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This is the third in a series of posts on the “no self-defeating object” argument in mathematics – a powerful and useful argument based on formalising the observation that any object or structure that is so powerful that it can “defeat” even itself, cannot actually exist.   This argument is used to establish many basic impossibility results in mathematics, such as Gödel’s theorem that it is impossible for any sufficiently sophisticated formal axiom system to prove its own consistency, Turing’s theorem that it is impossible for any sufficiently sophisticated programming language to solve its own halting problem, or Cantor’s theorem that it is impossible for any set to enumerate its own power set (and as a corollary, the natural numbers cannot enumerate the real numbers).

As remarked in the previous posts, many people who encounter these theorems can feel uneasy about their conclusions, and their method of proof; this seems to be particularly the case with regard to Cantor’s result that the reals are uncountable.   In the previous post in this series, I focused on one particular aspect of the standard proofs which one might be uncomfortable with, namely their counterfactual nature, and observed that many of these proofs can be largely (though not completely) converted to non-counterfactual form.  However, this does not fully dispel the sense that the conclusions of these theorems – that the reals are not countable, that the class of all sets is not itself a set, that truth cannot be captured by a predicate, that consistency is not provable, etc. – are highly unintuitive, and even objectionable to “common sense” in some cases.

How can intuition lead one to doubt the conclusions of these mathematical results?  I believe that one reason is because these results are sensitive to the amount of vagueness in one’s mental model of mathematics.  In the formal mathematical world, where every statement is either absolutely true or absolutely false with no middle ground, and all concepts require a precise definition (or at least a precise axiomatisation) before they can be used, then one can rigorously state and prove Cantor’s theorem, Gödel’s theorem, and all the other results mentioned in the previous posts without difficulty.  However, in the vague and fuzzy world of mathematical intuition, in which one’s impression of the truth or falsity of a statement may be influenced by recent mental reference points, definitions are malleable and blurry with no sharp dividing lines between what is and what is not covered by such definitions, and key mathematical objects may be incompletely specified and thus “moving targets” subject to interpretation, then one can argue with some degree of justification that the conclusions of the above results are incorrect; in the vague world, it seems quite plausible that one can always enumerate all the real numbers “that one needs to”, one can always justify the consistency of one’s reasoning system, one can reason using truth as if it were a predicate, and so forth.    The impossibility results only kick in once one tries to clear away the fog of vagueness and nail down all the definitions and mathematical statements precisely.  (To put it another way, the no-self-defeating object argument relies very much on the disconnected, definite, and absolute nature of the boolean truth space \{\hbox{true},\hbox{ false}\} in the rigorous mathematical world.)

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One notable feature of mathematical reasoning is the reliance on counterfactual thinking – taking a hypothesis (or set of hypotheses) which may or may not be true, and following it (or them) to its logical conclusion.  For instance, most propositions in mathematics start with a set of hypotheses (e.g. “Let n be a natural number such that …”), which may or may not apply to the particular value of n one may have in mind.  Or, if one ever argues by dividing into separate cases (e.g. “Case 1: n is even. … Case 2: n is odd.  …”), then for any given n, at most one of these cases would actually be applicable, with the other cases being counterfactual alternatives.     But the purest example of counterfactual thinking in mathematics comes when one employs a proof by contradiction (or reductio ad absurdum) – one introduces a hypothesis that in fact has no chance of being true at all (e.g. “Suppose for sake of contradiction that \sqrt{2} is equal to the ratio p/q of two natural numbers.”), and proceeds to demonstrate this fact by showing that this hypothesis leads to absurdity.

Experienced mathematicians are so used to this type of counterfactual thinking that it is sometimes difficult for them to realise that it this type of thinking is not automatically intuitive for students or non-mathematicians, who can anchor their thinking on the single, “real” world to the extent that they cannot easily consider hypothetical alternatives.  This can lead to confused exchanges such as the following:

Lecturer: “Theorem.  Let p be a prime number.  Then…”

Student: “But how do you know that p is a prime number?  Couldn’t it be composite?”


Lecturer: “Now we see what the function f does when we give it the input of x+dx instead.  …”

Student: “But didn’t you just say that the input was equal to x just a moment ago?”

This is not to say that counterfactual thinking is not encountered at all outside of mathematics.  For instance, an obvious source of counterfactual thinking occurs in fictional writing or film, particularly in speculative fiction such as science fiction, fantasy, or alternate history.  Here, one can certainly take one or more counterfactual hypotheses (e.g. “what if magic really existed?”) and follow them to see what conclusions would result.  The analogy between this and mathematical counterfactual reasoning is not perfect, of course: in fiction, consequences are usually not logically entailed by their premises, but are instead driven by more contingent considerations, such as the need to advance the plot, to entertain or emotionally affect the reader, or to make some moral or ideological point, and these types of narrative elements are almost completely absent in mathematical writing.  Nevertheless, the analogy can be somewhat helpful when one is first coming to terms with mathematical reasoning.  For instance, the mathematical concept of a proof by contradiction can be viewed as roughly analogous in some ways to such literary concepts as satire, dark humour, or absurdist fiction, in which one takes a premise specifically with the intent to derive absurd consequences from it.  And if the proof of (say) a lemma is analogous to a short story, then the statement of that lemma can be viewed as analogous to the moral of that story.

Another source of counterfactual thinking outside of mathematics comes from simulation, when one feeds some initial data or hypotheses (that may or may not correspond to what actually happens in the real world) into a simulated environment (e.g. a piece of computer software, a laboratory experiment, or even just a thought-experiment), and then runs the simulation to see what consequences result from these hypotheses.   Here, proof by contradiction is roughly analogous to the “garbage in, garbage out” phenomenon that is familiar to anyone who has worked with computers: if one’s initial inputs to a simulation are not consistent with the hypotheses of that simulation, or with each other, one can obtain bizarrely illogical (and sometimes unintentionally amusing) outputs as a result; and conversely, such outputs can be used to detect and diagnose problems with the data, hypotheses, or implementation of the simulation.

Despite the presence of these non-mathematical analogies, though, proofs by contradiction are still often viewed with suspicion and unease by many students of mathematics.  Perhaps the quintessential example of this is the standard proof of Cantor’s theorem that the set {\bf R} of real numbers is uncountable.  This is about as short and as elegant a proof by contradiction as one can have without being utterly trivial, and despite this (or perhaps because of this) it seems to offend the reason of many people when they are first exposed to it, to an extent far greater than most other results in mathematics.  (The only other two examples I know of that come close to doing this are the fact that the real number 0.999\ldots is equal to 1, and the solution to the blue-eyed islanders puzzle.)

Some time ago on this blog, I collected a family of well-known results in mathematics that were proven by contradiction, and specifically by a type of argument that I called the “no self-defeating object” argument; that any object that was so ridiculously overpowered that it could be used to “defeat” its own existence, could not actually exist.  Many basic results in mathematics can be phrased in this manner: not only Cantor’s theorem, but Euclid’s theorem on the infinitude of primes, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, or the conclusion (from Russell’s paradox) that the class of all sets cannot itself be a set.

I presented each of these arguments in the usual “proof by contradiction” manner; I made the counterfactual hypothesis that the impossibly overpowered object existed, and then used this to eventually derive a contradiction.  Mathematically, there is nothing wrong with this reasoning, but because the argument spends almost its entire duration inside the bizarre counterfactual universe caused by an impossible hypothesis, readers who are not experienced with counterfactual thinking may view these arguments with unease.

It was pointed out to me, though (originally with regards to Euclid’s theorem, but the same point in fact applies to the other results I presented) that one can pull a large fraction of each argument out of this counterfactual world, so that one can see most of the argument directly, without the need for any intrinsically impossible hypotheses.  This is done by converting the “no self-defeating object” argument into a logically equivalent “any object can be defeated” argument, with the former then being viewed as an immediate corollary of the latter.  This change is almost trivial to enact (it is often little more than just taking the contrapositive of the original statement), but it does offer a slightly different “non-counterfactual” (or more precisely, “not necessarily counterfactual”) perspective on these arguments which may assist in understanding how they work.

For instance, consider the very first no-self-defeating result presented in the previous post:

Proposition 1 (No largest natural number). There does not exist a natural number N that is larger than all the other natural numbers.

This is formulated in the “no self-defeating object” formulation.  But it has a logically equivalent “any object can be defeated” form:

Proposition 1′. Given any natural number N, one can find another natural number N' which is larger than N.

Proof. Take N' := N+1. \Box

While Proposition 1 and Proposition 1′ are logically equivalent to each other, note one key difference: Proposition 1′ can be illustrated with examples (e.g. take N = 100, so that the proof gives N'=101 ), whilst Proposition 1 cannot (since there is, after all, no such thing as a largest natural number).  So there is a sense in which Proposition 1′ is more “non-counterfactual” or  “constructive” than the “counterfactual” Proposition 1.

In a similar spirit, Euclid’s theorem (which we give using the numbering from the previous post),

Proposition 3. There are infinitely many primes.

can be recast in “all objects can be defeated” form as

Proposition 3′.  Let p_1,\ldots,p_n be a collection of primes.   Then there exists a prime q which is distinct from any of the primes p_1,\ldots,p_n.

Proof. Take q to be any prime factor of p_1 \ldots p_n + 1 (for instance, one could take the smallest prime factor, if one wished to be completely concrete).   Since p_1 \ldots p_n + 1 is not divisible by any of the primes p_1,\ldots,p_n, q must be distinct from all of these primes.  \Box

One could argue that  there was a slight use of proof by contradiction in the proof of Proposition 3′ (because one had to briefly entertain and then rule out the counterfactual possibility that q was equal to one of the p_1,\ldots,p_n), but the proposition itself is not inherently counterfactual, as  it does not make as patently impossible a hypothesis as a finite enumeration of the primes.  Incidentally, it can be argued that the proof of Proposition 3′ is closer in spirit to Euclid’s original proof of his theorem, than the proof of Proposition 3 that is usually given today.  Again, Proposition 3′ is “constructive”; one can apply it to any finite list of primes, say 2, 3, 5, and it will actually exhibit a prime not in that list (in this case, 31).  The same cannot be said of Proposition 3, despite the logical equivalence of the two statements.

[Note: the article below may make more sense if one first reviews the previous blog post on the "no self-defeating object".  For instance, the section and theorem numbering here is deliberately chosen to match that of the preceding post.]

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The standard modern foundation of mathematics is constructed using set theory. With these foundations, the mathematical universe of objects one studies contains not only the “primitive” mathematical objects such as numbers and points, but also sets of these objects, sets of sets of objects, and so forth. (In a pure set theory, the primitive objects would themselves be sets as well; this is useful for studying the foundations of mathematics, but for most mathematical purposes it is more convenient, and less conceptually confusing, to refrain from modeling primitive objects as sets.) One has to carefully impose a suitable collection of axioms on these sets, in order to avoid paradoxes such as Russell’s paradox; but with a standard axiom system such as Zermelo-Fraenkel-Choice (ZFC), all actual paradoxes that we know of are eliminated. Still, one might be somewhat unnerved by the presence in set theory of statements which, while not genuinely paradoxical in a strict sense, are still highly unintuitive; Cantor’s theorem on the uncountability of the reals, and the Banach-Tarski paradox, are perhaps the two most familiar examples of this.

One may suspect that the reason for this unintuitive behaviour is the presence of infinite sets in one’s mathematical universe. After all, if one deals solely with finite sets, then there is no need to distinguish between countable and uncountable infinities, and Banach-Tarski type paradoxes cannot occur.

On the other hand, many statements in infinitary mathematics can be reformulated into equivalent statements in finitary mathematics (involving only finitely many points or numbers, etc.); I have explored this theme in a number of previous blog posts. So, one may ask: what is the finitary analogue of statements such as Cantor’s theorem or the Banach-Tarski paradox?

The finitary analogue of Cantor’s theorem is well-known: it is the assertion that {2^n > n} for every natural number {n}, or equivalently that the power set of a finite set {A} of {n} elements cannot be enumerated by {A} itself. Though this is not quite the end of the story; after all, one also has {n+1 > n} for every natural number {n}, or equivalently that the union {A \cup \{a\}} of a finite set {A} and an additional element {a} cannot be enumerated by {A} itself, but the former statement extends to the infinite case, while the latter one does not. What causes these two outcomes to be distinct?

On the other hand, it is less obvious what the finitary version of the Banach-Tarski paradox is. Note that this paradox is available only in three and higher dimensions, but not in one or two dimensions; so presumably a finitary analogue of this paradox should also make the same distinction between low and high dimensions.

I therefore set myself the exercise of trying to phrase Cantor’s theorem and the Banach-Tarski paradox in a more “finitary” language. It seems that the easiest way to accomplish this is to avoid the use of set theory, and replace sets by some other concept. Taking inspiration from theoretical computer science, I decided to replace concepts such as functions and sets by the concepts of algorithms and oracles instead, with various constructions in set theory being replaced instead by computer language pseudocode. The point of doing this is that one can now add a new parameter to the universe, namely the amount of computational resources one is willing to allow one’s algorithms to use. At one extreme, one can enforce a “strict finitist” viewpoint where the total computational resources available (time and memory) are bounded by some numerical constant, such as {10^{100}}; roughly speaking, this causes any mathematical construction to break down once its complexity exceeds this number. Or one can take the slightly more permissive “finitist” or “constructivist” viewpoint, where any finite amount of computational resource is permitted; or one can then move up to allowing any construction indexed by a countable ordinal, or the storage of any array of countable size. Finally one can allow constructions indexed by arbitrary ordinals (i.e. transfinite induction) and arrays of arbitrary infinite size, at which point the theory becomes more or less indistinguishable from standard set theory.

I describe this viewpoint, and how statements such as Cantor’s theorem and Banach-Tarski are interpreted with this viewpoint, below the fold. I should caution that this is a conceptual exercise rather than a rigorous one; I have not attempted to formalise these notions to the same extent that set theory is formalised. Thus, for instance, I have no explicit system of axioms that algorithms and oracles are supposed to obey. Of course, these formal issues have been explored in great depth by logicians over the past century or so, but I do not wish to focus on these topics in this post.

A second caveat is that the actual semantic content of this post is going to be extremely low. I am not going to provide any genuinely new proof of Cantor’s theorem, or give a new construction of Banach-Tarski type; instead, I will be reformulating the standard proofs and constructions in a different language. Nevertheless I believe this viewpoint is somewhat clarifying as to the nature of these paradoxes, and as to how they are not as fundamentally tied to the nature of sets or the nature of infinity as one might first expect.

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A fundamental tool in any mathematician’s toolkit is that of reductio ad absurdum: showing that a statement {X} is false by assuming first that {X} is true, and showing that this leads to a logical contradiction. A particulary pure example of reductio ad absurdum occurs when establishing the non-existence of a hypothetically overpowered object or structure {X}, by showing that {X}‘s powers are “self-defeating”: the very existence of {X} and its powers can be used (by some clever trick) to construct a counterexample to that power. Perhaps the most well-known example of a self-defeating object comes from the omnipotence paradox in philosophy (“Can an omnipotent being create a rock so heavy that He cannot lift it?”); more generally, a large number of other paradoxes in logic or philosophy can be reinterpreted as a proof that a certain overpowered object or structure does not exist.

In mathematics, perhaps the first example of a self-defeating object one encounters is that of a largest natural number:

Proposition 1 (No largest natural number) There does not exist a natural number {N} which is larger than all other natural numbers.

Proof: Suppose for contradiction that there was such a largest natural number {N}. Then {N+1} is also a natural number which is strictly larger than {N}, contradicting the hypothesis that {N} is the largest natural number. \Box

Note the argument does not apply to the extended natural number system in which one adjoins an additional object {\infty} beyond the natural numbers, because {\infty+1} is defined equal to {\infty}. However, the above argument does show that the existence of a largest number is not compatible with the Peano axioms.

This argument, by the way, is perhaps the only mathematical argument I know of which is routinely taught to primary school children by other primary school children, thanks to the schoolyard game of naming the largest number. It is arguably one’s first exposure to a mathematical non-existence result, which seems innocuous at first but can be surprisingly deep, as such results preclude in advance all future attempts to establish existence of that object, no matter how much effort or ingenuity is poured into this task. One sees this in a typical instance of the above schoolyard game; one player tries furiously to cleverly construct some impressively huge number {N}, but no matter how much effort is expended in doing so, the player is defeated by the simple response “… plus one!” (unless, of course, {N} is infinite, ill-defined, or otherwise not a natural number).

It is not only individual objects (such as natural numbers) which can be self-defeating; structures (such as orderings or enumerations) can also be self-defeating. (In modern set theory, one considers structures to themselves be a kind of object, and so the distinction between the two concepts is often blurred.) Here is one example (related to, but subtly different from, the previous one):

Proposition 2 (The natural numbers cannot be finitely enumerated) The natural numbers {{\Bbb N} = \{0,1,2,3,\ldots\}} cannot be written as {\{ a_1,\ldots,a_n\}} for any finite collection {a_1,\ldots,a_n} of natural numbers.

Proof: Suppose for contradiction that such an enumeration {{\Bbb N} = \{a_1,\ldots,a_n\}} existed. Then consider the number {a_1+\ldots+a_n+1}; this is a natural number, but is larger than (and hence not equal to) any of the natural numbers {a_1,\ldots,a_n}, contradicting the hypothesis that {{\Bbb N}} is enumerated by {a_1,\ldots,a_n}. \Box

Here it is the enumeration which is self-defeating, rather than any individual natural number such as {a_1} or {a_n}. (For this post, we allow enumerations to contain repetitions.)

The above argument may seem trivial, but a slight modification of it already gives an important result, namely Euclid’s theorem:

Proposition 3 (The primes cannot be finitely enumerated) The prime numbers {{\mathcal P} = \{2,3,5,7,\ldots\}} cannot be written as {\{p_1,\ldots,p_n\}} for any finite collection of prime numbers.

Proof: Suppose for contradiction that such an enumeration {{\mathcal P} = \{p_1,\ldots,p_n\}} existed. Then consider the natural number {p_1 \times \ldots \times p_n + 1}; this is a natural number larger than {1} which is not divisible by any of the primes {p_1,\ldots,p_n}. But, by the fundamental theorem of arithmetic (or by the method of Infinite descent, which is another classic application of reductio ad absurdum), every natural number larger than {1} must be divisible by some prime, contradicting the hypothesis that {{\mathcal P}} is enumerated by {p_1,\ldots,p_n}. \Box

Remark 1 Continuing the number-theoretic theme, the “dueling conspiracies” arguments in a previous blog post can also be viewed as an instance of this type of “no-self-defeating-object”; for instance, a zero of the Riemann zeta function at {1+it} implies that the primes anti-correlate almost completely with the multiplicative function {n^{it}}, which is self-defeating because it also implies complete anti-correlation with {n^{-it}}, and the two are incompatible. Thus we see that the prime number theorem (a much stronger version of Proposition 3) also emerges from this type of argument.

In this post I would like to collect several other well-known examples of this type of “no self-defeating object” argument. Each of these is well studied, and probably quite familiar to many of you, but I feel that by collecting them all in one place, the commonality of theme between these arguments becomes more apparent. (For instance, as we shall see, many well-known “paradoxes” in logic and philosophy can be interpreted mathematically as a rigorous “no self-defeating object” argument.)

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