Kit Fine: What are Numbers? at TEDxNewYork (Full Transcript)

Kit Fine

Kit Fine – Philosopher

Numbers are strange. They are not physical objects. No one has bumped into the number two or tripped over the number three; not even your crazy math professor. They are not mental objects either. The thought of your beloved isn’t your beloved no matter how much you might want it to be. And no more is the thought of the number three, the number three. Nor do numbers exist in space or time. You don’t expect to find the number three in the kitchen cupboard, and you don’t need to worry that numbers once didn’t exist or might one day cease to exist.

But even though numbers are far removed from the familiar world of thoughts and things, they’re intimately connected to that world because we do things with numbers. We count with them, we measure with them, we formulate our scientific theories with them. So this makes it all the stranger what they are.

How can they be so far removed from the familiar world and yet so intimately connected to it? In this talk I want to consider three views about the nature of number that were developed by mathematicians and philosophers around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. All of these views presuppose that strictly speaking what we count are not things, but sets of things.

A set is just many things, any things you like, considered as one. So for example, we have the set of beer bottles that you drank last night. The bottles are put in these braces to indicate that the six bottles are being considered as one object. Then we have the set consisting of your two favorite pets, Fido and Felix. Or we have a set consisting of all the natural numbers, so they’re put together in this very big set: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on. And so what we do when we count is associate a number with a set.

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In the case of the beer bottles, the number six, assuming you’re not too drunk to count them. In the case of your pets, the number two. And in the case of the natural numbers, when we put them into one big set, is going to be some infinite number.

The first view I want to consider about the nature of numbers was developed independently by two great philosopher mathematicians, Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell. These two individuals were very different from one another. Russell came from the English aristocracy; Frege from the comfortable German middle class.

Russell was a crusading liberal; Frege, I’m sorry to say, was a proto-Nazi. Russell had four wives, and innumerable mistresses; Frege had a single wife, and as far as I know, enjoyed a happy, staid marital existence. But despite these differences, they had more or less the same view about the nature of number. So what was it? Well let’s take the number two as an example. Two can be used to number any two-membered set or pair. So it can be used to number the set whose members are Frege and Russell. Or it can be used to number the set consisting of your favorite pets, Fido and Felix. Or it can be used to number Dickens’ famous two cities, London and Paris. I insisted that London be placed first there.

Now the idea of Russell and Frege was to put all of these pairs into one big set. We pile them all into one big set, and that would be the number two. So the number two would be a set of sets, and these sets would just be all the pairs that could be counted by the number two.

Similarly, for all other numbers, the number three would be the set of all triples, the number four the set of all quadruples, and so on. A simple and beautiful theory. Unfortunately, it led to contradiction. I can’t give a demonstration of the contradiction here, but I can give you a feel for how it arose. You’ll recall that the number two was the set of all pairs, all pairs of whatever. So in particular, it would include pairs that themselves contain the number two.

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So let’s look at the particular such pair, the pair consisting of the number two and the number one. Then that pair, the pair {1, 2}, would itself be inside the number two. So the number two would contain itself, and that looks as if it’s impossible. So here’s an analogy: imagine a very hungry serpent that tries to eat its own tail.

Now, it could succeed in doing this – this is the best we could do by way of illustration – This is gross, but still possible. But imagine now that the serpent is so ravenous that it attempts to eat itself in its entirety. That’s not even possible because then, the serpent’s stomach would have to be inside its stomach. And that’s what happens with the number two. The number two, as you see, has itself inside of its very own stomach. What was to be done?

The mathematician John von Neumann came up with a brilliant solution; von Neumann was perhaps one of the most versatile mathematicians who ever existed. He helped invent game theory and the modern computer. He was a prodigy and had the most amazing computational skills. So what was his solution? There he is. He said: “Well look, rather than take the number two to be the set of all pairs, take it to be a particular pair.”

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