Infinity: religion for pure mathematicians

Here is a quote from the online Encyclopedia Britannica:

The Bohemian mathematician Bernard Bolzano (1781–1848) formulated an argument for the infinitude of the class of all possible thoughts. If T is a thought, let T* stand for the notion “T is a thought.” T and T* are in turn distinct thoughts, so that, starting with any single thought T, one can obtain an endless sequence of possible thoughts: T, T*, T**, T***, and so on. Some view this as evidence that the Absolute is infinite.

Bolzano was one of the founders of modern analysis, and with Cantor and Dedekind, initiated the at-the-time controversial idea that the `infinite’ was not just a way of indirectly speaking about processes that are unbounded, or without end, but actually a concrete object or objects that mathematics could manipulate and build on, in parallel with finite, more traditional objects.

A multitude which is larger than any finite multitude, i.e., a multitude with the property that every finite set [of members of the kind in question] is only a part of it, I will call an infinite multitude. (B. Bolzano)

Accordingly I distinguish an eternal uncreated infinity or absolutum which is due to God and his attributes, and a created infinity or transfinitum, which has to be used wherever in the created nature an actual infinity has to be noticed, for example, with respect to, according to my firm conviction, the actually infinite number of created individuals, in the universe as well as on our earth and, most probably, even in every arbitrarily small extended piece of space. (G. Cantor)

One proof is based on the notion of God. First, from the highest perfection of God, we infer the possibility of the creation of the transfinite, then, from his all-grace and splendor, we infer the necessity that the creation of the transfinite in fact has happened. (G. Cantor)

The numbers are a free creation of human mind. (R. Dedekind )

I hope some of these quotes strike you as little more than religious doggerel. Is this what you, a critical thinking person, really want to buy into??

From the initial set-up by Bolzano, Cantor and Dedekind, the twentieth century has gone on to enshrine the existence of `infinity’ as a fundamental aspect of the mathematical world. Mathematical objects, even simple ones such as lines and circles , are defined in terms of “infinite sets of points”. Fundamental concepts of calculus, such as continuity, the derivative and the integral, rest on the idea of “completing infinite processes” and/or “performing an infinite number of tasks”. Almost all higher and more sophisticated notions from algebraic geometry, differential geometry, algebraic topology, and of course analysis rest on a bedrock foundation of infinite this and infinite that.

This is all religion my friends. It is what we get when we abandon the true path of clarity and precise thinking in order to invoke into existence that which we would like to be true. We want our integrals, infinite sums, infinite products, evaluations of transcendental functions to converge to “real numbers”, and if belief in infinity is what it takes, then that’s what we have collectively agreed to, back somewhere in the 20th century.

What would mathematics be like if we accepted it as it really is? Without wishful thinking, imprecise definitions and reliance on belief systems?

What would pure mathematics be like if it actually lined up with what our computers can do, rather than with what we can talk about?

Let’s take a deep breath, shake away the cobwebs of collective thought, and engage with mathematics as it really is. Down with infinity!

Or somewhat less spectacularly: Up with proper definitions! 

3 thoughts on “Infinity: religion for pure mathematicians

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