On Numbers and God

Arbtirary thoughts on nearly everything from a modernist poet, structural mathematician and functional programmer.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

So. Before we get started. Math is based on logic. The most important result of this fact is that there must be some axioms-- a starting point for the logical "gears". So, there must be a few things which are accepted as true, without argument, in order to "prove" anything. The really nice thing about this is you can use different axiom sets for different purposes; for example, the Peano Axioms are the axioms for number theory; any set theory capable of producing arithmetic will have axioms that imply the Peano Axioms.

The problem with this forced reliance on axioms is that mathematical truth is based to some small extent on human intuition. And human intuition of mathematical concepts is notoriously fickle.

One point that is still a hot topic amongst foundational researchers, and amongst those who spend their time discussing the philosophy of math, is called the Axiom of Choice. The "normal" statement (which gives the axiom its name) is a bit technical, but there's a completely equivalent statement: A non-empty Cartesian product of non-empty sets is non-empty. In other words, if we have a bunch of non-empty sets, and we take the set of all tuples (ordered lists) of these sets, we have a non-empty set. An example: X={1,2}, Y={1,3} Z={3}, X×Y×Z={(1,1,3),(1,3,3),(2,1,3),(2,3,3)}. (For the more interested reader, the first statement of AC in the wikipedia article mentions a choice function. Any point in the cartesian product encodes such a choice function. If we have a non-empty cartesian product, we have a choice function.)

The debate is mostly about whether or not this statement is intuitively true-- can we say it can be placed with the "obvious" axioms? It seems to make sense to do so, but it leads to a lot of counterintuitive results. The most famous such result is the Banach-Tarski "paradox", which says it is possible to take apart a sphere to create 2 spheres whose sizes are each equal to that of the first. Let's repeat that: Start with one sphere of a certain volume. Split it into 2 in a very clever way. Now you have two spheres, each with volume equal to the first. The "clever way" of splitting the sphere requires the axiom of choice (in a way I'm not sure I have the background to understand.)

The problem, of course, is that counter-intuitive starts at infinity, not at AC. We can split the set of all even numbers into two copies without choice (pull out 2,6,10,... then divide those by two and add 1, and simply divide the rest by 2), so why is a sphere less intuitive? How is it intuitive that there are as many rationals as there are integers? How is it intuitive that you have 0 probability of selecting an algebraic number from the reals, despite the fact that they are dense?

I don't mind people rejecting choice for certain work: constructive logic is incredibly useful for CS, but it explicitly contradicts choice. What I mind is people bringing up "counter-intuitive" results that are no more counter-intuitive than results that have long been taken for granted, because we're so used to seeing them.

My last sentence reminds me of another problem with the whole discussion: Human intuition is so fickle! The results I mentioned are not considered counter-intuitive to most working mathematicians, because the results are so fundamental. In addition, in the same breath that they say "AC leads to counter-intuitive results", they talk about how certain people haven't built up an intuition for these sorts of foundational results. Perhaps none of us have built up an intuition for certain results?