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Continuum Hypothesis

Continuum Hypothesis

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Published by: Pierre-Yves Gaillard on Feb 25, 2010
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The Continuum Hypothesis is an Open Problem
I adhere to Bourbaki’s set theory and terminology (see [1]).I think that, for any relation R, there is no Bourbaki’s “assemblage” corre-sponding to the statement “R is undecidable”. Thus, there can be no proof of thisstatement.More generally there is, in texts of people like G¨odel and Cohen, something Ifind puzzling.Recall Hilbert’s quotation: “it must be possible to replace in all geometricstatements the words point, line, plane by table, chair, mug”; take your favoritetext of G¨odel or Cohen (like [2] or [3]); and replace the words “integer” and “set” (when these words are employed in their mathematical sense) by, say, “word1”and “word2”.Many words have at the same time a usual meaning and a mathematical one— and it’s vital to distinguish these two meanings. In most of the cases this dis-tinction is easy to make: for example for words like “group”, “ring”, “field”, ...For words like “integer” and “set”, the distinction is not as easy to make, but notless important. (Some people would say that, in mathematics, the word “set” isa “primitive” one and has no definition. Indeed it’s not so easy to find a mathe-matical definition of the word “set”. The only one I know is that of Bourbaki [1],p. II.1.) Strictly speaking, we have no more reasons to expect mathematical inte-gers and mathematical sets to behave like “real world” integers and “real world”sets, than we have to expect mathematical rings to behave like “real world” rings.(Let’s not be afraid of Virginia Woolf!) — Of course this also applies to manyother words (or strings of words) like “equal”, “proof”, “there exists”, “for all”,“and”, “or”, “not”, ... (This is crucial for instance to understand why differentsets can be equal — although intuitively two sets are equal only if they are the“same” set.)People like G¨odel and Cohen believe that some statements about integers andsets are true in an absolute sense, independently of any axiom. (Such would bethe case, I presume, of a statement like 0=0.) This conviction of reasoning “in theabsolute” is clearly stated by Cohen in [2]:“It should be emphasized that these functions are “real” mathematical objects andnot objects of any formal system ...” (P. 26-27.)1
“The theorems of the previous section are not results about what can be proved inparticular axiom systems; they are absolute statements about functions.” (P. 39.)It seems fair to paraphrase Cohen as follows:“I prove some things about functions, but I need no assumption whatsoever toprove these things; in fact I don’t even need to say what a function is.”It seems to me that such a claim of doing mathematics without definitions orhypothesis would not be accepted in other fields of mathematics. If I proved theRiemann Hypothesis without ever using the definition of a complex number, whowould take me seriously?It’s worth giving another quote from [2]. Cohen introduces a “formal sys-tem”
supposed to “formalize” the nonnegative integers, and considers (in
)a certain statement denoted
. He writes on p. 41:“We have now arrived at a rather peculiar situation. On the one hand
isnot provable in
and yet we have just given an informal proof that
is true.(There is no contradiction here since we have merely shown that the proofs in
do not exhaust the set of all acceptable arguments.)”What does “true” mean? What is an “informal proof”? What is an “acceptableargument”?In my humble opinion, mathematical logicians should state (and prove) pre-cise mathematical results (using standard axioms and definitions), and indicate themetamathematical interpretations that these results can be given. An example of this is the Appendix on pages I.42 to I.46 of Bourbaki [1]. Mathematical logiciansmay very well have convincing arguments for the undecidability of the ContinuumHypothesis — but these should be presented for what they are: convincing argu-ments, not proofs ...I think that understanding the status of the various statements (in particulardistinguishing mathematical and metamathematical statements) is the key point.It seems wise to use the words “theorem”, “proof” and “true” only in their math-ematical sense (in particular “true” should be just a synonym of “provable”, as in[1]). In [1], even if the distinction mathematics/metamathematics is clearly made, it is still somewhat subtile. For instance, theorems are not given mathematicalproofs. Instead we’re presented with metamathematical arguments showing theexistence of such proofs. In principle the patient enough reader can, thanks to2
these arguments, write down the mathematical proofs. If one doesn’t pay enoughattention to this point, one can get the feeling that Bourbaki uses induction beforehaving formally defined the natural numbers. (Take for example CF7 p. I.20: boththe statement and its proof are metamathematical; the reader can ignore them al-together.) This is very well explained in the Introduction of [1]. On the whole,Bourbakis reader is supposed to do quite a lot of thinking. To take another ex-ample, on p. I.45, in the Appendix mentioned above, Bourbaki writes “Supposethat the set
is the set of the signs of a mathematical theory
”. Of course,strictly speaking, this doesn’t make any sense (because there is no assemblagecorresponding to such a set); but, again, the reader bothered by this can rewritethe appendix in a more cautious way, ... or just skip it. Here is another slightincoherence in Bourbaki’s terminology. One reads on page II.1 that the words
term of set theory
are “strictly synonymous”. But one considers on page II.4the set “whose sole elements are
”. Of course no such set can exist if onesticks to the given definition.The distinction between mathematics and metamathematics is also very clearin Kleene [4]. But, whereas Bourbaki uses metamathematics only to make thetext more readable, Kleene (like G¨odel and Cohen) regards metamathematicalreasonings as being true in an absolute sense. (I’m taking this opportunity topoint out a surprising confusion between axioms and axiom schemata on pages206 and 207 of [4]. This confusion is easy to fix, but it occurs in the book which,of all books, was perhaps the least likely to contain it.)To digress a bit, people define, say, an endofunctor of the category of sets asbeing given (among other things) by a endomap of the class of all sets into itself.They know that there is no set of all sets, but they seem to believe that it sufficesto use another word to make the notion exist. However, again, there is no as-semblage corresponding to “the class of all sets”. In contrast, they don’t consider“classes” equipped with group structures, but insist (rightly) that the elements of a group form a set. For categories, the most natural approach is probably to adoptGrothendieck’s Universes Axiom. Sometime people abstain from introducing thisAxiom, saying “things are already complicated and abstract enough without it”.But, far from being a luxury, this Axiom is a logical necessity. (Of course theremight be other ways to overcome the difficulty, but pulling a new word out of one’s hat isn’t one of them.)In conclusion I’ll repeat my surprise at the following fact. It seems unan-imously accepted that mathematical logicians take openly the right to “prove”statements about things like integers and sets without saying what they mean by“proof”, by “integer”, by “set”, and without using any axiom — whereas such3

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