Nonlinearity in the hierarchy of large cardinal consistency strength

This is currently a draft version only of my article-in-progress on the topic of linearity in the hierarchy of consistency strength, especially with large cardinals. Comments are very welcome, since I am still writing the article. Please kindly send me comments by email or just post here.

This article will be the basis of the Weeks 7 & 8 discussion in the Graduate Philosophy of Logic seminar I am currently running with Volker Halbach at Oxford in Hilary term 2021.

I present instances of nonlinearity and illfoundedness in the hierarchy of large cardinal consistency strength—as natural or as nearly natural as I can make them—and consider philosophical aspects of the question of naturality with regard to this phenomenon.

It is a mystery often mentioned in the foundations of mathematics, a fundamental phenomenon to be explained, that our best and strongest mathematical theories seem to be linearly ordered and indeed well-ordered by consistency strength. Given any two of the familiar large cardinal hypotheses, for example, generally one of them will prove the consistency of the other.

Why should it be linear? Why should the large cardinal notions line up like this, when they often arise from completely different mathematical matters? Measurable cardinals arise from set-theoretic issues in measure theory; Ramsey cardinals generalize ideas in graph coloring combinatorics; compact cardinals arise with compactness properties of infinitary logic. Why should these disparate considerations lead to principles that are linearly related by direct implication and consistency strength?

The phenomenon is viewed by many in the philosophy of mathematics as significant in our quest for mathematical truth. In light of Gödel incompleteness, after all, we must eternally seek to strengthen even our best and strongest theories. Is the linear hierarchy of consistency strength directing us along the elusive path, the “one road upward” as John Steel describes it, toward the final, ultimate mathematical truth? That is the tantalizing possibility.

Meanwhile, we do know as a purely formal matter that the hierarchy of consistency strength is not actually well-ordered—it is ill-founded, densely ordered, and nonlinear. The statements usually used to illustrate these features, however, are weird self-referential assertions constructed in the Gödelian manner via the fixed-point lemma—logic-game trickery, often dismissed as unnatural.

Many set theorists claim that amongst the natural assertions, consistency strengths remain linearly ordered and indeed well ordered. H. Friedman refers to “the apparent comparability of naturally occurring logical strengths as one of the great mysteries of [the foundations of mathematics].” Andrés Caicedo says,

It is a remarkable empirical phenomenon that we indeed have comparability for natural theories. We expect this to always be the case, and a significant amount of work in inner model theory is guided by this belief.

Stephen G. Simpson writes:

It is striking that a great many foundational theories are linearly ordered by <. Of course it is possible to construct pairs of artificial theories which are incomparable under <. However, this is not the case for the “natural” or non-artificial theories which are usually regarded as significant in the foundations of mathematics. The problem of explaining this observed regularity is a challenge for future foundational research.

John Steel writes “The large cardinal hypotheses [the ones we know] are themselves wellordered by consistency strength,” and he formulates what he calls the “vague conjecture” asserting that

If T is a natural extension of ZFC, then there is an extension H axiomatized by large cardinal hypotheses such that T ≡ Con H. Moreover, ≤ Con is a prewellorder of the natural extensions of ZFC. In particular, if T and U are natural extensions of ZFC, then either T ≤ Con U or U ≤ Con T.

Peter Koellner writes

Remarkably, it turns out that when one restricts to those theories that “arise in nature” the interpretability ordering is quite simple: There are no descending chains and there are no incomparable elements—the interpretability ordering on theories that “arise in nature” is a wellordering.

Let me refer to this position as the natural linearity position, the assertion that all natural assertions of mathematics are linearly ordered by consistency strength. The strong form of the position, asserted by some of those whom I have cited above, asserts that the natural assertions of mathematics are indeed well-ordered by consistency strength. By all accounts, this view appears to be widely held in large cardinal set theory and the philosophy of set theory.

Despite the popularity of this position, I should like in this article to explore the contrary view and directly to challenge the natural linearity position.

Main Question. Can we find natural instances of nonlinearity and illfoundedness in the hierarchy of consistency strength?

I shall try my best.

You have to download the article to see my candidates for natural instances of nonlinearity in the hierarchy of large cardinal consistency strength, but I can tease you a little by mentioning that there are various cautious enumerations of the ZFC axioms which actually succeed in enumerating all the ZFC axioms, but with a strictly weaker consistency strength than the usual (incautious) enumeration. And similarly there are various cautious versions of the large cardinal hypothesis, which are natural, but also incomparable in consistency strength.

(Please note that it was Uri Andrews, rather than Uri Abraham, who settled question 16 with the result of theorem 17. I have corrected this from an earlier draft.)

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