The finite axiom of symmetry

At the conclusion of my talk today for the CUNY Math Graduate Student Colloquium, Freiling’s axiom of symmetry Or, throwing darts at the real line, I had assigned an exercise for the audience, and so I’d like to discuss the solution here.

By PeterPan23 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The axiom of symmetry asserts that if you assign to each real number $x$ a countable set $A_x\subset\mathbb{R}$, then there should be two reals $x,y$ for which $x\notin A_y$ and $y\notin A_x$.

Informally, if you have attached to each element $x$ of a large set $\mathbb{R}$ a certain comparatively small subset $A_x$, then there should be two independent points $x,y$, meaning that neither is in the set attached to the other.

The challenge exercise I had made is to prove a finite version of this:

The finite axiom of symmetry. For each finite number $k$ there is a sufficiently large finite number $n$ such that for any set $X$ of size $n$ and any assignment $x\mapsto A_x$ of elements $x\in X$ to subsets $A_x\subset X$ of size $k$, there are elements $x,y\in X$ such that $x\notin A_y$ and $y\notin A_x$.

Proof. Suppose we are given a finite number $k$. Let $n$ be any number larger than $k^2+k$. Consider any set $X$ of size $n$ and any assignment $x\mapsto A_x$ of elements $x\in X$ to subsets $A_x\subset X$ of size at most $k$. Let $x_0,x_1,x_2,\dots,x_k$ be any $k+1$ many elements of $X$. The union $\bigcup_{i\leq k} A_{x_i}$ has size at most $(k+1)k=k^2+k$, and so by the choice of $n$ there is some element $y\in X$ not in any $A_{x_i}$. Since $A_y$ has size at most $k$, there must be some $x_i$ not in $A_y$. So $x_i\notin A_y$ and $y\notin A_{x_i}$, and we have fulfilled the desired conclusion. QED

Question. What is the optimal size of $n$ as a function of $k$?

It seems unlikely to me that my argument gives the optimal bound, since we can find at least one of the pair elements inside any $k+1$ size subset of $X$, which is a stronger property than requested. So it seems likely to me that the optimal bound will be smaller.

Freiling’s axiom of symmetry, or throwing darts at the real line, Graduate Student Colloquium, April 2016

This will be a talk I’ll give at the CUNY Graduate Center Graduate Student Colloquium on Monday, April 11 (new date!), 2016, 4-4:45 pm.  The talk will be aimed at a general audience of mathematics graduate students.

By PeterPan23 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Abstract. I shall give an elementary presentation of Freiling’s axiom of symmetry, which is the principle asserting that if $x\mapsto A_x$ is a function mapping every real $x\in[0,1]$ in the unit interval to a countable set of such reals $A_x\subset[0,1]$, then there are two reals $x$ and $y$ for which $x\notin A_y$ and $y\notin A_x$.  To argue for the truth of this principle, Freiling imagined throwing two darts at the real number line, landing at $x$ and $y$ respectively: almost surely, the location $y$ of the second dart is not in the set $A_x$ arising from that of the first dart, since that set is countable; and by symmetry, it shouldn’t matter which dart we imagine as being first. So it may seem that almost every pair must fulfill the principle. Nevertheless, the principle is independent of the axioms of ZFC and in fact it is provably equivalent to the failure of the continuum hypothesis.  I’ll introduce the continuum hypothesis in a general way and discuss these foundational matters, before providing a proof of the equivalence of $\neg$CH with the axiom of symmetry. The axiom of symmetry admits natural higher dimensional analogues, such as the case of maps $(x,y)\mapsto A_{x,y}$, where one seeks a triple $(x,y,z)$ for which no member is in the set arising from the other two, and these principles also have an equivalent formulation in terms of the size of the continuum.

Freiling axiom of symmetry on MathOverflow | On Wikipedia | Graduate Student Colloquium

The rearrangement number: how many rearrangements of a series suffice to verify absolute convergence? Vassar Math Colloquium, November 2015

This will be a talk for the Mathematics Colloquium at Vassar College, November 10, 2015, tea at 4:00 pm, talk at 4:15 pm, Rockefeller Hall 310

Abstract. The Riemann rearrangement theorem asserts that a series $\sum_n a_n$ is absolutely convergent if and only if every rearrangement $\sum_n a_{p(n)}$ of it is convergent, and furthermore, any conditionally convergent series can be rearranged so as to converge to any desired extended real value. How many rearrangements $p$ suffice to test for absolute convergence in this way? The rearrangement number, a new cardinal characteristic of the continuum introduced just recently, is the smallest size of a family of permutations, such that whenever the convergence and value of a convergent series is invariant by all these permutations, then it is absolutely convergent. The exact value of the rearrangement number turns out to be independent of the axioms of set theory. In this talk, I shall place the rearrangement number into a discussion of cardinal characteristics of the continuum, including an elementary introduction to the continuum hypothesis and an account of Freiling’s axiom of symmetry.

This talk is based in part on current joint work with Andreas Blass, Will Brian, myself, Michael Hardy and Paul Larson.

My notes are available here:

The continuum hypothesis and other set-theoretic ideas for non-set-theorists, CUNY Einstein Chair Seminar, April, 2015

At Dennis Sullivan’s request, I shall speak on set-theoretic topics, particularly the continuum hypothesis, for the Einstein Chair Mathematics Seminar at the CUNY Graduate Center, April 27, 2015, in two parts:

  • An introductory background talk at 11 am, Room GC 6417
  • The main talk at 2 – 4 pm, Room GC 6417

I look forward to what I hope will be an interesting and fruitful interaction. There will be coffee/tea and lunch between the two parts.

Abstract. I shall present several set-theoretic ideas for a non-set-theoretic mathematical audience, focusing particularly on the continuum hypothesis and related issues.

At the introductory background talk, in the morning (11 am), I shall discuss and prove the Cantor-Bendixson theorem, which asserts that every closed set of reals is the union of a countable set and a perfect set (a closed set with no isolated points), and explain how it led to Cantor’s development of the ordinal numbers and how it establishes that the continuum hypothesis holds for closed sets of reals. We’ll see that there are closed sets of arbitrarily large countable Cantor-Bendixson rank. We’ll talk about the ordinals, about $\omega_1$, the long line, and, time permitting, we’ll discuss Suslin’s hypothesis.

At the main talk, in the afternoon (2 pm), I’ll begin with a discussion of the continuum hypothesis, including an explanation of the history and logical status of this axiom with respect to the other axioms of set theory, and establish the connection between the continuum hypothesis and Freiling’s axiom of symmetry. I’ll explain the axiom of determinacy and some of its applications and its rich logical situation, connected with large cardinals. I’ll briefly mention the themes and goals of the subjects of cardinal characteristics of the continuum and of Borel equivalence relation theory.  If time permits, I’d like to explain some fun geometric decompositions of space that proceed in a transfinite recursion using the axiom of choice, mentioning the open questions concerning whether there can be such decompositions that are Borel.

Dennis has requested that at some point the discussion turn to the role of set theory in the foundation for mathematics, compared for example to that of category theory, and I would look forward to that. I would be prepared also to discuss the Feferman theory in comparison to Grothendieck’s axiom of universes, and other issues relating set theory to category theory.

Is the dream solution of the continuum hypothesis attainable?

  • J. D. Hamkins, “Is the dream solution of the continuum hypothesis attainable?,” Notre Dame J. Form. Log., vol. 56, iss. 1, pp. 135-145, 2015.  
    @article {Hamkins2015:IsTheDreamSolutionToTheContinuumHypothesisAttainable,
    AUTHOR = {Hamkins, Joel David},
    TITLE = {Is the dream solution of the continuum hypothesis attainable?},
    JOURNAL = {Notre Dame J. Form. Log.},
    FJOURNAL = {Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic},
    VOLUME = {56},
    YEAR = {2015},
    NUMBER = {1},
    PAGES = {135--145},
    ISSN = {0029-4527},
    MRCLASS = {03E50},
    MRNUMBER = {3326592},
    MRREVIEWER = {Marek Balcerzak},
    DOI = {10.1215/00294527-2835047},
    eprint = {1203.4026},
    archivePrefix = {arXiv},
    primaryClass = {math.LO},
    url = {},

Many set theorists yearn for a definitive solution of the continuum problem, what I call a  dream solution, one by which we settle the continuum hypothesis (CH) on the basis of a new fundamental principle of set theory, a missing axiom, widely regarded as true, which determines the truth value of CH.  In an earlier article, I have described the dream solution template as proceeding in two steps: first, one introduces the new set-theoretic principle, considered obviously true for sets in the same way that many mathematicians find the axiom of choice or the axiom of replacement to be true; and second, one proves the CH or its negation from this new axiom and the other axioms of set theory. Such a situation would resemble Zermelo’s proof of the ponderous well-order principle on the basis of the comparatively natural axiom of choice and the other Zermelo axioms. If achieved, a dream solution to the continuum problem would be remarkable, a cause for celebration.

In this article, however, I argue that a dream solution of CH has become impossible to achieve. Specifically, what I claim is that our extensive experience in the set-theoretic worlds in which CH is true and others in which CH is false prevents us from looking upon any statement settling CH as being obviously true. We simply have had too much experience by now with the contrary situation. Even if set theorists initially find a proposed new principle to be a natural, obvious truth, nevertheless once it is learned that the principle settles CH, then this preliminary judgement will evaporate in the face of deep experience with the contrary, and set-theorists will look upon the statement merely as an intriguing generalization or curious formulation of CH or $\neg$CH, rather than as a new fundamental truth. In short, success in the second step of the dream solution will inevitably undermine success in the first step.

This article is based upon an argument I gave during the course of a three-lecture tutorial on set-theoretic geology at the summer school Set Theory and Higher-Order Logic: Foundational Issues and Mathematical Development, at the University of London, Birkbeck in August 2011.  Much of the article is adapted from and expands upon the corresponding section of material in my article The set-theoretic multiverse.