Cardinal number

The intuition behind the formal definition of cardinal is the construction of a notion of the relative size or "bigness" of a set, without reference to the kind of members which it has. For finite sets this is easy; one simply counts the number of elements a set has. In order to compare the sizes of larger sets, it is necessary to appeal to more refined notions.

The classic example used is that of the infinite hotel paradox, also called Hilbert's paradox of the Grand Hotel. Supposing there is an innkeeper at a hotel with an infinite number of rooms. The hotel is full, and then a new guest arrives. It is possible to fit the extra guest in by asking the guest who was in room 1 to move to room 2, the guest in room 2 to move to room 3, and so on, leaving room 1 vacant. We can explicitly write a segment of this mapping:

When considering these large objects, one might also want to see if the notion of counting order coincides with that of cardinal defined above for these infinite sets. It happens that it does not; by considering the above example we can see that if some object "one greater than infinity" exists, then it must have the same cardinality as the infinite set we started out with. It is possible to use a different formal notion for number, called ordinals, based on the ideas of counting and considering each number in turn, and we discover that the notions of cardinality and ordinality are divergent once we move out of the finite numbers.

We can define arithmetic operations on cardinal numbers that generalize the ordinary operations for natural numbers. It can be shown that for finite cardinals, these operations coincide with the usual operations for natural numbers. Furthermore, these operations share many properties with ordinary arithmetic.

All the remaining propositions in this section assume the axiom of choice: