Abstract. I shall describe a simple historical thought experiment showing how our attitude toward the continuum hypothesis could easily have been very different than it is. If our mathematical history had been just a little different, I claim, if certain mathematical discoveries had been made in a slightly different order, then we would naturally view the continuum hypothesis as a fundamental axiom of set theory, necessary for mathematics and indeed indispensable for calculus.

Joel David Hamkins, “How the continuum hypothesis could have been a fundamental axiom,” Journal for the Philosophy of Mathematics (2024), arxiv:2407.02463.

Abstract. I describe a simple historical thought experiment showing how we might have come to view the continuum hypothesis as a fundamental axiom, one necessary for mathematics, indispensable even for calculus.

The JPM will launch in September 2024. Meanwhile, the preprint pdf is available at arxiv.org/pdf/2407.02463.

See also this talk I gave on the topic at the University of Oslo:

Abstract. Zermelo famously proved that second-order ZFC is quasi-categorical—the models of this theory are precisely the rank-initial segments of the set-theoretic universe cut off at an inaccessible cardinal. Which are the fully categorical extensions of this theory? This question gives rise to the notion of categorical large cardinals, and opens the door to several puzzling philosophical issues, such as the conflict between categoricity as a fundamental value in mathematics and reflection principles in set theory. (This is joint work with Robin Solberg, Oxford.)

Abstract. Inspired by Zermelo’s quasi-categoricity result characterizing the models of second-order Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory $\text{ZFC}_2$, we investigate when those models are fully categorical, characterized by the addition to $\text{ZFC}_2$ either of a first-order sentence, a first-order theory, a second-order sentence or a second-order theory. The heights of these models, we define, are the categorical large cardinals. We subsequently consider various philosophical aspects of categoricity for structuralism and realism, including the tension between categoricity and set-theoretic reflection, and we present (and criticize) a categorical characterization of the set-theoretic universe $\langle V,\in\rangle$ in second-order logic.

Categorical accounts of various mathematical structures lie at the very core of structuralist mathematical practice, enabling mathematicians to refer to specific mathematical structures, not by having carefully to prepare and point at specially constructed instances—preserved like the one-meter iron bar locked in a case in Paris—but instead merely by mentioning features that uniquely characterize the structure up to isomorphism.

The natural numbers $\langle \mathbb{N},0,S\rangle$, for example, are uniquely characterized by the Dedekind axioms, which assert that $0$ is not a successor, that the successor function $S$ is one-to-one, and that every set containing $0$ and closed under successor contains every number. We know what we mean by the natural numbers—they have a definite realness—because we can describe features that completely determine the natural number structure. The real numbers $\langle\mathbb{R},+,\cdot,0,1\rangle$ similarly are characterized up to isomorphism as the unique complete ordered field. The complex numbers $\langle\mathbb{C},+,\cdot\rangle$ form the unique algebraically closed field of characteristic $0$ and size continuum, or alternatively, the unique algebraic closure of the real numbers. In fact all our fundamental mathematical structures enjoy such categorical characterizations, where a theory is categorical if it identifies a unique mathematical structure up to isomorphism—any two models of the theory are isomorphic. In light of the Löwenheim-Skolem theorem, which prevents categoricity for infinite structures in first-order logic, these categorical theories are generally made in second-order logic.

In set theory, Zermelo characterized the models of second-order Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory $\text{ZFC}_2$ in his famous quasi-categoricity result:

Theorem. (Zermelo, 1930) The models of $\text{ZFC}_2$ are precisely those isomorphic to a rank-initial segment $\langle V_\kappa,\in\rangle$ of the cumulative set-theoretic universe $V$ cut off at an inaccessible cardinal $\kappa$.

It follows that for any two models of $\text{ZFC}_2$, one of them is isomorphic to an initial segment of the other. These set-theoretic models $V_\kappa$ have now come to be known as Zermelo-Grothendieck universes, in light of Grothendieck’s use of them in category theory (a rediscovery several decades after Zermelo); they feature in the universe axiom, which asserts that every set is an element of some such $V_\kappa$, or equivalently, that there are unboundedly many inaccessible cardinals.

In this article, we seek to investigate the extent to which Zermelo’s quasi-categoricity analysis can rise fully to the level of categoricity, in light of the observation that many of the $V_\kappa$ universes are categorically characterized by their sentences or theories.

Question. Which models of $\text{ZFC}_2$ satisfy fully categorical theories?

If $\kappa$ is the smallest inaccessible cardinal, for example, then up to isomorphism $V_\kappa$ is the unique model of $\text{ZFC}_2$ satisfying the first-order sentence “there are no inaccessible cardinals.” The least inaccessible cardinal is therefore an instance of what we call a first-order sententially categorical cardinal. Similar ideas apply to the next inaccessible cardinal, and the next, and so on for quite a long way. Many of the inaccessible universes thus satisfy categorical theories extending $\text{ZFC}_2$ by a sentence or theory, either in first or second order, and we should like to investigate these categorical extensions of $\text{ZFC}_2$.

In addition, we shall discuss the philosophical relevance of categoricity and point particularly to the philosophical problem posed by the tension between the widespread support for categoricity in our fundamental mathematical structures with set-theoretic ideas on reflection principles, which are at heart anti-categorical.

Our main theme concerns these notions of categoricity:

Main Definition.

A cardinal $\kappa$ is first-order sententially categorical, if there is a first-order sentence $\sigma$ in the language of set theory, such that $V_\kappa$ is categorically characterized by $\text{ZFC}_2+\sigma$.

A cardinal $\kappa$ is first-order theory categorical, if there is a first-order theory $T$ in the language of set theory, such that $V_\kappa$ is categorically characterized by $\text{ZFC}_2+T$.

A cardinal $\kappa$ is second-order sententially categorical, if there is a second-order sentence $\sigma$ in the language of set theory, such that $V_\kappa$ is categorically characterized by $\text{ZFC}_2+\sigma$.

A cardinal $\kappa$ is second-order theory categorical, if there is a second-order theory $T$ in the language of set theory, such that $V_\kappa$ is categorically characterized by $\text{ZFC}_2+T$.

Follow through to the arxiv for the pdf to read more:

Abstract: Zermelo famously characterized the models of second-order Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory $\text{ZFC}_2$ in his 1930 quasi-categoricity result asserting that the models of $\text{ZFC}_2$ are precisely those isomorphic to a rank-initial segment $V_\kappa$ of the cumulative set-theoretic universe $V$ cut off at an inaccessible cardinal $\kappa$. I shall discuss the extent to which Zermelo’s quasi-categoricity analysis can rise fully to the level of categoricity, in light of the observation that many of the $V_\kappa$ universes are categorically characterized by their sentences or theories. For example, if $\kappa$ is the smallest inaccessible cardinal, then up to isomorphism $V_\kappa$ is the unique model of $\text{ZFC}_2$ plus the sentence “there are no inaccessible cardinals.” This cardinal $\kappa$ is therefore an instance of what we call a first-order sententially categorical cardinal. Similarly, many of the other inaccessible universes satisfy categorical extensions of $\text{ZFC}_2$ by a sentence or theory, either in first or second order. I shall thus introduce and investigate the categorical cardinals, a new kind of large cardinal. This is joint work with Robin Solberg (Oxford).

Consider the real numbers $\newcommand\R{\mathbb{R}}\R$ and the complex numbers $\newcommand\C{\mathbb{C}}\C$ and the question of whether these structures are interpretable in one another as fields.

What does it mean to interpret one mathematical structure in another? It means to provide a definable copy of the first structure in the second, by providing a definable domain of $k$-tuples (not necessarily just a domain of points) and definable interpretations of the atomic operations and relations, as well as a definable equivalence relation, a congruence with respect to the operations and relations, such that the first structure is isomorphic to the quotient of this definable structure by that equivalent relation. All these definitions should be expressible in the language of the host structure.

One may proceed recursively to translate any assertion in the language of the interpreted structure into the language of the host structure, thereby enabling a complete discussion of the first structure purely in the language of the second.

For an example, we can define a copy of the integer ring $\langle\mathbb{Z},+,\cdot\rangle$ inside the semi-ring of natural numbers $\langle\mathbb{N},+,\cdot\rangle$ by considering every integer as the equivalence class of a pair of natural numbers $(n,m)$ under the same-difference relation, by which $$(n,m)\equiv(u,v)\iff n-m=u-v\iff n+v=u+m.$$ Integer addition and multiplication can be defined on these pairs, well-defined with respect to same difference, and so we have interpreted the integers in the natural numbers.

Similarly, the rational field $\newcommand\Q{\mathbb{Q}}\Q$ can be interpreted in the integers as the quotient field, whose elements can be thought of as integer pairs $(p,q)$ written more conveniently as fractions $\frac pq$, where $q\neq 0$, considered under the same-ratio relation $$\frac pq\equiv\frac rs\qquad\iff\qquad ps=rq.$$ The field structure is now easy to define on these pairs by the familiar fractional arithmetic, which is well-defined with respect to that equivalence. Thus, we have provided a definable copy of the rational numbers inside the integers, an interpretation of $\Q$ in $\newcommand\Z{\mathbb{Z}}\Z$.

The complex field $\C$ is of course interpretable in the real field $\R$ by considering the complex number $a+bi$ as represented by the real number pair $(a,b)$, and defining the operations on these pairs in a way that obeys the expected complex arithmetic.
$$(a,b)+(c,d) =(a+c,b+d)$$
$$(a,b)\cdot(c,d)=(ac-bd,ad+bc)$$
Thus, we interpret the complex number field $\C$ inside the real field $\R$.

Question. What about an interpretation in the converse direction? Can we interpret $\R$ in $\C$?

Although of course the real numbers can be viewed as a subfield of the complex numbers $$\R\subset\C,$$this by itself doesn’t constitute an interpretation, unless the submodel is definable. And in fact, $\R$ is not a definable subset of $\C$. There is no purely field-theoretic property $\varphi(x)$, expressible in the language of fields, that holds in $\C$ of all and only the real numbers $x$. But more: not only is $\R$ not definable in $\C$ as a subfield, we cannot even define a copy of $\R$ in $\C$ in the language of fields. We cannot interpret $\R$ in $\C$ in the language of fields.

Theorem. As fields, the real numbers $\R$ are not interpretable in the complex numbers $\C$.

We can of course interpret the real numbers $\R$ in a structure slightly expanding $\C$ beyond its field structure. For example, if we consider not merely $\langle\C,+,\cdot\rangle$ but add the conjugation operation $\langle\C,+,\cdot,z\mapsto\bar z\rangle$, then we can identify the reals as the fixed-points of conjugation $z=\bar z$. Or if we add the real-part or imaginary-part operators, making the coordinate structure of the complex plane available, then we can of course define the real numbers in $\C$ as those complex numbers with no imaginary part. The point of the theorem is that in the pure language of fields, we cannot define the real subfield nor can we even define a copy of the real numbers in $\C$ as any kind of definable quotient structure.

The theorem is well-known to model theorists, a standard observation, and model theorists often like to prove it using some sophisticated methods, such as stability theory. The main issue from that point of view is that the order in the real numbers is definable from the real field structure, but the theory of algebraically closed fields is too stable to allow it to define an order like that.

But I would like to give a comparatively elementary proof of the theorem, which doesn’t require knowledge of stability theory. After a conversation this past weekend with Jonathan Pila, Boris Zilber and Alex Wilkie over lunch and coffee breaks at the Robin Gandy conference, here is such an elementary proof, based only on knowledge concerning the enormous number of automorphisms of $\C$, a consequence of the categoricity of the complex field, which itself follows from the fact that algebraically closed fields of a given characteristic are determined by their transcedence degree over their prime subfield. It follows that any two transcendental elements of $\C$ are automorphic images of one another, and indeed, for any element $z\in\C$ any two complex numbers transcendental over $\Q(z)$ are automorphic in $\C$ by an automorphism fixing $z$.

Proof of the theorem. Suppose that we could interpret the real field $\R$ inside the complex field $\C$. So we would define a domain of $k$-tuples $R\subseteq\C^k$ with an equivalence relation $\simeq$ on it, and operations of addition and multiplication on the equivalence classes, such that the real field was isomorphic to the resulting quotient structure $R/\simeq$. There is absolutely no requirement that this structure is a submodel of $\C$ in any sense, although that would of course be allowed if possible. The $+$ and $\times$ of the definable copy of $\R$ in $\C$ might be totally strange new operations defined on those equivalence classes. The definitions altogether may involve finitely many parameters $\vec p=(p_1,\ldots,p_n)$, which we now fix.

As we mentioned, the complex number field $\C$ has an enormous number of automorphisms, and indeed, any two $k$-tuples $\vec x$ and $\vec y$ that exhibit the same algebraic equations over $\Q(\vec p)$ will be automorphic by an automorphism fixing $\vec p$. In particular, this means that there are only countably many isomorphism orbits of the $k$-tuples of $\C$. Since there are uncountably many real numbers, this means that there must be two $\simeq$-inequivalent $k$-tuples in the domain $R$ that are automorphic images in $\C$, by an automorphism $\pi:\C\to\C$ fixing the parameters $\vec p$. Since $\pi$ fixes the parameters of the definition, it will take $R$ to $R$ and it will respect the equivalence relation and the definition of the addition and multiplication on $R/\simeq$. Therefore, $\pi$ will induce an automorphism of the real field $\R$, which will be nontrivial precisely because $\pi$ took an element of one $\simeq$-equivalence class to another.

The proof is now completed by the observation that the real field $\langle\R,+,\cdot\rangle$ is rigid; it has no nontrivial automorphisms. This is because the order is definable (the positive numbers are precisely the nonzero squares) and the individual rational numbers must be fixed by any automorphism and then every real number is determined by its cut in the rationals. So there can be no nontrivial automorphism of $\R$, and we have a contradiction. So $\R$ is not interpretable in $\C$. $\Box$

I taught a course in Fall 2011 at NYU entitled Topics in Logic: set theory and the philosophy of set theory, aimed at graduate students in philosophy and others who want to gain greater understanding of some of the set-theoretic topics central to work in the philosophy of set theory. The course began with a review of the mathematical ideas, including a presentation of large cardinals, strong axioms of infinity and their associated elementary embeddings of the universe, and forcing, emphasizing the connection with the Boolean ultrapower and Boolean-valued models, but discussing the alternative formalizations. The second part of the course covers some of the philosophical literature, including what it means to accept or believe mathematical axioms, whether mathematics needs new axioms, the criteria one might use when adopting new axioms, and the question of pluralism and categoricity in set theory.

Here is a partial list of our readings:

1. Mathematical background.

Thomas Jech, Set Theory.

Akihiro Kanamori, The Higher Infinite.

Timothy Chow, “A beginner’s guide to forcing,” from Contemporary Mathematics. http://arxiv.org/abs/0712.1320. (for mathematical review)

4. W. N. Reinhardt, “Remarks on reflection principles, large cardinals, and elementary embeddings,” Proceedings of Symposia in Pure Mathematics, Vol 13, Part II, 1974, pp. 189-205.

5. Donald Martin, “Multiple universes of sets and indeterminate truth values,” Topoi 20, 5–16, 2001.

6. Hartry Field, “Which undecidable mathematical sentences have determinate truth values,” as reprinted in his book Truth and the Absence of Fact, Oxford University Press, 2001.

7. A brief selection from Marc Balaguer, Platonism and Anti-Platonism in Mathematics, Oxford University Press, 1998, describing the plenitudinous Platonism position.

8. Daniel Isaacson, “The reality of mathematics and the case of set theory,” 2007.

13. Interpretability of theories, the interpretability degrees and Orey sentences in set theory and arithmetic. Some of the basic material is found in Per Lindström’s book Aspects of Incompleteness, available at http://projecteuclid.org/euclid.lnl/1235416274, particularly chapter 6, and some later chapters.

14. Haim Gaifman, “On ontology and realism in mathematics,” to appear in the Review of Symbolic Logic (special issue connected with the NYU philosophy of mathematics conference 2009).