Boxing Pythagoras

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Archive for the tag “Infinity”

The Grim Reaper Paradox

There is a long tradition, in philosophy, of employing paradoxical thought experiments in order to show that our understanding of some subject is either incomplete or incorrect. Quite famously, the paradoxes of Zeno of Elea puzzled philosophers and mathematicians for millennia. These enigmas can be, at once, immensely entertaining and thoroughly maddening to contemplate.

About a year ago, I was introduced to one such thought experiment which I had not previously encountered. It is known as the Grim Reaper Paradox, and the version with which I will interact today is presented by philosopher Alexander Pruss. The thought experiment proceeds as follows:

Fred is sitting in a room at 8:00 am. There exists an infinite number of Grim Reapers along with Fred, each of which is currently dormant. When any individual Grim Reaper becomes activated, if Fred is still alive, then that Reaper will instantaneously kill Fred; however, if Fred is not alive, the Reaper will return to a dormant state and continue to do nothing. Each of the Grim Reapers is timed to activate at a specific time after 8:00 am. The last Reaper will activate at 9:00 am. The second to last activates at 8:30 am. The third from last at 8:15 am. In general, the nth from last Grim Reaper will activate after \frac {1}{2^{n+1}} hours have passed.

Now, we are guaranteed that Fred will not survive past 9:00 am. After all, if he is alive at 9:00 am, then the last Grim Reaper will activate and kill him. However, he can’t have lasted that long, either, since the previous Grim Reaper would have killed him if he had survived until it activated. In fact, we can generalize this: the nth from last Grim Reaper cannot have killed Fred, because if he had survived until \frac {1}{2^{n+1}} hours after 8:00 am, then the (n+1)st from last Grim Reaper would have killed him.

Therefore, we see that Fred cannot survive until 9:00 am, and yet we have also shown (by mathematical induction) that none of the Grim Reapers can have been the one which killed Fred. Thus, we have come to a paradox.

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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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