[bibtex key=DaghighiGolshaniHaminsJerabek2013:TheFoundationAxiomAndElementarySelfEmbeddingsOfTheUniverse]$\newcommand\ZFC{\text{ZFC}}\newcommand\ZFCf{\ZFC^{\rm-f}}\newcommand\AFA{\text{AFA}}\newcommand\BAFA{\text{BAFA}}$

In this article, we examine the role played by the axiom of foundation in the well-known Kunen inconsistency, the theorem asserting that there is no nontrivial elementary embedding of the set-theoretic universe to itself. All the standard proofs of the Kunen inconsistency make use of the axiom of foundation (see Kanamori’s books and also Generalizations of the Kunen inconsistency), and this use is essential, assuming that $\ZFC$ is consistent, because as we shall show there are models of $\ZFCf$ that admit nontrivial elementary self-embeddings and even nontrivial definable automorphisms. Meanwhile, a fragment of the Kunen inconsistency survives without foundation as the claim in $\ZFCf$ that there is no nontrivial elementary self-embedding of the class of well-founded sets. Nevertheless, some of the commonly considered anti-foundational theories, such as the Boffa theory $\BAFA$, prove outright the existence of nontrivial automorphisms of the set-theoretic universe, thereby refuting the Kunen assertion in these theories. On the other hand, several other common anti-foundational theories, such as Aczel’s anti-foundational theory $\ZFCf+\AFA$ and Scott’s theory $\ZFCf+\text{SAFA}$, reach the opposite conclusion by proving that there are no nontrivial elementary embeddings from the set-theoretic universe to itself. Our summary conclusion, therefore, is that the resolution of the Kunen inconsistency in set theory without foundation depends on the specific nature of one’s anti-foundational stance.

This is joint work with Ali Sadegh Daghighi, Mohammad Golshani, myself and Emil Jeřábek, which grew out of our interaction on Ali’s question on MathOverflow, Is there any large cardinal beyond the Kunen inconsistency?