# Von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory

In the foundations of mathematics, **von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory** (**NBG**) is an axiomatic set theory that is a conservative extension of Zermelo–Fraenkel-Choice set theory (ZFC). NBG introduces the notion of class, which is a collection of sets defined by a formula whose quantifiers range only over sets. NBG can define classes that are larger than sets, such as the class of all sets and the class of all ordinals. Morse–Kelley set theory (MK) allows classes to be defined by formulas whose quantifiers range over classes. NBG is finitely axiomatizable, while ZFC and MK are not.

A key theorem of NBG is the class existence theorem, which states that for every formula whose quantifiers range only over sets, there is a class consisting of the sets satisfying the formula. This class is built by mirroring the step-by-step construction of the formula with classes. Since all set-theoretic formulas are constructed from two kinds of atomic formulas (membership and equality) and finitely many logical symbols, only finitely many axioms are needed to build the classes satisfying them. This is why NBG is finitely axiomatizable. Classes are also used for other constructions, for handling the set-theoretic paradoxes, and for stating the axiom of global choice, which is stronger than ZFC's axiom of choice.

John von Neumann introduced classes into set theory in 1925. The primitive notions of his theory were function and argument. Using these notions, he defined class and set.^{[1]} Paul Bernays reformulated von Neumann's theory by taking class and set as primitive notions.^{[2]} Kurt Gödel simplified Bernays' theory for his relative consistency proof of the axiom of choice and the generalized continuum hypothesis.^{[3]}

This theory is not finitely axiomatized. ZFC's replacement schema has been replaced by a single axiom, but the axiom schema of class comprehension has been introduced.

To produce a theory with finitely many axioms, the axiom schema of class comprehension is first replaced with finitely many class existence axioms. Then these axioms are used to prove the class existence theorem, which implies every instance of the axiom schema.^{[8]} The proof of this theorem requires only seven class existence axioms, which are used to convert the construction of a formula into the construction of a class satisfying the formula.

Bernays' two-sorted approach may appear more natural at first, but it creates a more complex theory.^{[b]} In Bernays' theory, every set has two representations: one as a set and the other as a class. Also, there are two membership relations: the first, denoted by "∈", is between two sets; the second, denoted by "η", is between a set and a class.^{[2]} This redundancy is required by many-sorted logic because variables of different sorts range over disjoint subdomains of the domain of discourse.

The approach adopted in this article is that of Gödel with Mendelson's modification. This means that NBG is an axiomatic system in first-order predicate logic with equality, and its only primitive notions are class and the membership relation.

Gödel introduced the convention that uppercase variables range over classes, while lowercase variables range over sets.^{[9]} Gödel also used names that begin with an uppercase letter to denote particular classes, including functions and relations defined on the class of all sets. Gödel's convention is used in this article. It allows us to write:

The following axioms and definitions are needed for the proof of the class existence theorem.

**Axiom of extensionality. ** If two classes have the same elements, then they are identical.

The class existence axioms are divided into two groups: axioms handling language primitives and axioms handling tuples. There are four axioms in the first group and three axioms in the second group.^{[d]}

One more axiom is needed to prove the class existence theorem: the axiom of regularity. Since the existence of the empty class has been proved, the usual statement of this axiom is given.^{[f]}

**Axiom of regularity. ** Every nonempty set has at least one element with which it has no element in common.

Gödel stated regularity for classes rather than for sets in his 1940 monograph, which was based on lectures given in 1938.^{[26]} In 1939, he proved that regularity for sets implies regularity for classes.^{[27]}

**Proof of the class existence theorem. ** The proof starts by applying the transformation rules to the given formula to produce a transformed formula. Since this formula is equivalent to the given formula, the proof is completed by proving the class existence theorem for transformed formulas.

Gödel pointed out that the class existence theorem "is a metatheorem, that is, a theorem about the system [NBG], not in the system …"^{[30]} It is a theorem about NBG because it is proved in the metatheory by induction on NBG formulas. Also, its proof—instead of invoking finitely many NBG axioms—inductively describes how to use NBG axioms to construct a class satisfying a given formula. For every formula, this description can be turned into a constructive existence proof that is in NBG. Therefore, this metatheorem can generate the NBG proofs that replace
uses of NBG's class existence theorem.

A recursive computer program succinctly captures the construction of a class from a given formula. The definition of this program does not depend on the proof of the class existence theorem. However, the proof is needed to prove that the class constructed by the program satisfies the given formula and is built using the axioms. This program is written in pseudocode that uses a Pascal-style case statement.^{[i]}

The following definitions specify how formulas define relations, special classes, and operations:

The axioms of pairing and regularity, which were needed for the proof of the class existence theorem, have been given above. NBG contains four other set axioms. Three of these axioms deal with class operations being applied to sets.

In set theory, the definition of a function does not require specifying the domain or codomain of the function (see Function (set theory)). NBG's definition of function generalizes ZFC's definition from a set of ordered pairs to a class of ordered pairs.

**Axiom of global choice. ** There exists a function that chooses an element from every nonempty set.

Von Neumann published an introductory article on his axiom system in 1925. In 1928, he provided a detailed treatment of his system.^{[39]} Von Neumann based his axiom system on two domains of primitive objects: functions and arguments. These domains overlap—objects that are in both domains are called argument-functions. Functions correspond to classes in NBG, and argument-functions correspond to sets. Von Neumann's primitive operation is function application, denoted by [*a*, *x*] rather than *a*(*x*) where *a* is a function and *x* is an argument. This operation produces an argument. Von Neumann defined classes and sets using functions and argument-functions that take only two values, *A* and *B*. He defined *x* ∈ *a* if [*a*, *x*] ≠ *A*.^{[1]}

Von Neumann worked on the problems of Zermelo set theory and provided solutions for some of them:

In 1929, von Neumann published an article containing the axioms that would lead to NBG. This article was motivated by his concern about the consistency of the axiom of limitation of size. He stated that this axiom "does a lot, actually too much." Besides implying the axioms of separation and replacement, and the well-ordering theorem, it also implies that any class whose cardinality is less than that of *V* is a set. Von Neumann thought that this last implication went beyond Cantorian set theory and concluded: "We must therefore discuss whether its [the axiom's] consistency is not even more problematic than an axiomatization of set theory that does not go beyond the necessary Cantorian framework."^{[57]}

Von Neumann started his consistency investigation by introducing his 1929 axiom system, which contains all the axioms of his 1925 axiom system except the axiom of limitation of size. He replaced this axiom with two of its consequences, the axiom of replacement and a choice axiom. Von Neumann's choice axiom states: "Every relation *R* has a subclass that is a function with the same domain as *R*."^{[58]}

Let *S* be von Neumann's 1929 axiom system. Von Neumann introduced the axiom system *S* + Regularity (which consists of *S* and the axiom of regularity) to demonstrate that his 1925 system is consistent relative to *S*. He proved:

These results imply: If *S* is consistent, then von Neumann's 1925 axiom system is consistent. Proof: If *S* is consistent, then *S* + Regularity is consistent (result 1). Using proof by contradiction, assume that the 1925 axiom system is inconsistent, or equivalently: the 1925 axiom system implies a contradiction. Since *S* + Regularity implies the axioms of the 1925 system (result 2), *S* + Regularity also implies a contradiction. However, this contradicts the consistency of *S* + Regularity. Therefore, if *S* is consistent, then von Neumann's 1925 axiom system is consistent.

Since *S* is his 1929 axiom system, von Neumann's 1925 axiom system is consistent relative to his 1929 axiom system, which is closer to Cantorian set theory. The major differences between Cantorian set theory and the 1929 axiom system are classes and von Neumann's choice axiom. The axiom system *S* + Regularity was modified by Bernays and Gödel to produce the equivalent NBG axiom system.

In 1929, Paul Bernays started modifying von Neumann's new axiom system by taking classes and sets as primitives. He published his work in a series of articles appearing from 1937 to 1954.^{[59]} Bernays stated that:

The purpose of modifying the von Neumann system is to remain nearer to the structure of the original Zermelo system and to utilize at the same time some of the set-theoretic concepts of the Schröder logic and of *Principia Mathematica* which have become familiar to logicians. As will be seen, a considerable simplification results from this arrangement.^{[60]}

Bernays handled sets and classes in a two-sorted logic and introduced two membership primitives: one for membership in sets and one for membership in classes. With these primitives, he rewrote and simplified von Neumann's 1929 axioms. Bernays also included the axiom of regularity in his axiom system.^{[61]}

In 1931, Bernays sent a letter containing his set theory to Kurt Gödel.^{[36]} Gödel simplified Bernays' theory by making every set a class, which allowed him to use just one sort and one membership primitive. He also weakened some of Bernays' axioms and replaced von Neumann's choice axiom with the equivalent axiom of global choice.^{[62]}^{[v]} Gödel used his axioms in his 1940 monograph on the relative consistency of global choice and the generalized continuum hypothesis.^{[63]}

Several reasons have been given for Gödel choosing NBG for his monograph:^{[w]}

Gödel's achievement together with the details of his presentation led to the prominence that NBG would enjoy for the next two decades.^{[70]} In 1963, Paul Cohen proved his independence proofs for ZF with the help of some tools that Gödel had developed for his relative consistency proofs for NBG.^{[71]} Later, ZFC became more popular than NBG. This was caused by several factors, including the extra work required to handle forcing in NBG,^{[72]} Cohen's 1966 presentation of forcing, which used ZF,^{[73]}^{[y]} and the proof that NBG is a conservative extension of ZFC.^{[z]}

NBG is not logically equivalent to ZFC because its language is more expressive: it can make statements about classes, which cannot be made in ZFC. However, NBG and ZFC imply the same statements about sets. Therefore, NBG is a conservative extension of ZFC. NBG implies theorems that ZFC does not imply, but since NBG is a conservative extension, these theorems must involve proper classes. For example, it is a theorem of NBG that the global axiom of choice implies that the proper class *V* can be well-ordered and that every proper class can be put into one-to-one correspondence with *V*.^{[aa]}

One consequence of conservative extension is that ZFC and NBG are equiconsistent. Proving this uses the principle of explosion: from a contradiction, everything is provable. Assume that either ZFC or NBG is inconsistent. Then the inconsistent theory implies the contradictory statements ∅ = ∅ and ∅ ≠ ∅, which are statements about sets. By the conservative extension property, the other theory also implies these statements. Therefore, it is also inconsistent. So although NBG is more expressive, it is equiconsistent with ZFC. This result together with von Neumann's 1929 relative consistency proof implies that his 1925 axiom system with the axiom of limitation of size is equiconsistent with ZFC. This completely resolves von Neumann's concern about the relative consistency of this powerful axiom since ZFC is within the Cantorian framework.

Even though NBG is a conservative extension of ZFC, a theorem may have a shorter and more elegant proof in NBG than in ZFC (or vice versa). For a survey of known results of this nature, see Pudlák 1998.

Morse–Kelley set theory has an axiom schema of class comprehension that includes formulas whose quantifiers range over classes. MK is a stronger theory than NBG because MK proves the consistency of NBG,^{[76]} while Gödel's second incompleteness theorem implies that NBG cannot prove the consistency of NBG.

For a discussion of some ontological and other philosophical issues posed by NBG, especially when contrasted with ZFC and MK, see Appendix C of Potter 2004.

The ontology of NBG provides scaffolding for speaking about "large objects" without risking paradox. For instance, in some developments of category theory, a "large category" is defined as one whose objects and morphisms make up a proper class. On the other hand, a "small category" is one whose objects and morphisms are members of a set. Thus, we can speak of the "category of all sets" or "category of all small categories" without risking paradox since NBG supports large categories.

However, NBG does not support a "category of all categories" since large categories would be members of it and NBG does not allow proper classes to be members of anything. An ontological extension that enables us to talk formally about such a "category" is the conglomerate, which is a collection of classes. Then the "category of all categories" is defined by its objects: the conglomerate of all categories; and its morphisms: the conglomerate of all morphisms from *A* to *B* where *A* and *B* are objects.^{[82]} On whether an ontology including classes as well as sets is adequate for category theory, see Muller 2001.