Cantor Crankery is Boring

Sometimes, I think that I’m being punished.

I’ve written about Cantor crankery so many times. In fact, it’s one of the largest categories in this blog’s index! I’m pretty sure that I’ve covered pretty much every anti-Cantor argument out there. And yet, not a week goes by when another idiot doesn’t pester me with their “new” refutation of Cantor. The “new” argument is always, without exception, a variation on one of the same old boring ones.

But I haven’t written any Cantor stuff in quite a while, and yet another one landed in my mailbox this morning. So, what the heck. Let’s go down the rabbit-hole once again.

We’ll start with a quick refresher.

The argument that the cranks hate is called Cantor’s diagonalization. Cantor’s diagonalization as argument that according to the axioms of set theory, the cardinality (size) of the set of real numbers is strictly larger than the cardinality of the set of natural numbers.

The argument is based on the set theoretic definition of cardinality. In set theory, two sets are the same size if and only if there exists a one-to-one mapping between the two sets. If you try to create a mapping between set A and set B, and in every possible mapping, every A is mapped onto a unique B, but there are leftover Bs that no element of A maps to, then the cardinality of B is larger than the cardinality of A.

When you’re talking about finite sets, this is really easy to follow. If I is the set {1, 2, 3}, and B is the set {4, 5, 6, 7}, then it’s pretty obvious that there’s no one to one mapping from A to B: there are more elements in B than there are in A. You can easily show this by enumerating every possible mapping of elements of A onto elements of B, and then showing that in every one, there’s an element of B that isn’t mapped to by an element of A.

With infinite sets, it gets complicated. Intuitively, you’d think that the set of even natural numbers is smaller than the set of all natural numbers: after all, the set of evens is a strict subset of the naturals. But your intuition is wrong: there’s a very easy one to one mapping from the naturals to the evens: {n → 2n }. So the set of even natural numbers is the same size as the set of all natural numbers.

To show that one infinite set has a larger cardinality than another infinite set, you need to do something slightly tricky. You need to show that no matter what mapping you choose between the two sets, some elements of the larger one will be left out.

In the classic Cantor argument, what he does is show you how, given any purported mapping between the natural numbers and the real numbers, to find a real number which is not included in the mapping. So no matter what mapping you choose, Cantor will show you how to find real numbers that aren’t in the mapping. That means that every possible mapping between the naturals and the reals will omit members of the reals – which means that the set of real numbers has a larger cardinality than the set of naturals.

Cantor’s argument has stood since it was first presented in 1891, despite the best efforts of people to refute it. It is an uncomfortable argument. It violates our intuitions in a deep way. Infinity is infinity. There’s nothing bigger than infinity. What does it even mean to be bigger than infinity? That’s a non-sequiter, isn’t it?

What it means to be bigger than infinity is exactly what I described above. It means that if you have a two infinitely large sets of objects, and there’s no possible way to map from one to the other without missing elements, then one is bigger than the other.

There are legitimate ways to dispute Cantor. The simplest one is to reject set theory. The diagonalization is an implication of the basic axioms of set theory. If you reject set theory as a basis, and start from some other foundational axioms, you can construct a version of mathematics where Cantor’s proof doesn’t work. But if you do that, you lose a lot of other things.

You can also argue that “cardinality” is a bad abstraction. That is, that the definition of cardinality as size is meaningless. Again, you lose a lot of other things.

If you accept the axioms of set theory, and you don’t dispute the definition of cardinality, then you’re pretty much stuck.

Ok, background out of the way. Let’s look at today’s crackpot. (I’ve reformatted his text somewhat; he sent this to me as plain-text email, which looks awful in my wordpress display theme, so I’ve rendered it into formatted HTML. Any errors introduced are, of course, my fault, and I’ll correct them if and when they’re pointed out to me.)

We have been told that it is not possible to put the natural numbers into a one to one with the real numbers. Well, this is not true. And the argument, to show this, is so simple that I am absolutely surprised that this argument does not appear on the internet.

We accept that the set of real numbers is unlistable, so to place them into a one to one with the natural numbers we will need to make the natural numbers unlistable as well. We can do this by mirroring them to the real numbers.

Given any real number (between 0 and 1) it is possible to extract a natural number of any length that you want from that real number.

Ex: From π-3 we can extract the natural numbers 1, 14, 141, 1415, 14159 etc…

We can form a set that associates the extracted number with the real number that it was extracted from.

Ex: 1 → 0.14159265…

Then we can take another real number (in any arbitrary order) and extract a natural number from it that is not in our set.

Ex: 1 → 0.14159266… since 1 is already in our set we must extract the next natural number 14.

Since 14 is not in our set we can add the pair 14 → 0.1415926l6… to our set.

We can do the same thing with some other real number 0.14159267… since 1 and 14 is already in our set we will need to extract a 3 digit natural number, 141, and place it in our set. And so on.

So our set would look something like this…

A) 1 → 0.14159265…
B) 14 → 0.14159266…
C) 141 → 0.14159267…
D) 1410 → 0.141
E) 14101 → 0.141013456789…
F) 5 → 0.567895…
G) 55 → 0.5567891…
H) 555 → 0.555067891…

Since the real numbers are infinite in length (some terminate in an infinite string of zero’s) then we can always extract a natural number that is not in the set of pairs since all the natural numbers in the set of pairs are finite in length. Even if we mutate the diagonal of the real numbers, we will get a real number not on the list of real numbers, but we can still find a natural number, that is not on the list as well, to correspond with that real number.

Therefore it is not possible for the set of real numbers to have a larger cardinality than the set of natural numbers!

This is a somewhat clever variation on a standard argument.

Over and over and over again, we see arguments based on finite prefixes of real numbers. The problem with them is that they’re based on finite prefixes. The set of all finite prefixes of the real numbers is that there’s an obvious correspondence between the natural numbers and the finite prefixes – but that still doesn’t mean that there are no real numbers that aren’t in the list.

In this argument, every finite prefix of π corresponds to a natural number. But π itself does not. In fact, every real number that actually requires an infinite number of digits has no corresponding natural number.

This piece of it is, essentially, the same thing as John Gabriel’s crankery.

But there’s a subtler and deeper problem. This “refutation” of Cantor contains the conclusion as an implicit premise. That is, it’s actually using the assumption that there’s a one-to-one mapping between the naturals and the reals to prove the conclusion that there’s a one-to-one mapping between the naturals and the reals.

If you look at his procedure for generating the mapping, it requires an enumeration of the real numbers. You need to take successive reals, and for each one in the sequence, you produce a mapping from a natural number to that real. If you can’t enumerate the real numbers as a list, the procedure doesn’t work.

If you can produce a sequence of the real numbers, then you don’t need this procedure: you’ve already got your mapping. 0 to the first real, 1 to the second real, 2 to the third read, 3 to the fourth real, and so on.

So, once again: sorry Charlie: your argument doesn’t work. There’s no Fields medal for you today.

One final note. Like so many other bits of bad math, this is a classic example of what happens when you try to do math with prose. There’s a reason that mathematicians have developed formal notations, formal language, detailed logical inference, and meticulous citation. It’s because in prose, it’s easy to be sloppy. You can accidentally introduce an implicit premise without meaning to. If you need to carefully state every premise, and cite evidence of its truth, it’s a whole lot harder to make this kind of mistake.

That’s the real problem with this whole argument. It’s built on the fact that the premise “you can enumerate the real numbers” is built in. If you wrote it in careful formal mathematics, you wouldn’t be able to get away with that.