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La tecnica de focing

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W H A T

I S . . .

Forcing?

Thomas Jech

technique for the construction of models of set

theory. It was invented in 1963 by Paul Cohen1,

who used it to prove the independence of the

Continuum Hypothesis. He constructed a model

of set theory in which the Continuum Hypothesis

(CH) fails, thus showing that CH is not provable

from the axioms of set theory.

What is the Continuum Hypothesis? In 1873

Georg Cantor proved that the continuum is uncountable: that there exists no mapping of the set

N of all integers onto the set R of all real numbers.

Since R contains N, we have 20 > 0 , where 20

and 0 are the cardinalities of R and N, respectively. A question arises whether 20 is equal to

the cardinal 1 , the immediate successor of 0 .

Cantors conjecture that 20 = 1 is the celebrated continuum hypothesis made famous by David

Hilbert, who put it on the top of his list of major

open problems in the year 1900. Cohens solution

of Cantors problem does not prove 20 = 1 , nor

does it prove 20 1 . The answer is that CH is

undecidable.

What does it mean that a conjecture is undecidable? In mathematics, the accepted standard of

establishing truth is to give a proof of a theorem.

Thus one verifies a given conjecture by finding a

proof of the conjecture, or one refutes it by finding

a proof of its negation. But it is not necessary that

every conjecture can be so decided: it may be the

Thomas Jech is professor emeritus of mathematics at the

Pennsylvania State University, currently at the Institute

of Mathematics of the Czech Academy of Sciences. His

email address is jech@math.cas.cz.

1

Editors Note: Paul Cohen died in March 2008, and an

article containing reminiscences about him is in preparation for an upcoming issue of the Notices.

692

and no proof of its negation.

To make this vague discussion more precise we

will first elaborate on the concepts of theorem and

proof.

What are theorems and proofs? It is a useful fact that every mathematical statement can

be expressed in the language of set theory. All

mathematical objects can be regarded as sets, and

relations between them can be reduced to expressions that use only the relation . It is not essential

how it is done, but it can be done: For instance,

integers are certain finite sets, rational numbers

are pairs of integers, real numbers are identified

with Dedekind cuts in the rationals, functions

are some sets of pairs, etc. Moreover all selfevident truths used in mathematical proofs can

be formally derived from the axioms of set theory.

The accepted system of axioms of set theory is

ZFC, the Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms plus the axiom

of choice. As a consequence every mathematical

theorem can be formulated and proved from the

axioms of ZFC.

When we consider a well formulated mathematical statement (say, the Riemann Hypothesis)

there is a priori no guarantee that there exists a

proof of the statement or a proof of its negation.

Does ZFC decide every statement? In other words,

is ZFC complete? It turns out that not only is

ZFC not complete, but it cannot be replaced by a

complete system of axioms. This was Gdels 1931

discovery known as the Incompleteness Theorem.

What is Gdels Incompleteness Theorem? In

short, every system of axioms that is (i) recursive

and (ii) sufficiently expressive is incomplete. Sufficiently expressive means that it includes the

self-evident truths about integers, and recursive means roughly that a computer program can

decide whether a statement is an axiom or not.

(ZFC is one such system, Peanos system of axioms

for arithmetic is another such system, etc.)

It is of course one thing to know that, by

Gdels theorem, undecidable statements exist,

and another to show that a particular conjecture

is undecidable. One way to show that some statement is unprovable from given axioms is to find a

model.

What is a model ? A model of a theory interprets

the language of the theory in such a way that the

axioms of the theory are true in the model. Then

all theorems of the theory are true in the model,

and if a given statement is false in the model, then

it cannot be proved from the axioms of the theory.

A well known example is a model of non-Euclidean

geometry.

A model of set theory is a collection M of sets

with the property that the axioms of ZFC are satisfied under the interpretation that sets are only

the sets belonging to M. We say that M satisfies

ZFC. If, for instance, M also satisfies the negation

of CH, then CH cannot be provable in ZFC.

Here we mention another result of Gdel, from

1938: the consistency of CH. Gdel constructed a

model of ZFC, the constructible universe L, that

satisfies CH. The model L is basically the minimal

possible collection of sets that satisfies the axioms

of ZFC. Since CH is true in L, it follows that CH

cannot be refuted in ZFC. In other words, CH is

consistent.

Cohens accomplishment was that he found a

method for constructing other models of ZFC. The

idea is to start with a given model M (the ground

model ) and extend it by adjoining an object G, a

sort of imaginary set. The resulting model M[G] is

more or less a minimal possible collection of sets

that includes M, contains G, and most importantly, also satisfies ZFC. Cohen showed how to find

(or imagine) the set G so that CH fails in M[G].

Thus CH is unprovable in ZFC, and, because CH is

also consistent, it is independent, or undecidable.

A consequence of Gdels theorem about L is

that one cannot prove that there exists a set outside the minimal model L, so we have to pull G

out of thin air. The genius of Cohen was to introduce so-called forcing conditions that give partial

information about G and then to assume that G

is a generic set. A generic set decides which forcing conditions are considered true. With Cohens

definition of forcing and generic sets it is possible

to assume that, for any ground model M and any

given set P of forcing conditions in the model M,

a generic set exists. Moreover, if G is generic (for

P over M), then M[G] is a model of set theory.

To illustrate the method of forcing, let us

consider the simplest possible example, and let

June/July 2008

sets of expressions a G and a G where a

ranges over the set of all integers. (Therefore

{1 G, 2 G, 3 G, 4 G} is a condition that

forces G {1, 2, 3, 4} = {1, 3, 4}.) The genericity of

G guarantees that the conditions in G are mutually compatible, and, more importantly, that every

statement of the forcing language is decided one

way or the other. We shall not define here what

generic means precisely, but let me point out

one important feature. Let us identify the above

generic set of integers G with the set G of forcing

conditions that describe the initial segments of

G. Genericity implies that for any statement A of

the forcing language, if every condition can be

extended to a condition that forces A, then some

condition p in G forces A (and so A is true in

M[G]). For instance, if S is a set of integers and

S is in the ground model M, then every condition

p of the kind described above can be extended

to a condition that forces G S: simply add the

expression a G for some a S (or a G for

some a S) where a is an integer not mentioned

in p. It follows that the resulting set of integers G

is not in M, no matter what the generic set is.

Cohen showed how to construct the set of forcing conditions so that CH fails in the resulting

generic extension M[G]. Soon after Cohens discovery his method was applied to other statements

of set theory. The method is extremely versatile:

every partially ordered set P can be taken as the

set of forcing conditions, and when G P is a

generic set then the model M[G] is a model of

ZFC. Moreover, properties of the model M[G] can

be deduced from the structure of P . In practice,

the forcing P can be constructed with the independence result in mind; forcing conditions usually

approximate the desired generic object G.

In the 45 years since Cohens discovery, literally hundreds of applications of forcing have been

discovered, giving a better picture of the universe

of sets by producing examples of statements that

are undecidable from the conventional axioms of

mathematics.

A word of caution: If after reading this you

entertain the idea that perhaps the Riemann Hypothesis could be solved by forcing, forget it. That

conjecture belongs to a class of statements that,

by virtue of their logical structure, are absolute

for forcing extension: such a statement is true in

the generic extension M[G] if and only if it is true

in the ground model M. This is the content of

Shoenfields Absoluteness Theorem.

And what is Shoenfields Absoluteness Theorem?

Well, that is for someone else to explain, some

other time.

693

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