gaurish gave me a choice for the Z-term to finish off the End 2016 A To Z. I appreciate it. I’m picking the more abstract thing because I’m not sure that I can explain zero briefly. The foundations of mathematics are a lot easier.
I remember the look on my father’s face when I asked if he’d tell me what he knew about sets. He misheard what I was asking about. When we had that straightened out my father admitted that he didn’t know anything particular. I thanked him and went off disappointed. In hindsight, I kind of understand why everyone treated me like that in middle school.
My father’s always quick to dismiss how much mathematics he knows, or could understand. It’s a common habit. But in this case he was probably right. I knew a bit about set theory as a kid because I came to mathematics late in the “New Math” wave. Sets were seen as fundamental to why mathematics worked without being so exotic that kids couldn’t understand them. Perhaps so; both my love and I delighted in what we got of set theory as kids. But if you grew up before that stuff was popular you probably had a vague, intuitive, and imprecise idea of what sets were. Mathematicians had only a vague, intuitive, and imprecise idea of what sets were through to the late 19th century.
And then came what mathematics majors hear of as the Crisis of Foundations. (Or a similar name, like Foundational Crisis. I suspect there are dialect differences here.) It reflected mathematics taking seriously one of its ideals: that everything in it could be deduced from clearly stated axioms and definitions using logically rigorous arguments. As often happens, taking one’s ideals seriously produces great turmoil and strife.
Before about 1900 we could get away with saying that a set was a bunch of things which all satisfied some description. That’s how I would describe it to a new acquaintance if I didn’t want to be treated like I was in middle school. The definition is fine if we don’t look at it too hard. “The set of all roots of this polynomial”. “The set of all rectangles with area 2”. “The set of all animals with four-fingered front paws”. “The set of all houses in Central New Jersey that are yellow”. That’s all fine.
And then if we try to be logically rigorous we get problems. We always did, though. They’re embodied by ancient jokes like the person from Crete who declared that all Cretans always lie; is the statement true? Or the slightly less ancient joke about the barber who shaves only the men who do not shave themselves; does he shave himself? If not jokes these should at least be puzzles faced in fairy-tale quests. Logicians dressed this up some. Bertrand Russell gave us the quite respectable “The set consisting of all sets which are not members of themselves”, and asked us to stare hard into that set. To this we have only one logical response, which is to shout, “Look at that big, distracting thing!” and run away. This satisfies the problem only for a while.
The while ended in — well, that took a while too. But between 1908 and the early 1920s Ernst Zermelo, Abraham Fraenkel, and Thoralf Skolem paused from arguing whose name would also be the best indie rock band name long enough to put set theory right. Their structure is known as Zermelo-Fraenkel Set Theory, or ZF. It gives us a reliable base for set theory that avoids any contradictions or catastrophic pitfalls. Or does so far as we have found in a century of work.
It’s built on a set of axioms, of course. Most of them are uncontroversial, things like declaring two sets are equivalent if they have the same elements. Declaring that the union of sets is itself a set. Obvious, sure, but it’s the obvious things that we have to make axioms. Maybe you could start an argument about whether we should just assume there exists some infinitely large set. But if we’re aware sets probably have something to teach us about numbers, and that numbers can get infinitely large, then it seems fair to suppose that there must be some infinitely large set. The axioms that aren’t simple obvious things like that are too useful to do without. They assume stuff like that no set is an element of itself. Or that every set has a “power set”, a new set comprising all the subsets of the original set. Good stuff to know.
There is one axiom that’s controversial. Not controversial the way Euclid’s Parallel Postulate was. That’s the ugly one about lines crossing another line meeting on the same side they make angles smaller than something something or other. That axiom was controversial because it read so weird, so needlessly complicated. (It isn’t; it’s exactly as complicated as it must be. Or better, it’s as simple as it could possibly be and still be useful.) The controversial axiom of Zermelo-Fraenkel Set Theory is known as the Axiom of Choice. It says if we have a collection of mutually disjoint sets, each with at least one thing in them, then it’s possible to pick exactly one item from each of the sets.
It’s impossible to dispute this is what we have axioms for. It’s about something that feels like it should be obvious: we can always pick something from a set. How could this not be true?
If it is true, though, we get some unsavory conclusions. For example, it becomes possible to take a ball the size of an orange and slice it up. We slice using mathematical blades. They’re not halted by something as petty as the desire not to slice atoms down the middle. We can reassemble the pieces. Into two balls. And worse, it doesn’t require we do something like cut the orange into infinitely many pieces. We expect crazy things to happen when we let infinities get involved. No, though, we can do this cut-and-duplicate thing by cutting the orange into five pieces. When you hear that it’s hard to know whether to point to the big, distracting thing and run away. If we dump the Axiom of Choice we don’t have that problem. But can we do anything useful without the ability to make a choice like that?
And we’ve learned that we can. If we want to use the Zermelo-Fraenkel Set Theory with the Axiom of Choice we say we were working in “ZFC”, Zermelo-Fraenkel-with-Choice. We don’t have to. If we don’t want to make any assumption about choices we say we’re working in “ZF”. Which to use depends on what one wants to use.
Either way Zermelo and Fraenkel and Skolem established set theory on the foundation we use to this day. We’re not required to use them, no; there’s a construction called von Neumann-Bernays-Gödel Set Theory that’s supposed to be more elegant. They didn’t mention it in my logic classes that I remember, though.
And still there’s important stuff we would like to know which even ZFC can’t answer. The most famous of these is the continuum hypothesis. Everyone knows — excuse me. That’s wrong. Everyone who would be reading a pop mathematics blog knows there are different-sized infinitely-large sets. And knows that the set of integers is smaller than the set of real numbers. The question is: is there a set bigger than the integers yet smaller than the real numbers? The Continuum Hypothesis says there is not.
Zermelo-Fraenkel Set Theory, even though it’s all about the properties of sets, can’t tell us if the Continuum Hypothesis is true. But that’s all right; it can’t tell us if it’s false, either. Whether the Continuum Hypothesis is true or false stands independent of the rest of the theory. We can assume whichever state is more useful for our work.
Back to the ideals of mathematics. One question that produced the Crisis of Foundations was consistency. How do we know our axioms don’t contain a contradiction? It’s hard to say. Typically a set of axioms we can prove consistent are also a set too boring to do anything useful in. Zermelo-Fraenkel Set Theory, with or without the Axiom of Choice, has a lot of interesting results. Do we know the axioms are consistent?
No, not yet. We know some of the axioms are mutually consistent, at least. And we have some results which, if true, would prove the axioms to be consistent. We don’t know if they’re true. Mathematicians are generally confident that these axioms are consistent. Mostly on the grounds that if there were a problem something would have turned up by now. It’s withstood all the obvious faults. But the universe is vaster than we imagine. We could be wrong.
It’s hard to live up to our ideals. After a generation of valiant struggling we settle into hoping we’re doing good enough. And waiting for some brilliant mind that can get us a bit closer to what we ought to be.