Impasse to the Measure of Being. Thought of the Day 47.0

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The power set p(x) of x – the state of situation x or its metastructure (Alain Badiou – Being and Event) – is defined as the set of all subsets of x. Now, basic relations between sets can be expressed as the following relations between sets and their power sets. If for some x, every element of x is also a subset of x, then x is a subset of p(x), and x can be reduced to its power set. Conversely, if every subset of x is an element of x, then p(x) is a subset of x, and the power set p(x) can be reduced to x. Sets that satisfy the first condition are called transitive. For obvious reasons the empty set is transitive. However, the second relation never holds. The mathematician Georg Cantor proved that not only p(x) can never be a subset of x, but in some fundamental sense it is strictly larger than x. On the other hand, axioms of set theory do not determine the extent of this difference. Badiou says that it is an “excess of being”, an excess that at the same time is its impasse.

In order to explain the mathematical sense of this statement, recall the notion of cardinality, which clarifies and generalizes the common understanding of quantity. We say that two sets x and y have the same cardinality if there exists a function defining a one-to-one correspondence between elements of x and elements of y. For finite sets, this definition agrees with common intuitions: if a finite set y has more elements than a finite set x, then regardless of how elements of x are assigned to elements of y, something will be left over in y precisely because it is larger. In particular, if y contains x and some other elements, then y does not have the same cardinality as x. This seemingly trivial fact is not always true outside of the domain of finite sets. To give a simple example, the set of all natural numbers contains quadratic numbers, that is, numbers of the form n2, as well as some other numbers but the set of all natural numbers, and the set of quadratic numbers have the same cardinality. The correspondence witnessing this fact assigns to every number n a unique quadratic number, namely n2.

Counting finite sets has always been done via natural numbers 0, 1, 2, . . . In set theory, the concept of such a canonical measure can be extended to infinite sets, using the notion of cardinal numbers. Without getting into details of their definition, let us say that the series of cardinal numbers begins with natural numbers, which are directly followed by the number ω0, that is, the size of the set of all natural numbers , then by ω1, the first uncountable cardinal numbers, etc. The hierarchy of cardinal numbers has the property that every set x, finite or infinite, has cardinality (i.e. size) equal to exactly one cardinal number κ. We say then that κ is the cardinality of x.

The cardinality of the power set p(x) is 2n for every finite set x of cardinality n. However, something quite paradoxical happens when infinite sets are considered. Even though Cantor’s theorem does state that the cardinality of p(x) is always larger than x – similarly as in the case of finite sets – axioms of set theory never determine the exact cardinality of p(x). Moreover, one can formally prove that there exists no proof determining the cardinality of the power sets of any given infinite set. There is a general method of building models of set theory, discovered by the mathematician Paul Cohen, and called forcing, that yields models, where – depending on construction details – cardinalities of infinite power sets can take different values. Consequently, quantity – “a fetish of objectivity” as Badiou calls it – does not define a measure of being but it leads to its impasse instead. It reveals an undetermined gap, where an event can occur – “that-which-is-not being-qua-being”.

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