Thursday — Thanksgiving Day


Studies in Formal Thought:

Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955)

Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955)

Einstein’s Philosophy of Mathematics


For some time I have had it on my mind to return to a post I wrote about a line from Einstein’s writing, Unpacking an Einstein Aphorism. The “aphorism” in question is this sentence:

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”

…which, in the original German, was…

“Insofern sich die Sätze der Mathematik auf die Wirklichkeit beziehen, sind sie nict sicher, und insofern sie sicher sind, beziehen sie sich nicht auf die Wirklichkeit.”

Although this sentence has been widely quoted out of context until it has achieved the de facto status of an aphorism, I was wrong to call it an aphorism. This sentence, and the idea it expresses, is entirely integral with the essay in which it appears, and should not be treated in isolation from that context. I can offer in mitigation that a full philosophical commentary on Einstein’s essay would run to the length of a volume, or several volumes, but this post will be something of a mea culpa and an effort toward mitigation of the incorrect impression I previously gave that Einstein formulated this idea as an aphorism.

The first few paragraphs of Einstein’s lecture, which includes the passage quoted above, constitute a preamble on the philosophy of mathematics. Einstein wrote this sententious survey of his philosophy of mathematics in order to give the listener (or reader) enough of a methodological background that they would be able to follow Einstein’s reasoning as he approaches the central idea he wanted to get across: Einstein’s lecture was an exercise in the cultivation of geometrical intuition. Unless one has some familiarity with formal thought — usually mathematics or logic — one is not likely to have an appreciation of the tension between intuition and formalization in formal thought, nor of how mathematicians use the term “intuition.” In ordinary language, “intuition” usually means arriving at a conclusion on some matter too subtle to be made fully explicit. For mathematicians, in contrast, intuition is a faculty of the mind that is analogous to perception. Indeed, Kant made this distinction, implying its underlying parallelism, by using the terms “sensible intuition” and “intellectual intuition” (which can also be called “outer” and “inner” intuition).

Intuition as employed in this formal sense has been, through most of the history of formal thought, understood sub specie aeternitatis, i.e., possessing many of the properties once reserved for divinity: eternity, immutability, impassibility, and so on. In the twentieth century this began to change, and the formal conception of intuition came to be more understood in naturalistic terms as a faculty of the human mind, and, as such, subject to change. Here is a passage from Gödel that I have quoted many times (e.g., in Transcendental Humors), in which Gödel delineates a dynamic and changing conception of intuition:

“Turing… gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However, this argument is inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, i.e., that we understand abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them, and that more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding. There may exist systematic methods of actualizing this development, which could form part of the procedure. Therefore, although at each stage the number and precision of the abstract terms at our disposal may be finite, both (and, therefore, also Turing’s number of distinguishable states of mind) may converge toward infinity in the course of the application of the procedure.”

“Some remarks on the undecidability results” (Italics in original) in Gödel, Kurt, Collected Works, Volume II, Publications 1938-1974, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 306.

If geometrical intuition (or mathematical intuition more generally) is subject to change, it is also subject to improvement (or degradation). A logician like Gödel, acutely aware of the cognitive mechanisms by which he has come to grasp logic and mathematics, might devote himself to consciously developing intuitions, always refining and improving his conceptual framework, and straining toward developing new intuitions that would allow for the extension of mathematical rigor to regions of knowledge previously given over to Chaos and Old Night. Einstein did not make this as explicit as did Gödel, but he clearly had the same idea, and Einstein’s lecture was an attempt to demonstrate to his audience the cultivation of geometrical intuitions consistent with the cosmology of general relativity.

Einstein’s revolutionary work in physics represented at the time a new level of sophistication of the mathematical representation of physical phenomena. Mathematicized physics began with Galileo, and might be said to coincide with the advent of the scientific revolution, and the mathematization of physics reached a level of mature sophistication with Newton, who invented the calculus in order to be able to express his thought in mathematical form. The Newtonian paradigm in physics was elaborated as the “classical physics” of which Einstein and Infeld, like mathematical parallels of Edward Gibbon, recorded the decline and fall.

Between Einstein and Newton a philosophical revolution in mathematics occurred. The philosophy of mathematics formulated by Kant is taken by many philosophers to express the conception of mathematics to be found in Newton; I do not agree with this judgment, as much for historiographical reasons as for philosophical reasons. But perhaps if we scrape away the Kantian idealism and subjectivism there might well be a core of Newtonian philosophy of mathematics in Kant, or, if you prefer, a core of Kantian philosophy of mathematics intimated in Newton. For present purposes, this is neither here nor there.

The revolution that occurred between Newton and Einstein was the change to hypothetico-deductivism from that which preceded it. So what was it that preceded the hypothetico-deductive conception of formal systems in mathematics? I call this earlier form of mathematics, i.e., I call pre-hypothetico-deductive mathematics, categorico-deductive mathematics, because the principles or axioms now asserted hypothetically were once asserted categorically, in the belief that the truths of formal thought, i.e., of logic and mathematics, were eternal, immutable, unchanging truths, recognized by the mind’s eye as incontrovertible, indubitable, necessary truths as soon as they were glimpsed. It was often said (and is sometimes still today said), that to understand an axiom is ipso facto to see that it must be true; this is the categorico-deductive perspective.

In mathematics as it is pursued today, as an exercise in hypothetico-deductive reasoning, axioms are posited not because they are held to be necessarily true, or self-evidently true, or undeniably true; axioms need not be true at all. Axioms are posited because they are an economical point of origin for the fruitful derivation of consequences. This revolution in mathematical rigor transformed the landscape of mathematical thought so completely that Bertrand Russell, writing in the early twentieth century could write, “…mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.” Here formal, logical truth is entirely insulated from empirical, intuitive truth. It is at least arguable that the new formalisms made possible by the hypothetico-deductive method are at least partially responsible for Einstein’s innovations in physics. (I have earlier touched on Einstein’s conception of formalism in A Century of General Relativity and Constructive Moments within Non-Constructive Thought.)

If you are familiar with Einstein’s lecture, and especially with the opening summary of Einstein’s philosophy of mathematics, you will immediately recognize that Einstein formulates his position around the distinction between the categorico-deductive (which Einstein calls the “older interpretation” of axiomatics) and the hypothetico-deductive (which Einstein calls the “modern interpretation” of axiomatics). Drawing upon this distinction, Einstein gives us a somewhat subtler and more flexible formulation of the fundamental disconnect between the formal and the material than that which Russell paradoxically thrusts in our face. By formulating his distinction in terms of “as far as,” Einstein implies that there is a continuum of the dissociation between what Einstein called the “logical-formal” and “objective or intuitive content.”

Einstein then goes on to assert that a purely logical-formal account of mathematics joined together with the totality of physical laws allows us to say something, “about the behavior of real things.” The logical-formal alone can can say nothing about the real world; in its isolated formal purity it is perfectly rigorous and certain, but also impotent. This marvelous structure must be supplemented with empirical laws of nature, empirically discovered, empirically defined, empirically applied, and empirically tested, in order to further our knowledge of the world. Here we see Einstein making use of the hypothetico-deductive method, and supplementing it with contemporary physical theory; significantly, in order to establish a relationship between the formalisms of general relativity and the actual world he didn’t try to turn back the clock by returning to categorico-deductivism, but took up hypothetic-deductivism and ran with it.

But all of this is mere prologue. The question that Einstein wants to discuss in his lecture is the spatial extension of the universe, which Einstein distills to two alternatives:

1. The universe is spatially infinite. This is possible only if in the universe the average spatial density of matter, concentrated in the stars, vanishes, i.e., if the ratio of the total mass of the stars to the volume of the space through which they are scattered indefinitely approaches zero as greater and greater volumes are considered.

2. The universe is spatially finite. This must be so, if there exists an average density of the ponderable matter in the universe that is different from zero. The smaller that average density, the greater is the volume of the universe.

Albert Einstein, Geometry and Experience, Lecture before the Prussian Academy of Sciences, January 27, 1921. The last part appeared first in a reprint by Springer, Berlin, 1921

It is interesting to note, especially in light of the Kantian distinction noted above between sensible and intellectual intuition, that one of Kant’s four antinomies of pure reason was whether or not the universe was finite or infinite in extent. Einstein has taken this Kantian antimony of pure reason and has cast it in a light in which it is no longer exclusively the province of pure reason, and so may be answered by the methods of science. To this end, Einstein presents the distinction between a finite universe and an infinite universe in the context of the density of matter — “the ratio of the total mass of the stars to the volume of the space through which they are scattered” — which is a question that may be determined by science, whereas the purely abstract terms of the Kantian antimony allowed for no scientific contribution to the solution of the question. For Kant, pure reason could gain no traction on this paralogism of pure reason; Einstein gains traction by making the question less pure, and moves toward more engagement with reality and therefore less certainty.

It was the shift from categorico-deductivism to hypothetico-deductivism, followed by Einstein’s “completion” of geometry by the superaddition of empirical laws, that allows Einstein to adopt a methodology that is both rigorous and scientifically fruitful. (“We will call this completed geometry ‘practical geometry,’ and shall distinguish it in what follows from ‘purely axiomatic geometry’.”) Where the simplicity of Euclidean geometry allows for the straight-forward application of empirical laws to “practically-rigid bodies” then the simplest solution of Euclidean geometry is preferred, but where this fails, other geometries may be employed to resolve the apparent contradiction between mathematics and empirical laws. Ultimately, the latter is found to be the case — “the laws of disposition of rigid bodies do not correspond to the rules of Euclidean geometry on account of the Lorentz contraction” — and so it is Riemannian geometry rather than Euclidean geometry that is the mathematical setting of general relativity.

Einstein’s use of Riemannian geometry is significant. The philosophical shift from categorico-deductivism to hypothetico-deductivism could be reasonably attributed to (or, at least, to follow from) the nineteenth century discovery of non-Euclidean geometries, and this discovery is an interesting and complex story in itself. Gauss (sometimes called the “Prince of Mathematicians”) discovered non-Euclidean geometry, but published none of it in his lifetime. It was independently discovered by the Hungarian János Bolyai (the son of a colleague of Gauss) and the Russian Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky. Both Bolyai and Lobachevsky arrived at non-Euclidean geometry by adopting the axioms of Euclid but altering the axiom of parallels. The axioms of parallels had long been a sore spot in mathematics; generation after generation of mathematicians had sought to prove the axiom of parallels from the other axioms, to no avail. Bolyai and Lobachevsky found that they could replace the axiom of parallels with another axiom and derive perfectly consistent but strange and unfamiliar geometrical theorems. This was the beginning of the disconnect between the logical-formal and objective or intuitive content.

Riemann also independently arrived at non-Euclidean geometry, but by a different route than that taken by Bolyai and Lobachevsky. Whereas the latter employed the axiomatic method — hence its immediate relevance to the shift from the categorico-deductive to the hypothetico-deductive — Riemann employed a metrical method. That is to say, Riemann’s method involved measurements of line segments in space defined by the distance between two points. In Euclidean space, the distance between two points is given by a formula derived from the Pythagorean theorem — d = √(x2x1)2 + (y2y1)2 — so that in non-Euclidean space the distance between two points could be given by some different equation.

Whereas the approach of Bolyai and Lobachevsky could be characterized as variations on a theme of axiomatics, Riemann’s approach could be characterized as variations on a theme of analytical geometry. The applicability to general relativity becomes clear when we reflect how, already in antiquity, Eratosthenes was able to determine that the Earth is a sphere by taking measurements on the surface of the Earth. By the same token, although we are embedded in the spacetime continuum, if we take careful measurements we can determine the curvature of space, and perhaps also the overall geometry of the universe.

From a philosophical standpoint, it is interesting to ask if there is an essential relationship between the method of a non-Euclidean geometry and the geometrical intuitions engaged by these methods. Both Bolyai and Lobachevsky arrived at hyperbolic non-Euclidean geometry (an infinitude of parallel lines) whereas Riemann arrived at elliptic non-Euclidean geometry (no parallel lines). I will not attempt to analyze this question here, though I find it interesting and potentially relevant. The non-Euclidean structure of Einstein’s general relativity is more-or-less a three dimensional extrapolation of the elliptic two dimensional surface of a sphere. Our minds cannot conceive this (at least, my mind can’t conceive of it, but there may be mathematicians who, having spent their lives thinking in these terms, are able to visualize three dimensional spatial curvature), but we can formally work with the mathematics, and if the measurements we take of the universe match the mathematics of Riemannian elliptical space, then space is curved in a way such that most human beings cannot form any geometrical intuition of it.

Einstein’s lecture culminates in an attempt to gently herd his listeners toward achieving such an impossible geometrical intuition. After a short discussion of the apparent distribution of mass in the universe (in accord with Einstein’s formulation of the dichotomy between an infinite or a finite universe), Einstein suggests that these considerations point to a finite universe, and then explicitly asks in his lecture, “Can we visualize a three-dimensional universe which is finite, yet unbounded?” Einstein offers a visualization of this by showing how an infinite Euclidean plane can be mapped onto a finite surface of a sphere, and then suggesting an extrapolation from this mapping of an infinite two dimensional Euclidean space to a finite but unbounded two dimensional elliptic space as a mapping from an infinite three dimensional Euclidean space to a finite but unbounded three dimensional elliptic space. Einstein explicitly acknowledges that, “…this is the place where the reader’s imagination boggles.”

Given my own limitations when it comes to geometrical intuition, it is no surprise that I cannot achieve any facility in the use of Einstein’s intuitive method, though I have tried to perform it as a thought experiment many times. I have no doubt that Einstein was able to do this, and much more besides, and that it was, at least in part, his mastery of sophisticated forms of geometrical intuition that had much to do with his seminal discoveries in physics and cosmology. Einstein concluded his lecture by saying, “My only aim today has been to show that the human faculty of visualization is by no means bound to capitulate to non-Euclidean geometry.”

Above I said it would be an interesting question to pursue whether there is an essential relationship between formalisms and the intuitions engaged by them. This problem returns to us in a particularly compelling way when we think of Einstein’s effort in this lecture to guide his readers toward conceiving of the universe as finite and unbounded. When Einstein gave this lecture in 1922 he maintained a steady-state conception of the universe. About the same time the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann was formulating solutions to Einstein’s field equations that employed expanding and contracting universes, of which Einstein himself did not approve. It wasn’t until Einstein met with Georges Lemaître in 1927 that we know something about Einstein’s engagement with Lemaître’s cosmology, which would become the big bang hypothesis. (Cf. the interesting sketch of their relationship, Einstein and Lemaître: two friends, two cosmologies… by Dominique Lambert.)

Ten years after Einstein delivered his “Geometry and Experience” lecture he was hesitantly beginning to accept the expansion of the universe, though he still had reservations about the initial singularity in Lemaître’s cosmology. Nevertheless, Einstein’s long-standing defense of the counter-intuitive idea (which he attempted to make intuitively palatable) of a finite and unbounded universe would seem to have prepared his mind for Lemaître’s cosmology, as Einstein’s finite and unbounded universe is a natural fit with the big bang hypothesis: if the universe began from an initial singularity at a finite point of time in the past, then the universe derived from the initial singularity would still be finite any finite period of time after the initial singularity. Just as we find ourselves on the surface of the Earth (i.e., our planetary endemism), which is a finite and unbounded surface, so we seem to find ourselves within a finite and unbounded universe. Simply connected surfaces of these kinds possess a topological parsimony and hence would presumably be favored as an explanation for the structure of the world in which we find ourselves. Whether our formalisms (i.e., those formalisms accessible to the human mind, i.e., intuitively tractable formalisms) are conductive to this conception, however, is another question for another time.

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An illustration from Einstein’s lecture Geometry and Experience

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Studies in Formalism

1. The Ethos of Formal Thought

2. Epistemic Hubris

3. Parsimonious Formulations

4. Foucault’s Formalism

5. Cartesian Formalism

6. Doing Justice to Our Intuitions: A 10 Step Method

7. The Church-Turing Thesis and the Asymmetry of Intuition

8. Unpacking an Einstein Aphorism

9. The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

10. Einstein on Geometrical intuition

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Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was part of the efflourescence of formal thinking focused on logic and mathematics.

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was part of an early twentieth century efflorescence of formal thinking focused on logic and mathematics.

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Friday


The thesis that epistemic space is primarily shaped and structured by geometrical intuition may be equated with Bergson’s exposition of the spatialization of the intellect. Bergson devoted much of his philosophical career to a critique of the same. Bergson’s exposition of spatialization is presented in terms of a sweeping generality as the spatialization of time, but a narrower conception of spatialization in terms of the spatialization of consciousness or of human thought follows from and constitutes a special case of spatialization.

One might well ask, in response to Bergson, how we might think of things in non-spatial terms, and the answer to this question is quite long indeed, and would take us quite far afield. Now, there is nothing wrong with going quite far afield, especially in philosophy, and much can be learned from the excursion.

There is a famous passage in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus about “logical space,” at once penetrating and obscure (like much in the Tractatus), and much has been read into this by other philosophers (again, like much in the Tractatus). Here is section 1.13:

“The facts in logical space are the world.”

And here is section 3.42:

“Although a proposition may only determine one place in logical space, the whole logical space must already be given by it. (Otherwise denial, the logical sum, the logical product, etc., would always introduce new elements — in co-ordination.) (The logical scaffolding round the picture determines the logical space. The proposition reaches through the whole logical space.)”

I will not attempt an exposition of these passages; I quote them here only to give the reader of flavor of Wittgenstein’s . Clearly the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus approached the world synchronically, and a synchronic perspective easily yields itself to spatial expression, which Wittgenstein makes explicit in his formulations in terms of logical space. And here is one more quote from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, from section 2.013:

“Every thing is, as it were, in a space of possible atomic facts. I can think of this space as empty, but not of the thing without the space.”

I find this particularly interesting because it is, essentially, a Kantian argument. I discussed just this argument of Kant’s in Kantian Non-Constructivism. It was a vertiginous leap of non-constructive thought for the proto-constructivist Kant to argue that he could imagine empty space, but not spatial objects without the space, and it is equally non-constructive for Wittgenstein to make the same assertion. But it gives us some insight into Wittgenstein’s thinking.

Understanding the space of atomic facts as logical space, we can see that logical space is driven by logical necessity to relentlessly expand until it becomes a kind of Parmenidean sphere of logical totality. This vision of logical space realizes virtually every concern Bergson had for the falsification of experience given the spatialization of the intellect. The early Wittgenstein represents the logical intellect at its furthest reach, and Wittgenstein does not disappoint on this score.

While Wittgenstein abandoned this kind of static logical totality in this later thought, others were there to pick up the torch and carry it in their own directions. An interesting example of this is Donald Davidson’s exposition of logical geography:

“…I am happy to admit that much of the interest in logical form comes from an interest in logical geography: to give the logical form of a sentence is to give its logical location in the totality of sentences, to describe it in a way that explicitly determines what sentences it entails and what sentences it is entailed by. The location must be given relative to a specific deductive theory; so logical form itself is relative to a theory.”

Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events, pp. 139-140

In a more thorough exposition (someday, perhaps), I would also discuss Frege’s exposition of concepts in terms of spatial areas, and investigate the relationship between Frege and Wittgenstein in the light of their shared equation of logic and space. (I might even call this the principle of spatial-logical equivalence, which principle would be the key that would unlock the relationship between epistemic space and geometrical intuition.)

Certainly the language of spatiality is well-suited to an exposition of human thought — whether it is uniquely suited is an essentialist question. But we must ask at this point if human thought is specially suited to a spatial exposition, or if a spatial exposition is especially suited for an exposition of human thought. It is a question of priority — which came first, the amenability of spatiality to the mind, or the amenability of the mind to spatiality? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Is the mind essentially spatial, or is space essentially intellectual? (The latter position might be assimilated to Kantianism.)

From the perspective of natural history, recent thought on human origins has shifted from the idea of a “smart ape” to the idea of a “bipedal ape,” the latter with hands now free to grasp and to manipulate the environment. Before this, before human beings were human, our ancestors lived in trees where spatial depth perception was crucial to survival, hence our binocular vision from two eyes placed side by side in the front of the face. Color vision additional made it possible to identify the ripeness of fruit hanging in the trees. In other words, we are a visual species from way back, predating even our minds in their present form.

With this observation it becomes obvious that the human mind emerged and evolved under strongly visual selection pressure. Moreover, visual selection pressure means spatial selection pressure, so it is no wonder that the categories native to the human mind are intrinsically spatial. Those primates with the keenest ability to process spatial information in the form of visual stimuli would have had a differential survival and reproductive advantage. This is not accidental, but follows from our natural history.

But now I have mentioned “natural history” again, and I pause. Temporal selection pressure has been no less prevasive than spatial selection pressure. All life is a race against time to survive as long as possible while producing as many viable offspring as possible. Here we come back to Bergson again. Why does the intellect spatialize, when time is as pervasive and as inescapable as space in human experience?

With this question ringing in our ears, and the notable examples of philosophical logical-spatial equivalence mentioned above, why should we not have (parallel to Wittgenstein’s exposition of logical space) logical time and (parallel to Davidson’s exposition of logical geography) logical history?

To think through the idea of logical history is so foreign that is sounds strange even to say it: logical time? Logical history? These are not phrases with intuitive self-evidence. At least, they have very little intuitive self-evidence for the spatializing intellect. But in fact a re-formulation of Davidson’s logical geography in temporal-historical terms works quite well:

…the logical form of a sentence is to give its logical position in the elapsed sequence of sentences, to describe it in a way that explicitly determines what are following sentences it entails and what previous sentences it is entailed by…

Perhaps I ought to make the effort to think things through temporally in the same way that I have previously described how I make the effort to think things through selectively when I catch myself thinking in teleological terms.

In the meantime, it seems that our geometrical intuition is a faculty of mind refined by the same forces that have selected us for our remarkable physical performance. And as with our physical performance, which is rendered instinctive, second nature, and unconscious simply through our ordinary interaction with the world (all the things we must do anyway in order to survive), our geometrical intuition is often so subtle and so unconsciously sophisticated that we do not even notice it until we are presented with some Gordian knot that forces us to think explicitly in spatial terms. Faced with such a problem, we create sciences like topology, but before we have created such a science we already have an intellect strangely suited to the formulation of such a science. And, as I have written elsewhere, we have no science of time. We have science-like measurements of time, and time as a concept in scientific theories, but no scientific theory of time as such.

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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

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Thursday


big-history-timeline 2

Yesterday’s longish post The Origins of Time occupied me for quite some time. Parts of it appeared in fragmentary form on my Tumblr blog, Grand Strategy Annex, in the posts on The Experience of Innocence and Innocence and Time Consciousness. I also made notes and occasional sketches in my notebooks as I was working on these ideas.

Below is one sketch that I made last summer in order to try to sum up the idea of the construction of ecological temporality in a way that would appeal to geometrical intuition.

While this drawing is too schematic and too simple to be quite true, it nevertheless has a certain value, as all abstractions have a certain value. And that’s what this is: a sketch of an abstraction.

This is an attempt to delineate the large scale structures of space and time from the standpoint not of physics or cosmology (which is how we are accustomed to seeing exposition of the large scale structure of space and time) but from a philosophical perspective. What I was trying to show with this image was how time has its origins in micro-temporal interactions, and is predominately a temporality of micro-temporality until larger structures emerge along with the larger temporal structures entailed by these larger structures. As larger structures emerge, micro-temporality becomes less central to the way the world works, and the less comprehensive forms of temporality fall away as the center of cosmological history migrates to the larger structures.

In my closing speculation of yesterday’s The Origin of Time I suggested that the ultimate telos of civilization is for humanistic temporality and cosmological temporality to merge, and if this should come to pass, it would come to pass at the farthest reach of metaphysical temporality.

I have also incorporated in the drawing above what should have been obvious to me earlier, which is to abbreviate metaphysical temporality as meta-temporality (the same thing can be done with metaphysical ecology rendered as meta-ecology). The abbreviation of “metaphyscial” to “meta-” is then readily assimilated to the familiar ecological levels of mirco-, meso-, exo-, and macro-, to which we now add meta-.

An interesting lesson to take away from the relation of this drawing to my ideas about ecological temporality and the origins of time is that an image can express an abstraction as readily as can words, though we do not ordinarily think of pictures, sketches, videos, illustrations, and so forth as abstractions. Indeed, we typically think of images as giving concrete embodiment to an idea that was difficult to grasp on the basis of a text alone. But this is not so. Illustrations are not easy to understand because of their concreteness; illustrations are easy to understand because of the role of geometrical intuition in human thought.

Vision plays a disproportionate role in human knowledge. We know that, for other species, the relative contribution of the senses constitutes a different mix in each case. For dogs, smell plays a very large role; for bats and dolphins, hearing plays a disproportionate role; perhaps eagles are in a similar boat with us, relying as they do on particularly keen eyesight to detect prey on the ground from flying altitude.

We don’t even have electro-receptors like a shark or pits like a pit viper, so we can’t know what it is like to be a shark or a viper (to borrow a phrase from the famous Thomas Nagel essay, What is it like to be a bat?). Since we have ears and noses we can at least make a guess as to what it is like to live a life in which these senses play a disproportionate role in experience.

While we can augment our senses with instrumentation, we are more or less stuck with the cognitive architecture that evolved under selection pressures directly bearing upon those senses crucial to our physical survival and reproduction. Because the ancestors of human beings took the path of relying on our vision — probably binocular stereoscopic vision for swinging through the branches of trees and color vision for distinguishing the ripeness of fruit — we have a cognitive architecture that is heavily integrated with visual processing power.

So, we have the minds we have, and while we have learned to help them along a bit with languages and ideas, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I take it that this is one reason that Wittgenstein said Nothing contrasts with the form of the world.

The form of our world is a visual world, and in a visual world geometrical intuition counts for a lot. And since geometrical intuition counts for a lot, geometrical abstractions — i.e., images that illustrate abstractions — also count for a lot.

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Friday


Stephan Banach and Alfred Tarski

Further to my recent posts on fractals and the Banach-Tarski Paradox (A Question for Philosophically Inclined Mathematicians, Fractals and the Banach-Tarski Paradox, A visceral feeling for epsilon zero, and Adventures in Geometrical Intuition), I realized how the permutations of formal methodology can be schematically delineated in regard to the finitude or infinitude of the number of iterations and the methods of iteration.

Many three dimensional fractals have been investigated, but I don't know of any attempts to show an infinite fractal such that each step of the interation involves an infinite process. One reason for this as no such fractal could be generated by a computer even in its first iteration. Such a fractal can only be seen in the mind's eye. Among the factors that led to the popularity of fractals were the beautifully detailed and colored illustrations generated by computers. Mechanized assistance to intuition has its limits.

The Banach-Tarski Paradox involves a finite number of steps, but for the Banach-Tarski paradox to work the sphere in question must be infinitely divisible, and in fact we must treat the sphere like a set of points with the cardinal of the continuum. Each step in Banach-Tarski extraction is infinitely complex because it must account for an infinite set of points, but the number of steps required to complete the extraction are finite. This is schematically the antithesis of a fractal, which latter involves an infinite number of steps, but each step of the construction of the fractal is finite. Thus we can see for ourselves the first few iterations of a fractal, and we can use computers to run fractals through very large (though still finite) numbers of iterations. A fractal only becomes infinitely complex and infinitely precise when it is infinitely iterated; before it reaches its limit, it is finite in every respect. This is one reason fractals have such a strong hold on mathematical intuition.

A sphere decomposed according to the Banach-Tarski method is assumed to be mathematically decomposable into an infinitude of points, and therefore it is infinitely precise at the beginning of the extraction. The Banach-Tarski Paradox begins with the presumption of classical continuity and infinite mathematical precision, as instantiated in the real number system, since the sphere decomposed and reassembled is essentially equivalent to the real number system. There is a sense, then, in which the Banach-Tarski extraction is platonistic and non-constructive, while fractals are constructivistic. This is interesting, but we will not pursue this any further except to note once again that computing is essentially constructivistic, and no computer can function non-constructively, which implies that fractals are exactly what Benoît Mandelbrot said that they were not: an artifact of computing. However, the mathematical purity of fractals can be restored to its honor by an extrapolation of fractals into non-constructive territory, and this is exactly what an infinite fractal is, i.e., a fractal each step of the iteration of which is infinite.

Are fractals a mere artifact of computing technology? Certainly we can say that computers have been crucial to the development of fractals, but fractals need not be limited by the finite parameters of computing.

Once we see the schematic distinction between the finite operation and infinite iteration of fractals in contradistinction to the infinite operation and finite iteration of the Banach-Tarski extraction, two other possibilities defined by the same schematism appear: finite operation with finite iteration, and infinite operation with infinite iteration. The former — finite operation with finite iteration — is all of finite mathematics: finite operations that never proceed beyond finite iterations. All of the mathematics you learned in primary school is like this. Contemporary mathematicians sometimes call this primitive recursive arithmetic (PRA). The latter — infinite operation with infinite iteration — is what I recently suggested in A visceral feeling for epsilon zero: if we extract an infinite number of spheres by the Banach-Tarski method an infinite number of times, we essentially have an infinite fractal in which each step is infinite and the iteration is infinite.

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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

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signature

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Sunday


Euclid provided the model of formal thought with his axiomatization of geometry, but Euclid also, if perhaps unwittingly, provided the model of intuitive mathematical thought by his appeals to geometrical intuition.

Over the past few days I’ve posted several strictly theoretical pieces that have touched on geometrical intuition and what I have elsewhere called thinking against the grainA Question for Philosophically Inclined Mathematicians, Fractals and the Banach-Tarski Paradox, and A visceral feeling for epsilon zero.

Benoît Mandelbrot rehabilitated geometrical intuition.

Not long previously, in my post commemorating the passing of Benoît Mandelbrot, I discussed the rehabilitation of geometrical intuition in the wake of Mandelbrot’s work. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century work in the foundations of mathematics largely made the progress that it did by consciously forswearing geometrical intuition and seeking instead logically rigorous foundations that made no appeal to our ability to visualize or conceive particular spatial relationships. Mandelbrot said that, “The eye had been banished out of science. The eye had been excommunicated.” He was right, but the logically motivated foundationalists were right also: we are misled by geometrical intuition at least as often as we are led rightly by it.

Kurt Gödel was part of the tradition of logically rigorous foundationalism, but he did not reject geometrical intuition on that account.

Geometrical intuition, while it suffered during a period of relative neglect, was never entirely banished, never excommunicated to the extent of being beyond rehabilitation. Even Gödel, who formulated his paradoxical theorems employing the formal machinery of arithmetization, therefore deeply indebted to the implicit critique of geometrical intuition, wrote: “I only wanted to show that an innate Euclidean geometrical intuition which refers to reality and is a priori valid is logically possible and compatible with the existence of non-Euclidean geometry and with relativity theory.” (Collected Papers, Vol. III, p. 255) This is, of course, to damn geometrical intuition by way of faint praise, but being damned by faint praise is not the same as being condemned (or excommunicated). Geometrical intuition was down, but not out.

As Gödel observed, even non-Euclidean geometries are compatible with Euclidean geometrical intuition. When non-Euclidean geometries were first formulated by Bolyai, Lobachevski, and Riemann (I suppose I should mention Gauss too), they were interpreted as a death-blow to geometrical intuition, but it became apparent as these discoveries were integrated into the body of mathematical knowledge that what the non-Euclidean geometries had done was not to falsify geometrical intuition by way of counter-example, but to extend geometrical intuition through further (and unexpected) examples. The development of mathematics here exhibits not Aristotelian logic but Hegelian dialectical logic: Euclidean geometry was the thesis, non-Euclidean geometry was the antithesis, and contemporary geometry, incorporating all of these discoveries, is the synthesis.

Bertrand Russell was a major player in extending the arithmetization of analysis by pursing the logicization of arithmetic.

Bertrand Russell, who was central in the philosophical struggle to find rigorous logical formulations for mathematical theories that had previously rested on geometrical intuition, wrote: “A logical theory may be tested by its capacity for dealing with puzzles, and it is a wholesome plan, in thinking about logic, to stock the mind with as many puzzles as possible, since these serve much the same purpose as is served by experiments in physical science.” (from the famous “On Denoting” paper) Though Russell thought of this as a test of logical theories, it is also a wholesome plan to stock the mind with counter-intuitive geometrical examples. Non-Euclidean geometry greatly contributed to the expansion and extrapolation of geometrical intuition by providing novel examples toward which intuition can expand.

In the interest of offering exercises and examples for geometrical intuition, In Fractals and the Banach-Tarski Paradox I suggested the construction of a fractal by raising a cube on each side of a cube. I realized that if instead of raising a cube we sink a cube inside, it would make for an interesting pattern. With a cube of the length of 3, six cubes indented into this cube, each of length 1, would meet the other interior cubes at a single line.

If we continue this iteration the smaller cubes inside (in the same proportion) would continue to meet along a single line. Iterated to infinity, I suspect that this would look interesting. I’m sure it’s already been done, but I don’t know the literature well enough to cite its previous incarnations.

The two dimensional version of this fractal looks like a square version of the well-known Sierpinski triangle, and the pattern of fractal division is quite similar.

One particularly interesting counter-intuitive curiosity is the ability to construct a figure of infinite length starting with an area of finite volume. If we take a finite square, cut it in half, and put the halves end-to-end, and then cut one of the halves again, and again put them end-to-end, and iterate this process to infinity (as with a fractal construction, though this is not a fractal), we take the original finite volume and stretch it out to an infinite length.

With a little cleverness we can make this infinite line constructed from a finite volume extend infinitely in both directions by cutting up the square and distributing it differently. Notice that, with these constructions, the area remains exactly the same, unlike Banach-Tarski constructions in which additional space is “extracted” from a mathematical continuum (which could be of any dimension).

Thinking of these above two constructions, it occurred to me that we might construct an interesting fractal from the second infinite line of finite area. This is unusual, because fractals usually aren’t constructed from rearranging areas in quite this way, but it is doable. We could take the middle third of each segment, cut it into three pieces, and assemble a “U” shaped construction in the middle of the segment. This process can be iterated with every segment, and the result would be a line that is infinite two over: it would be infinite in extent, and it would be infinite between any two arbitrary points. This constitutes another sense in which we might construct an infinite fractal.

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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

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signature

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Saturday


In many posts to this forum, and most recently in a couple of posts about fractals — A Question for Philosophically Inclined Mathematicians and Fractals and the Banach-Tarski Paradox — I have discussed the cultivations of novel forms of intellectual intuition that allow us to transcend our native intuitions which make many demonstrable truths counter-intuitive. The cultivation of intuition is a long and arduous process; there is no royal road to it, just as Euclid once informed a king that there was no royal road to geometry.

The good news is that the more people work on difficult ideas, the easier they can make them for others. That is why it is often said that we see farther because we stand on the shoulders of giants. I have pointed out before that the idea of zero was once very advanced mathematics mastered by only a select few; now it is taught in elementary schools. People who are fascinated by ideas are always looking for new and better ways to explain them. This is a social and cultural process that makes difficult and abstract ideas widely accessible. Today, for example, with the emphasis on visual modes of communication, people spend a lot of time trying to come up with striking graphics and diagrams to illustrate an idea, knowing that if they can show what they are saying in an intuitively clear way, that they will make their point all the better.

What is required for this intuitivization of the counter-intuitive is a conceptual effort to see things in a new way, and moreover a new way that appeals to latent forms of intuition that can then be developed into robust forms of intuition. Every once in a while, someone hits upon a truly inspired intuitivization of that which was once counter-intuitive, and the whole of civilization is advanced by this individual effort of a single mind to understand better, more clearly, more transparently. By the painfully slow methods of autodidacticism I eventually came to an intuitive understanding of ε0, though I’m not sure that my particular way of coming to this understanding will be of any help to others, though it was a real revelation to me. Someplace, buried in my notebooks of a few years ago, I made a note on the day that I had my transfinite epiphany.

My recent discussion of the Banach-Tarski Paradox provides another way to think about ε0. I don’t know the details of the derivation, but if the geometrical case is anything like the arithmetical case, it would be just as easy to extract two spheres from a given sphere as to extract one. I’ve drawn an illustration of this as a branching iteration, where each sphere leads to two others (above but one). Iterated to infinity, we come to an infinite number of mathematical spheres, just as we would with the one-by-one iteration illustrated above. But, if for technical reasons, this doesn’t work, we can always derive one sphere from every previous sphere (I have also attempted to illustrate this (immediately above), which gives us a similar result as the branching iteration.

Notice that the Banach-Tarski Paradox is called a paradox and not a contradiction. It is strange, but it in no way contradicts itself; the paradox is paradoxical but logically unimpeachable. One of the things are drives home how paradoxical it is, is that a mathematical sphere (which must be infinitely divisible for the division to work) can be decomposed into a finite number of parts and finitely reassembled into two spheres. This makes the paradox feel tantalizingly close to something we might do without own hands, and not only in our minds. Notice also that fractals, while iterated to infinity, involve only a finite process at each step of iteration. That is to say, the creation of a fractal is an infinite iteration of finite operations. This makes it possible to at least begin the illustration of fractal, even if we can’t finish it. But we need not stop at this point, mathematically speaking. I have paradoxically attempted to illustrate the unillustratable (above) by showing an iteration of Banach-Tarski sphere extraction that involves extracting an infinite number of spheres at each step.

An illustration can suggest, but it cannot show, an infinite operation. Instead, we employ the ellipsis — “…” — to illustrate that which has been left out (which is the infinite part that can’t be illustrated). With transfinite arithmetic, it is just as each to extract an infinite number of arithmetical series from a given arithmetical series, as it is to extract one. If the same is true of Banach-Tarski sphere extraction (which I do not know to be the case), then, starting with a single sphere, at the first iteration we extract an infinite number of spheres from the first sphere. At the second iteration, we extract an infinite number of spheres from the previously extracted infinite number of spheres. We continue this process until we have an infinite iteration of infinite extractions. At that point, we will have ε0 spheres.

In my illustration I have adopted the convention of using “ITR” as an abbreviation of “iteration,” each level of iteration is indicated by a lower-case letter a, b, c, …, n, followed by a subscript to indicate the number of spheres extracted at this level of iteration, 1, 2, 3, …, n. Thus ITRanbn refers to the nth sphere from iteration b which in turn is derived from the nth sphere of iteration a. I think this schemata is sufficiently general and sufficiently obvious for infinite iteration, though it would lead to expressions of infinite length.

If you can not only get your mind accustomed to this, but if you can actually feel it in your bones, then you will have an intuitive grasp of ε0, a visceral feeling of epsilon zero. As I said above, it took me many years to achieve this. When I did finally “get it” I felt like Odin on the Day of the Discovery of the Runes, except that my mind hung suspended for more then nine days — more like nine years.

Odin was suspended for nine days upon the world tree Yggdrasil in his quest to know the secret of the Runes.

I will also note that, if you can see the big picture of this geometrical realization of epsilon zero, you will immediately notice that it possesses self-similarly, and therefore constitutes an infinite fractal. We could call it an infinite explosion pattern. All fractals are infinite in so far as they involve infinite iteration, but we can posit another class of fractals beyond that which involve the infinite iteration of infinite operations. We can only generate such fractals in our mind, because no computer could even illustrate the first step of an infinite fractal of this kind. This interesting idea also serves as a demonstration that fractals are not merely artifacts of computing machines, but are as platonically ideal as any mathematical object sanctioned by tradition.

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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

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signature

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Friday


In true Cartesian fashion I woke up slowly this morning, and while I tossed and turned in bed I thought more about the Banach-Tarkski paradox, having just written about it last night. In yesterday’s A Question for Philosophically Inclined Mathematicians, I asked, “Can we pursue this extraction of volume in something like a process of transfinite recursion, arriving at some geometrical equivalent of ε0?” The extraction in question is that of taking one mathematical sphere out of another mathematical sphere, and both being equal to the original — the paradox that was proved by Banach and Tarski. I see no reason why this process cannot be iterated, and if it can be iterated it can be iterated to infinity, and if iterated to infinity we should finish with an infinite number of mathematical spheres that would fill an infinite quantity of mathematical space.

All of this is as odd and as counter-intuitive as many of the theorems of set theory when we first learn them, but one gets accustomed to the strangeness after a time, and if one spends enough time engaged with these ideas one probably develops new intuitions, set theoretical intuitions, that stand one in better stead in regard to the strange world of the transfinite than the intuitions that one had to abandon.

In any case, it occurred to be this morning that, since decompositions of a sphere in order to reassemble two spheres from one original does not consist of discrete “parts” as we usually understand them, but of sets of points, and these sets of points would constitute something that did not fully fill the space that they inhabit, and for this reason we could speak of them as possessing fractal dimension. On fractal dimension, the Wikipedia entry says this of the Koch curve:

“…the length of the curve between any two points on the Koch Snowflake is infinite. No small piece of it is line-like, but neither is it like a piece of the plane or any other. It could be said that it is too big to be thought of as a one-dimensional object, but too thin to be a two-dimensional object, leading to the speculation that its dimension might best be described in a sense by a number between one and two. This is just one simple way of imagining the idea of fractal dimension.”

The first space filling-curve discovered by Giuseppe Peano (the same Peano that formulated influential axioms of arithmetic, though the axioms seem to ultimately derive from Dedekind) already demonstrated a way in which a line, ordinarily considered one dimensional, can be two dimensional — or, if you prefer to take the opposite perspective, that a plane, ordinarily considered to be two dimensional, can be decomposed into a one dimensional line. A fractal like the Koch curve fills two dimensional space to a certain extent, but not completely like Peano’s space-filling curve, and its fractal dimension is calculated as 1.26.

Hilbert's version of a space filling curve.

The Koch curve is a line that is more than a line, and it can only be constructed in two dimensions. It is easy to dream up similar fractals based on two dimensional surfaces. For example, we could take a cube and construct a cube on each side, and construct a cube on each side of these cubes, and so on. We could do the same thing with bumps raised on the surface of a sphere. Right now, we are only thinking of in terms of surfaces. The six planes of a cube enclose a volume, so we can think of it either as a two dimensional surface or as a three dimensional body. In so far as we think of the cube only as a surface, it is a two dimensional surface that can only be constructed in three dimensions. (And the cube or sphere constructions can go terribly wrong also, as if we make the iterations too large they will run into each other. Still, the appropriate construction will yield a fractal.)

This process suggests that we might construct a fractal from three dimensional bodies, but to do so we would have to do this in four dimensions. In this case, the fractal dimension of a three dimensional fractal constructed in four dimensional space would be 3.n, depending upon how much four dimensional space was filled by this fractal “body.” (And I hope you will understand why I put “body” in scare quotes.)

I certainly can’t visualize a four dimensional fractal. In fact, “visualize” is probably the wrong term, because our visualization capacity locates objects in three dimensional space. It would be better to say that I cannot conceive of a four dimensional fractal, except that I can entertain the idea, and this is a form of conception. What I mean, of course, is a form of concrete conception not tied to three dimensional visualization. I suspect that those who have spent a lifetime working with such things may approach an adequate conception of four dimensional objects, but this is the rare exception among human minds.

Just as we must overcome the counter-intuitive feeling of the ideas of set theory in order to get to the point where we are conceptually comfortable with it, so too we would need to transcend our geometrical intuitions in order to adequately conceptualize four dimensional objects (which mathematicians call 4-manifolds). I do not say that it is impossible, but it is probably very unusual. This represents an order of thinking against the grain that will stand as a permanent aspiration for those of us who will never fully attain it. Intellectual intuition, like dimensionality, consists of levels, and even if we do not fully attain to a given level of intuition, if we glimpse it after a fashion we might express our grasp as a decimal fraction of the whole.

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A seasonally-appropriate illustration of the Banach-Tarski paradox.

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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

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signature

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Friday


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.

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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

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signature

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Benoît Mandelbrot, R.I.P.

17 October 2010

Sunday


Benoît B. Mandelbrot, 20 November 1924 to 14 October 2010

Famed French mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot has passed away a few days ago at the age of 85. When someone dies who has lived such a productive life, it would sound a little odd to say that we have “lost” him. We haven’t lost Benoît Mandelbrot. His contribution is permanent. The Mandelbrot set will take its place in history beside Euclidean geometry and Cantorian transfinite numbers. And when I say “history” you might think that I am consigning it to the dead past, but what I mean by “history” is an ongoing tradition of which we are a part, and which spills out into the future, informing lives yet to be lived in unpredictable and unprecedented ways.

The Mandelbrot set is a mathematical set of points in the complex plane, the boundary of which forms a fractal. The Mandelbrot set is the set of complex values of c for which the orbit of 0 under iteration of the complex quadratic polynomial zn+1 = zn2 + c remains bounded. (from Wikipedia)

Mandelbrot will be best remembered for having invented (discovered? formulated?) fractals and fractal geometry. By an odd coincidence, I have been thinking quite a bit about fractals lately. A few days ago I wrote The Fractal Structure of Exponential Growth, and I had recently obtained from the library the NOVA documentary Fractals: Hunting the Hidden Dimension. As with many NOVA documentaries, I have watched this through repeatedly to try to get all that I can out of it, much as I typically listen through recorded books multiple times.

There are a couple of intuitive definitions of fractals to which I often refer when I think about them. You can say that a fractal is an object that retains its properties under magnification, or you can say that a fractal is an object that possesses self-similarity across orders of magnitude. But while these definitions informally capture some important properties of fractals, the really intuitive aspect of fractals is their astonishing appearance. Mandelbrot was unapologetically interested in the appearance of fractals. In the NOVA documentary he says in an interview, “I don’t play with formulas, I play with pictures. And that is what I’ve been doing all my life.”

The equation for generating the Mandelbrot set, the later (and more interesting) iterations of which were only made possible by the sheer calculating power of computers.

It is often said that mathematicians are platonists during the week and formalists on the weekend. In other words, while actively working with mathematics they feel themselves to be engaged with objects as real as themselves, but when engaged in philosophical banter over the weekend, the mathematician defends the idea of mathematics as a purely formal activity. This formulation reduced mathematical formalism to a mere rhetorical device. But if formalism is the mathematician’s rhetoric while platonism is the philosophy that he lives by in the day-to-day practice of his work, the rhetorical flourish of formalism has proved to be decisive in the direction that mathematics has taken. Perhaps we could say that mathematicians are strategic formalists and tactical platonists. In this case, we can see how the mathematician’s grand strategy of formalism has shaped the discipline.

Julia sets, predecessors of the Mandelbrot set, found within the Mandelbrot set.

It was in the name of such formalism that “geometrical intuition” began to be seriously questioned at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, and several generations of mathematicians pursued the rigorization of analysis by way of taking arithmetization as a research program. (Gödel’s limitative theorems were an outgrowth of this arithmetization of analysis; Gödel produced his paradox by an arithmetization of mathematical syntax.) It is to this tacit research program that Mandelbrot implicitly referred when we said, “The eye had been banished out of science. The eye had been excommunicated.” (in an interview in the same documentary mentioned above) What Mandelbrot did was to rehabilitate the eye, to recall the eye from its scientific banishment, and for many this was liberating. To feel free to once again trust one’s geometrical intuition, to “run with it,” as it were, or — to take a platonic figure of thought — to follow the argument where it leads, set a new generation of mathematicians free to explore the visceral feeling of mathematical ideas that had gone underground for a hundred years.

The self-similarity of fractals means that one can find smaller interations of the Mandelbrot set within itself, i.e., the Mandelbrot set microcosm within the Mandelbrot set macrocosm.

It is the astonishing appearance of fractals that made Mandelbrot famous. Since one could probably count the number of famous mathematicians in any one generation on one hand, this is an accomplishment of the first order. Mandelbrot more-or-less singlehandedly created a new branch of mathematics, working against institutionalized resistance, and this new branch of mathematics has led to a rethinking of physics as well as to concrete technological applications (such as cell phone antennas) in widespread use within a few years of fractals coming to the attention to scientists. Beyond this, fractals became a pop culture phenomenon, to the degree that a representation of the Mandelbrot set even appeared as a crop circle.

While the crop circle representation of the Mandelbrot set would seem to have brought us to the point of mere silliness, so much so that we seem to have passed from the sublime to the ridiculous, it does not take much thought to bring us back around to understanding the intellectual, mathematical, scientific, and technological significance of fractal geometry. This is Mandelbrot’s contribution to history, to civilization, to humankind.

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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

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Grand Strategy Annex

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