(Roughly) Daily

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”*…

Zeno shows the Doors to Truth and Falsity (Veritas et Falsitas). Fresco in the Library of El Escorial, Madrid (source)

As Joel David Hamkins explains, an ancient puzzle leads ultimately to a remarkable observation on the malleable nature of infinite sums…

The Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea (c. 490–430 BC) argued in antiquity that all motion is impossible. It is simply impossible to walk through town or even across the room, to go from here to there. What? We know, of course, that this is possible—we walk from here to there every day. And yet, Zeno offers us his proof that this is an illusion—we simply cannot do it.

Zeno argued like this. Suppose it were possible for you to move from some point A to another distinct point B.

Before you complete the move from A to B , however, you must of course have gotten half way there.

But before you get to this half-way point, of course, you must get half way to the half-way point! And before you get to that place, you must get half way there.

And so on, ad infinitum.

Thus, to move from A to B , or indeed anywhere at all, one must have completed an infinite number of tasks—a supertask. It follows, according to Zeno, that you can never start moving—you cannot move any amount at all, since before doing that you must already have moved half as much. And so, contrary to appearances, you are frozen motionless, unable to begin. All motion is impossible.

Is the argument convincing? On what grounds would you object to it? Do you think, contrary to Zeno, that we can actually complete infinitely many tasks? How would that be possible?

It will be no good, of course, to criticize Zeno’s argument on the grounds that we know that motion is possible, for we move from one point to another every day. That is, to argue merely that the conclusion is false does not actually tell you what is wrong with the argument—it does not identify any particular flaw in Zeno’s reasoning. After all, if it were in fact an illusion that we experience motion, then your objection would be groundless…

Learning from an enigma– plus “the most contested equation in middle school” and more: “Zeno’s paradox,” from @JDHamkins.

* Niels Bohr


As we interrogate infinity, we might send-well-groomed birthday greetings to Frank Joseph Zamboni, Jr.; he was born on this date in 1901.  An engineer and inventor, he is best known for the modern ice resurfacer, seen at work at hockey games and figure skating competitions (completing its rounds, Zeno notwithstanding); indeed, his surname is the registered trademark for these devices.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 16, 2023 at 1:00 am

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