Thinking in first order: Are the natural numbers countable?

Here’s a weird fact about first-order logic: there is no first-order theory that has as a model the natural numbers and only the natural numbers. Any first-order theory talking about N can only say things that are also consistent with weird other systems that include uncountable infinities of nonstandard numbers. Here’s the proof:

Take first order Peano arithmetic (PA). We know that the natural numbers N are a model of PA, because all the axioms are true of PA. Now add a constant c to your language, and adjoin an infinite axiom schema: ‘c > 0’, ‘c > S0’, ‘c > SS0’, and so on. Call this new theory PA(c).

The natural numbers are clearly no longer a model of PA(c), because PA(c) says that there’s a number that’s larger than all natural numbers, which is false in N. But we can prove that PA(c) still has a model! We prove this using the Compactness Theorem, which tells us that a theory has a model if every finite subset of its axioms has a model. Consider any finite subset of the axioms of PA(c). For any such subset, there are only finitely many statements that look like c > X. So there are only finitely many numbers that c is larger than. But then this is always going to be satisfied by N! For any collection of natural numbers, you can always find a natural number larger than all of then. So N is a model of every finite subset of the axioms of PA(c). But then, by compactness, since every finite subset of the axioms of PA(c) has a model, PA(c) has a model!

Final step in the proof: PA(c) has a model, and this model is definitely not the natural numbers. Call it a nonstandard model. But now note that PA(c) was obtained from PA just by adding axioms. Adding axioms never increases the number of models, it only narrows them down. So if the nonstandard model is a model of PA(c), then it also must be a model of PA! And there it is, we’ve proved that first order Peano arithmetic has more models than the natural numbers.

Notice, also, that it didn’t matter that we started with first order Peano arithmetic. We could have started with any first order theory that has N as a model, added the constant c, and adjoined on the infinite axiom schema corresponding to c being larger than all natural numbers! So what we’ve actually proven is that no first order theory can “pin down” the natural numbers. Any first order theory that has N as a model, also has weird extra models that allow numbers greater than all natural numbers. Furthermore, you can then run the exact same type of proof again, adjoining a new constant that’s larger than all natural numbers and also larger than c, and by compactness show that it has a model, so that you’ve now found that any first order theory that has N as a model also has a model that has the natural numbers, plus a number larger than all natural numbers, plus a number that’s larger than even that. And you can do this an uncountable infinity of times, and end up proving that if your favored theory has N as a model, then it also has a model whose size is an uncountable infinity. And in fact, any first order theory that has N as a model, also has models of every infinite cardinality.

This is super wild, and really important. Why does it matter that we can’t pin down the natural numbers using any first order theory? Well, think about the set of statements that are true of N, but false of these nonstandard models. These include “there is no number larger than all natural numbers” and “There are a countable infinity of natural numbers”. These statements are not true in all models of any first order theory of N. And if they’re false in some models, then they can’t be proven from the axioms of the theory! (If the theory could prove a statement that was false in one of its models, then the model wouldn’t have been a model of the theory in the first place; models are consistent assignments of truth values to the sentences of the theory.)

In other words, no first order theory of the natural numbers can prove that the natural numbers are countable, or that no number is greater than all natural numbers. If you were a being that could only think in first-order sentences, then you would be unable to conclude these basic facts. To say these things, you need to go up a level to second-order logic, and quantify over properties in addition to objects. Even weirder, if you could only think in first-order logic, you wouldn’t even be able to talk about the natural numbers. No matter how hard you tried to say what you meant by the natural numbers, you would always fail to pin down just the natural numbers. There’d always be room for ambiguity, and everything you said and thought could be equally well interpreted as being about some bizarre non-standard model.

Extending this one step further, there’s a theorem in mathematical logic called the Löwenheim-Skolem Theorem. This theorem generalizes what we showed above about the natural numbers: any first order theory that has a model with countably infinite size, also has models with size every cardinality of infinity. So no first order theory can prove a statement that is true of countably infinite sets but false of uncountably infinite sets. And actually, the theorem is even stronger than that: any theory that has a model of any infinite cardinality, must also have models of all infinite cardinalities! So, for instance, any first order theory of the real numbers has a model that is the size of N! To first order logic, there is no expressible difference between the different infinite cardinalities. The statements “this size of this set is countable infinity” or “the size of this set is uncountable infinity” can’t be said in any first-order language, as doing so would cut out the models of other cardinalities, which the Löwenheim-Skolem Theorem tells us can’t happen.

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