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Finitism

VincentP

New member
Feb 17, 2012
7
I recently watched the following video on youtube:
MF91: Difficulties with real numbers as infinite decimals I - YouTube
The guy in this video is a mathematical finitist and he claims that there is some problem with the foundation of modern mathematics, in particular modern analysis, I think he's wrong, but I don't know enough in order to refute his claims.
How would you respond to him?
 

Fantini

"Read Euler, read Euler." - Laplace
MHB Math Helper
Feb 29, 2012
342
I'd say he's basically focusing on the wrong aspects and hence taking wrong conclusions. What is $\pi$? A greek letter commonly used to denote the ratio of the length of a circumference to its diamater. What is $e$? The letter used to denote the limit $\lim_{n \to \infty} \left( 1 + \frac{1}{n} \right)^n$. What is $\sqrt{2}$? The hypotenuse of a right triangle with sides 1 and 1. On top of all of that, they're all real numbers. So they satisfy a number of axioms, basically we can add, subtract, multiply, divide (other than zero), etc.

For computational purposes, it is interesting to have decimal expansion for those real numbers, then you approximate those by rational numbers using various methods. Working with the concept of infinity can lead to problems because the human mind isn't in general prepared for it. This means that thinking of all this concepts as just infinite decimals is heading for trouble, you're not enlightening your understanding about what they signify.
 

CaptainBlack

Well-known member
Jan 26, 2012
890
I'd say he's basically focusing on the wrong aspects and hence taking wrong conclusions. What is $\pi$? A greek letter commonly used to denote the ratio of the length of a circumference to its diamater. What is $e$? The letter used to denote the limit $\lim_{n \to \infty} \left( 1 + \frac{1}{n} \right)^n$. What is $\sqrt{2}$? The hypotenuse of a right triangle with sides 1 and 1. On top of all of that, they're all real numbers. So they satisfy a number of axioms, basically we can add, subtract, multiply, divide (other than zero), etc.

For computational purposes, it is interesting to have decimal expansion for those real numbers, then you approximate those by rational numbers using various methods. Working with the concept of infinity can lead to problems because the human mind isn't in general prepared for it. This means that thinking of all this concepts as just infinite decimals is heading for trouble, you're not enlightening your understanding about what they signify.
Which would all be very well if there were not still mathematicians who disagree with the construction of the reals because they are not computable (and others who object for other reasons, for example Wildberger is not as far as I recall demanding computability)). All of your examples are computable since there exist Turing machines which when given an positive integer N will return the N-th digit of the number in question, then these numbers are finite in the sense that the shortest member of the equivalence class of Turing machines that compute them will serve as a finite representation of that number.

CB
 
Last edited:

Deveno

Well-known member
MHB Math Scholar
Feb 15, 2012
1,967
as i see it, the problem ultimately lies with $\Bbb N$, the set of natural numbers.

to speak of the natural numbers as "one object" is what used to be referred to as "a completed infinity". it is, in essence, a LIMITING process (think of it as $n \to \infty$). the issues regarding whether such a thing is "proper mathematics" isn't really a mathematical question in and of itself, but a meta-mathematical one, with perhaps philosophical overtones and implications.

most modern mathematicians are readily willing to accept the "existence" of the natural numbers as a valid mathematical object, and are also comfortable with the concept of a function, or a mapping.

in this case, an "infinite decimal" is just a mapping:

$$f:\Bbb N \to \{0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9\}$$

(f(n) specifies the n-th digit, which is usually written $a_n$ or something similar).

the (philosophical) question tied up in this is:

can "any (abstract) function" be allowed, or do we need a RULE (algorithm) to DETERMINE f(n)? function spaces (sets), generally speaking, are quite large, and often unpredictable and counter-intuitive. in practice, arbitrary functions are not used much, some sort of restriction is usually placed on such a set (continuity, differentiability, polynomial, algebraic, rational, periodic, and so on). because "general functions" (even on such a nice domain as simply the natural numbers) don't behave very well (for example, most sequences aren't convergent).

in looking for a "general case" to include "the math we know and love", we are forced to include some pathological instances as well (such as "totally undefinable real numbers"). that bothers some people. it's good to keep in mind that the real numbers are an abstract system we invented to make life easier for us (some have gone so far as to call them "a convenient fiction"). if we accept a continuum, then continuity of certain functions becomes almost "automatic" (yes, i mean epsilons and deltas). it may be the case we actually live in a finitary universe, and will be in the peculiar position of making "continuous approximations" to "discrete phenomena" (instead of the other way around), in much the same way as we use a "bell-curve" to predict discrete test scores on a standard examination.

the proof that the real numbers form a field is actually the hard part (there are various subtleties in defining -x, and x+y and xy, and proving these satisfy the field axioms). proving they form a complete, ordered archimedean field is the easy part (or equivalently, showing the real numbers have the "least upper bound" property).

mathematicians are still not of a single mind regarding the axiom of choice: some believe that positing the existence of a choice function is sufficient; others want a function to be explicitly described.

if one looks closely enough, one sees (in logic) this side-stepped by replacing second-order axioms with axiom schema, which is a logician's way of saying: "yes i KNOW i can't list an infinite set, but if you give me an example of an element, i can tell you if the axiom holds for it or not".

i suppose, in the end, people ought to be free to choose the level of abstraction they "agree" with. what they regard as "true" will be a consequence of such a choice.