Boxing Pythagoras

Philosophy from the mind of a fighter

Archive for the tag “mathematics”

On Teaching Calculus

Almost universally, when Calculus is taught to modern students, we preface the entire subject by introducing those students to a concept known as a “limit.” The reason for this, historically, was to ensure that mathematics was taught in a rigorous and well-defined manner. When Leibniz (and, independently, Newton) first developed methods for performing calculus, the concept of a limit was nowhere to be found. However, the tool which these men did utilize in their work was something which they had not rigorously defined, at the time. Newton called it a “fluxion” and Leibniz called it a “differential,” but the concept was the same: a number which was not zero, but which was so small that adding it to any Real number did not yield a different Real number.

Many other mathematicians and philosophers of the time rightfully balked at the notion. It seemed entirely ludicrous. Bishop George Berkeley famously scoffed at Newton, asking if his fluxions were “the ghosts of departed quantities.” However, it was quite plain that the mathematics which Leibniz and Newton presented worked. When the results which could be found from the methods of Calculus were able to be confirmed using other methods, they were found to be accurate and true. Indeed, the Calculus was such a powerful tool that even most mathematicians and philosophers who recognized its flaws continued to utilize it in their work. Many began searching for some way to make the Calculus just as rigorous as the rest of mathematics. These efforts culminated in the work of Karl Weierstrass, who found a way to base Calculus upon a different tool. Instead of the Newtonian “fluxion” or the Leibnizian “differential,” Weierstrass gave mathematics a well-defined notion of the limit.

It is Weierstrass’ method of limits which is still taught, even to this day, in nearly every Calculus textbook in the world; but perhaps it is time to abandon this notion and return to the concept which Newton and Leibniz pioneered.

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A Variation on the Grim Reaper Paradox

In one of my earlier posts, I addressed the Grim Reaper paradox and offered my input on a possible resolution of the thought experiment’s curious implications. However, some of my readers may have been dissatisfied with my answer, thinking that it sidestepped around the issue rather than addressing the conundrum directly. A few people asked me why I thought that obscure philosophy on the nature of Time might have any relevance to the question, in the first place. To that end, I have decided to offer a bit more clarification and to attempt to illustrate why I think the Grim Reaper paradox is inherently flawed.

Consider this slightly modified version of the thought experiment…

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More on 0.999…=1

In my last post, I discussed a particular video which I found to be more than a bit misleading. The discussion centered around a simple, but extremely counterintuitive notion of mathematics: the fact that the number 0.999…, or zero-point-nine-repeating, is equal to 1.

Well, as I mentioned, the very counterintuitive nature of the result led at least one of my readers to question its validity. As such, I thought I would lay out one proof of this concept, in order to make it easier for those who do not accept the result to pinpoint exactly where they disagree. I’ll break my proof down into numbered steps, to ease in that venture.

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Yet another failed attempt at showing 0.999…≠1

I’ve discussed before how mathematics can sometimes lead to very counterintuitive results. One of the most common, and famous, of these counterintuitive properties of math is that the number 0.999… (that is, zero point nine, nine, nine, repeating) is equal to 1. This one is so well known that it is fairly often taught even to Elementary and High School students. If you are unfamiliar with this discussion, I highly recommend that you watch this video from Vi Hart, in which she discusses 10 different reasons to accept this concept. Additionally, you may have fun watching this video, in which she lampoons the common objections to the concept.

Despite the fact that it is fairly simple to prove that 0.999…=1, the concept is so counterintuitive that I find people try to struggle against it– even when they know and accept the reasoning behind the equality. One such attempt comes from Presh Talwalkar. In the following video, Mr. Talwalkar attempts to demonstrate that on the Surreal number system, 0.999…≠1.

Unfortunately for Mr. Talwalkar, he is wrong. Even on the Surreals, it is still true that 0.999…=1.

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WLC doesn’t understand infinity, Part 2

In my previous article, we began to take aim at William Lane Craig’s misconceptions regarding the nature of infinity. We continue on that theme, today, by taking a look at the further arguments which Dr. Craig makes in Part 10 of his Excursus on Natural Theology. While most of the objections which Dr. Craig espouses in this episode fall prey to the same mistakes which he was making last time, I still thought it might be instructive to respond to each one, in turn. Suffice to say, the arguments which Dr. Craig levies this time around are absolutely no better than the ones which he raised previously.

In fact, I’d argue that– for the most part– they are far worse.

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WLC doesn’t understand Infinity, Part 1

One of the topics which William Lane Craig often discusses is a question which has been argued in the Philosophy of Mathematics for at least 2300 years. Can an infinite number of things actually exist? Dr. Craig asserts that such actual infinites cannot exist. This is actually a topic which I have discussed before, on this blog, but Dr. Craig attempts to tackle the question quite differently than does Dr. Wildberger. Interestingly, Dr. Wildberger is a mathematician, and most of my objections to his argument pointed out his unfamiliarity with philosophy; while Dr. Craig, on the other hand, is a philosopher, and most of my objections to his argument will point out his unfamiliarity with mathematics.

Dr. Craig has discussed the topic of actual infinities in a number of different places, but I will be referring to his Excursus on Natural Theology, Part 9, for our discussion today. These are the same arguments which I have generally seen Dr. Craig present in his other work, but this happens to be the most recent exploration of the topic from WLC which is available to us.

Unfortunately, just as he has done many times before (see here and here, for example), William Lane Craig demonstrates that he has a rather poor grasp of the mathematics he’s attempting to discuss.

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Math is Really Weird: On Strange Sums and Counterintuitive Results

Whenever you add a finite integer to another finite integer, you always get a sum which is, itself, a finite integer. This, by itself, is not very shocking. When you add 1 to 1, you get 2. When you add 5 and -9, you get -4. When you add 0 and 299,792,458, you get 299,792,458. This is all rather unsurprising.

However, math can get weird once you start adding up an infinite collection of numbers. Take Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox, for example. Numerically, we can represent this problem as an infinite summation: S=\sum\limits _{n=1}^\infty \frac{1}{2^n}=\frac{1}{2}+\frac{1}{4}+\frac{1}{8}+\frac{1}{16}+...+\frac{1}{2^n}+... Even though we are adding up an infinite quantity of numbers, we arrive at a finite value– in this case, S=1. Arguably the most famous philosopher in history, Aristotle, would have vehemently objected to this formulation– and, in fact, did object rather loudly in his book Physics, when discussing this particular paradox. However, it has been over three centuries, now, since mathematicians would have found this problem to be controversial; and, in fact, similar cases of infinite summation form the entire basis of integral calculus. High schoolers are introduced to these concepts in their Pre-Calculus classes, nowadays, and you might even remember evaluating some of these limits of convergent sums from your own schoolwork.

But math can get far stranger, still. One of the most peculiar things in all mathematics occurs when you attempt to sum all of the Natural numbers. As absolutely insane as this might sound, today I’m going to demonstrate for you that 1+2+3+4+...=-\frac{1}{12}.

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Some Unfortunate Choices in Mathematics Terminology

Words can be tricky things. The same word can often carry wholly different meanings depending upon the context in which it is used. Take, for instance, the semantic range of the word “light.” This word can carry very different meanings when used in different contexts, as the following sentences illustrate.

  1. That feather is light.
  2. That shade of pink is light.
  3. That laserbeam is light.

Each one of these sentences is of the form “That <noun phrase> is light,” but the word “light” intends an entirely different thing, in each. In (1), “light” is a description of the weight of the feather. In (2), “light” is a description of the intensity of the shade of pink. In (3), “light” is a description of the physical nature of the laserbeam. There is a well known fallacy of logic called equivocation which involves conflating such definitions in order to arrive at a false conclusion. For example, if I said…

  1. Light things weigh less than heavy things
  2. This shade of pink is light
  3. Therefore, this shade of pink weighs less than heavy things

…my logic would be invalid, because the definitions of “light” used in (1) and (2) are completely different.

Mathematics, unfortunately, contains some terminology which tends to lead to these same sorts of equivocation fallacies, because the common usage of a word very often differs from the mathematical usage of that word. While there are numerous examples from which I could likely choose, today I’m going to focus on a case which I believe to be particularly egregious. Today, I’m going to discuss Real and Imaginary numbers.

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Proof that π=2√3

There is an inherent danger attached to blindly accepting the word of someone who sounds like they are presenting a rational, scientific claim. Too many people are willing to accept a proposition solely because they’ve heard it from someone who bears the appearance of intelligence. The line of thought seems to be, “Well, he’s smarter than me, so he must be right!” Unfortunately, this sort of fallacious reasoning goes largely unchecked, and often becomes formative in the common understanding of entire groups of people.

For almost the entirety of your mathematical education, you have been taught that the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, which we affectionately refer to as π, is something close to 3\frac{1}{7}, or about 3.14; however, today I’m going to show you that your math teachers were wrong. In actuality, the value of π is exactly 2√3, or about 3.46.

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Euclid and the Sword

I have written, often, about one of my personal heroes from history, Euclid of Alexandria, who wrote a textbook called Elements which would serve as the foundation for all Western mathematics for 2000 years. You may recall that, outside of his name and a list of his writings, we know almost nothing about Euclid. We know nothing of his birth, or his schooling, or his politics. We don’t know if he traveled extensively or if he was relatively sedentary. We don’t know if he was tall, short, fat, skinny, handsome, or ugly. However, one thing we do know is that Euclid’s work, though purely mathematical, bore a tremendous influence on a wide variety of fields of knowledge.

Euclid’s Elements set out to prove the whole of mathematics deductively from very simple definitions, axioms, and postulates. Deductive logic provided a sound and absolute basis by which mathematics operated for every man, whether rich or poor, high-born or peasant, male or female, famous or obscure. During the 16th and 17th Centuries, this strong foundation became lauded and sought after by philosophers, who began attempting to provide all philosophy with the rigor one found in the Elements. The appeal was obvious: if one could deductively prove his philosophical system, in the manner that Euclid had proved his geometry, then one would be left with incontrovertible conclusions to questions which had previously been highly disputed. Such extremely notable philosophers as Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza, amongst countless others, attempted to replicate the Definitions-Postulates-Proofs format Euclid had employed in order to settle questions of morality and ethics and governance.

Martial philosophy was no less affected, in that period. The sword and swordplay, especially, underwent a dramatic evolution during that same time. Just as Hobbes and Spinoza attempted to replicate Euclid for ethics, fencing masters similarly moved toward a more rigorous and geometric approach towards understanding combat. And, in my opinion, they were far more  successful in that endeavor than the philosophers had been.

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