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I have someone who is begging for a conversation with me about infinity. He thinks that Cantor got it wrong, and suggested to me that Gauss did not really believe in infinity, and would not have tolerated any hierarchy of infinities.

I can see that a constructivist approach could insist on avoiding infinity, and deal only with numbers we can name using finite strings, and proofs likewise. But does anyone have any knowledge of what Gauss said or thought about infinity, and particularly whether there might be any justification for my interlocutor's allegation?

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Gauss was involved with convergence tests for infinite series. –  Unreasonable Sin May 4 '12 at 21:04
If there ever was a question fitting for the [infinity] tag, this is it. –  Asaf Karagila May 4 '12 at 21:16
To be fair to Gauss you should consider also what his contempories thought about completed (vs. potential) infinity. To properly evaluate Gauss' remark requires extensive knowledge of the mathematics of that era (and an ability to effectively "forget" what you know of today's math when need be). Neither of these are commonplace. –  Bill Dubuque May 4 '12 at 22:02
I strongly agree with @Bill. It is a common mistake for people to evaluate historical events and quotes as if they were occurring in present time. To fully understand something that had happened three centuries ago, one has to understand the spirit of the era before attempting to understand the event itself. –  Asaf Karagila May 4 '12 at 22:23
Well, it looks as though the whole thing is more interesting than I really imagined. There are "tamed infinities" involved in mathematical objects like the Projective Plane and the Riemann Sphere. GH Hardy writes in Pure Mathematics "$\infty$ by itself means nothing, although phrases containing it sometimes mean something" [sect 55 page 117 tenth edition] and proceeds to use it liberally e.g. as a limit of integration. –  Mark Bennet May 5 '12 at 5:16

1 Answer 1

You are right. Gauss did not believe in finished infinity. He would have condemned Cantor's ideas.

(Was nun Ihren Beweis anbelangt), „so protestiere ich zuvörderst gegen den Gebrauch einer unendlichen Größe als einer vollendeten, welcher in der Mathematik niemals erlaubt ist. Das Unendliche ist nur eine facon de parler, indem man eigentlich von Grenzen spricht, denen gewisse Verhältnisse so nahe kommen als man will, während anderen ohne Einschränkung zu wachsen gestattet ist. [C. F. Gauß, Briefwechsel mit Schumacher, Bd. II, p. 268 (1831)]

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@PeterTamaroff "I protest against the use of infinite magnitude as something completed, which is never permissible in mathematics. Infinity is merely a way of speaking, the true meaning being a limit which certain ratios approach indefinitely close, while others are permitted to increase without restriction" –  user17762 May 4 '12 at 21:29
Probably would have been horrified for $15$ minutes. Might have taken him a day or two to really make good use of the new tools. –  André Nicolas May 4 '12 at 22:18
It makes no sense to write something like [Gauss] "would have condemned Cantor's ideas". Almost 80 years passed between Gauss' Disq. Arith. and Cantor's work on set theory. If Gauss had been a contemporary of Cantor and, so, had knowledge of mathematics of that later era, then he may well have praised Cantor's work. But no one can know. It is disrespectful to Gauss to write such highly speculative remarks. We don't need more romanticized math history in the style of E.T. Bell. Nowadays much is on line, and you can read the true history. –  Bill Dubuque May 4 '12 at 22:59
Why am I not surprised to see Contra refer to Mückenheim? –  Jyrki Lahtonen May 5 '12 at 13:36
@Contra Please read more carefully. I never said that Gauss would have praised Cantor's work if he were a contemporary. Rather, I said that he might have. My point is that no one can possibly know what Gauss would have thought. Your assertion that Gauss "would have condemned Cantor's ideas" is as unfounded as an assertion that Euclid would have condemned work on noneuclidean geometry. –  Bill Dubuque May 5 '12 at 20:43

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