Posts Tagged ‘self-reference’

Previously we saw that Cantor’s theorem, the halting problem, and Russell’s paradox all employ the same diagonalization argument, which takes the following form. Let X be a set and let

\displaystyle f : X \times X \to 2

be a function. Then we can write down a function g : X \to 2 such that g(x) \neq f(x, x). If we curry f to obtain a function

\displaystyle \text{curry}(f) : X \to 2^X

it now follows that there cannot exist x \in X such that \text{curry}(f)(x) = g, since \text{curry}(f)(x)(x) = f(x, x) \neq g(x).

Currying is a fundamental notion. In mathematics, it is constantly implicitly used to talk about function spaces. In computer science, it is how some programming languages like Haskell describe functions which take multiple arguments: such a function is modeled as taking one argument and returning a function which takes further arguments. In type theory, it reproduces function types. In logic, it reproduces material implication.

Today we will discuss the appropriate categorical setting for understanding currying, namely that of cartesian closed categories. As an application of the formalism, we will prove the Lawvere fixed point theorem, which generalizes the argument behind Cantor’s theorem to cartesian closed categories.


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Cantor’s theorem is somewhat infamous as a mathematical result that many non-mathematicians have a hard time believing. Trying to disprove Cantor’s theorem is a popular hobby among students and cranks; even Eliezer Yudkowsky1993 fell into this trap once. I think part of the reason is that the standard proof is not very transparent, and consequently is hard to absorb on a gut level.

The goal of this post is to present a rephrasing of the statement and proof of Cantor’s theorem so that it is no longer about sets, but about a particular kind of game related to the prisoner’s dilemma. Rather than showing that there are no surjections X \to 2^X, we will show that a particular kind of player in this game can’t exist. This rephrasing may make the proof more transparent and easier to absorb, although it will take some background material about the prisoner’s dilemma to motivate. As a bonus, we will almost by accident run into a proof of the undecidability of the halting problem.


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Occasionally I see mathematical questions that seem “grammatically incorrect” in some sense.

Example. “Is [0, 1] open or closed?”
Example. “Is \{ 1, 2, 3 \} a group?”
Example. “What’s the Fourier series of \sin x + \sin \pi x?”

Here are some sillier examples.

Example. “Is a rectangle prime?”
Example. “Is 17 \in 3?”
Example. “What’s the Fourier series of the empty set?”

What all of these examples have in common is that they are type errors: they are attempts to apply some mathematical process to a kind of mathematical object it was never intended to take as input. If you tried to write a program in some highly mathematical programming language to answer these questions, it (hopefully!) wouldn’t compile.

Mathematical objects are usually not explicitly thought of as having types in the same way that objects in a programming language with a type system has types. Ordinary mathematics is supposed to be formalizable within Zermelo-Fraenkel (ZF) set theory, possibly with the axiom of choice, and in ZF every mathematical object is constructed as a set. In that sense they all have the same type. (In particular, the question “is 17 \in 3?” is perfectly meaningful in ZF! This is one reason not to like ZF as a foundation of mathematics.) However, I think that in practice mathematical objects are implicitly thought of as having types, and that this is a mental habit mathematicians pick up but don’t often talk about.

Instead of thinking in terms of set theory, thinking of mathematical objects as having types allows us to import various useful concepts into mathematics, such as the notions of type safety, typecasting, subtyping, and overloading, that help us make more precise what we mean by a mathematical sentence being “grammatically incorrect.” The rest of this post will be a leisurely discussion of these and other type-based concepts as applied to mathematics in general. There are various categorical ideas here, but for the sake of accessibility we will restrict them to parenthetical remarks.


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I can’t resist mentioning a joke I heard from an episode of American Dad. Stan Smith has this to say about his training as a negotiator:

Hey, you’ve got one of the CIA’s top negotiators on your side. Y’know, I negotiated my way through negotiator training. I should’ve failed the hell out of that class. That’s how good I am.

It reminds me of some of the issues that cropped up in Scott Aaronson’s discussion of side-splitting proofs, especially Theorem 5. I can’t help but chuckle at the fact that Stan’s line gives both a lower and an upper bound on the quality of his negotiation skills!

Anyone know of other jokes like this one?

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