Banach-Tarski paradox, א Infinities, Infinitesimals, and the A-theory

I will offer an analysis of what is going wrong with the Banach-Tarski paradox suggesting that points, construed as infinitesimal surface areas, are nothing more than mathematically useful fictions. I will suggest that infinitesimals raise the same kinds of modally-prohibitive paradoxes in metaphysics as positing actually infinite quantities does (and for the same or similar reasons), and then consider an argument against the A-theory (in most of its forms) which can be purchased from these insights. I will then scout out some philosophical avenues available to the A-theorist.

The Banach-Tarski paradox is a famous mathematical paradox according to which it can be proved that if you divide the surface area of a sphere into little bits, and simply rearrange the bits appropriately, you can reconstruct two spheres each with the same surface area as the original sphere. In layman’s terms, you can prove (something just a shocking as) that 1=2.[1] To explain how it works, it may be worth calling to mind the various paradoxes associated with actual infinities.

Consider what it would be like to count upwards from -7 to infinity and stop only once you’ve arrived. Even if given an infinite amount of time you would never arrive, because no finite additions can sum up to a transfinite quantity. Subtract infinity from infinity, and what do you have? You have zero, but you also have infinity, and you also have 18.9801 (and every other real number); all of these are not just legitimate answers, they are mathematically correct answers. However, clearly 18.9801 is not equal to either zero, infinity, or anything else! Have a (Hilbert) hotel with an infinite number of rooms, all of which are occupied, and you want to check in an infinite number of new guests? No problem, just move every person from the room they are in (n) to the room with a room number equivalent to two times the original room’s room number (2n). Done; you’ve managed to move people around in such a way as to create an infinite number of vacant rooms without asking anyone to leave. Most of us (who are interested in this sort of thing) know the myriad paradoxes which arise from postulating even the possibility of an actual infinity. It seems relatively philosophically secure that there cannot be an א number of things (where א represents the first transfinite number, not to be confused with ∞ which symbolizes infinity taken as a limit rather than a quantity). If there are philosophically sophisticated caveats then so be it, but the point will remain that there are plenty of examples of things for which having an א number of them is clearly (broadly logically) impossible.

Let’s return, for a moment, to Hilbert’s Hotel, because it’s a particularly useful illustration. Suppose that the guest in room 3 checks out, while all the (infinitely many) other rooms remain occupied. The desk clerk decides that they want every room occupied, so they ask each person in room n (where n>3) to move one room over; that is, from room n to room n-1. That will fill up room 3, but the process will also leave no room empty because there is no room number n for which there is not an occupied room n+1. This works equally well for two dimensional shapes, such as circles; remove one ‘point’ from the circumference of a circle and you may have an infinitesimal gap, but simply move every other point along the circumference over (uniformly) by an infinitesimal amount and, voila, the gap is plugged and there will be no new gap. The trick in the case of the Banach-Tarski paradox is to apply the same reasoning to three-dimensional objects. For the best explanation of this paradox I’ve ever seen, (especially for readers who aren’t familiar with it, please make your life better and) check out Vsauce.

Alexander Pruss has noted on his blog that this result “is taken by some to be an argument against the Axiom of Choice.”[2] However, he argues that you can get the same paradoxical result in similar cases (and even in the same case) without the axiom of choice, so that the axiom of choice should be cleared of all suspicions. I agree (though I’m certainly no expert). Richard Feynman is purported to have said, upon being shown the proof, that “it’s fine you can do it with ‘continuous spheres’, since there’s no such thing. The important thing is you can’t do it with oranges, because oranges are made of a finite number of indivisible parts.” I think he is wrong about oranges (being actually comprised of indivisible finite parts, at least if the ‘parts’ are extended in three spatial dimensions), but his sentiment is appreciably insightful nonetheless.

The problem with the paradox, in my submission, is that it divides the surface of the sphere up into points. However, points on a sphere, like points on a line segment, are infinitesimals. This is precisely why (Aristotelians) say that line segments are not composed of points the way walls are composed of bricks, but, instead, points act as the limits between which a line segment is continuously extended. An infinitesimal is a quantity which is infinitely small. It is non-zero, but it is also smaller than any finite quantity. Sure infinitesimals are useful for doing things like infinitesimal calculus, developed by one of my all time favorite philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, but they remain, I believe, nothing more than useful fictions. To borrow a phrase from W.L. Craig;

“They are akin to ideal gases, frictionless planes, points at infinity, and other useful fictions employed in scientific theories.”[3]

If we are to accept the possibility of infinitesimal quantities in reality, then we will quickly run into paradoxes like the Banach-Tarski paradox (which, quite apart from being obnoxious to the rational intellect, seems to violate the law of conservation of matter and energy). Positing infinitesimals is just as paradoxical as positing sets of actually infinitely many discrete things (where ‘things’ is an ontologically loaded term). I am suggesting that infinitesimals are just as paradoxical as actual infinities, and, at bottom, for the same reason(s). In fact, I have this intuition that every argument for thinking that there cannot be any actual infinities (as opposed to potential infinities, where ‘infinity’ merely acts as a limit), admits of a parody for an argument against the existence of infinitesimals. I’m not sure I can rigorously prove it, but I think it’s very plausible.

It seems to me that there’s something conceptually parasitic about infinitesimals relative to infinities. They each conceptually supervene on each other symmetrically. To visualize this symmetry, consider plotting the function ƒ(x)=  1/x which will look like this:


The distance between the curved line and the x-axis (i.e., y=0) as x approaches (positive or negative) infinity is shrinking (or, at least, its absolute value is shrinking), and approaching an infinitely small non-zero measure. When X is infinite, the absolute value of the y-axis coordinate of the curved line (i.e., the distance between the curved line and it’s asymptote, here being the x axis) is infinitesimally small. This example helps to illustrate the point that the concept of an infinitesimal is bound up with the concept of infinity, so that in the absence of one the other would be inconceivable. That at least motivates the suspicion that if one turns out to be metaphysically impossible, so will the other.

What relevance does this have for the philosophy of time? Well, consider that on the A-theory there is such a time as the present. How long does the present last? What, precisely, is its magnitude, its duration? Let’s consider the following argument:

  1. If the A-theory is true, then the present is either infinitesimal in duration, or it is finite in duration.
  2. The present cannot be infinitesimal in duration.
  3. The present cannot be finite in duration.
  4. Therefore, the A-theory is false

Premise 3 can be established with Leibniz’ argument against the (logical) possibility of a physically indivisible element, or ‘atom’ (in the etymologically literal sense). For anything extended in three-dimensional space, however small, it will always be logically possible for me to divine it in two, even if I am physically incapable of doing so (due to some constraint, such as not having the appropriate equipment for the job, or maybe not even being able to develop any tool which could do the job). Physical impossibilities are not (all) logical impossibilities, and logically there is no constraint on how many times I could divide an object extended in space. To say that there is an object extended in space which is not logically possibly divided up into smaller constituent pieces is, according to Leibniz, incoherent. The exact same argument, mutatis mutandis, works against there being chronons (i.e., atomic chunks of time).

The denial of premise 2 is absurd given our observations that positing infinitesimals leads to modally unconscionable paradoxes like Banach-Tarski.

Ways out: I see four ways, not all of them equally viable, for an A-theorist to escape the conclusion of this argument.

First, they could challenge premise 3 on the grounds that, if there are chronons, then by definition they are entities which cannot be physically divided. The suggestion would be that the prima facie absurdity of a Chronon de dicto doesn’t entail the impossibility of a chronon de re. This dangerously dislocates rational intuition from epistemic reliability, but I can imagine extreme empiricists embracing this response.

Second, they could challenge premise 2 by arguing that positing any more than one real infinitesimal of any kind might be problematic, but that there’s no way to derive similar paradoxes from positing a maximum of one infinitesimal. In other words, perhaps paradoxes involving infinitesimals only arise when there are n infinitesimals, where n ∈ ℕ, and n>1. Multiply an infinitesimal by any natural number, or even a transfinite number, and you will still get an infinitesimal result, so it seems harder to show that from one infinitesimal you could derive some kind of contradiction.

Quick thought: Perhaps if there are rules/axioms such as (i) no infinitesimal can be larger or smaller than any other infinitesimal, but (ii) anything (other than 1) to the power of itself is larger than itself, you could derive a contradiction by taking an infinitesimal X, running it through Xx=Y, and then asking whether Y is larger than X, or the same size (it appears to be both). However, I don’t have the kind of facility in mathematics to be able to produce a rigorous proof that even a single infinitesimal would lead to some kind of contradiction or unconscionable paradox. Moreover, it isn’t entirely clear to me what relevance that kind of mathematical paradox would have for the metaphysical consideration at hand. In any case, the second challenge to premise 2 cannot be lightly dismissed.

Third, one could adopt a really wild philosophy of time, such as the Apresentism I wrote about in the last post (thus denying the first premise).

Fourth, one could deny the first premise by adopting what has been called a non-metric view of the present. This is the view preferred by William Lane Craig.[4] I have more than expended my allotted time for blogging and casual writing today, so I will leave this post here for now. I may return to the idea of non-metric present in the (near) future in another post.

[Ha, I don’t presently have time to write more. Get it?]

[1] For fun, check out and try to find the mistake in the following mathematical proof that 1=2 here:


[3] William Lane Craig, “Response to Greg Welty,” in Beyond the Control of God: Six Views on the Problem of God and Abstract Objects, ed. Paul Gould (A&C Black, 2014), 102.

[4] See: Craig, William. “The extent of the present.” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 14, no. 2 (2000): 165-185.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s