Introduction to Mathematical Logic (Part 3: Reconciling Gödel’s Completeness And Incompleteness Theorems)

Last time we saw that no first-order theory could successfully pin down the natural numbers as a unique model. We also saw that in fact no sound and complete theory with the property of finite provability could pick out ℕ; any such theory has a Compactness Theorem, from which you can prove the existence of nonstandard models of numbers that include infinities of numbers larger than any of the naturals.

Worse, we saw that due to the Löwenheim-Skolem theorem, any first-order theory of the naturals has uncountable models, as well as models of every infinite cardinality. What followed from this was that try as we might, any first-order theory will fail to prove elementary facts about the natural numbers, like that there are a countable infinity of them or that no number is larger than 0, 1, 2, 3, and all the rest of the standard naturals.

Now, with the limitations in our ability to prove all true facts about the natural numbers firmly established, I want to talk about a theorem that seems to be in contradiction with this. This is the Completeness Theorem, proven by the same Kurt Gödel who later discovered the Incompleteness Theorems.

In a few words, the Completeness Theorem says that in any first-order theory, that which is semantically entailed is also syntactically entailed. Or, said differently, the Completeness Theorem says that a first order theory can prove everything that is true in all its models.

This sounds great! It’s the dream of mathematicians to be able to construct a framework in which all truths are provable, and Gödel appears to be telling us that first order logic is just such a framework.

But hold on, how do we reconcile this with what we just said: that there are true facts about the natural numbers that can’t be proven? And how do we reconcile this with what Gödel later proved: the Incompleteness Theorems? The First Incompleteness Theorem shows that that in any axiomatic system of mathematics, there will be true statements about arithmetic that cannot be proven within the system. These seem to be in stark contradiction, right? So which is right; Completeness or Incompleteness? Can we prove everything in first-order logic or not?

It turns out that there is no contradiction here. The Completeness Theorem is true of first order logic, as is the Incompleteness Theorem. What’s required is a subtle understanding of exactly what each theorem is saying to understand why the apparent conflict is only apparent.

There are two senses of completeness. One sense of completeness refers to theories in a particular logic. In this sense, a theory is complete if it can prove the truth or falsity of every well-formed formula. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems are about this sense of completeness: no theory rich enough to talk about the natural numbers can prove all statements about the natural numbers.

The second sense of completeness refers to logical frameworks themselves. A logical framework is complete if for every theory in that logic, all the semantically valid statements can be proven. Gödel’s Completeness Theorem is about this sense of completeness. In first-order logic, any theory’s semantic consequences are syntactic consequences.

Let’s go a little deeper into this.

What Gödel showed in his First Incompleteness Theorem is that one can encode the statements of any logical theory (first order or second order) as natural numbers. Then, if your theory is expressive enough to talk about the natural numbers, you produce a type of circularity: Your theory makes statements about the natural numbers, and the natural numbers encode statements from the theory. Gödel exploited this circularity to produce a sentence whose interpretation is something like “This sentence has no proof in T” (where T is your chosen theory). This sentence corresponds to some complicated fact about the properties of the natural numbers, because all sentences are encoded as natural numbers. If it’s false, then that means that the sentence does have a proof, so it’s true. And if it’s true, then it has no proof. The conclusion is that for any theory T, there are true statements about the natural numbers that cannot be proven by T.

The Incompleteness Theorem plays out slightly differently in first and second order logic. In first-order logic, anything that’s true in all models is provable. It’s just that there is no theory that has the natural numbers as a unique model. The best you can do in first-order logic is develop a theory that has the natural numbers as one out of many models. But this means that there is no first-order theory whose semantic consequences are all the truths about the natural numbers! (This is a neat way to actually prove the inevitability of nonstandard models of arithmetic, as a necessary consequence of the combination of the Completeness and Incompleteness theorems.)

And as it happens, any theory that has a model of the natural numbers is also going to have models in which Gödel’s statement is actually false! Remember that Gödel’s statement, if false, says that it is provable, which is to say that some number encodes a proof of it. In nonstandard models of arithmetic, there will be nonstandard numbers that encode a “proof” of Gödel’s statement, using Gödel’s encoding. It’s just that these “proofs” are not actually going to be things that we recognize as valid (for example, nonstandard numbers can represent infinitely long proofs). They’re proofs according to Gödel’s encoding, but Gödel’s encoding only represents valid proofs insofar as we assume that only natural numbers are being used in the encoding. So since Gödel’s statement is not true in all models of any first-order theory of arithmetic, it’s not provable from the axioms of the theory. And this is totally consistent with any first-order theory being complete! All that completeness means is that anything that is true in all models of a theory is also provable!

Now, how does this play out in second-order logic? Well, in second-order logic, you can uniquely pin down the natural numbers with a second-order theory. This is where the Incompleteness Theorem swoops in and tells you that the semantic consequences are not all syntactic consequences. Since there are second-order theories whose semantic consequences are all the truths about the natural numbers, these theories must have as semantic consequences the truth of the Gödel statement, which by construction means that they cannot have the Gödel statement as a syntactic consequence.

So either way you go, first or second order, you’re kinda screwed. In first-order, you can prove all the semantic consequences of a theory. It’s just that no theory has the full set of semantic consequences that we want, because first-order logic doesn’t have the expressive power to pin down the types of mathematical structures that we are interested in. And in second-order theories, you do have the expressive power to pin down the types of mathematical structures we care about, but as a consequence lose the property that all semantic consequences can be proved.

Regardless, there are fundamental limitations in our ability to prove all the facts that we want to prove as mathematicians. Hilbert’s program has crumbled. You can choose a theory that guarantees you the ability to prove all its semantic consequences, but lacks the expressive power to uniquely pin down the natural numbers. Or you can choose a theory that has the expressive power to uniquely pin down the natural numbers, but guarantees you the inability to prove all its semantic consequences.

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