Even prior to the devastating Incompleteness Theorems there were hints of what was to come. I want to describe and prove four results in mathematical logic that don’t depend on Incompleteness at all, but establish some rather serious limitations on the project of mathematics.

Here are the four. I’ll go through them in order of increasing level of sophistication required to prove them.

- Indescribable sets of possible worlds
- Noncompossibility theorem
- Inevitable nonstandard numbers
- Mysterious missing subsets

# 1. Indescribable sets of possible worlds

I already talked about this one here. The basic idea is that even in our safest and least troublesome logic, propositional calculus, it turns out that the language is insufficient to fully capture all the semantic notions. It’s the first hint at something going awry with syntax and semantics, where the semantics can outpace the syntax and leave axiomatic mathematics behind.

So to recap: the result is that in propositional logic there are sets of truth assignments that can not be “described” by any set of propositional sentences (even allowing infinite sets!). A set of sentences is said to “describe” a set of truth assignments if that set of truth assignments is the unique set of truth assignments consistent with all those sentences being true. If we think of truth assignments as possible worlds, and sets of sentences as descriptions of sets of possible worlds, then this result says that there are sets of possible worlds in propositional semantics that cannot be described by any propositional syntax.

The proof of this is astoundingly simple: just look at the cardinality of the set of descriptions and the cardinality of the set of sets of possible worlds. The second is strictly larger than the first, so any mapping from descriptions to sets of possible worlds will of necessity leave some sets of possible worlds out. In fact, it also tells us that virtually *all* sets of possible worlds are not describable!

# 2. Noncompossibility Theorem

The noncompossibility theorem is a little-known theorem that establishes a serious limitation on our ability to describe mathematical structures. Here’s what it says. Suppose that you have a description of a countably infinite structure (like, say, the natural numbers, which have a countable infinity of objects) that has the following three properties:

**(1)** The language has a term for denoting every object in the structure (like 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on)

**(2)** The axioms in your description are weakly complete: if something is inconsistent with the axioms, it can be proven false.

**(3)** There is some algorithm for determining whether any given sentence is an axiom.

The noncompossibility theorem tells us that if you have all three of these properties, then your axioms will fail to uniquely pick out your intended structure, and will include models that have extra objects that aren’t in the structure.

Let’s prove this.

We’ll denote the mathematical structure that we’re trying to describe as M and our language as L. We choose L to have sufficient syntactic structure to express the truths of M. From L, we select a decidable set of sentences X with the goal that all these sentences be true of M. We now select a proof system F in L such that for any finite extension L* to L involving only new constant terms, and for any Y ⊆ L*, if X ∪ Y is not satisfiable, then F refutes some finite subset of X ∪ Y.

(As an aside: Why care about this strange weak form of completeness? Well, intuitively all that it’s saying is that our axioms should be able to rule out any set of sentences that are inconsistent with them using some finite proof, as long as those sentences only use finitely many additional constant symbols. This is relatively weak compared to the usual notions of completeness that logicians talk about, which makes it an even better choice for our purposes, as the weaker the axiom the harder to deny.)

Our assumptions can now be written:

**(0)** |M| is countably infinite.

**(1)** ∀m ∈ M, ∃t_{m} ∈ terms(X) such that (m = t_{m})

**(2)** If we extend L to L* by adding finitely many constant symbols, then for any Y ⊆ L*, if X ∪ Y is not satisfiable, then F refutes some finite subset of X ∪ Y.

**(3)** X is recursively enumerable.

Our proof starts by adding a new constant term c to our language and constructing an extension of X:

Y = X ∪ {c ≠ t_{m} | m ∈ M}

In other words, Y is X but supplemented with the assertion that there exists an object that isn’t in M. If we can prove that Y is satisfiable, then this entails that X is also satisfiable by the same truth assignment. And this means that there is a model of X in which there are extra objects that aren’t in M.

We proceed with proof by contradiction. Suppose that Y is not satisfiable. Then, by assumption (2), we must be able to refute some finite subset Z of X ∪ Y. But since Z is finite, it involves only finitely many terms t_{m}. And since M is countably infinite, there will always be objects in M that are not equal to any of the chosen terms! So we can’t refute any finite subset of Z! Thus Y is satisfiable.

And if Y is satisfiable, then so must be X, as Y is a superset of X. And since Y is satisfiable, then there’s some truth assignment v that satisfies all of v. But then v also satisfies X, as X is a subset of Y and removing axioms cannot rule out models, only add more! So we’ve proven that X has a model in which there is an object that is not equal to any of the objects in M. That is, X is not categorical: it does not uniquely describe M.

Tennant described this theorem as saying that “in countably infinite realms, you cannot know both where you are and where you are going.” More dully, we cannot have a satisfactory theory of a countably infinite mathematical structure that is both categorical and weakly complete. This isn’t super shocking by today’s standards, but it’s quite cool when you consider how little elaborate theoretical apparatus is required to prove it.

# 3. Inevitable nonstandard numbers

Suppose we have some first-order theory T that models the natural numbers. Take this theory and append to it a new constant symbol c, as well as an infinite axiom schema saying “c > 0” , “c > 1” , “c > 2”, and so on forever. Call this new theory T*.

Does T* have a model? Well by the compactness theorem, it has a model as long as all its finite subsets have a model. And for every finite subset of T*s axioms, the natural numbers are a model! So T* does have a model. Could this model be the natural numbers? Clearly not, because to satisfy T*, there must be a number greater than all the natural numbers. So whatever the model of T* is, it’s not the standard natural numbers. Let’s call it a nonstandard model, and label it ℕ*.

Here’s the final step of the proof: ℕ* is a model of T*, and T* is a superset of T, so ℕ* must also be a model of T! And thus we find that in any logic with a compactness theorem, a theory of the natural numbers will have models with nonstandard numbers that are greater than all of ℕ.

It’s one of my favorite proofs, because it’s so easy to describe and has such a devastating conclusion. It’s also an example of the compactness theorem using the existence of one type of model (ℕ for each of the finite cases) to prove the existence of something entirely different (ℕ* for the infinite case).

# 4. Mysterious missing subsets

The Löwenheim-Skolem theorem tells us that if a first-order theory has a model with an infinite cardinality, then it has models with every infinite cardinality. This places a major restriction on our ability to describe an infinite mathematical structure using first order logic. For if we were to try to single out the natural numbers, say, we would inevitably end up failing to rule out models of our axioms that are the cardinality of the real numbers, or worse, or the set of functions from real numbers to real numbers, and so on for all other possible cardinalities.

When applied to set theory, this implies a result that seems on its face to be a straightforward contradiction. Namely, Löwenheim-Skolem tells us that any first order axiomatization of sets will inevitably have a model that contains only a countable infinity of sets. But this seems bizarre, as all we appear to need to rule out countably infinite universes of sets is one axiom that asserts the existence of a countably infinite set, and another that asserts that admits the power-set of any set to the universe of sets. Then we will be forced to admit that there is a set which is the power set of a countably infinite set, and as Cantor’s famous diagonal argument shows, that this set is uncountably large.

So on the one hand, Cantor tells us that there are sets that contain uncountably many objects. And on the other hand, Löwenheim-Skolem tell us that there is a model of set theory with only countably many objects. This dichotomy is known by the name Skolem’s paradox. It appears to be a straightforward contradiction, but it’s not.

What Skolem realized was that the formal notion of a power set, which is something like “the set P(X) such that for all sets Y, if Y is a subset of X, then Y is an element P(X)”, relies on a quantification over all sets, and that in a countable universe of sets, that quantification ranges over only a countable number of objects. In other words, P(X) is only uncountable if our quantifier ranges over all possible sets, but for a countable model, there are sets that are not describable within the model. This means that the notion of a power set is relative to your model of set theory! In fact, there’s no way in first order logic to unambiguously pin down what you mean by “power set” in such a way that all models will agree on what P(X) actually contains. It also means that the notions of cardinality and countability are relative to your model! In Skolem’s words, “even the notions ‘finite’, ‘infinite’, ’simply infinite sequence’ and so forth turn out to be merely relative within axiomatic set theory.”

Despite being ridiculously simple, the construction you give of nonstandard models dates to the 1950s, in Abraham Robinson’s era, and comes well after Godel’s theorem! I know it’s surprising, but they didn’t see this construction in the early days, due to their biases.

You missed an important direct precursor of Godel’s theorem, that ZF set theory can’t prove the existence of an inaccessible. This was proved around 1929, and was the first undecidable proposition established for standard set theory. The method was to show that the inaccessible made a model for set theory, and therefore,inside the inaccessible used as a model, there was no inaccessible set, because the inaccessible is bigger than the entire model! This is a version of Godel relative to ZF set theory. You can see it should work for any set theory with any axioms, just by defining a ‘super-inaccessible’ as the limiting set which acts as a universe for the previous theory.

This is the real pre-Godelian work. It is described in Kanamori’s monograph “The Higher Infinite”, right at the start.

“The construction you give of nonstandard models dates to the 1950s.” Whoa, this is quite wild. It’s pretty interesting to see the difference between the historical order of development of ideas and the “logical” order (where simpler arguments with fewer prerequisite results come before more complicated ones).

Do you really think that the inability of ZF to prove the existence of inaccessibles is on the same level as the other examples here? I suppose the limitation on mathematics you have in mind is “for any set theory you hand me, I can find a set that’s too large for you to describe.”