On the Infinite

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A reflection on the fragments of Philolaus of Croton.

The writings of the Presocratic philosophers are interested in understanding the fundamental basis of reality. Because of this we see theorems like the Milesian ‘primal substance’ or the Parmenidean ‘One.’ Although such theories lack the analytical rigor of modern science, predating the intellectual revolution heralded by Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, they reflect the deep and sustained interest in the fundamental realities of the universe. One particular key interest in these examinations is on debate over the finite/infinite nature of reality. It is to the question of infinity that this reflection turns.

The concept of the infinite – that without limitation – is a contentious issue. Those who favour an intelligible version of the universe scoff at the idea of infinity, declaring that any aspect of infinity in reality is ridiculous. However, I would argue that limiting the universe to what we think of as comprehensible is flawed logic. What seems rational is highly dependent on a person’s cultural bias and experience. Furthermore, why should true reality be intelligible to the human mind?

The issue with suggesting that the infinite is ridiculous is that it presupposes the importance of the human observer – the heart of this school summed up in the Protagorean maxim: “Man is the measure of all things.” If we, as rational beings, cannot comprehend an entity then perhaps the flaw lies not in reality but in rationality. With this in mind I suggest that the reductionist model should be treated with caution – tossing aside an opponents arguments because you cannot understand them is never a good idea.

Original text



Vincent van Gogh, the Starry Night, 1889

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