One of the great myths of mathematicians is that mathematical knowledge, once proven, is solid, and not subject to later contestation. Thus, Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, writing in the New Scientist (2006-08-26), says:
Proof is supposed to be what sets mathematics apart from the other sciences. Traditionally, the subject has not been an evolutionary one in which the fittest theory survives. New insights don’t suddenly overturn the theorems of the previous generation. The subject is like a huge pyramid, with each generation building on the secure foundations of the past. The nature of proof means that mathematicians, to use Newton’s words, really do stand on the shoulders of giants.
In the past, those shoulders have been extremely steady. After all, in no other science are the discoveries of the Ancient Greeks still as valid today as they were at the time. Euclid’s 2300-year-old proof that there are infinitely many primes is perhaps the first great example of a watertight proof.
The reason for this widespread view is that mathematics uses deduction to reach its conclusions. At least, that is true of pure mathematics, or was so until computers began to be used in proofs (a topic which du Sautoy discusses in that article). But all deduction does is to show that, given some assumptions and given some rules of inference, a certain conclusion follows from those assumptions by applying those rules of inference. If either the assumptions are false or the rules of inference not acceptable, then the stated conclusions will not, in fact, follow.
Du Sautoy is quite wrong to claim that new insights do not overturn the theorems of the previous generation. The history of pure mathematics is replete with examples where proven conclusions were later revealed to depend on assumptions not made explicit, or on assumptions previously thought to be obvious but which were later shown to be false, or on rules of inference later considered invalid. For over a century, mathematicians thought that everywhere-continuous functions were also everywhere-differentiable, until shown a counter-example. For a similar period, they thought that the convergent limit of an infinite sequence of continuous functions was itself also continuous, until shown a counter-example. They thought that there could not exist a one-to-one and onto mapping between the real unit interval and the real unit square, until shown such a mapping (a so-called space-filling curve). In fact, there are infinitely-many such mappings; indeed, an uncountable infinity of them. In all these case, “proofs” of the erroneous conclusions existed, which is why the earlier mathematicians believed those conclusions. The proofs were later shown to be flawed, because they depended on (usually-implicit) assumptions which were false. For the differential calculus, the fixing effort was begun by Cauchy and Weierstrauss, using epsilon-delta arguments which were more rigorous than the proofs of the earlier generation of analysts.
Not only does Du Sautoy have his history wrong, but there is shurely shome mishtake in his mentioning Euclid here. The 19th century was consumed by a controversy over the truth-status of Euclidean geometry, and the discovery of apparently-logical alternatives to it. As clever a man as the logician and philosopher Gottlob Frege (an intellectual hero of Wittgenstein) could not get his head around the idea that these different versions of geometry could all simultaneously be true. Yet that is the conclusion mathematicians came to: that, depending on the assumptions you made about the surface on which you doing geometry, there were in fact valid alternatives to the discoveries of the Greeks: draw your triangles on the surface of a sphere, instead of on a flat plane, for example, and you could readily draw triangles whose three angles did not sum to 180 degrees. You choose your assumptions, you gets your geometry! This is not a secure pyramid of knowledge, but many pyramids, post-modernist style.
And in the first part of the 20th century, pure mathematics was consumed with a bitter argument over whether a particular rule of inference – reductio ad absurdem (RAA), or reasoning from an assumption thought to be false – was valid in deductive proofs of the existence of mathematical objects. The dissidents created their own school of pure mathematics, constructivism, which is still being studied. Indeed, it turns out that a closely-related logic, intuitionistic logic, appears naturally elsewhere in mathematics (as part of the internal structure of a topos). Once again, you choose your rules of inference, you gets your mathematical theorems.
There is no single, massive pyramid of knowledge here, as du Sautoy claims, but lots of smaller pyramids. Every so often, a great mathematician is able to devise a new conceptual framework which allows some or all of these baby pyramids to appear to be part of some larger pyramid, as Pieri and Hilbert did with geometry in the 1890s, or as Lawvere and others did with category theory as a foundation for mathematics in the 1960s. But, based on past experience, new baby pyramids will continue to be created by mathematicians arguing about the assumptions or rules of inference used in earlier proofs. To consider this process of contestation, splitting, and attempted re-unification to be somehow different to what happens in other domains of human knowledge may be comforting to mathematicians, but is myth nonetheless.