The math tea argument—must there be numbers we cannot describe or define? Pavia Logic Seminar


This will be a talk for the Logic Seminar at the IUSS, Scuola Universitaria Superiore Pavia, 28 September 2022.

(Note: This seminar will be held the day before the related conference Philosophy of Mathematics: Foundations, Definitions and Axioms, Italian Network for the Philosophy of Mathematics, 29 September to 1 October 2022. I shall be speaking at that conference on the topic, Fregean abstraction in set theory, a deflationary account.)

Abstract. According to the math tea argument, perhaps heard at a good afternoon tea, there must be some real numbers that we can neither describe nor define, since there are uncountably many real numbers, but only countably many definitions. Is it correct? In this talk, I shall discuss the phenomenon of pointwise definable structures in mathematics, structures in which every object has a property that only it exhibits. A mathematical structure is Leibnizian, in contrast, if any pair of distinct objects in it exhibit different properties. Is there a Leibnizian structure with no definable elements? We shall discuss many interesting elementary examples, eventually working up to the proof that every countable model of set theory has a pointwise definable extension, in which every mathematical object is definable.

Fregean abstraction in set theory—a deflationary account, Italian Philosophy of Mathematics, September 2022

This will be a talk for the conference Philosophy of Mathematics: Foundations, Definitions and Axioms, the Fourth International Conference of the Italian Network for the Philosophy of Mathematics, 29 September to 1 October 2022.

Abstract. The standard set-theoretic distinction between sets and classes instantiates in important respects the Fregean distinction between objects and concepts, for in set theory we commonly take the universe of sets as a realm of objects to be considered under the guise of diverse concepts, the definable classes, each serving as a predicate on that domain of individuals. Although it is commonly held that in a very general manner, there can be no association of classes with objects in a way that fulfills Frege’s Basic Law V, nevertheless, in the ZF framework, it turns out that we can provide a completely deflationary account of this and other Fregean abstraction principles. Namely, there is a mapping of classes to objects, definable in set theory in senses I shall explain (hence deflationary), associating every first-order parametrically definable class $F$ with a set object $\varepsilon F$, in such a way that Basic Law V is fulfilled: $$\varepsilon F =\varepsilon G\iff\forall x\ (Fx\leftrightarrow Gx).$$ Russell’s elementary refutation of the general comprehension axiom, therefore, is improperly described as a refutation of Basic Law V itself, but rather refutes Basic Law V only when augmented with powerful class comprehension principles going strictly beyond ZF. The main result leads also to a proof of Tarski’s theorem on the nondefinability of truth as a corollary to Russell’s argument. A central goal of the project is to highlight the issue of definability and deflationism for the extension assignment problem at the core of Fregean abstraction.