A Question for Philosophically Inclined Mathematicians

28 October 2010


Given the astonishing yet demonstrable consequence of the Banach-Tarski paradox, it is the sort of thing that one’s mind returns to on a regular basis in order to savor the intellectual satisfaction of it. The unnamed author of the Layman’s Guide to the Banach-Tarski Paradox explains the paradox thus:

The paradox states that it is possible to take a solid sphere (a “ball”), cut it up into a finite number of pieces, rearrange them using only rotations and translations, and re-assemble them into two identical copies of the original sphere. In other words, you’ve doubled the volume of the original sphere.

The whole of the entry at Wolfram Mathworld runs as follows:

First stated in 1924, the Banach-Tarski paradox states that it is possible to decompose a ball into six pieces which can be reassembled by rigid motions to form two balls of the same size as the original. The number of pieces was subsequently reduced to five by Robinson (1947), although the pieces are extremely complicated. (Five pieces are minimal, although four pieces are sufficient as long as the single point at the center is neglected.) A generalization of this theorem is that any two bodies in R3 that do not extend to infinity and each containing a ball of arbitrary size can be dissected into each other (i.e., they are equidecomposable).

The above-mentioned Layman’s Guide to the Banach-Tarski Paradox attempts to provide an intuitive gloss on this surprising result of set theory (making use of the axiom of choice, or some equivalent assumption), and concludes with this revealing comment:

In fact, if you think about it, this is not any stranger than how we managed to duplicate the set of all integers, by splitting it up into two halves, and renaming the members in each half so they each become identical to the original set again. It is only logical that we can continually extract more volume out of an infinitely dense, mathematical sphere S.

Before I read this today, I’d never come across such a clear and concise exposition of the Banach-Tarski paradox, and in provides food for thought. Can we pursue this extraction of volume in something like a process of transfinite recursion, arriving at some geometrical equivalent of ε0? This is an interesting question, but it isn’t the question that I started out thinking about as suitable for the philosophically inclined mathematician.

When I was thinking about the Banach-Tarski paradox today, I began wondering if a sufficiently generalized formulation of the paradox could be applied to ontology on the whole, so that we might demonstrate (perhaps not with the rigor of mathematics, but as best as anything can be demonstrated in ontology) that the world entire might be decomposed into a finite number of pieces and then reassembled into two or more identical worlds.

With the intuitive gloss quoted above, we can say that this is a possibility in so far as the world is ontologically infinitely dense. What might this mean? What would it be for the world to be ontologically dense in the way that infinite sets are infinitely dense? Well, this kind of question goes far beyond intuition, and therefore lands us in the open-texture of language that can accommodate novel uses but which has no “natural” meaning one way or the other. The open-texture of even our formal languages makes it like a quicksand: if you don’t have some kind of solid connection to solid ground, you are likely to flail away until you go under. It is precisely for this reason that Kant sought a critique of reason, so that reason would not go beyond its proper bounds, which are (as Strawson put it) the bounds of sense.

But as wary as we should be of unprecedented usages, we should also welcome them as opportunities to transcend intuitions ultimately rooted in the very soil from which we sprang. I have on many occasions in this forum argued that our ideas are ultimately derived from the landscape in which we live, by way of the way of life that is imposed upon us by the landscape. But we are not limited to that which our origins bequeathed to us. We have the power to transcend our mundane origins, and if it comes at the cost of occasional confusion and disorientation, so be it.

So I suggest that while there is no “right” answer to whether the world can be considered ontologically infinitely dense, we can give an answer to the question, and we can in fact make a rational and coherent case for our answer if only we will force ourselves to make the effort of thinking unfamiliar thoughts — always a salutary intellectual exercise.

Is the world, then, ontologically infinitely dense? Is the world everywhere continuous, so that it is truly describable by a classical theory like general relativity? Or is the world ultimately grainy, so that it must be described by a non-classical theory like quantum mechanics? At an even more abstract level, can the beings of the world be said to have any density if we do not restrict beings to spatio-temporal beings, so that our ontology is sufficiently general to embrace both the spatio-temporal and the non-spatio-temporal? This is again, as discussed above, a matter of establishing a rationally defensible convention.

I have no answer to this question at present. One ought not to expect ontological mysteries to yield themselves to a few minutes of casual thought. I will return to this, and think about it again. Someday — not likely someday soon, but someday nonetheless — I may hit upon a way of thinking about the problem that does justice to the question of the infinite density of beings in the world.

I do not think that this is quite as outlandish as it sounds. Two of the most common idioms one finds in contemporary analytical philosophy, when such philosophers choose not to speak in a technical idiom, are those of, “the furniture of the universe,” and of, “carving nature at its joints.” These are both wonderfully expressive phrases, and moreover they seem to point to a conception of the world as essentially discrete. In other words, they suggest an ultimate ontological discontinuity. If this could be followed up rigorously, we could answer the above question in the negative, but the very fact that we might possibly answer the question in the negative says two important things:

1) that the question can, at least in some ways, be meaningful, and therefore as being philosophically significant and worthy of our attention, and…

2) if a question can possibly be answered the negative, it is likely that a reasonably coherent case could also be made for answering the question in the affirmative.

The Banach-Tarski paradox is paradoxical at least in part because it does not seem to, “carve nature at the joints.” This violation of our geometrical intuition comes about as a result of the development of other intuitions, and it is ultimately the clash of intuitions that is paradoxical. Kant famously maintained that there can be no conflict among moral duties; parallel to this, it might be taken as a postulate of natural reason that there can be no conflict among intellectual intuitions. While this principle has not be explicitly formulated to my knowledge, it is an assumption pervasively present in our reasoning (that is to say, it is an intuition about our intiutions). Paradoxes as telling as the Banach-Tarski paradox (or, for that matter, most of the results of set theory) remind us of the limitations of our intuitions in addition to reminding us of the limitations of our geometrical intuition.

. . . . .

Fractals and Geometrical Intuition

1. Benoît Mandelbrot, R.I.P.

2. A Question for Philosophically Inclined Mathematicians

3. Fractals and the Banach-Tarski Paradox

4. A visceral feeling for epsilon zero

5. Adventures in Geometrical Intuition

6. A Note on Fractals and Banach-Tarski Extraction

7. Geometrical Intuition and Epistemic Space

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .


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