Shuang Rimu

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The Continuum Hypothesis Part 1

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Rimu Shuang. "Untitled Photo". Dec 8, 2013. Under a Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution License.

December 9, 2013

continuum_hypothesis, math

One of the most famous problems in mathematics whose resolution has been proved to be independent (i.e. cannot be proved or disproved) of the foundations of modern mathematics is the Continuum Hypothesis (CH). I’ll be providing a (hopefully) self-contained treatment of CH in a series of blog posts here suitable for people who have had some experience with proof-based mathematics, but may have never taken a set theory course.

The first thing to make clear is what I mean when I say the foundations of modern mathematics, which I take to be ZFC. ZFC, or “Zermelo-Frankel with Choice” is a series of axioms which are used for the set theory which underpins much of modern mathematics. One of the biggest changes in mathematics in the 20th century as opposed to the 19th was to reformulate the various branches of mathematics in set theory. As such, ZFC is now commonly considered the foundations for most of modern mathematics.

As a matter of notation, now that we are delving into things that might be considered to be the intersection of logic and mathematics, I happen to use a ⇒ b and a → b interchangeably. Some people use the former for a notion known as “implication” and the latter for a notion known as the “material conditional.” The former is a semantic idea (there is a meaningful sense in that one sentence implies another) and the latter is a syntactic idea (it just so happens, coincidentally, that when a is true, b is true as well, when a is false, b is false, and when a is false, b can be anything). For our purposes the differences are insignificant. It turns out that something known as the Completeness Theorem in model theory implies that there is no distinction, at least in the case of first-order logic. I will also be using the word “set” to refer to objects which fulfill ZFC axioms and “class” to syntactic objects for which the membership relation makes sense, but which may not be a set. For example the collection of all sets V is not a set (via ), but it is a class because the sentence x ∈ V still makes sense (it simple means that x is a set). As you can see classes are emphatically not formally defined (at least ZFC) and so I won’t try to give a very rigorous definition of them since they only serve as a shortcut for describing a syntactic object.

So before we proceed further let’s define exactly what ZFC is. The language of ZFC is {∈}, a binary relation symbol. The axioms of ZFC (i.e. the sentences which make up its theory after accounting for logical implication) are as follows:

  1. Extensionality: xy(x = y ⇔ ∀z(z ∈ x ⇔ z ∈ y))

    In other words two sets are equal if and only if they contain the same elements. Note that this is not as trivial as it sounds. In the case of mathematical objects with added structure, such as a group, it is entirely possible for two groups to contain the same elements, but not be the same group because of differences in their group operators. Essentially, what this axiom tells us is that sets have no structure apart from the elements they have. It is this lack of structure that makes sets suitable as a foundation upon which to construct the rest of mathematics.

  2. Foundation: $\forall x (x \not= \emptyset \Rightarrow \exists y \in x \forall z \in x (z \not \in y))$

    All sets are well-founded; that is there is no set S such that x0, x1, x2, … where x0 = S and xi + 1 ∈ xi.

  3. Emptyset: xy(y ∉ x)

    There exists at least one set and this set has no elements.

  4. Pairing: xyaz(z ∈ a ⇔ (z = x ∨ z = y))

    From any two sets we can construct another set whose elements are precisely those sets. In other words, if x and y are sets, then we have a notion of {x, y} as a set.

  5. Union: xaz(z ∈ a ⇔ ∃y(z ∈ y ∈ x))

    If S is a set, then S is a set as well. Of note is the fact that we cannot take arbitrary unions. We have to ensure that the things (i.e. the elements of S) we are unioning must be able to form a set S first.

  6. Powerset: xay(y ∈ a ⇔ y ⊆ x)

    The powerset of a set is a set.

  7. Infinity: x(∅ ∈ x ∧ ∀y(y ∈ x ⇒ y ∪ {y} ∈ x))

    There exists an infinite set.

  8. Replacement: p1pna[∀y ∈ a∃!zφ(y, z, p1, …, pn) ⇒ ∃bz(z ∈ b ⇔ ∃y ∈ aφ(y, z, p1, …, pn))]

    Any function which can be defined in the language of set theory takes sets to sets. That is if the function’s domain is a set, then its image is a set as well. Note that this “axiom” is actually more accurately termed an axiom-schema, as it consists of an infinite number of axioms, one for each value of n.

  9. Choice: $\forall x (\forall y \in x (y \not= \emptyset) \Rightarrow \exists f(\text{func}(f) \land \text{dom}(f) = x) \land \forall y \in x (f (y) \in y))$ where func(f) is the formal statement that f is a function and dom(f) is the domain of f.

    Given a set S of sets si, there is a choice function which takes S as its domain and whose image consists of one element from each si.

The axiom (schema) of Replacement can actually be restated (I will not prove that this is equivalent) as two axioms (axiom schemas).

  1. Restricted Comprehension: p1⋯∀pnabx(x ∈ b ↔︎ (x ∈ a ∧ φ(x, p1, …, pn)))

    Given a set a, any subclass of that set that I can construct by using a first-order formula to restrict membership of elements in a is also a set. This is called restricted comprehension, because I can’t arbitrarily form sets such as {xx=x}, but must first preface the set by including it in another, previously known set, i.e. {xyx=x} where y is already known to be a set.

  2. Collection: p1⋯∀pna(∀y ∈ a∃!zφ(y, z, p1, …, pn)) → ∃bz(∃y ∈ aφ(y, z, p1, …, pn) → z ∈ b)

    Given a set a and some first-order formula which associates each a with a single z (i.e. a function, although I refrained from using that term since usually functions are assumed to be sets themselves), there is a set b such that the class of all such z is a subclass.

In order to understand what comes next, we need to introduce just a few definitions from a branch of mathematics called model theory. A collection of axioms and their implications is called a “theory.” For a very simple example of a theory, I might have a theory T0 which consists solely of the statement “There exists at least one object.” Any mathematical object which the theory describes (i.e. any object for which there is an interpretation of the theory that makes the theory true for that object) is said to be a “model” or “structure” that “satisfies” the theory.

In our case, any model other than the emptyset satisfies T0. Similarly, the theory of groups is defined to be all the axioms which define a group and their logical implications. Hence we could define the theory of a “horde” of groups to be a theory that stipulates each object of the horde to be something that satisfies group theory and for there to be at least an infinite number of objects in the horde.

In a similar fashion, the theory of ZFC defines a “universe” of sets. More rigorously, a theory is based on a language, which is a collection of function symbols, relation symbols, and constant symbols. Along with the standard first-order logical symbols of ∃,∀,=,(,) and an arbitrary number of variable names and the standard syntactic rules which govern how these logical symbols can be arranged, these symbols form the pool of symbols from which all logical statements can be written. These logical statements, which consist of a finite number of these language symbols, in turn are known as “formulas.” Any variable which is preceded at some point by a quantifier ( or ) is called a “bound variable.” Any formula whose variables (if any) are all bound is called a sentence.

For example x = y is a formula. xy(x = y) is an example of a sentence (the one this case stipulates that our universe consists of a single element). Sentences can be said to be true or false, formulas, however, cannot. Models, however, can have elements, which when substituted for variables may or may not make the formula true. In our example, clearly any model has elements which satisfy x = y (simply substitute the same element for both x and y). However, not many models satisfy xy(x = y) (satisfy in this case meaning that the sentence is true in this model).

Now the crucial trick to the continuum hypothesis is that there are many possible models which can satisfy the axioms of ZFC. The existence of infinitely many models of set theory is a deep result that stems from something called the Lowenheim-Skolem Theorem, which states that theories written in first-order logic cannot specify the cardinality of the models that satisfy the theory. If an infinite model satisfies the theory, then for every infinite cardinal there is a model of that cardinality which satisfies that theory.

So how do we end up proving the independence of the continuum hypothesis? The general outline of the proof that the continuum hypothesis cannot be disproved within ZFC is as follows:

  1. Construct a model of ZFC (call it L), which is constructed by definable sets.

  2. Show that the axiom V = L, i.e. that all sets are definable, is consistent with ZFC

  3. Show that assuming V = L we can prove the continuum hypothesis

To prove the other direction, namely that the continuum hypothesis cannot be proved within ZFC we generally turn to a concept called “forcing.” Forcing can be used to prove that the continuum hypothesis cannot be disproved, but the machinery that we develop in the V = L approach is useful in forcing so generally forcing is only used in this one direction. Forcing in the case of the continuum hypothesis involves the following:

  1. Construct a model of ZFC (for which we can again use a variant of L)

  2. Construct a map from 2ω to ωn for some chosen n > 1 (it turns out we can choose any n). Note that this map is not be in our original model of ZFC.

    1. Take all finite restrictions of this hypothetical map; because these are finite, they must be in L. Together, they also uniquely identify a single map (simply take their union). This class (note that this collection is not a set in our model of ZFC, otherwise by the Axiom of Union we would already have our map) of finite restrictions is known as a generic.

    2. Enlarge our model of ZFC to include this class as a set.

  3. Make sure the map we constructed and added as a set to our model didn’t, as a side effect, cause ωn to turn into ω1 (otherwise we would have only proven 2ω is the same as ω1. In other words we want to show that we preserved cardinals.

  4. Then we will have a map from 2ω to ωn and everything between ω and ωn is thus a counterexample to the continuum hypothesis.

Now that we have a gameplan of how to go about proving the independence of the continuum hypothesis, next week we’ll begin by constructing L.