Axiom of choice

Given any family of nonempty sets, their Cartesian product is a nonempty set.

In this article and other discussions of the Axiom of Choice the following abbreviations are common:

There are many other equivalent statements of the axiom of choice. These are equivalent in the sense that, in the presence of other basic axioms of set theory, they imply the axiom of choice and are implied by it.

One variation avoids the use of choice functions by, in effect, replacing each choice function with its range.

Another equivalent axiom only considers collections X that are essentially powersets of other sets:

For any set A, the power set of A (with the empty set removed) has a choice function.

The nature of the individual nonempty sets in the collection may make it possible to avoid the axiom of choice even for certain infinite collections. For example, suppose that each member of the collection X is a nonempty subset of the natural numbers. Every such subset has a smallest element, so to specify our choice function we can simply say that it maps each set to the least element of that set. This gives us a definite choice of an element from each set, and makes it unnecessary to add the axiom of choice to our axioms of set theory.

The reason that we are able to choose least elements from subsets of the natural numbers is the fact that the natural numbers are well-ordered: every nonempty subset of the natural numbers has a unique least element under the natural ordering. One might say, "Even though the usual ordering of the real numbers does not work, it may be possible to find a different ordering of the real numbers which is a well-ordering. Then our choice function can choose the least element of every set under our unusual ordering." The problem then becomes that of constructing a well-ordering, which turns out to require the axiom of choice for its existence; every set can be well-ordered if and only if the axiom of choice holds.

As discussed above, in ZFC, the axiom of choice is able to provide "nonconstructive proofs" in which the existence of an object is proved although no explicit example is constructed. ZFC, however, is still formalized in classical logic. The axiom of choice has also been thoroughly studied in the context of constructive mathematics, where non-classical logic is employed. The status of the axiom of choice varies between different varieties of constructive mathematics.

Together these results establish that the axiom of choice is logically independent of ZF. The assumption that ZF is consistent is harmless because adding another axiom to an already inconsistent system cannot make the situation worse. Because of independence, the decision whether to use the axiom of choice (or its negation) in a proof cannot be made by appeal to other axioms of set theory. The decision must be made on other grounds.

The axiom of choice is not the only significant statement which is independent of ZF. For example, the generalized continuum hypothesis (GCH) is not only independent of ZF, but also independent of ZFC. However, ZF plus GCH implies AC, making GCH a strictly stronger claim than AC, even though they are both independent of ZF.

Examples of category-theoretic statements which require choice include:

One of the most interesting aspects of the axiom of choice is the large number of places in mathematics that it shows up. Here are some statements that require the axiom of choice in the sense that they are not provable from ZF but are provable from ZFC (ZF plus AC). Equivalently, these statements are true in all models of ZFC but false in some models of ZF.

There are several historically important set-theoretic statements implied by AC whose equivalence to AC is open. The partition principle, which was formulated before AC itself, was cited by Zermelo as a justification for believing AC. In 1906, Russell declared PP to be equivalent, but whether the partition principle implies AC is still the oldest open problem in set theory, and the equivalences of the other statements are similarly hard old open problems. In every known model of ZF where choice fails, these statements fail too, but it is unknown if they can hold without choice.

There are models of Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory in which the axiom of choice is false. We shall abbreviate "Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory plus the negation of the axiom of choice" by ZF¬C. For certain models of ZF¬C, it is possible to prove the negation of some standard facts. Any model of ZF¬C is also a model of ZF, so for each of the following statements, there exists a model of ZF in which that statement is true.

This is a joke: although the three are all mathematically equivalent, many mathematicians find the axiom of choice to be intuitive, the well-ordering principle to be counterintuitive, and Zorn's lemma to be too complex for any intuition.

The Axiom of Choice is necessary to select a set from an infinite number of pairs of socks, but not an infinite number of pairs of shoes.

The observation here is that one can define a function to select from an infinite number of pairs of shoes, for example by choosing the left shoe from each pair. Without the axiom of choice, one cannot assert that such a function exists for pairs of socks, because left and right socks are (presumably) indistinguishable.

The axiom gets its name not because mathematicians prefer it to other axioms.