Shuang Rimu

A blog about random stuff

Defining definable real numbers is hard

Image Attribution:

Public Domain. Created by MarianSigler, 2006. Originally from Wikimedia Commons.

April 10, 2020


Definable real numbers showed up a few weeks ago in a post on Hacker News.

It seemed interesting enough and garnered some discussion. However, it had a fatally flawed conception of them. This conception shows up in a lot of places so I’ll address it here.

First let’s start with the initial argument. The definable real numbers are those real numbers which can be uniquely defined by some description. A description is a finite collection of words. The set of all finite collections of words is a countable set. The real numbers are uncountable. Hence there are (uncountably many) real numbers which are not definable.

Seems solid enough right?

But what if I told you it’s possible that every real number is definable?

Joel Hamkins’ has a great exposition of this here. However, his explanation may be a bit complex and technical for people unfamiliar with model theory.

I’ll attempt to bridge the gap between understanding the naive argument I’ve presented above and Hamkin’s answer.

I’ll mainly be aiming for intuition here rather than rigor. There’s just not enough space in a single post to handle all the rigor necessary.

The heart of the matter is that the word “definable (in ZFC)” is a fundamentally different word than the words “real number,” “countable,” and “set.” The latter three are all formalizable in ZFC. Being “definable” (i.e. being definable in the language of ZFC) is not formalizable within ZFC. Indeed the statement “definable within a formal system A” is not a statement that can be expressed in A!

There’s a formal argument that we can make here, but I’ll make an informal one instead. Let DR be the set of definable real numbers. Then its complement within the real numbers is NDR, the non-definable real numbers. Take the least element of NDR. This well-defined and a single number. Therefore it belongs in DR. Hence we have a contradiction.

Note that this does not mean that all hope is lost. Definable as a unique element with ZFC is a perfectly fine definition in a system that is richer than ZFC. We just can’t define this notion of “definable” within ZFC itself. Even within ZFC we can still salvage something. While the general notion of definable cannot be expressed in ZFC, we can express each instance of what it means to be definable relative to a single statement within ZFC within ZFC. That is given a single formula F with a free variable x in the language of ZFC, we can express the statement “there is only one x that satisfies F(x).” We simply cannot quantify over all F “at once” in a single statement within ZFC which prevents us from saying something like “there is an F such that there is only one x that satisfies F(x)”.

But here’s an interesting fact. It is possible that for every element x in the universe of ZFC, there is a corresponding formula F so that x is the only element satisfying F. In particular this means that for every real number there is a corresponding finite formula F that uniquely defines it!

How’s that possible? I aim only for a hand-wavy sketch here and omit all proofs. See the referenced paper in Hamkins’ answer for a rigorous explanation.

First, let’s start off with an extremely quick introduction to model theory. It is often useful when examining axiomatic systems to distinguish between the axioms (the theory) and the mathematical object satisfying those axioms (the model).

For example the axioms that define what it means to be a group form a theory. Each concrete example of a group (e.g. the integers under addition) is then a model of that theory.

This same division can be applied to ZFC, the common purported axioms underlying most of modern mathematics. There is ZFC itself, i.e. the theory, and then various “universes” of sets that satisfy ZFC, i.e. the model.

Let’s step through this in a little bit more detail with a simple illustration. ZFC is a bit complicated for our purposes so we’ll have an extremely cut-down version of it that we’ll call T. T’s axioms are as follows

These axioms are rather bare and unsuitable for producing introducing interesting theorems, but we can get some uninteresting ones out of them.

Theorem: The set {{∅}} exists.

Proof: Apply the Axiom of Single-Element Sets twice to the Axiom of the Empty Set.

Note that our usual universe U of sets that we usually think of when we think of ZFC and the world of mathematics fulfills these axioms. That’s the world that’s contains the natural numbers, the power set of the natural numbers, etc.

However, there are much more restricted universes which also fulfill these axioms. In particular there are sets in our usual universe which can be models of these limited axioms. See for example the set

X = {{∅}, {{∅}}, {{{∅}}}…} ∪ {{∅, {∅}}}

Note that this entire set X is a model of our theory. It is also an element of U. That means that, considered, as a model of T, X is not itself a set, only its elements are, in the same way that our usual universe of all sets is not itself a set.

That is X is a sort of mini-universe of sets, while itself being only a single element in a larger universe of sets. X is a little bit peculiar. Apart from being much sparser and smaller than U, it has a different notion of what the empty set is. In X, {∅} is in fact the empty set, because there are no other elements in X that are elements of {∅} (since X doesn’t contain ).

Nonetheless, both X and our larger universe of sets must satisfy every theorem provable from T’s axioms. And indeed X does contain the set {{∅}}! Or at least X contains a version of it. There’s an extra level of nesting because X thinks that {∅} is the empty set. What we’ve shown here is the ability for our universe of sets to introspect itself.

Our universe satisfies T. However, one of the elements of our universe (namely X) itself also satisfies T. This is rather powerful because we can prove facts about our universe and its relationship to T by examining the properties of X.

It is also worth emphasizing that nonetheless X and our normal universe are very different! For example, we give the following (very bare-bones) definition of something resembling a function. Given two sets A and B, we say A is mappable to B if there is a set C that is equal to the pair {A, B}.

Remember that in the world of ZFC, everything is a set, including functions! So we’re just trying to formalize, in a very bare-bones manner, when a function between two sets exists.

Given the definition of mappable, we say that a set A is emptyable if it is mappable to .

Now in the model of T as presented by X, there is only one set that is emptyable, while in U all sets are emptyable. This indicates whether any set that is not {∅} is emptyable is independent of the axioms of T.

Perhaps more interestingly, while X and U both agree that the Axiom of the Pair of Empties holds, the sets that X thinks are used in the axiom are not the same sets that U thinks are used.

What X thinks is is what U thinks is {∅}, since no elements of X are themselves elements of what U thinks is ${ }. And what X thinks is {∅} is therefore what U thinks is {{∅}}.

So we have a situation where X and U both agree on a statement, but disagree on its interpretation.

Alright with that in mind let’s turn our attention back to ZFC.

The following is non-obvious and would take a while to prove so I’ll just state it by fiat. This introspection is also possible with ZFC. That is within our universe of sets, there is a single set (in fact there are many) which itself, when considered as its own universe of sets, satisfies ZFC.

Just as before, given some universe of sets U satisfies ZFC, we have a set X such that X is a member of U but is itself a valid model for ZFC as well.

Perhaps even more bizarrely, X can be countable!

Now how can that be? The real numbers can be formalized with ZFC which means that every real number must be an element of X. Moreover we know that we can prove within ZFC that the real numbers are uncountable, so how can X be countable?

Well in the same way that when we were examining T, both U and X agreed that the Axiom of the Pair of Empties was true, but disagreed on what actually was, here U and X both agree with the statement “the real numbers are uncountable,” but disagree on what the real numbers actually are and what it means to be countable.

Let’s assume for now that U and X both agree on the natural numbers (which does not necessarily have to be true). X might then present a set which it calls the “real numbers” and claim that there is no injective map from its real numbers to the natural numbers. However, all that means is that this injective map (remember functions are ultimately sets in ZFC) does not exist in X. U might in fact actually contain this map as an element and therefore from U’s perspective what X calls the “real numbers” actually form a countable set and are therefore not what U calls the “real numbers.”

So we’ve now explained how a countable set X can act as a model for ZFC. I now claim that is also possible that every element of X to be definable within ZFC. I won’t prove this, because it’s hard and Hamkins does that. However, I hope that it’s at least plausible because X can be countable.

There’s an important distinction here to be made between countability and definability. Countability, as we’ve explored, is relative to a given model. However, definability is not, at least not in the same way. Because definability itself cannot be defined in ZFC, we are forced to rely on a stronger meta-system that can define definability. This stronger meta-system then defines definability in a way that is absolute across all its models of ZFC. So while we might say that relative to X or relative to U a set is countable or uncountable, we must say in an absolute sense whether a set is definable, because neither X nor U, using the language of T, can state that a set is definable.

Hamkins’ answer shows that given this absolute notion of definability, there is a model of ZFC where every element is definable.

But after all this you might still be left with a nagging sense that I’ve pulled a trick over you. After all, by claiming that every element and in particular every real number of X is definable, haven’t I given a function from the real numbers to the natural numbers? Take each finite description associated to each real number, encode it as a natural number, and voila, we have a mapping of the real numbers to the natural numbers. And sure maybe this mapping doesn’t exist in X or even U, but it exists in our meta-system! And there are definitely more real numbers than natural numbers, so we must at some point run out of descriptions!

But this is the thing, the cardinality of a set is a set-theoretic concept that relies only on functions. The intuitive notion that the cardinality of a set is a measure of its size is only that: hand-wavy intuition. Ultimtely cardinality is about the existence of a function between two sets, which itself (in ZFC) is ultimately just a statement that a third set exists with a certain relationship to those two sets.

It is entirely possible that an uncountable set and a countable set are the same “size” in some intuitive sense, but simply lack the appropriate function to witness that. That is, there aren’t necessarily “more” real numbers than natural numbers, we just lack access to the function that will injectively map the real numbers to the natural numbers. This is precisely what occurs when X is a countable model of ZFC.

Hence while the fact that the finite descriptions of the real numbers do indeed give a mapping onto the natural numbers, this mapping cannot be formalized as a function in ZFC because definability (with the language of ZFC) is not formalizable within ZFC. Therefore we “lack access” to the function that will witness that the real numbers are countable.

Another way to think about X and U is to reverse the relationship and imagine that our starting universe is X and we can try to expand it into U. In particular we could decide to simply add this mapping from the real numbers to the natural numbers as a formal function into X. But keep in mind that the axioms of ZFC cause a cascade of new sets to be created when we add just one.

In particular, by adding this mapping to X, this cascade will cause our real numbers to suddenly gain a lot of new members and our new models’ conception of the real numbers will once again be out of the reach of this original mapping.

So even though it’s possible that every real number is definable, the mapping induced by its definability remains out of the reach of ZFC no matter how hard we try. Conversely, while it is possible that every real number is definable

I’ll close with a quote from Hamkins. “The claims… on the existence of non-definable numbers and objects, are simply unwarranted. For all you know, our set-theoretic universe is pointwise definable, and every object is uniquely specified by a property.”