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Metaphysics: Sizes of Infinity, Part 1 (Hilbert's Hotel)

Part 1 of a pair. Agustin teaches us about some weird properties of infinity, using an example due to mathematician David Hilbert called 'Hilbert's Hotel'. He shows us a result proved by another mathematician, Georg Cantor: that many infinite collections of things are the same size. Things that are the same size include: the natural numbers, the natural number plus one, the natural numbers plus the natural numbers, and as many copies of the natural numbers as there are natural numbers! Amazing!

Speaker: Dr. Agustín Rayo, Professor of Philosophy, MIT.
Created by Gaurav Vazirani.

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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user mblair73
    I don't understand. If the hotel is large enough to accommodate an infinite number of people, why not just continue numbering rooms and people higher and higher? Why make others move down a room when you have empty ones?
    (36 votes)
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    • leafers sapling style avatar for user Peter Collingridge
      The reason you can't continue numbering rooms and people higher and higher is because that implies that we stopped numbering rooms and people at some point. But with an infinite number there is no end to the numbering and so no point at which you can start again. Another way to think about this is, when the new person turned up, what number would you give them?

      The advantage of making people move, is that we can give the new person the number 0, and everyone else moves 1 up. So we're dealing with the fixed point at the start of the hotel and not its infinite end, which we can't define (and is a contradiction - there is no end).

      Relating this back to the original mathematics, what we're saying is that in the natural numbers (0, 1, 2, 3 etc.), for each number n there is another number n+1 (and so for each room, there is a room with a bigger number).
      (68 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Pavlos Kanellakis
    I have to assume there are "hidden" (or assumed) proofs here to explain why an infinitely large hotel with all rooms occupied can still manage to accommodate more people. I realize that something infinitely large is, by definition, not finite, but if the condition is set from the start that all rooms are full, then it doesn't make sense, to me, that any guest can move one room over since it would be occupied in an equally infinite chain (1 can't move to 2 because it's full, 2 can't move to 3, 3 can't move to 4, and so on infinitely).

    I suppose my question is, based on what can we ignore the condition that all rooms are occupied as soon as a new person needs a room?
    (15 votes)
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    • leafers sapling style avatar for user Peter Collingridge
      The way I see it, Person 1 can move to Room 2 because Person 2 can move to Room 3 because Person 3 can move to Room 4 and so on. We're not ignoring the condition that all the rooms are occupied, it's just that this is an infinite process and so we never reach the point where we can't move someone to the next room.

      Relating this back to the original mathematics, we can obviously map all the naturals number (1, 2, 3 etc.) to a second set of natural numbers, matching each pair (1 with 1, 2 with 2, etc.). But we could also match each number, n, in the first set with n + 1 in the second set (1 with 2, 2 with 3). Less obviously, we also can still exactly match pairs of numbers, only now we have a 1 left over in the second set. This is basically saying that ∞ + 1 = ∞, or that for each number in the set of natural numbers there is a number that is one bigger than it.

      Likewise, we could match the natural numbers with the even numbers (1 with 2, 2, with 4 etc.). This is just saying that for every number n, there exists a number twice as big, 2n. This tells us that ∞/2 = ∞.

      I'm not sure if that answers your question, but it's how I think about it. Dealing with infinities is obviously very counter-intuitive.
      (14 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Kathleen Marrero
    Hey, I just thought of something, what's Infinity*0?
    (10 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Troy Lynch
    Why would one begin numbering with room zero, since zero indicates the absence of a room, not the first room. An infinite set cannot contain an absence of members, can it?
    (2 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user rhouts
      The numeral '0' is the name of the first room in the hotel, '1' is the name of second room, and so on.

      When used in this way, numerals are not used to count the members of a set.

      Street addresses, for example, use numerals to name locations, not to count the number of locations on a street.
      (8 votes)
  • old spice man green style avatar for user Afshin, Matthew
    im confused, how can a hotel with infinite rooms ever be filled?
    (5 votes)
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  • hopper cool style avatar for user Dhaval Furia
    Firstly, don't the natural numbers begin from 1 instead of 0 (as is shown in the video) ?
    Isn't it the whole numbers that begin with 0 ?
    Secondly shouldn't a rational number be a ratio of integers instead of just natural numbers ?
    If it is just natural numbers, we couldn't have negative rational numbers.
    But in math we study that rational numbers are ratios of integers (with a non-zero denominator).
    I think this video needs some important corrections.
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user delphics
      I had the same question regarding 1 as the first natural number (i.e. Counting numbers). Secondly, I thought infinity was a concept and not a number. Consequently, we cannot conduct mathematical operations with infinity - perhaps theoretical or philosophical operations but not applied mathematical operations. Perhaps that is what I am doing wrong - trying to reconcile mathematical application with mathematical theory. I am open to correction on these points but fear it would take more than a post on a message board to explain it sufficiently.
      (2 votes)
  • hopper cool style avatar for user irenepaw1
    I'm sorry if the video covered this already, but how can a hotel with an infinite number of rooms be all occupied? Sorry, I'm new to philosophy.
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Agent Smith
      It is my understanding that the Hilbert's hotel is only supposed to convey the paradoxical nature of infinity. It is a concrete example to better understand the behavior of infinity. If you ask questions like how can an infinite hotel be filled to capacity, then you are mistaking the moon for the finger which points to the moon.
      An infinite hotel filled to capacity means a one-to-one correspondence exists between that infinity and the set of natural numbers like room no.1 - guest no. 1, room no. 2 - guest no. 2, and so on. When you bring in 1 new guest to the room, that one-to-one correspondence still exists. Meaning, the "size" of the infinity doesn't change. Likewise, for bringing in an infinite number of new guests.
      I hope I'm making sense
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Chris Matthews
    If the hotel is INFINITE, and ALL the rooms are full...how could you fit more people into it? If there are infinite amounts of people in the rooms, would that not mean that there are no more rooms left? Are you saying that the hotel is infinite as in it will stretch to fit the number of guest needing a room, or that its rooms are endless and therefore can not be filled? If the rooms stretch on to fill what is necessary it isn't really infinite is it? And if the number of rooms is already infinite how could there be more than one infinite group of people? Wouldn't the first group of infinite people encompass ALL people?
    (3 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user Dominique Karesh
      Well, to answer your question, the speaker did state later in the video about the differences between finite and infinite sets (which addresses this). If you have some people in a finite set and you add one more...the set becomes bigger. In an infinite set, if you have some people and you add one more...the set stays the same. This is because infinite means ENDLESS in space, which means that there is no end to the amount of space (or rooms) offered to everyone.
      I hope this answers your questions.
      (2 votes)
  • ohnoes default style avatar for user Cyan Wind
    Is it impossible for us to clearly explain infinity some day? That looks like a 2-D human (Yeah, I know it sounds a bit silly!) trying to explain what or how height is.
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user n d
    Did you ever think about infinities like this?: if an infinity is introduced in the real world (which is finite), the entire world collapses into a meaningless concept because each part of the world becomes not very small but really nothing. For example the volume of a room from a real finite world in which exist an infinite hotel is: something finite / infinite, that is: 0, that is: a room cannot exist in such a world.
    (3 votes)
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Video transcript

(Intro music) Hi, I am Agustin Rayo. I'm an associate professor[br]of philosophy at MIT, and today I want to[br]talk about how there are some infinities that[br]are bigger than others. So, a first exercise to see why[br]some infinities are bigger than others is to think[br]about Hilbert's Hotel. So Hilbert's Hotel is like an[br]ordinary hotel, except that instead of having finitely many rooms like most hotels, it has[br]infinitely many rooms. So we can draw this. We're just having a very long rectangle with lots of rooms, and we're going to number each room with a natural number. So, the first natural number is[br]zero, after that comes one and two and three and four[br]and five and so forth. And I'm going to assume that this[br]hotel is completely full. So in other words, every[br]room has a person inside it. So we're going to draw a[br]person inside each room. And I'm going to assume that these various persons are numbered, too. So maybe each of them is holding a piece of paper with a number. The person in room zero has a[br]piece of paper with zero on it, the person in room one[br]has a piece of paper with the number one in it, and so forth. So now ask yourself this question: what would happen if an extra person were to come to the hotel? Could they be accommodated? Now, in a finite hotel, the answer is "No," because all the rooms[br]are already occupied, and we can assume that[br]these are prickly guests and don't want to share rooms. But in an infinite hotel, it can be done. So think of it this way. We can just ask each person[br]to move one room to the right. Mr. Zero, who's now in room[br]zero, moves to room one, and Miss One, who's now in[br]room one, moves to room two, and two moves to three,[br]and three moves to four, and four moves to five, and so forth. So then the result is that[br]all of our original guests are in rooms, but our[br]first room is vacant, because now there's nobody in room zero, so we can welcome our additional guest. One thing that's amazing[br]and worth emphasizing is that the hotel was[br]full at the beginning, and we could still fit in more people. That's amazing, but true. Part of the reason that's[br]possible is that there are two things that come together[br]in the finite case, but need to be kept apart[br]in the infinite case. So in the finite case, if you have a set and you add some extra things to the set, the set you get is bigger[br]than the original one, but in the infinite case,[br]that's not necessarily true, because have your[br]original set just consist of the original hotel guests,[br]and then add one more. The new set isn't bigger, in[br]the sense that you can still put each element of the new set into a different room in your hotel. So if you measure size in[br]terms of how big a hotel you would need to accommodate[br]the members of the set, then we need to conclude[br]that the set of the original guests, and the set of the original guests plus one, are of the same size. Crazy! It's this amazing thing. And if you think of it, you[br]can see that we could have accommodated any finite[br]number of new guests, too, because suppose we get seven[br]hundred new guests. Then we can just ask each[br]of our original guests to move seven hundred[br]rooms to the right. But wait! What if we got[br]infinitely many new guests? OK, so suppose that we have[br]infinitely many new guests, and they too are numbered[br]with the natural numbers, so the first one is holding[br]zero, and the second one is holding a one, and the next one is holding the two, and so forth. How could we accommodate them? Well, we can do it like this. We just ask each of our[br]original guests to move to the result of multiplying[br]their current room by two. So the guy in zero goes to two times zero equals zero, so he stays. The person in one moves to one times two, that's two, so she moves one to the right. The person in two moves to[br]two times two, that's four. She moves two to the right, and so forth. So the result of this is[br]that all the old guests are occupying even-numbered rooms, and all of the odd-numbered[br]rooms are free, so we can ask each of the new guests to go to an odd-numbered room. Which one? They can just look at their[br]number, multiply it by two, and add one, and they can go to that room. So here's the lesson of this. The lesson of this is that[br]if we have an infinite hotel, we can accommodate one copy[br]of the natural numbers, but we can also accommodate two copies of the natural numbers, and in fact, we can accommodate as many copies of the natural numbers as[br]there are natural numbers. But before tackling that question, it's useful to consider a different one, and this is the first of[br]two wonderful theorems that were proved by Georg[br]Cantor in the nineteenth century. The first theorem is that you[br]can put the rational numbers in one-one correspondence[br]with the natural numbers. Now, what is a rational number? A rational number is a number[br]of the form "a/b," where "a" and "b" are[br]both natural numbers, and we assume that "b" is not zero. So what Cantor did is[br]show that we can pair up the natural numbers with the rational[br]numbers with no remainder. Every natural number gets[br]a unique rational number, and every rational number gets a unique natural number and nobody's left out. So here's how to do it. We simply draw a matrix. Each column is going to[br]correspond to a numerator, and each row is going to[br]correspond to a denominator. So this is how you fill out the matrix. And so forth. So you can see that every[br]rational number is on this matrix, because remember, you[br]get a rational number by taking a natural number and dividing it by a natural number different from zero. Suppose your rational number is[br]seventeen divided by ninety-four. In order to find the cell that[br]corresponds to that number, just go to the column that's[br]labeled "seventeen," and to the row that's labeled[br]"ninety-four," and that's where your[br]number is going to be. So every rational number is on the matrix. So what Cantor discovered[br]is that you can assign a natural number to each[br]cell, and here's how to do it. Just diagonalize. So[br]have this one be zero, and this one, one. And[br]two, and three, and four, and five, and six, and seven,[br]and eight, and so forth. Using this system, every rational number got assigned a natural number. So now we can come back to our hotel. So remember, our question[br]was "How could you fit infinitely many infinities[br]into your hotel?" Well, now we have a way of doing it. So, think of each column on our matrix as corresponding to one[br]infinity of new guests. In order to decide which[br]room to send a person to, all you need to do is use Cantor's trick. So, assign a natural number to each cell in the matrix, and ask the person to go to the room corresponding to that number. So there, we fit infinitely new infinities of guests into our hotel. Amazing! Subtitles by the Amara.org community