Life Story of Mathematician & Philosopher of Infinity, interviewed by The Human Podcast, May 2024

I was interviewed by The Human Podcast on 17 May 2024. Please enjoy our sweeping conversation about nature of infinity, the nature of abstract mathematical existence, the applicability of mathematical abstractions to physical reality, and more. At the end, you will see that I am caught completely at a loss in answer to the question, “What is it to live a good life?”.

Philosophy of Mathematics and Truth, interview with Matthew Geleta on Paradigm Podcast

We had a sweeping discussion touching upon many issues in the philosophy of mathematics, including the nature of mathematical truth, mathematical abstraction, the nature of mathematical existence, the meaning and role of proof in mathematics, the completeness theorem, the incompleteness phenomenon, infinity, and a discussion about the motivations that one might have for studying mathematics.

Paradox, Infinity, & The Foundations of Mathematics, interview with Robinson Erhardt, January 2023

This was an interview with Robinson Erhardt on Robinson’s Podcast, part of his series of interviews with various philosophers, including many philosophers of mathematics and more.

We had a wonderfully wide-ranging discussion about the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of set theory, pluralism, and many other topics. The main focus was the topic of infinity, following selections from my new book, The Book of Infinity, currently being serialized on my substack, joeldavidhamkins.substack.com, with discussion of Zeno’s paradox, the Chocolatier’s Game, Hilbert’s Grand Hotel and more.

Robinson compiled the following outline with links to special parts of the interview:

  • 00:00 Introduction
  • 2:52 Is Joel a Mathematician or a Philosopher?
  • 6:13 The Philosophical Influence of Hugh Woodin
  • 10:29 The Intersection of Set Theory and Philosophy of Math
  • 16:29 Serializing the Book of the Infinite
  • 20:05 Zeno of Elea, Continuity, and Geometric Series
  • 39:39 Infinite Games and the Chocolatier
  • 53:35 Hilbert’s Hotel
  • 1:10:26 Cantor’s Theorem
  • 1:31:37 The Continuum Hypothesis
  • 1:43:02 The Set-Theoretic Multiverse
  • 2:00:25 Berry’s Paradox and Large Numbers
  • 2:16:15 Skolem’s Paradox and Indescribable Numbers
  • 2:28:41 Pascal’s Wager and Reasoning Around Remote Events
  • 2:49:35 MathOverflow
  • 3:04:40 Joel’s Impeccable Fashion Sense

Read the book here: joeldavidhamkins.substack.com.

Infinity, University of Notre Dame, Spring 2023

Infinity

Philosophy 20607 01 (32582)

University of Notre Dame                                                                              Spring 2023

Instructor: Joel David Hamkins, O’Hara Professor of Philosophy and Mathematics
3:30-4:45 Tuesdays + Thursdays, DeBartolo Hall 208

Course Description. This course will be a mathematical and philosophical exploration of infinity, covering a wide selection of topics illustrating this rich, fascinating concept—the mathematics and philosophy of the infinite.

Along the way, we shall find paradox and fun—and all my favorite elementary logic conundrums and puzzles. It will be part of my intention to reveal what I can of the quirky side of mathematics and logic in its connection with infinity, but with a keen eye open for when issues happen to engage with philosophically deeper foundational matters.

The lectures will be based on the chapters of my forthcoming book, The Book of Infinity, currently in preparation, and currently being serialized and made available on the Substack website as I explain below.

Topics. Among the topics we shall aim to discuss will be:

  • The Book of Numbers
  • Zeno’s paradox
  • The infinite coastline paradox
  • Supertasks
  • Largest number contest
  • The googol plex chitty bang stack hierarchy
  • Galileo’s Salviati on infinity
  • Hilbert’s Grand Hotel
  • The uncountable
  • How to count (to infinity and beyond!)
  • Slaying the Hydra
  • Transfinite recursion
  • The continuum hypothesis
  • The axiom of choice
  • Orders of infinity
  • The lattice of subsets of ℕ
  • Potential versus actual infinity
  • Confounding puzzles of infinity
  • Infinite liars
  • Infinite utilitarianism
  • Infinite computation
  • Infinite games
  • Indescribable numbers
  • Extremely remote events of enormous consequence
  • The sand reckoner
  • Paradox in high dimension
  • The outer limits of reason
  • Puzzles of epistemic logic and the problem of common knowledge

Mathematical background. The course will at times involve topics and concepts of a fundamentally mathematical nature, but no particular mathematical background or training will be assumed. Nevertheless, it is expected that students be open to mathematical thinking and ideas, and furthermore it is a core aim of the course to help develop the student’s mastery over various mathematical concepts connected with infinity.  

Readings. The lectures will be based on readings from the topic list above that will be made available on my Substack web page, Infinitely More. Readings for the topic list above will be gradually released there during the semester. Each reading will consist of a chapter essay my book-in-progress, The Book of Infinity, which is being serialized on the Substack site specifically for this course. In some weeks, there will be supplemental readings from other sources.

Student access. I will issue subscription invitations to the Substack site for all registered ND students using their ND email, with free access to the site during the semester, so that students can freely access the readings.  Students are free to manage their subscriptions however they see fit. Please inform me of any access issues. There are some excellent free Substack apps available for Apple iOS and Android for reading Substack content on a phone or other device.

Discussion forum. Students are welcome to participate in the discussion forums provided with the readings to discuss the topics, the questions, to post answer ideas, or engage in the discussion there. I shall try to participate myself by posting comments or hints.

Homework essays. Students are expected to engage fully with every topic covered in the class. Every chapter concludes with several Questions for Further Thought, with which the students should engage. It will be expected that students complete approximately half of the Questions for Further thought. Each question that is answered should be answered essay-style with a mini-essay of about half a page or more.

Extended essays. A student may choose at any time to answer one of the Questions for Further Thought more fully with a more extended essay of two or three pages, and in this case, other questions on that particular topic need not be engaged. Every student should plan to exercise this option at least twice during the semester.

Final exam.  There will be a final exam consisting of questions similar to those in the Questions for Further Thought, covering every topic that was covered in the course. The final grade will be based on the final exam and on the submitted homework solutions.

Open Invitation. Students outside of Notre Dame are welcome to follow along with the Infinity course, readings, and online discussion. Simply subscribe at Infinitely More, keep up with the readings and participate in the discussions we shall be having in the forums there.

Counting to Infinity and Beyond

Anyone can learn to count in the ordinals, even a child, and so let us learn how to count to $\omega^2$, the first compound limit ordinal.

The large-format poster is available:

Some close-up views:

I would like to thank the many people who had made helpful suggestions concerning my poster, including Andrej Bauer and especially Saul Schleimer, who offered many detailed suggestions.

Infinite sets and Foundations—Interviewed on the Daniel Rubin Show

I was interviewed 26 August 2021 by mathematician Daniel Rubin on his show, and we had a lively, wideranging discussion spanning mathematics, infinity, and the philosophy of mathematics. Please enjoy!

Contents

0:00 Intro

2:11 Joel’s background. Interaction between math and philosophy

9:04 Joel’s work; infinite chess.

14:45 Infinite ordinals

22:27 The Cantor-Bendixson process

29:41 Uncountable ordinals

32:10 First order vs. second order theories

41:16 Non-standard analysis

46:57 The ZFC axioms and well-ordering of the reals

58:11 Showing independence of statements. Models and forcing.

1:04:38 Sets, classes, and categories

1:19:22 Is there one true set theory? Are projective sets Lebesgue measurable?

1:30:20 What does set theory look like if certain axioms are rejected?

1:36:06 How to judge philosophical positions about math

1:42:01 Concrete math where set theory becomes relevant. Tarski-Seidenberg on positive polynomials.

1:48:48 Goodstein sequences and the use of infinite ordinals

1:58:43 The state of set theory today

2:01:41 Joel’s recent books

Go check out the other episodes on Daniel’s channel!

Cantor’s Ice Cream Shoppe

Welcome to Cantor’s Ice Cream Shoppe! A huge choice of flavors—pile your cone high with as many scoops as you want!

Have two scoops, or three, four, or more! Why not infinitely many? Would you like $\omega$ many scoops, or $\omega\cdot2+5$ many scoops? You can have any countable ordinal number of scoops on your cone.

And furthermore, after ordering your scoops, you can order more scoops to be placed on top—all I ask is that you let me know how many such extra orders you plan to make. Let’s simply proceed transfinitely. You can announce any countable ordinal $\eta$, which will be the number of successive orders you will make; each order is a countable ordinal number of ice cream scoops to be placed on top of whatever cone is being assembled.

In fact, I’ll even let you change your mind about $\eta$ as we proceed, so as to give you more orders to make a taller cone.

So the process is:

  • You pick a countable ordinal $\eta$, which is the number of orders you will make.
  • For each order, you can pick any countable ordinal number of scoops to be added to the top of your ice-cream cone.
  • After making your order, you can freely increase $\eta$ to any larger countable ordinal, giving you the chance to make as many additional orders as you like.

At each limit stage of the ordering process, the ice cream cone you are assembling has all the scoops you’ve ordered so far, and we set the current $\eta$ value to the supremum of the values you had chosen so far.

If at any stage, you’ve used up your $\eta$ many orders, then the process has completed, and I serve you your ice cream cone. Enjoy!

Question. Can you arrange to achieve uncountably many scoops on your cone?

Although at each stage we place only countably many ice cream scoops onto the cone, nevertheless we can keep giving ourselves extra stages, as many as we want, simply by increasing $\eta$. Can you describe a systematic process of increasing the number of steps that will enable you to make uncountably many orders? This would achieve an unountable ice cream cone.

What is your solution? Give it some thought before proceeding. My solution appears below.

Alas, I claim that at Cantor’s Ice Cream Shoppe you cannot make an ice cream cone with uncountably many scoops. Specifically, I claim that there will inevitably come a countable ordinal stage at which you have used up all your orders.

Suppose that you begin by ordering $\beta_0$ many scoops, and setting a large value $\eta_0$ for the number of orders you will make. You subsequently order $\beta_1$ many additional scoops, and then $\beta_2$ many on top of that, and so on. At each stage, you may also have increased the value of $\eta_0$ to $\eta_1$ and then $\eta_2$ and so on. Probably all of these are enormous countable ordinals, making a huge ice cream cone.

At each stage $\alpha$, provided $\alpha<\eta_\alpha$, then you can make an order of $\beta_\alpha$ many scoops on top of your cone, and increase $\eta_\alpha$ to $\eta_{\alpha+1}$, if desired, or keep it the same.

At a limit stage $\lambda$, your cone has $\sum_{\alpha<\lambda}\beta_\alpha$ many scoops, and we update the $\eta$ value to the supremum of your earlier declarations $\eta_\lambda=\sup_{\alpha<\lambda}\eta_\alpha$.

What I claim now is that there will inevitably come a countable stage $\lambda$ for which $\lambda=\eta_\lambda$, meaning that you have used up all your orders with no possibility to further increase $\eta$. To see this, consider the sequence $$\eta_0\leq \eta_{\eta_0}\leq \eta_{\eta_{\eta_0}}\leq\cdots$$ We can define the sequence recursively by $\lambda_0=\eta_0$ and $\lambda_{n+1}=\eta_{\lambda_n}$. Let $\lambda=\sup_{n<\omega}\lambda_n$, the limit of this sequence. This is a countable supremum of countable ordinals and hence countable. But notice that $$\eta_\lambda=\sup_{n<\omega}\eta_{\lambda_n}=\sup_{n<\omega}\lambda_{n+1}=\lambda.$$ That is, $\eta_\lambda=\lambda$ itself, and so your orders have run out at $\lambda$, with no possibility to add more scoops or to increase $\eta$. So your order process completed at a countable stage, and you have therefore altogether only a countable ordinal number of scoops of ice cream. I’m truly very sorry at your pitiable impoverishment.