-i} can be written as shown above, which means that the map defined by

 1|->1,    -1|->-1,    i|->-i,    -i|->i

is an automorphism of G.

Looking at classical geometry and mechanics, Weyl followed Newton and Helmholtz in considering congruence as the basic relation which lay at the heart of the “art of measuring” by the handling of that “sort of bodies we call rigid”. He explained how the local congruence relations established by the comparison of rigid bodies can be generalized and abstracted to congruences of the whole space. In this respect Weyl followed an empiricist approach to classical physical geometry, based on a theoretical extension of the material practice with rigid bodies and their motions. Even the mathematical abstraction to mappings of the whole space carried the mark of their empirical origin and was restricted to the group of proper congruences (orientation preserving isometries of Euclidean space, generated by the translations and rotations) denoted by him as ∆+. This group seems to express “an intrinsic structure of space itself; a structure stamped by space upon all the inhabitants of space”.

But already on the earlier level of physical knowledge, so Weyl argued, the mathematical automorphisms of space were larger than ∆. Even if one sees “with Newton, in congruence the one and only basic concept of geometry from which all others derive”, the group Γ of automorphisms in the mathematical sense turns out to be constituted by the similarities.

The structural condition for an automorphism C ∈ Γ of classical congruence geometry is that any pair (v1,v2) of congruent geometric configurations is transformed into another pair (v1*,v2*) of congruent configurations (vj* = C(vj), j = 1,2). For evaluating this property Weyl introduced the following diagram:


Because of the condition for automorphisms just mentioned the maps C T C-1 and C-1TC belong to ∆+ whenever T does. By this argument he showed that the mathematical automorphism group Γ is the normalizer of the congruences ∆+ in the group of bijective mappings of Euclidean space.

More generally, it also explains the reason for his characterization of generalized similarities in his analysis of the problem of space in the early 1920s. In 1918 he translated the relationship between physical equivalences as congruences to the mathematical automorphisms as the similarities/normalizer of the congruences from classical geometry to special relativity (Minkowski space) and “localized” them (in the sense of physics), i.e., he transferred the structural relationship to the infinitesimal neighbourhoods of the differentiable manifold characterizing spacetime (in more recent language, to the tangent spaces) and developed what later would be called Weylian manifolds, a generalization of Riemannian geometry. In his discussion of the problem of space he generalized the same relationship even further by allowing any (closed) sub-group of the general linear group as a candidate for characterizing generalized congruences at every point.

Moreover, Weyl argued that the enlargement of the physico-geometrical automorphisms of classical geometry (proper congruences) by the mathematical automorphisms (similarities) sheds light on Kant’s riddle of the “incongruous counterparts”. Weyl presented it as the question: Why are “incongruous counterparts” like the left and right hands intrinsically indiscernible, although they cannot be transformed into another by a proper motion? From his point of view the intrinsic indiscernibility could be characterized by the mathematical automorphisms Γ. Of course, the congruences ∆ including the reflections are part of the latter, ∆ ⊂ Γ; this implies indiscernibility between “left and right” as a special case. In this way Kant’s riddle was solved by a Leibnizian type of argument. Weyl very cautiously indicated a philosophical implication of this observation:

And he (Kant) is inclined to think that only transcendental idealism is able to solve this riddle. No doubt, the meaning of congruence and similarity is founded in spatial intuition. Kant seems to aim at some subtler point. But just this point is one which can be completely clarified by general concepts, namely by subsuming it under the general and typical group-theoretic situation explained before . . . .

Weyl stopped here without discussing the relationship between group theoretical methods and the “subtler point” Kant aimed at more explicitly. But we may read this remark as an indication that he considered his reflections on automorphism groups as a contribution to the transcendental analysis of the conceptual constitution of modern science. In his book on Symmetry, he went a tiny step further. Still with the Weylian restraint regarding the discussion of philosophical principles he stated: “As far as I see all a priori statements in physics have their origin in symmetry” (126).

To prepare for the following, Weyl specified the subgroup ∆o ⊂ ∆ with all those transformations that fix one point (∆o = O(3, R), the orthogonal group in 3 dimensions, R the field of real numbers). In passing he remarked:

In the four-dimensional world the Lorentz group takes the place of the orthogonal group. But here I shall restrict myself to the three-dimensional space, only occasionally pointing to the modifications, the inclusion of time into the four-dimensional world brings about.

Keeping this caveat in mind (restriction to three-dimensional space) Weyl characterized the “group of automorphisms of the physical world”, in the sense of classical physics (including quantum mechanics) by the combination (more technically, the semidirect product ̧) of translations and rotations, while the mathematical automorphisms arise from a normal extension:

– physical automorphisms ∆ ≅ R3 X| ∆o with ∆o ≅ O(3), respectively ∆ ≅ R4 X| ∆o for the Lorentz group ∆o ≅ O(1, 3),

– mathematical automorphisms Γ = R+ X ∆
(R+ the positive real numbers with multiplication).

In Weyl’s view the difference between mathematical and physical automorphisms established a fundamental distinction between mathematical geometry and physics.

Congruence, or physical equivalence, is a geometric concept, the meaning of which refers to the laws of physical phenomena; the congruence group ∆ is essentially the group of physical automorphisms. If we interpret geometry as an abstract science dealing with such relations and such relations only as can be logically defined in terms of the one concept of congruence, then the group of geometric automorphisms is the normalizer of ∆ and hence wider than ∆.

He considered this as a striking argument against what he considered to be the Cartesian program of a reductionist geometrization of physics (physics as the science of res extensa):

According to this conception, Descartes’s program of reducing physics to geometry would involve a vicious circle, and the fact that the group of geometric automorphisms is wider than that of physical automorphisms would show that such a reduction is actually impossible.” 

In this Weyl alluded to an illusion he himself had shared for a short time as a young scientist. After the creation of his gauge geometry in 1918 and the proposal of a geometrically unified field theory of electromagnetism and gravity he believed, for a short while, to have achieved a complete geometrization of physics.

He gave up this illusion in the middle of the 1920s under the impression of the rising quantum mechanics. In his own contribution to the new quantum mechanics groups and their linear representations played a crucial role. In this respect the mathematical automorphisms of geometry and the physical automorphisms “of Nature”, or more precisely the automorphisms of physical systems, moved even further apart, because now the physical automorphism started to take non-geometrical material degrees of freedom into account (phase symmetry of wave functions and, already earlier, the permutation symmetries of n-particle systems).

But already during the 19th century the physical automorphism group had acquired a far deeper aspect than that of the mobility of rigid bodies:

In physics we have to consider not only points but many types of physical quantities such as velocity, force, electromagnetic field strength, etc. . . .

All these quantities can be represented, relative to a Cartesian frame, by sets of numbers such that any orthogonal transformation T performed on the coordinates keeps the basic physical relations, the physical laws, invariant. Weyl accordingly stated:

All the laws of nature are invariant under the transformations thus induced by the group ∆. Thus physical relativity can be completely described by means of a group of transformations of space-points.

By this argumentation Weyl described a deep shift which ocurred in the late 19th century for the understanding of physics. He described it as an extension of the group of physical automorphisms. The laws of physics (“basic relations” in his more abstract terminology above) could no longer be directly characterized by the motion of rigid bodies because the physics of fields, in particular of electric and magnetic fields, had become central. In this context, the motions of material bodies lost their epistemological primary status and the physical automorphisms acquired a more abstract character, although they were still completely characterizable in geometric terms, by the full group of Euclidean isometries. The indistinguishability of left and right, observed already in clear terms by Kant, acquired the status of a physical symmetry in electromagnetism and in crystallography.

Weyl thus insisted that in classical physics the physical automorphisms could be characterized by the group ∆ of Euclidean isometries, larger than the physical congruences (proper motions) ∆+ but smaller than the mathe- matical automorphisms (similarities) Γ.

This view fitted well to insights which Weyl drew from recent developments in quantum physics. He insisted – differently to what he had thought in 1918 – on the consequence that “length is not relative but absolute” (Hs, p. 15). He argued that physical length measurements were no longer dependent on an arbitrary chosen unit, like in Euclidean geometry. An “absolute standard of length” could be fixed by the quantum mechanical laws of the atomic shell:

The atomic constants of charge and mass of the electron atomic constants and Planck’s quantum of action h, which enter the universal field laws of nature, fix an absolute standard of length, that through the wave lengths of spectral lines is made available for practical measurements.

Irrationality. Note Quote.


To mathematics it is unique, that two absolutely contrary opinions do not logically exclude each other but exist simultaneously while there seems to be no chance to pick out a false one and to establish a remaining truth. This case is realised by the philosophy and mathematics of the infinite. While transfinite set theory is impossible without different degrees of infinity, constructivists and intuitionists deny this notion without running into inconsistencies as is admitted by some of the foremost set theorists:

… the attitude of the (neo-)intuitionists that there do not exist altogether non-equivalent infinite sets is consistent, though almost suicidal for mathematics. [p. 62]

It would not be astonishing if in different axiomatic systems different results were obtained with respect to peculiarities of those systems. But set theorists on one side and constructivists and intuitionists on the other are certainly believing to address the same entities when speaking of “rational numbers” or of “irrational numbers”. In spite of that, the former are convinced that there are infinitely many more irrational numbers than rational numbers while the latter deny that:

Hence the continua of Weyl, Lebesgue, Lusin, etc. are denumerable … [p. 255]

This situation yields bewildering results:

Feferman and Levy showed that one cannot prove that there is any non-denumerable set of real numbers which can be well ordered. … Moreover, they also showed that the statement that the set of all real numbers is the union of a denumerable set of denumerable sets cannot be refuted. [p. 62]

Nevertheless, the great majority of mathematicians refuse to accept the thesis that Cantor’s ideas were but a pathological fancy. Though the foundations of set theory are still somewhat shaky. Most surprising and by no means to be expected of a pupil of Fraenkel’s is that Robinson states:

Infinite totalities do not exist in any sense of the word (i.e. either really or ideally). More precisely, any mention, or purported mention, of infinite totalities is, literally, meaningless. Nevertheless, we should act as if infinite totalities really existed. [3]

Does there exist a correct and an incorrect position? And, if so, who is right, who is wrong?

Following the advice of Fraenkel, namely to judge about the value and necessity of the basic axioms, in particular of the axiom of choice, by considering its consequences, in order to settle this question. These consequences will turn out to entail what, in an euphemistic way, by set theorists usually is called a “paradoxical result”, in order to avoid the term self-contradiction.

Apart from the well-ordering theorem some statements of quite different character – in particular geometrical statements – have been proved by means of the axiom of choice, which because of their paradoxical character induced some mathematicians to reject the axiom. Presumably the earliest statement of this kind is Hausdorff’s discovery that half of the sphere’s surface is congruent to a third of it. … It may surprise scholars working in the field … that even after more than half a century of utilising the axiom of choice and well-ordering theorem, a number of first-rate mathematicians (especially French) have not essentially changed their distrustful attitude.

Transfinite set theory arises from Cantor’s observation that the set of all irrational numbers has infinitely many more members than the set of all rational numbers. While the latter has the same cardinality χ0 as the set N of all natural numbers n, the cardinality χ of the set of all irrational numbers is larger, χ = 2χ0. It is proven to be uncountable, i.e., any bijection with N can be excluded.

Quantum Numbers as Representations of Gauge Groups


As emphasized by Klein and Weyl, a group is a collection of operations leaving a certain “object” unchanged. This amounts to classifying the symmetries of the object. When the “object” in question is the laws of Physics in a space-time with negligible gravitation-induced curvature, the symmetries can be classified as follows: (i) No point in four- dimensional space-time is privileged, hence one can shift or translate the origin of space-time arbitrarily in four directions. Noether’s theorem then implies there are four associated conserved quantities, namely the three components of space momentum and the energy. These four quantities naturally constitute the components of a 4-vector Pμ, μ = 0, 1, 2, 3. (ii) No direction is special in space; leading to three conserved quantities Ji, i = 1, 2, 3. (iii) There is no special inertial frame; the same laws of Physics hold in inertial frames moving with constant speed in any one of the three independent directions. What is generally known as Noether’s Theorem states that if the Lagrangian function for a physical system is not affected by a continuous change (transformation) in the coordinate system used to describe it, then there will be a corresponding conservation law; i.e. there is a quantity that is constant. For example, if the Lagrangian is independent of the location of the origin then the system will preserve (or conserve) linear momentum. If it is independent of the base time then energy is conserved. If it is independent of the angle of measurement then angular momentum is conserved.

As we suggested above, it is possible to get a non-mathematical insight into Noether’s theorem relating symmetries to conserved quantities. Consider a single particle moving in a completely homogeneous space. It cannot come to a stop or change its velocity because this would have to happen at some particular point, but all points being equal, it is impossible to choose one. Hence the particle has no choice but to move at constant velocity or, in other words, to conserve its linear momentum, which was anciently called “impetus”. It is easy to extend the argument to a rotating object in an isotropic space and conclude that it cannot come to a stop at any particular angle since there is no special angle; hence its angular momentum is conserved.

(ii) and (iii) amount to covariance of the laws of physics under rotations in a four-dimensional space with a metric that is not positive-definite. The squared length of a 4-vector defined via this metric must then be an important invariant independent of the orientation or the velocity of the frame. Indeed, for the 4-vector Pμ this is the squared mass m2 of the particle, and it is one of the two invariant labels used in specifying the representation. The other label is the squared length of another 4-vector called the Pauli-Lubanski vector. It then follows from the algebra of the group that this squared length takes on values s(s + 1) and that in contrast to m2, which assumes continuous values, s can only be zero, or a positive integer, or half a positive odd integer. The unitary representation of the Poincaré group for a particle of mass m and spin s provides its relativistic quantum mechanical wave function. The equation of motion the wave function must obey also comes with the representation; it is the Bargmann-Wigner equation for that spin and mass. In relativistic quantum mechanics and quantum field theory, the Bargmann–Wigner equations describe free particles of arbitrary spin j, an integer for bosons (j = 1, 2, 3 …) or half-integer for fermions (j = 123252 …). The solutions to the equations are wavefunctions, mathematically in the form of multi-component spinor fields. The procedure of second quantization then naturally promotes the wave functions to quantized field operators, and in a sense demotes the particles to quanta created or destroyed by these operators. Pauli’s spin-statistics theorem, based on a set of very general requirements such as the existence of a lowest energy vacuum state, the positivity of energy and probability, microcausality, and the invariance of the laws of Physics under the Poincaré group, leads to the result that the only acceptable quantum conditions for field operators of integer-spin particles are commutation relations, while those corresponding to half-integer spin must obey anticommutation relations. The standard terms for the two families of particles are bosons and fermions, respectively. The Pauli’s Exclusion Principle, or the impossibility of putting two electrons into the same state, is now seen to be the result of the anticommutation relation between electron creation operators: to place two fermions in the same state, the same creation operator has to be applied twice. The result must vanish, since the operator anticommutes with itself.

The symmetries of space-time are reflected in the fields which are representations of the symmetry groups; a quantum mechanical recipe called quantization then turns these fields into operators capable of creating and destroying quanta (or particles, in more common parlance) at all space-time points. Actually, the framework we have described only suffices to describe “Free fields” which do not interact with each other. In order to incorporate interactions, one has to resort to another kind of symmetry called gauge symmetry, which operates in an “internal” space attached to each point of space-time. While the identity of masses and spins of, say, electrons can be attributed to space-time symmetries, the identities of additional quantum numbers such as charge, isospin and “color” can only be explained in terms of the representations of these gauge groups.

Gauge Geometry and Philosophical Dynamism


Weyl was dissatisfied with his own theory of the predicative construction of the arithmetically definable subset of the classical real continuum by the time he had finished his Das Kontinuum, when he compared it with Husserl’s continuum of time, which possessed a “non-atomistic” character in contradistinction with his own theory. No determined point of time could be exhibited, only approximate fixing is possible, just as in the case of “continuum of spatial intuition”. He himself accepted the necessity that the mathematical concept of continuum, the continuous manifold, should not be characterized in terms of modern set theory enriched by topological axioms, because this would contradict the essence of continuum. Weyl says,

It seems that set theory violates against the essence of continuum, which, by its very nature, cannot at all be battered into a single set of elements. not the relationship of an element to a set, but a part of the whole ought to be taken as a basis for the analysis of the continuum.

For Weyl, single points of continuum were empty abstractions, and made him enter a difficult terrain, as no mathematical conceptual frame was in sight, which could satisfy his methodological postulate in a sufficiently elaborative manner. For some years, he sympathized with Brouwer’s idea to characterize points in the intuitionistic one-dimensional continuum by “free choice sequences” of nested intervals, and even tried to extend the idea to higher dimensions and explored the possibility of a purely combinatorial approach to the concept of manifold, in which point-like localizations were given only by infinite sequences of nested star neighborhoods in barycentric subdivisions of a combinatorially defined “manifold”. There arose, however, the problem of how to characterize the local manifold property in purely combinatorial terms.

Weyl was much more successful on another level to rebuild differential geometry in manifolds from a “purely infinitesimal” point of view. He generalized Riemann’s proposal for a differential geometric metric

ds2(x) = ∑n i, j = 1 gij(x) dxi dxj

From his purely infinitesimal point of view, it seemed a strange effect that the length of two vectors ξ(x) and η(x’) given at different points x and x’ can be immediately and objectively compared in this framework after the calculation of

|ξ(x)|2 = ∑n i, j = 1 gij(x) ξi ξj,

|η(x’)|2 = ∑n i, j = 1 gij(x’) ηi ηj

In this context, it was, comparatively easy for Weyl, to give a perfectly infinitesimal characterization of metrical concepts. He started from a well-known structure of conformal metric, i.e. an equivalence class [g] of semi-Riemannian metrics g = gij(x) and g’ = g’ij(x), which are equal up to a point of dependent positive factor λ(x) > 0, g’ = λg. Then, comparison of length made immediate sense only for vectors attached to the same point x, independently of the gauge of the metric, i.e. the choice of the representative in the conformal class. To achieve comparability of lengths of vectors inside each infinitesimal neighborhood, Weyl introduced the conception of length connection formed in analogy to the affine connection, Γ, just distilled from the classical Christoffel Symbols Γkij of Riemannian geometry by Levi Civita. The localization inside such an infinitesimal neighborhood was given, as would have been done already by the mathematicians of the past, by coordinate parameters x and x’ = x + dx for some infinitesimal displacement dx. Weyl’s length connection consisted, then, in an equivalence class of differential I-forms [Ψ], Ψ ≡ ∑ni = 1 Ψidxi, where an equivalent representation of the form is given by Ψ’ ≡ Ψ – d log λ, corresponding to a change of gauge of the conformal metric by the factor λ. Weyl called this transformation, which he recognized as necessary for the consistency of his extended symbol system, the gauge transformation of the length connection.

Weyl established a purely infinitesimal gauge geometry, where lengths of vectors (or derived metrical concepts in tensor fields) were immediately comparable only in the infinitesimal neighborhood of one point, and for points of finite distance only after an integration procedure. this integration turned out to be, in general, path dependent. Independence of the choice of path between two points x and x’ holds if and only if the length curvature vanishes. the concept of curvature was built in direct analogy to the curvature of the affine connection and turned out to be, in this case, just the exterior derivative of the length connection f ≡ dΨ. This led Weyl to a coherent and conceptually pleasing realization of a metrical differential geometry built upon purely infinitesimal principles. moreover, Weyl was convinced of important consequences of his new gauge geometry for physics. The infinitesimal neighborhoods understood as spheres of activity as Fichte might have said, suggested looking for interpretations of the length connection as a field representing physically active quantities. In fact, building on the mathematically obvious observation df ≡ 0, which was formally identical with the second system of the generally covariant Maxwell equations, Weyl immediately drew the conclusion that the length curvature f ought to be identified with the electromagnetic field.

He, however, gave up the belief in the ontological correctness of the purely field-theoretic approach to matter, where the Mie-Hilbert theory of a combined Lagrange function L(g,Ψ) for the action of the gravitational field (g) and electromagnetism (Ψ) was further geometrized and technically enriched by the principle of gauge invariance (L), substituting in its place a philosophically motivated a priori argumentation for the conceptual superiority of his gauge geometry. The goal of a unified description of gravitation and electromagnetism, and the derivation of matter structures from it, was nothing specific to Weyl. In his theory, the purely infinitesimal approach to manifolds and the ensuing possibility to geometrically unify the two-known interaction fields gravitation and electromagnetism took on a dense and conceptually sophisticated form.