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:

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.

This is truly a rare opportunity to communicate with a much wider community of scholars, to explain some of the central ideas and methods of set theory and the foundations of mathematics to a wider group of nonspecialist but mathematics-interested researchers. I hope to explain a little about the exciting goings-on in the foundations of mathematics. Frankly, I feel deeply honored for the opportunity to represent my field in this way.

The talk will be aimed at a very general audience, the general public of the AAAS meeting, which is to say, mainly, scientists. I also expect, however, that there will be a set-theory contingent present of participants from the BEST conference, which is a symposium at the conference — but I shall not take a stand here on whether mathematics is a science; you’ll have to come to my talk for that!

Abstract. Let me tell you the story of infinity and what is going on in the foundations of mathematics. For over a century, mathematicians have explored the soaring transfinite tower of different infinity concepts. Yet, fundamental questions at the foundation of this tower remain unsettled. Indeed, researchers in set theory and the foundations of mathematics have uncovered a pervasive independence phenomenon, whereby foundational mathematical questions are often in principle neither provable nor refutable. Presented with what may be these inherent limitations on our mathematical reasoning, we now face difficult philosophical questions on the nature of mathematical truth and the meaning of mathematical existence. Does mathematics need new axioms? Some mathematicians point the way the way towards what they describe as an ultimate theory of mathematical truth. Some adopt a scientific attitude, judging new mathematical axioms and theories by their predictions and explanatory power. Others propose a multiverse mathematical foundation with pluralist truth. In this talk, I shall take you from the basic concept of infinity and some simple paradoxes up to the continuum hypothesis and on to the higher infinity of large cardinals and the raging philosophical debates.

I will be participating in the culminating workshop of the Exploring the Frontiers of Incompleteness conference series at Harvard University, to take place August 31-September 1, 2013. Rather than conference talks, the program will consist of extended discussion sessions by the participants of the year-long series, with the discussion framed by very brief summary presentations. Peter Koellner asked me to prepare such a presentation on the multiverse conception, and you can see the slides in The multiverse perspective in set theory (Slides).

Abstract: Much of the debate on pluralism in the philosophy of set theory turns on the question of whether every mathematical and set-theoretic assertion has a definite truth value. A traditional Platonist view in set theory, which I call the universe view, holds that there is an absolute background concept of set and a corresponding absolute background set-theoretic universe in which every set-theoretic assertion has a final, definitive truth value. I shall try to tease apart two often-blurred aspects of this perspective, namely, to separate the claim that the set-theoretic universe has a real mathematical existence from the claim that it is unique. A competing view, the multiverse view, accepts the former claim and rejects the latter, by holding that there are many distinct concepts of set, each instantiated in a corresponding set-theoretic universe, and a corresponding pluralism of set-theoretic truths. After framing the dispute, I shall argue that the multiverse position explains our experience with the enormous diversity of set-theoretic possibility, a phenomenon that is one of the central set-theoretic discoveries of the past fifty years and one which challenges the universe view. In particular, I shall argue that the continuum hypothesis is settled on the multiverse view by our extensive knowledge about how it behaves in the multiverse, and as a result it can no longer be settled in the manner formerly hoped for.

This is a talk for the Rutgers Logic Seminar on March 25th, 2013. Simon Thomas specifically requested that I give a talk aimed at philosophers.

Abstract. I shall describe the debate on pluralism in the philosophy of set theory, specifically on the question of whether every mathematical and set-theoretic assertion has a definite truth value. A traditional Platonist view in set theory, which I call the universe view, holds that there is an absolute background concept of set and a corresponding absolute background set-theoretic universe in which every set-theoretic assertion has a final, definitive truth value. I shall try to tease apart two often-blurred aspects of this perspective, namely, to separate the claim that the set-theoretic universe has a real mathematical existence from the claim that it is unique. A competing view, the multiverse view, accepts the former claim and rejects the latter, by holding that there are many distinct concepts of set, each instantiated in a corresponding set-theoretic universe, and a corresponding pluralism of set-theoretic truths. After framing the dispute, I shall argue that the multiverse position explains our experience with the enormous diversity of set-theoretic possibility, a phenomenon that is one of the central set-theoretic discoveries of the past fifty years and one which challenges the universe view. In particular, I shall argue that the continuum hypothesis is settled on the multiverse view by our extensive knowledge about how it behaves in the multiverse, and as a result it can no longer be settled in the manner formerly hoped for.

Some of this material arises in my recent articles:

I shall give a summary account of some current issues in the philosophy of set theory, specifically, the debate on pluralism and the question of the determinateness of set-theoretical and mathematical truth. The traditional Platonist view in set theory, what I call the universe view, holds that there is an absolute background concept of set and a corresponding absolute background set-theoretic universe in which every set-theoretic assertion has a final, definitive truth value. What I would like to do is to tease apart two often-blurred aspects of this perspective, namely, to separate the claim that the set-theoretic universe has a real mathematical existence from the claim that it is unique. A competing view, which I call the multiverse view, accepts the former claim and rejects the latter, by holding that there are many distinct concepts of set, each instantiated in a corresponding set-theoretic universe, and a corresponding pluralism of set-theoretic truths. After framing the dispute, I shall argue that the multiverse position explains our experience with the enormous diversity of set-theoretic possibility, a phenomenon that is one of the central set-theoretic discoveries of the past fifty years and one which challenges the universe view. In particular, I shall argue that the continuum hypothesis is settled on the multiverse view by our extensive knowledge about how it behaves in the multiverse, and as a result it can no longer be settled in the manner formerly hoped for.

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.

A talk at the Philosophy and Model Theory conference held June 2-5, 2010 at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre.

Set theorists commonly regard set theory as an ontological foundation for the rest of mathematics, in the sense that other abstract mathematical objects can be construed fundamentally as sets, enjoying a real mathematical existence as sets accumulate to form the universe of all sets. The Universe view—perhaps it is the orthodox view among set theorists—takes this universe of sets to be unique, and holds that a principal task of set theory is to discover its fundamental truths. For example, on this view, interesting set-theoretical questions, such as the Continuum Hypothesis, will have definitive final answers in this universe. Proponents of this view point to the increasingly stable body of regularity features flowing from the large cardinal hierarchy as indicating in broad strokes that we are on the right track towards these final answers.

A paradox for the orthodox view, however, is the fact that the most powerful tools in set theory are most naturally understood as methods for constructing alternative set-theoretic universes. With forcing and other methods, we seem to glimpse into alternative mathematical worlds, and are led to consider a model-theoretic, multiverse philosophical position. In this talk, I shall describe and defend the Multiverse view, which takes these other worlds at face value, holding that there are many set-theoretical universes. This is a realist position, granting these universes a full mathematical existence and exploring their interactions. The multiverse view remains Platonist, but it is second-order Platonism, that is, Platonism about universes. I shall argue that set theory is now mature enough to fruitfully adopt and analyze this view. I shall propose a number of multiverse axioms, provide a multiverse consistency proof, and describe some recent results in set theory that illustrate the multiverse perspective, while engaging pleasantly with various philosophical views on the nature of mathematical existence.