axiomatic set theory computing dictionary

<theory> One of several approaches to set theory, consisting of a formal language for talking about sets and a collection of axioms describing how they behave.

There are many different axiomatisations for set theory. Each takes a slightly different approach to the problem of finding a theory that captures as much as possible of the intuitive idea of what a set is, while avoiding the paradoxes that result from accepting all of it, the most famous being Russell's paradox.

The main source of trouble in naive set theory is the idea that you can specify a set by saying whether each object in the universe is in the "set" or not. Accordingly, the most important differences between different axiomatisations of set theory concern the restrictions they place on this idea (known as "comprehension").

Zermelo Fränkel set theory, the most commonly used axiomatisation, gets round it by (in effect) saying that you can only use this principle to define subsets of existing sets.

NBG (von Neumann-Bernays-Goedel) set theory sort of allows comprehension for all formulae without restriction, but distinguishes between two kinds of set, so that the sets produced by applying comprehension are only second-class sets. NBG is exactly as powerful as ZF, in the sense that any statement that can be formalised in both theories is a theorem of ZF if and only if it is a theorem of ZFC.

MK (Morse-Kelley) set theory is a strengthened version of NBG, with a simpler axiom system. It is strictly stronger than NBG, and it is possible that NBG might be consistent but MK inconsistent.

NF ("New Foundations"), a theory developed by Willard Van Orman Quine, places a very different restriction on comprehension: it only works when the formula describing the membership condition for your putative set is "stratified", which means that it could be made to make sense if you worked in a system where every set had a level attached to it, so that a level-n set could only be a member of sets of level n+1. (This doesn't mean that there are actually levels attached to sets in NF). NF is very different from ZF; for instance, in NF the universe is a set (which it isn't in ZF, because the whole point of ZF is that it forbids sets that are "too large"), and it can be proved that the Axiom of Choice is false in NF!

ML ("Modern Logic") is to NF as NBG is to ZF. (Its name derives from the title of the book in which Quine introduced an early, defective, form of it). It is stronger than ZF (it can prove things that ZF can't), but if NF is consistent then ML is too.

(01 Aug 2003)