Boxing Pythagoras

Philosophy from the mind of a fighter

Archive for the tag “Infinitesimal”

On Wronski’s Definition of π


Joseph Nebus has recently written a couple of posts (here and here) in which he discusses an interesting attempt by Józef Maria Hoëne-Wronski to create a purely numerical definition of the mathematical constant π which is independent of the classical, geometric definition of “the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.” This has been a goal of many mathematicians, since the idea of π seems like it is more fundamental to mathematics than a definition based on circles would make it seem– as evidenced by the fact that it shows up in areas of mathematics which are seemingly unrelated to circles. Wronski’s idea, to this end, was the following formula:

\pi = \frac{4\infty}{\sqrt{-1}}\left\{ \left(1 + \sqrt{-1}\right)^{\frac{1}{\infty}} - \left(1 - \sqrt{-1}\right)^{\frac{1}{\infty}} \right\}

At first glance, the formula seems inherently nonsensical. After all, \infty is not a number, and therefore cannot be utilized in numerical operations in this way. However, one can get a sense of what Wronski may have intended by this equation. It appears that Wronski wanted to utilize \infty to represent an infinite number, and modern mathematics actually gives us several tools for handling this sort of idea. One which might be of particular use, here, is Non-Standard Analysis with its infinite and infinitesimal Hyperreal numbers. In NSA, we have the ability to perform calculations with and upon infinite numbers perfectly consistently and reasonably.

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Theology and the Actually Infinite


One of the common claims which is utilized in arguments for the existence of God is that actual infinities cannot exist, implying that there cannot be an infinite regress of causal events in the history of the universe. If there cannot be such an infinite regress, then there must be some First Cause. Theologians then put forth other arguments attempting to show that this First Cause must be God. Blake Giunta, a Christian apologist, has constructed a very interesting and quite useful website cataloging common lines of argumentation from both sides of the debate (color coded Green for Christian arguments and Red for opposing arguments), along with citations and documentation for those claims, called It does not take very long for a fairly cursory perusal of Belief Map to bring one to this exact claim regarding the actually infinite.

While I disagree with Mr. Giunta on many of his views, I have a great deal of respect for him and I think that his work with Belief Map is absolutely fantastic. He truly does attempt to give an irenic and charitable view to the positions of his opposition, and he does sincerely want to discuss the actual arguments being made, instead of being content to knock down Straw Men. To that end, I would like to help Mr. Giunta add to his encyclopedia of apologetics by addressing the manner in which one might answer the claims about actual infinities.

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Infinitesimal Calculus 2: The Changes in Change

The mathematics of change are quite interesting. In a naive sense, we can often describe a change by a simple collection of data points. For example, let’s think about a little boy rolling a ball across the floor. The boy pushes the ball, and four seconds later, the ball has come to be 2 meters away from him. Given these data points, we may attempt to connect them in some meaningful analytical manner– perhaps by saying that the ball rolled at a speed of half a meter per second. But even this is a somewhat naive bit of information, as it only really tells us something about the completed journey. Mathematicians are greedy, however; they want to be able to know about every point of the ball’s travel, at any arbitrary moment in time.

We can use a function for just such a purpose. A function is a specific mathematical tool which allows us to describe an entire set of data points all at once which we symbolize as f(x) (read “f of x“). We encode the data by means of a mathematical formula. For example, our exemplary rolling ball might well have been encoded by the function f(x)=\frac{1}{2}x, where the x represents the time, in seconds, that the ball has been rolling, and the value of the function, f(x) tells us the distance in meters which the ball has traveled in that time. In this particular function, the coefficient of x tells us the rate at which distance changes as time passes– that is, \frac{1}{2} a meter per second. When the boy first rolls it, the ball is traveling at \frac{1}{2} a meter per second; when it finishes it had been traveling at \frac{1}{2} a meter per second; and at any single point during the journey the ball is traveling at \frac{1}{2} a meter per second.

However, this is a very simple example. It describes a situation involving a constant velocity. Things become a bit more muddied when the rate at which a change occurs is, itself, changing.

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Infinitesimal Calculus 1: The Numbers Between Numbers

If I were to ask a person to name a number which comes between 1 and 3, everyone from a three-year-old child to a white-bearded great-grandfather is likely to respond by saying, “2.” If I rephrase the question to ask about a number between 1 and 2, then the young child might be confused, but a fourth-grader might be able to respond with 1\frac{1}{2}. We have to extend our understanding of what we mean by “number” to include some concepts which are not quite so intuitive. That is to say, in between the Integers, there are other numbers which are known as Rational numbers. In fact, given any Integer, n, there are an infinite number of Rational numbers which are greater than n and yet less than any other Integer which is greater than n.

There are numbers in between the Rational numbers, too. We can define some number, r, which is not equal to any Rational number. There are Rational numbers which are greater than r, and those which are less than r, but somehow our number r squeezes itself into a gap in between the Rational numbers. In order to find such a number, we need to further extend our understanding of “number” to include the Real numbers. This should all be very familiar to the average high-school student.

Now, what happens if we extend this idea one step further? Are there more numbers which are in between the Real numbers?

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On the Continuum and Indivisibles

Εἰ δ’ ἐστὶ συνεχὲς καὶ ἁπτόμενον καὶ ἐφεξῆς, ὡς διώρισται πρότερον, συνεχῆ μὲν ὧν τὰ ἔσχατα ἕν, ἁπτόμενα δ’ ὧν ἅμα, ἐφεξῆς δ’ ὧν μηδὲν μεταξὺ συγγενές, ἀδύνατον ἐξ ἀδιαιρέτων εἶναί τι συνεχές, οἷον γραμμὴν ἐκ στιγμῶν, εἴπερ ἡ γραμμὴ μὲν συνεχές, ἡ στιγμὴ δὲ ἀδιαίρετον. Οὔτε γὰρ ἓν τὰ ἔσχατα τῶν στιγμῶν (οὐ γάρ ἐστι τὸ μὲν ἔσχατον τὸ δ’ ἄλλο τι μόριον τοῦ ἀδιαιρέτου), οὔθ’ ἅμα τὰ ἔσχατα (οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ἔσχατον τοῦ ἀμεροῦς οὐδέν· ἕτερον γὰρ τὸ ἔσχατον καὶ οὗ ἔσχατον).

–Aristotle, Physics 6.1

There is a concept which is absolutely intrinsic to all of geometry and mathematics. This particular concept is utilized by every single High School student that has ever graphed a line, and yet this concept is so incredibly difficult to understand that most people cannot wrap their heads around it. I’m talking about the concept of the continuum. Basically, the idea is that geometric geometrical objects are composed of a continuous group of indivisibles, objects which literally have no size, but which cannot be considered “nothing.” Despite the fact that these individual objects have no size, they form together into groups which, as a whole, can be measured in length or height or breadth. In mathematics, objects such as lines, planes, volumes, and all other sorts of space are considered to be continua, continuous and contiguous collections of these indivisibles into a unified whole. Because these infinitesimals have no size, themselves, even finite spaces contain an infinite number of these points.

Nearly every mathematician on the planet subscribes to this point of view. However, this was not always the case. Only a little more than 100 years ago, this view was considered extremely controversial and was only held by a fringe minority of scholars. Four centuries before that, this concept was nearly unthinkable. Though it has become, without question, the prevailing view of mathematicians, even today there remain a tiny handful of scholars who object to the use of the infinitesimal, the infinite, the individible, and the continuum in modern math. One such person is Dr. Norman Wildberger, an educator and mathematician for whom I have the utmost respect.

Still, I disagree with Dr. Wildberger’s philosophy on this particular issue.

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