Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Settling mathematical problems with infinity through a new postulate

leave a comment »

Natalie Wolchover has an article interesting to the mathematically inclined on efforts to shore up problems with infinity (cf. the continuum hypothesis):

In the course of exploring their universe, mathematicians have occasionally stumbled across holes: statements that can be neither proved nor refuted with the nine axioms, collectively called “ZFC,” that serve as the fundamental laws of mathematics. Most mathematicians simply ignore the holes, which lie in abstract realms with few practical or scientific ramifications. But for the stewards of math’s logical underpinnings, their presence raises concerns about the foundations of the entire enterprise.

“How can I stay in any field and continue to prove theorems if the fundamental notions I’m using are problematic?” asks Peter Koellner, a professor of philosophy at Harvard University who specializes in mathematical logic.

Chief among the holes is the continuum hypothesis, a 140-year-old statement about the possible sizes of infinity. As incomprehensible as it may seem, endlessness comes in many measures: For example, there are more points on the number line, collectively called the “continuum,” than there are counting numbers. Beyond the continuum lie larger infinities still — an interminable progression of evermore enormous, yet all endless, entities. The continuum hypothesis asserts that there is no infinity between the smallest kind — the set of counting numbers — and what it asserts is the second-smallest — the continuum. It “must be either true or false,” the mathematical logician Kurt Gödel wrote in 1947, “and its undecidability from the axioms as known today can only mean that these axioms do not contain a complete description of reality.”

The decades-long quest for a more complete axiomatic system, one that could settle the infinity question and plug many of the other holes in mathematics at the same time, has arrived at a crossroads. During a recent meeting at Harvard organized by Koellner, scholars largely agreed upon two main contenders for additions to ZFC: forcing axioms and the inner-model axiom “V=ultimate L.”

“If forcing axioms are right, then the continuum hypothesis is false,” Koellner said. “And if the inner-model axiom is right, then the continuum hypothesis is true. You go through a whole list of issues in other fields, and the forcing axioms will answer those questions one way, and ultimate L will answer them a different way.”

According to the researchers, choosing between the candidates boils down to a question about the purpose of logical axioms and the nature of mathematics itself. Are axioms supposed to be the grains of truth that yield the most pristine mathematical universe? In that case, V=ultimate L may be most promising. Or is the point to find the most fruitful seeds of mathematical discovery, a criterion that seems to favor forcing axioms? “The two sides have a somewhat divergent view of what the goal is,” said Justin Moore, a mathematics professor at Cornell University.

Axiomatic systems like ZFC provide rules governing collections of objects called “sets,” which serve as the building blocks of the mathematical universe. Just as ZFC now arbitrates mathematical truth, adding an extra axiom to the rule book would help shape the future of the field — particularly its take on infinity. But unlike most of the ZFC axioms, the new ones “are not self-evident, or at least not self-evident at this stage of our knowledge, so we have a much more difficult task,” said Stevo Todorcevic, a mathematician at the University of Toronto and the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.

Proponents of V=ultimate L say that establishing an absence of infinities between the integers and the continuum promises to bring order to the chaos of infinite sets, of which there are, unfathomably, an infinite variety. But the axiom may have minimal consequences for traditional branches of mathematics.

Hugh Woodin, 58, is the leading proponent of an axiom called V=ultimate L that could help decide the fuller nature of infinity.

“Set theory is in the business of understanding infinity,” said Hugh Woodin, who is a mathematician at the University of California, Berkeley; the architect of V=ultimate L; and one of the most prominent living set theorists. The familiar numbers relevant to most mathematics, Woodin argues, “are an insignificant piece of the universe of sets.”

Meanwhile, forcing axioms, which deem the continuum hypothesis false by adding a new size of infinity, would also extend the frontiers of mathematics in other directions. They are workhorses that regular mathematicians “can actually go out and use in the field, so to speak,” Moore said. “To me, this is ultimately what foundations [of mathematics] should be doing.”

New advances in the study of V=ultimate L and newfound uses of forcing axioms, especially one called “Martin’s maximum” after the mathematician Donald Martin, have energized the debate about which axiom to adopt. And there’s a third point of view that disagrees with the debate’s very premise. According to some theorists, there are myriad mathematical universes, some in which the continuum hypothesis is true and others in which it is false — but all equally worth exploring. Meanwhile, “there are some skeptics,” Koellner said, “people who for philosophical reasons think set theory and the higher infinite doesn’t even make any sense.”

Infinite Paradoxes

Infinity has ruffled feathers in mathematics almost since the field’s beginning. The controversy arises not from the notion of potential infinity —the number line’s promise of continuing forever — but from the concept of infinity as an actual, complete, manipulable object.

“What truly infinite objects exist in the real world?” asks Stephen Simpson, a mathematician and logician at Pennsylvania State University. Taking a view originally espoused by Aristotle, Simpson argues that actual infinity doesn’t really exist and so it should not so readily be assumed to exist in the mathematical universe. He leads an effort to wean mathematics off actual infinity, by showing that the vast majority of theorems can be proved using only the notion of potential infinity. “But potential infinity is almost forgotten now,” Simpson said. “In the ZFC set theory mindset, people tend not to even remember that distinction. They just think infinity means actual infinity and that’s all there is to it.”

Infinity was boxed and sold to the mathematical community in the late 19th century by the German mathematician Georg Cantor. Cantor invented a branch of mathematics dealing with sets — collections of elements that ranged from empty (the equivalent of the number zero) to infinite. His “set theory” was such a useful language for describing mathematical objects that within decades, it became the field’s lingua franca. A nine-item list of rules called Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory with the axiom of choice, or ZFC, was established and widely adopted by the 1920s. Translated into plain English, one of the axioms says two sets are equal if they contain the same elements. Another simply asserts that infinite sets exist.Assuming actual infinity leads to unsettling consequences. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 November 2013 at 9:28 am

Posted in Math

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.