Tuesday, 20 April 2021

A Sense of Divinity - Descartes and Kant

The fourth programme of Adrian Moore's 'A History of the Infinite' (BBC R4, 2016) discusses the views of Rene Descartes in the sixteenth century, and also the views of philosophers from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. I haven’t added up the number of centuries of thought which have not been discussed at all, but so far argument has been drawn from the sixth century B.C.E. (Pythagoras) fourth century B.C.E. (Aristotle, Zeno), the third century C.E. (Plotinus), the 13th century C.E. (Aquinas), and the 16th century C.E. (Bruno). Which is a journey of around twenty centuries. 
It isn’t that there is nothing to say about the idea of infinity during those long centuries, but that where Moore is going determined his selection of evidence and argument. He wants to talk mainly about the role and history of infinity in mathematics and in physics, and the fascinating paradoxes and problems which later investigation has thrown up. And a little about religious faith and the infinite. The first episodes are therefore a necessary introduction to set the scene.  
As he puts it in the text introduction to this episode, 'we have arrived at a time where people think about these things as we now do.' A telling statement, which hints at the richness and strangeness of the unexplored territory between the sixth century B.C.E. and the sixteenth century C.E., and that most of it is best skipped over as quickly as possible. It also lets us know that he has a normative view of human thought, and that what he thinks is rational and reasonable is mostly to be found in modern times. His is the Enlightenment agenda, which he mentions during this episode. 
Descartes famous ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ (‘I think therefore I am’) is mentioned in the context of Descartes massive reduction of all the ideas and beliefs which he could accept unequivocally as true. He engaged in this reduction in order not to rely on tradition and authority, but on the intellectual resources available to the finite human mind. The question of whether the infinite can be grasped at all by the human mind is discussed, since we cannot see it or touch it. It is hard for us to know it, because it is the infinite. Descartes is quoted as saying that you cannot put your arms around a mountain as you can around a tree. So our knowledge of the infinite is necessarily less intimate than our knowledge of finite things.  
In the next part, the relationship between Descartes confidence in his own existence and capacity to think (expressed in the ‘cogito’) and his understanding of the infinite nature of God, is less than clear. It is true that Descartes suggested that he might have an idea of an infinitely perfect, infinitely powerful God because God put that idea into his mind. That might be the case. Alternatively, it may be that you as a finite being do not have to have an intimate acquaintance with the infinite in order to understand what you are talking about.  
Moore does not use the expression which Descartes employed to explain why it was not necessary to have intimate knowledge of something in order to have a useful and intelligible idea of what it is. He used ‘clear and distinct’ idea to indicate when he had such a useful and intelligible notion of what he was talking about. Later, Bertrand Russell would reformulate the distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description (in his Problems of Philosophy). So, by ‘clear and distinct ideas’ about God Descartes is relying on a description of what is, which means that he could be sure what he meant, and that his idea of God was a rational idea.  
In fact, Descartes idea of his own finite reality was dependent on his certainty of the reality of an infinite God. If he could conceive of such a God clearly and distinctly, then it was likely that such a God was real. 
Moore skips on to the second half of the eighteenth century, mentioning Berkeley (‘there is no such thing as the 10,000 part of an inch’ is all that is said), and Hume also, in connection with the indivisibility of reality (the disappearing inkspot when seen from sufficient distance, which is a matter of perception and experience rather than indivisibility per se). Berkeley was an idealist philosopher, who held that the only reason the world is perceptible is because it is held in the mind of God. He also denied materiality, at least as a metaphysical concept. 
Finally Moore discusses a narrow aspect of Kant’s understanding of the idea of infinity. This final part of the episode represents a highly misleading understanding of Kant. 
Moore argues that Kant agreed with Descartes that we have a clear idea of the infinite (the nearest he gets to the Cartesian formulation ‘things which are clear and distinct’). But that our idea is limited to what we can experience and perhaps what we can invest faith in. Really? I don’t think it is.  Did Kant say that knowledge is confined to the five senses? And if we don’t understand knowledge this way, we leave solid ground and end up in metaphysics? That is what seems to be suggested at this point in the series. 
One of Kant’s principal interests was metaphysics, and how we apprehend things and have knowledge of them. Hume’s empiricism was one of the things which impelled Kant to write some of his most important works (The Critique of Pure Reason, and The Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics which may Present itself as a Science). It isn’t the case that Kant thought our ideas are limited to what we can experience in terms of the senses, but instead what is intelligible to us is interpreted through the categories of our understanding. He sought to understand shape and form without these things being associated with form possessing scalar values and spatial angles, which are matters of experience. In that he was very close indeed to Plato’s understanding of the Platonic forms. 
Kant, a figure so important to the concept of reason, is quoted as saying that ‘I go beyond knowledge to make room for faith’. It is true that Kant had the idea that rational thought and reason did not have to exclude a life of faith. It had space in which to exist. But it does not mean that Kant thought that faith was important to the life of reason. For Kant, like Pythagoras and Plato, knowledge is not gained through knowledge of sensible things, but is acquired by the contemplation of things which have a transcendent reality. This isn’t something which everyone can do, or will ever be able to do. Since there is an equation between the Divine and the Infinite, what Kant is doing is leaving space for some sort of understanding of the Divine for those who will never have a genuine understanding of transcendental reality and the Infinite. He is not arguing that faith creates a functional connection with the Infinite.
Karl Lōwith wrote that, in his book Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, Kant had
interpreted the whole history of Christianity as a gradual advance from a religion of revelation to a religion of reason…. It is the most advanced expression of the Christian faith for the very reason that it eliminates the irrational presupposition of faith and grace.    
Moore then turns to Kant’s conception of the moral law. Aspects of the life of the mind which put us in contact with the infinite are about our reason, our rationality. Our reason enables us to grasp the moral law, which gives us infinite dignity (since we are rational beings). He says that “the moral law is what ought to direct us in all we do, with infinite respect granted to fellow rational beings”.
Which explains little. The origin of Kant’s moral law may be the idea that the life of reason, and rationality itself (as he defined it) is about connecting with the infinite. If man is truly rational, then he is connected with the Infinite (the ancient concept of the soul, as discussed by Plato, is related to this idea). But we need to accept Kant’s understanding of what reason is, and not distort it by saying knowledge is obtained through the five senses. Through this distortion, what Moore is left with is the Calvinist notion of a ‘sensus divinitatis’ (sense of divinity).  Which is a poor substitute for the kind of engagement with divinity which was understood to be possible in the ancient world. Such engagement was not achieved through knowledge of the world of the five senses or space and time.

Monday, 19 April 2021

Plato and the Transcendental Infinite


[This post is an extract from:'Evading the Infinite',   one of twenty-one essays in the book Man and the Divine, published in August 2018.  Information about Man and the Divine can be found here] Part of a critical commentary on Adrian Moore’s A History of the Infinite, broadcast in ten episodes by the BBC (on Radio 4) across two weeks in late September/early October 2016. The first episode was broadcast on the 19th September. The book is available in ePub format from leading retailers of eBooks, such as Barnes & Noble, Blio, Kobo, Itunes, Inktera, Smashwords, etc.


I have spent many years studying Greek philosophy, and as a result I found both Moore’s arguments and his narrative concerning the idea of the infinite to be oddly structured. There is a gaping hole at the start, since Plato is scarcely mentioned, and none of his arguments appear in the narrative (sometimes voiced in the dialogues by his master Socrates).  He does discuss the ideas of Pythagoras, but in such a way that it is hard to recognise him, and the many parallels which exist in Plato’s writing. As a result, this history of the infinite is not a complete history, tracing the discussion of the idea from the earliest period possible, but a history with a strong point of view, which begins at a point which is convenient for the arguments which follow (Moore’s book on the infinite has a much broader compass).

Part of my purpose here is to outline Plato’s engagement with the idea of the infinite, and to place it before Moore’s chosen point of departure. Understanding what Plato said concerning the unlimited and unbounded necessarily changes the interpretation of Aristotle’s views and arguments, with which Moore begins. Simply writing Plato out of the narrative not only creates something of a fictitious narrative, but also creates difficulties that otherwise would not exist.

Oddly for an account of man’s engagement with the infinite, the first of the series of programmes is titled ‘Horror of the Infinite’. Moore quotes the mathematician David Hilbert:

The infinite has always stirred the emotions of mankind more deeply than any other question; the infinite has stimulated and fertilized reason as few other ideas have; but also the infinite, more than other notion, is in need of clarification. 
Moore accepts Hilbert’s characterisation of the idea of the infinite. He begins by saying that

ever since people have been able to reflect, they’ve been captivated and puzzled by the infinite, in its many varied guises; by the endlessness of space and time; by the thought that between any two points in space, however close, there is always another; by the fact that numbers go on forever; and by the idea of an all-knowing, all powerful god. People have been by turns attracted, fascinated, perplexed, and disturbed, by these various different forms of infinity. 
Indeed yes. But Moore’s account appears to start at ‘disturbed’, rather than ‘attracted’.

Is God the Infinite, and Reality itself? Moore does not much concern himself with this question in this sequence of programmes, at least not in the terms in which the Greeks understood the question. The following is an extract from The Sacred History of Being (2015):

 The Greeks did not contemplate the idea that the ‘existence’ of God, or the supremely perfect Being, was subject to proof. This would have been anathema to them, for the reason that they understood the very concept of the divine is inevitably beyond the capacity of the human mind to understand, or to frame. It is also beyond space and time. It is possible to say something about the divine, but that is all. Saying that the supreme perfect Being has a property ‘perfection’ is fine, but the meaning of this perfection is strictly limited in its human understandability. To attribute the property of secular ‘existence’ to this Being would have been regarded as absurd.
Yet it would be granted that one could argue that, without the property of existence, the perfection, or the completeness of God, was compromised. But for it to be in the world of change and corruption would also be understood as compromising the perfection of the supreme Being. At least in terms of public discussion. Thus the Greek view of reality and the Divine was that there was a paradox at the root of reality and the gods, and that it was not possible to define the nature of the Divine without exposing that definition to contradiction. The enlightened enquirer into the nature of the divine therefore is spared further pointless argument about the nature and the very existence of God. Both are conceivably true. But the true nature of the Divine, being a paradox, rises beyond our capacity to argue about that nature. It remains a matter of conjecture.
Our human experience tells us we live in a world in which change is possible, and inevitable. The definition of the Divine on the other hand, tells us, the divine reality beyond this world of appearances is a place of eternal invariance. It suggests that at the apex of reality, it is not possible for the divine to act in any way, or to participate in the world of change. Again there is a difficulty if we hold that the greatest and most perfect Being can do nothing without contravening its essential nature. A whole range of properties would clearly be missing from the divine nature.
It would seem that the Greek solution to this problem was to argue, as Plato and the neoplatonists did, that the world of reality was in fact invariable, as the theory requires. And it did not at any time change. But a copy was made. As a copy it was less than perfect, and this imperfection created the possibility of change, action, and corruption. This copy is eternally partnered by the original, which stands behind it, unchanging and unchanged by anything which happens in the copy of the original divine model. As a copy it is the same, but as a copy it is different.
This however, is a solution which Plato labelled as a likelihood. Which is code for: ‘this is not the answer to the problem’. 
One of the properties of the supremely perfect Being would be that he was one and not two. In the creation of a copy, the invariability of the divine has been breached, and the divine is now two, not one. Two, not one, would seem to be a fatal objection. Firstly the copy is a representation of the original, and not the original itself. Secondly, the copy is imperfect, and through the act of representation, it has become different. The original continues complete in its original nature, with its original properties and characteristics.  Plato hints at territory beyond this contradiction, but does not venture into it overtly.
This is the key mystery of ancient thought. To understand the full significance of this problem, and its implications for ancient models of reality, we need to look closely, as they would, at what a copy of Being actually means. There can be no copy, at least not in an objective sense. And if there is no objective copy, then the world which moves and which has existence, must be a subjective view of Being.
Apart from anything else, if the world is a wholly subjective experience, occurring (if we dare to use that word) within Being itself, then the change and motion which is apparent to us, and which contradistinguishes the world of existence from Being, which is itself and only itself, must be illusory. The illusion may be convincing, but ultimately it remains as an illusion, however persuasive it is to us, that there is an objective reality which is subject to change and movement.
This is the correct answer to the problem. Our experience in the world is of finite things, which are finite representations of things which are infinite. But this world is also infinite, and at the same time. It is therefore a matter of apprehension, understanding, and will, if man is to engage with infinity, and reality itself.
Hence Plato’s discussion of the ascent to The Good via the Forms, to that infinite place where all knowledge is to be had, and to descend again with divine knowledge, again entirely via the Forms, to the world of sensibles. What he is actually talking about is a formal process and discipline by which the finite human mind can engage with infinity.
Pythagoras was much closer to Plato in terms of doctrine than scholars normally allow. I can demonstrate this by quoting the Neoplatonist Porphyry who wrote about Pythagoras many centuries after his lifetime. Porphyry’s account tells us that:
He cultivated philosophy, the scope of which is to free the mind implanted within us from the impediments and fetters within which it is confined; without whose freedom none can learn anything sound or true, or perceive the unsoundedness in the operation of sense. Pythagoras thought that mind alone sees and hears, while all the rest are blind and deaf. The purified mind should be applied to the discovery of beneficial things, which can be effected by, certain artificial ways, which by degrees induce it to the contemplation of eternal and incorporeal things, which never vary. This orderliness of perception should begin from consideration of the most minute things, lest by any change the mind should be jarred and withdraw itself, through the failure of continuousness in its subject-matter.
That is exactly the doctrine of the ascent and descent via the Forms which is described by Plato. The definition of transcendent reality in Plato (articulated by Socrates) is that it is a place beyond shape, form, size, etc., and occupies no place on earth. It is however the place where knowledge has its reality (the ‘eternal and incorporeal things’ mentioned by Pythagoras). Connection with transcendent reality is possible by the likenesses to the transcendent which have existence on earth, such as things which are complete and whole, which therefore participate in the completeness and wholeness of the transcendent reality. Completeness and wholeness require (in the world of the mundane) delineation and limits, and so the limits and the extremes of things are also things which participate in transcendent reality.
The principle of ascent to the ‘eternal and incorporeal things’ is entirely a mental process, which does not involve any of the senses. It proceeds via chains of similitudes, both up and down, as a sequence of orderly perceptions. The goal is a form of communion with that which never varies, and which is always one and unchanging, as Plato tells us in the Sophist. The return from the communion with the Good delivers beneficial things, because the Good is the source of all knowledge.
What is transmitted to us via the writings of the Platonists, is something of the basis of both their understanding of what the Divine actually is (the Infinite, the Limitless, and Reality itself), and how man may have commerce with the Divine, through sacred rather than profane practices, in a world which has a double nature, and in which man has a choice.
Looked at in this way, rather than being a history of infinity, Moore’s argument is about the idea of the infinite from the point of view of finitude. This is the way Aristotle chose to deal with the infinite, by dividing the concept into the actual infinite, and a potential infinite, and dealing with the latter. Moore has said elsewhere that the way he treats the infinite is generally in terms of an Aristotelian Finitism.
We might pause here and consider what the implications might be of the identification of the Infinite and the Divine, which seems to be implicit in the views of a number of ancient philosophers. If they did so identify these concepts, then much of Greek religious thought and practice was based on a philosophical understanding of the infinite. In which case, Moore’s history is a history of what happens when the actual importance of the infinite in the life of man is forgotten, misunderstood, and eventually no longer noticed for what it is. Much of Moore’s argument is shaped by his Aristotelian Finitism.
In the first programme, Moore argues that the Pythagoreans thought finite things were good, and that infinite things were bad (this information comes to us via Aristotle), and that they thought they had evidence that the finite had some kind of control over what was infinite. And that the usefulness of rational numbers showed that this was the case. This is clearly a garbling of Pythagorean thought from a distant age, if Pythagoras thought that ascent to eternal and incorporeal things was important, as I’ve suggested. There is also discussion of musical ratios, and the Pythagorean discovery that different string lengths with simple ratios are more consonant to the ears than those which involve large values. Their ‘discovery’ of irrational numbers, which can be found using the theorem of Pythagoras, is said to have filled the Pythagoreans with horror, and the story of one of their number being drowned at sea after revealing their existence, is referenced. Rather than revealing their horror of irrational numbers, this is a story which points to their interest in whole numbers. The idea that they once had no idea about the existence of irrational numbers is absurd.  
The programme moves on to consider whether other ancient Greeks had the same resistance to the infinite. The views of Anaxagoras on infinite divisibility are discussed. Anaxagoras was relatively comfortable about these ideas. Zeno’s paradoxes in connection with infinite divisibility are also discussed, including his paradox of travelling by an infinite number of half distances, which seems to imply that movement is impossible. The similar paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise is also referenced. Observation and reflection thus seem to contradict each other. Zeno distrusted observation to the point that he believed that movement was impossible. Parmenides was Zeno’s teacher, and taught the universe to be a simple unity. So, only the appearance of motion is possible. Otherwise the universe would have to have infinite complexity. Moore winds up the episode by suggesting that because of these paradoxes, and the existence of irrational numbers, that there is some truth in the suggestion that the Greeks had a horror of the infinite.  
Looking at the content of this episode in the light of the added preamble about ideas of the infinite held by Plato and Pythagoras, we can see that something old and valuable is contained in the writings of some earlier philosophers, transformed into more or less secularised accounts of the arguments the Greeks used to illustrate the paradoxical nature of the infinite aspects of the world, as they manifest in the world of the finite. 
We  get many clues about the Greek understanding of the infinite and the unlimited from a number of Plato’s dialogues, including The TimaeusThe SophistThe RepublicThe TheaetetusThe Laws, and The Parmenides. In skipping Plato, the first reference to Parmenides and his notion of the universe as simply one and one alone, is as an introduction in the first episode to his pupil Zeno of Elea, and his response to paradox. There is no discussion of Plato’s demolition of Parmenides arguments, no discussion of the Platonic forms, no discussion of the relationship of the forms to the form of the Good, which is another way of talking about what is infinite, and no discussion of what amounts to a different logical modality in the pages of Plato (where he discusses things passing into one another by means of their similitude), which is a way of understanding the relationship of finite things to the infinite.  
Essentially Aristotle’s rapprochement, which Moore characterises as an attempt to make the concept of the infinite more palatable to the Greeks, involved dividing the idea of the infinite into two. As already mentioned, one of these was the potential infinite, and the second was the actual infinite. As outlined in the first episode, Zeno’s paradoxes depended on the idea of an infinite divisibility, which seemed to make the idea of any kind of movement impossible, since that would require a universe of infinite complexity. Zeno therefore regarded all forms of movement as illusion. Since in order to travel a certain distance, you would have to travel half the distance to your destination, and then half of the distance remaining, and then half of that, and half of what still remained, and so on. Which would result in an infinite number of steps. Which would be impossible. 
Aristotle’s response was that though the various stages of the journey could be understood in such a way, the stages were not marked, and did not have to be considered in making a journey. The idea of limit is however a crucial point. What Aristotle was saying is that there are two ways of looking at the idea of what a limit is.  Essentially there is limitation which is defined by what a thing is, and there is limitation which is not. In the first case the limit of a thing cannot be transcended without the nature of that thing turning into something else.
The essence of this argument is that there are forms of limit which can be ignored. One of which is the actual infinite: instead we should deal with the potential infinite. The actual infinite, by its nature, is always there. But we cannot deal with it. The potential infinite we can work with, since it is not always there, and spread infinitely through reality. So we can count numbers without ever arriving at infinity, or ever being in danger of arriving there. Moore mentioned that this conception of infinity more or less became an orthodoxy after Aristotle, though not everyone accepted that his argument against actual infinity was solid. Which is something of an understatement. Aristotle’s distinction between the potential infinite and the actual infinite is between what is, in practical terms, something we can treat as finite, and what is actually infinite. 
It might seem surprising that Moore’s first port of call in part three is the philosopher Plotinus, who was writing in the third century C.E., some five centuries after Aristotle. The reason that he has jumped to Plotinus is because he argues that Plotinus claimed not only that the divine was infinite, but that the divine was the infinite. Thus conflating the ideas of divinity and infinity in a way that – he says – no one had done before. Or, to be more precise, he declared the identity of the divine and the infinite in a way no-one had done before.  
Well no. As I’ve argued at the beginning of this essay, Plato’s principal interest was in a transcendent reality, which it would be hard to distinguish from the infinite, except in hair-splitting terms. He refers to the necessity of ‘looking to the one thing’, and that the ‘one thing’ is something which is found nowhere on earth. In one of his dialogues, he has Socrates describe that transcendent realm as something which possesses ‘no form, shape or colour.’ It is clearly without definition and limitation, with no finite properties and attributes, which means it is unlimited, and infinite. It is also the ultimate source of all knowledge. So it also seems to possess the properties and attributes which are associated with the divine. Plotinus’ supposed innovation is therefore no such thing. Anaximander’s understanding of the ‘apeiron’ (the unlimited) as the cause of all things is just such an equation of the divine with the infinite, which means the idea was around in the sixth century B.C.E. 

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Adrian Moore on Georg Cantor and the Size of Infinity


The sixth episode of Adrian Moore’s radio ‘A History of the Infinite’ is concerned with the infinitely big, considered not in terms of physical size, but in the context of mathematics. It focuses on the work of the German mathematician, Georg Cantor, who devised a way of distinguishing between different infinite sizes, and of calculating with infinite numbers. Cantor was the first to do such a thing.  One of the most interesting developments in modern mathematics, and as Moore says, his work was ‘utterly revolutionary.’ 

Everyone knows there is no such thing as the biggest number. No matter how far you travel along a sequence of numbers, you can always count further. Even Aristotle, who Moore suggested in an earlier episode was an arch-sceptic about the infinitely big, accepted the reality of the infinite only in terms of processes and sequences which were destined to go on for ever. 

This might be a little tendentious, since as Moore has already pointed out in the episode ‘Aristotle’s Rapprochment’, he divided the concept of the infinite into two things: the actual infinite, and a potential infinite. The world of numbers and calculation exists in the context of the potential infinite, in which change happens in space and time. The actual infinite, for the purposes of mathematics, is simply ignored, since it is (apparently) not possible to work with it. I make this point since there is much about Aristotle’s wider philosophical work which points to a strong concern with the actual infinite. He isn’t sceptical about the reality of the infinite.

Aristotle’s view prevailed for over two thousand years, and during that period there was hostility to the idea that the infinite itself could be the subject of mathematical study in its own right. This orthodoxy was not challenged until the late nineteenth century, when Cantor presented a systematic, rigorous, formal theory of the infinite. Moore is interested in what drove him, and at what cost.

Cantor had a very hard time in trying to have his ideas accepted by the mathematical community, partly because of the perception that there was a religious component to his work. Henri Poincaré said of his work that: ‘it was a disease, and there would be a cure.’ His teacher Leopold Kronecker, who might have been expected to support his pupil, was hostile to his work, and made it difficult for him to publish. Kronecker said ‘God made the integers, all the rest is the work of man’. Cantor suffered several nervous breakdowns, possibly because of the sheer perplexity of his work, and died in an asylum.

Moore now considers set theory. How do you count without actually counting, and know if a set or collection is the same size as another? You can assemble pairs of things, such as male and female, cats, dogs, etc. If they are paired, and there are no extra males, females, cats or dogs left over, then you know that they are the same size without counting the individuals in the sets.

Does this apply to the infinite? Cantor asked why not? But here things get a little weird. The set of what Moore refers to as ‘the counting numbers’ (positive integers) appears to be the same size as the set of the even numbers. Even though the first set includes all the numbers in the set of even numbers, plus all the odd numbers. If we want to show the number of counting numbers is the same as the number of even numbers, we can do this fairly easily by pairing the counting numbers with the even numbers which result from doubling them. There will be nothing left over, so we can say that these two sets are the same size as each other. Moore says that it is tempting to say that comparisons of size just don’t make sense in the infinite case. But Cantor accepted that they were the same size, despite the fact that the first set contained everything in the second set, plus more besides. 

Can we use this technique to show that all infinite sets are the same size, which might not be a counter-intuitive conclusion? In fact, some infinite sets are bigger than others, as Cantor discovered. Even if you start with an infinite set, it will always have more subsets than it does have members. You cannot pair numbers with the subsets: there will always be a subset left over. So there are different infinite sizes. Moore does not draw the conclusion that it is the unbounded nature of the infinite which makes the differently sized infinities true. What is infinite contains all things which are possible. It is not just something which is extremely large.

Cantor’s work polarized opinion in his lifetime, and it has continued to polarize opinion ever since. The mathematician David Hilbert famously said ‘No one shall be able to drive us from the paradise which Cantor has created for us’. To which Wittgenstein responded: 'I wouldn’t dream of trying to drive anyone from this paradise: I would do something quite different – I would try to show you that it is not a paradise, so that you leave of your own accord’

Moore concludes with a question: “Is Cantor’s work of any significance outside mathematics? Some would say that it is not. It certainly made its mark by creating as many problems as it solved.”

It can however be argued that many difficult questions are difficult for us as the result of an important concept dropping out of western philosophy, which is the concept of the plenum. This concept is not discussed by Moore in this series of programmes. The idea of the plenum is that reality itself is undifferentiated possibility, something which does not exist in time and space, but contains every possible aspect of time and space, and everything which might be contained in it as potential, as something which might be generated within physical reality. With the idea of such a transcendent reality, almost anything which can be imagined to exist, can have existence. But such things will inevitably point back to the nature of the initial plenum in some way, and be full of puzzles and paradoxes. In rejecting this view of infinity, and treating it as if it had no bearing on sensible reality, Aristotle and those who followed afterwards, effectively closed off the possibility of understanding why such paradoxes exist in the physical universe.

In the seventh episode there is a brief introductory recap, reminding us that Georg Cantor created a formal theory of the infinite in the late nineteenth century. The impact of his work on mathematics was large, and led to a period of unprecedented crisis and uncertainty. Subjecting the infinite to formal scrutiny, led to mathematicians confronting puzzles at the heart of their discipline. These puzzles indicate some basic limits to human knowledge.

Moore invites us to consider the issue of sets of sets. How can there be more sets of sets, than there are sets? He suggests at this point that our heads may begin to reel. But why shouldn’t we have, say the set of sets which have seven members? Enter Bertrand Russell, who, in trying to come to terms with some of these issues, arrived at what is known as Russell’s Paradox. He argued that once we have accepted that there are sets of sets, we can acknowledge sets which belong to themselves, and those which don’t. A set of apples is not a member of itself, for example, since it is not an apple.

The paradox arises in connection with the set of all sets which are not members of themselves. On the face of it, there should be such a set, but there is not. For the same reason that there cannot be a nun in a convent who prays for all those nuns in that convent who do not pray for themselves. This is a matter of logical rules. She is going to pray for herself, only if she does not pray for herself, which is impossible. Russell’s paradox seemed to indicate a crisis at the heart of mathematics, where sets play a pivotal role.

 Russell communicated his paradox to the German mathematician Gottlob Frege, which is a well-rehearsed incident in the history of philosophy and mathematics. Frege had been trying to put these mathematical issues on a sound footing in a three-volume work, which was two thirds completed. Russell’s paradox came like a bolt from the blue. Frege replied saying he was ‘thunderstruck’, since the paradox undermined his attempt to give a sure foundation to arithmetic, while he was engaged in writing and publishing his life’s work. Frege died embittered. 

Returning to Cantor, Moore discusses his work with the problem of the ‘counting numbers’, (1,2,3,4, etc), which constitutes a smaller group than the group of possible sets of the counting numbers. The question arose of how much smaller the first group was. Cantor’s hypothesis was that it was just one size smaller, and that there were no sets of intermediate size. But he was unable to confirm that this was the case, or to refute the idea. So he was in a state of uncertainty for a long time, and this exascerbated his lifelong problem with depression. This question was listed by David Hilbert as one of the 23 most important questions in mathematics to be addressed in the ensuing century. 

The matter is not settled, even now. Is this the result of mathematicians not being assiduous enough? Moore says that it has been shown that it is impossible, using all of the tools available to mathematicians, to resolve the issue. It looks as though we are stuck with an unanswerable question.  Perhaps not completely unanswerable, but it is with the toolkit of mathematical principles which are currently available. No new principle has been discovered in the decades since, so it looks as though we have stumbled on an inherent limitation on mathematical knowledge. 

The logician Kurt Gōdel showed that this limitation was in a sense unavoidable, in that, with a limited set of mathematical principles, there will always be truths which lie beyond their reach.

So there are many questions about the foundations of mathematics, and their security, or insecurity. Russell’s paradox of the set of all sets which don’t contain themselves, had revealed an inconsistency in the principles mathematician’s had been working with up to then. David Hilbert had said “how do we know there isn’t another inconsistency elsewhere in mathematics generating the problem?” He devised a programme to map mathematics with a limited but very precise set of principles, in order to discover if this was the case. Gōdel’s work however, made it unlikely that this programme would be a success. Is there a crisis in modern mathematics? It was suggested that modified versions of the Hilbert programme have proved that there are no other inconsistencies in basic mathematical principles. And that consequently the rest of mathematics is essentially reliable and consistent. Moore concludes that mathematical work on the infinite has left us acutely aware of what we do not know, and indeed what we cannot know


Tuesday, 2 March 2021

The 'Hill of Many Stanes'

[An extract from a conversation with a correspondent in the US, from May and June, 2020, shortly after 'The Mathematics of the Megalithic Yard' was completed.] 

On Monday, June 1, 2020, 09:31:47 AM PDT, Thomas Yaeger [....] wrote:

[....], hi. Thanks for your mail. I'm going to respond to it in separate mails, since there is a lot to say. Interleaved, as usual (bad academic habit!)

At 06:03 29/05/2020, [....]  wrote:

Hi Thomas,
Sorry I haven't responded sooner. I've been working on a response to your article (& other emails) about the Megalithic Yard and didn' t want to write again until I had made some progress. I'm probably making it into too much of a project lol. [....} So, I'll send what I have for now (including other stuff I've been putting in a draft) and get it off to you. Sorry if it doesn't do justice to your arguments. 
Your argument is very compelling and interesting. It seems like a real breakthrough although, naturally, I'm not enough of an expert to judge!

I think it is a real breakthrough, but it took a while to make it (as I said, the article was written in about a day and a half, after thinking it through for around two years). Developments are happening very fast now, which is interfering with my writing programme.

. I understand that math as such isn't the point of your argument, it's more about what Euler's number signified, right?

Yes. It's Euler's number, what it represents, and how they calculated it in the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE. I think I've changed my mind about how much Alexander Thom actually knew. I think he knew that it was a pointer towards the idea of the infinite. But he did not know that in those ancient days the ideas of the divine, the infinite, and reality itself were regarded as coterminous, and were just different ways of speaking about the same thing (which is an understanding which still survives in Hindu thought and religion). So for Thom, he could see the mathematics, but didn't understand the idea of reality itself as a primal fulness, or a plenum, and why that would engage ancient interest.

There is in Scotland a site near John O'Groats which is known as 'the hill of many stanes', which has remained uncleared since the neolithic. In the documentary he says he is impressed by what the builders of the circles were able to do without pen and paper, and logarithms. But that without such constructions (as the 'hill of many stanes') 'you can't really do it'.

What was he talking about in this short insert into the documentary? He doesn't explain what the small stones were for, or how they were used. I think I understand now that the field of stones was used to calculate Euler's number, in the context of an engineering construction. That site needs extensive re-evaluation.

Thom's book publications are very plain and not dogged with interpretation. I think he realised that what he could do, and get away with, was to draw attention to the fact that something very interesting and mathematically disciplined was happening in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, but the whole thing was just too big a pill to swallow for the academic community. He held back.

One thing that interests me is people's motivations, in particular, which of their psychological needs are being served by engaging in different courses of thought and action. I assume that people have always been curious about life and the world (some more than others, of course!), but what struck me about what you wrote is people's need for or a sense of order and structure in order to feel a degree of safety in a world that is challenging to fathom.

 It depends on where you are in society. Sometimes, as now people are told convenient lies (there is no money!), or circumspect evasions. Ancient priesthoods, because of their picture of the world, understood themselves to be dealing with the nature of reality itself. Neophytes would be chosen from all levels of society, since it was necessary to put a premium on intelligence, in order to join the worlds and make the incommensurate commensurate. Reality itself was the home of all knowledge, and all possibility. You can't deal with that without intelligence. The rest of society would have to make do with what Plato described as likelihoods, because they were too far from an understanding of reality.

Thom was not a classicist or a historian, so he did not know (as most modern scholars still don't) that ancient religion was about *knowledge* (scientia). The ancient priesthoods understood themselves to be dealing with knowledge, and that their activity was a science. That's all changed, but we continue to project modern religious intellectual weaknesses into the ancient past.

Thanks for the photographs.

More later,