John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Set Theory, Applied to Politics

Posted on August 18, 2009

Set Theory, Applied to Politics


            During my vacation to Chicago and then Lake Geneva, my wife insisted that I get some exercise, and so I set off on the running trail in both places, listening to an interesting little book called “The Mystery of the Aleph:  Mathematics, The Kabbalah and the Search for Infinity.” 


            It is basically a biography of one of the greatest mathematicians in history, Georg Cantor, and his efforts to prove the existence of infinity.


            As the book’s cover summarized it, “The mindtwisting, deeply philosophical work of Cantor has its roots in ancient Greek mathematics and Jewish numerology as found in the mystical work known s the Kabbalah.  Cantor’s theory of the infinite is famous for its many seeming contradictions:  for example we can prove that in all time there as years as days, that there are as many points on a once one inch line as on a one-mile line.  While the inspiration for Cantor’s mind-twisting genius lies in the very origins of mathematics, its meaning is still being interpreted.”


            Well, as many of you know, I am no mathematician.  As a matter of fact, I don’t know squat about math, geometry, calculus or set theory for that matter.  And, I confess, through much of the book, I had no idea what the heck they were talking about.


            But one of the interesting tidbits that came out of this book was that Cantor went crazy trying to grasp the full implications of infinity.  His theories were sharply condemned by theologians and other mathematicians for being either blasphemous (theologians) or ridiculous (his rival math professors).  Some have blamed a bipolar disorder for his lapses into insanity, but the author of the book, Amir Aczel, implies that others, including a couple of ancient Jewish mystics, similarly went crazy when they came close to understanding the nature of infinity.


            Cantor’s Set theory has changed the way math is viewed in the world today.  I won’t even try to explain what that theory really means or how he proved it, but suffice it to say, he proved that there are many different kinds of infinities, higher and lower infinities.  That is why he can say that there is the same number of points in a one-inch line as on a one-mile line.  It is a whole new twist on the idea that when you give an inch, you give a mile. 


            But as I was walking along the lake and on the running trail, I came up with my own version of set theory, applied to politics.  I came up with this theory as I kept walking and walking, in a strange place, not quite sure where to turn around.  I don’t like to run in strange places that are not clearly marked, because I never know how far is far enough.  I feel more comfortable when I know the limit of my set.  When the path is not clearly defined in my head, I simply don’t do as well.


            People like definition.  They like to know how far they are going to run.  They like to know how much they have to work.  They like to know how much they have to pay for something.  They like to know where their property ends and where their neighbor’s property starts.  They like to know the score. They like clear sets, clear lines, clear borders. 


            Clarity provides definition, and definition provides comfort.  It is how people get through each day.  It is how they know if they are winning or if they are losing.


            As I was walking on the lake, listening to how Georg Cantor went crazy contemplating infinity, I thought about how the American people are going crazy trying to contemplate President Obama’s health care plan, which seemingly will cost an infinity.     The problem with the Obama health care plan is that is has no clear definition, no defined set that allows people to really understand in simple terms what he is trying to accomplish.  The cost itself is mind-boggling, which only makes the problem worse for Obama. But it is not just the money.  It is also the ill-defined promises that make people nervous.


The American people are smart enough to know when they are being sold a bill of goods.  They know to be suspicious when they are being promised the moon and the stars.  They know that empty promises by Democrats are usually followed by higher taxes.


They want a defined set to help them process real reform.  They don’t want infinity defined.  They want discrete problems solved. 


Obama promises infinity, and the promise of infinity is driving the American people crazy, much like it drove Georg Cantor cuckoo.