# Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory

In set theory, **Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory**, named after mathematicians Ernst Zermelo and Abraham Fraenkel, is an axiomatic system that was proposed in the early twentieth century in order to formulate a theory of sets free of paradoxes such as Russell's paradox. Today, Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory, with the historically controversial axiom of choice (AC) included, is the standard form of axiomatic set theory and as such is the most common foundation of mathematics. Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory with the axiom of choice included is abbreviated **ZFC**, where C stands for "choice",^{[1]} and **ZF** refers to the axioms of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory with the axiom of choice excluded.

Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory is intended to formalize a single primitive notion, that of a hereditary well-founded set, so that all entities in the universe of discourse are such sets. Thus the axioms of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory refer only to pure sets and prevent its models from containing urelements (elements of sets that are not themselves sets). Furthermore, proper classes (collections of mathematical objects defined by a property shared by their members where the collections are too big to be sets) can only be treated indirectly. Specifically, Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory does not allow for the existence of a universal set (a set containing all sets) nor for unrestricted comprehension, thereby avoiding Russell's paradox. Von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory (NBG) is a commonly used conservative extension of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory that does allow explicit treatment of proper classes.

The metamathematics of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory has been extensively studied. Landmark results in this area established the logical independence of the axiom of choice from the remaining Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms (see Axiom of choice § Independence) and of the continuum hypothesis from ZFC. The consistency of a theory such as ZFC cannot be proved within the theory itself, as shown by Gödel's second incompleteness theorem.

The modern study of set theory was initiated by Georg Cantor and Richard Dedekind in the 1870s. However, the discovery of paradoxes in naive set theory, such as Russell's paradox, led to the desire for a more rigorous form of set theory that was free of these paradoxes.

There are many equivalent formulations of the ZFC axioms; for a discussion of this see Fraenkel, Bar-Hillel & Lévy 1973. The following particular axiom set is from Kunen (1980). The axioms per se are expressed in the symbolism of first order logic. The associated English prose is only intended to aid the intuition.

This (along with the Axiom of Pairing) implies, for example, that no set is an element of itself and that every set has an ordinal rank.

3. Axiom schema of specification (also called the axiom schema of separation or of restricted comprehension)Note that the axiom schema of specification can only construct subsets, and does not allow the construction of entities of the more general form:

In some other axiomatizations of ZF, this axiom is redundant in that it follows from the axiom schema of replacement and the axiom of the empty set.

The axiom schema of specification must be used to reduce this to a set with exactly these two elements. The axiom of pairing is part of Z, but is redundant in ZF because it follows from the axiom schema of replacement, if we are given a set with at least two elements. The existence of a set with at least two elements is assured by either the axiom of infinity, or by the axiom schema of specification and the axiom of the power set applied twice to any set.

The axiom schema of replacement asserts that the image of a set under any definable function will also fall inside a set.

One motivation for the ZFC axioms is the cumulative hierarchy of sets introduced by John von Neumann.^{[8]} In this viewpoint, the universe of set theory is built up in stages, with one stage for each ordinal number. At stage 0 there are no sets yet. At each following stage, a set is added to the universe if all of its elements have been added at previous stages. Thus the empty set is added at stage 1, and the set containing the empty set is added at stage 2.^{[9]} The collection of all sets that are obtained in this way, over all the stages, is known as V. The sets in V can be arranged into a hierarchy by assigning to each set the first stage at which that set was added to V.

It is provable that a set is in V if and only if the set is pure and well-founded; and provable that V satisfies all the axioms of ZFC, if the class of ordinals has appropriate reflection properties. For example, suppose that a set *x* is added at stage α, which means that every element of *x* was added at a stage earlier than α. Then every subset of *x* is also added at stage α, because all elements of any subset of *x* were also added before stage α. This means that any subset of *x* which the axiom of separation can construct is added at stage α, and that the powerset of *x* will be added at the next stage after α. For a complete argument that V satisfies ZFC see Shoenfield (1977).

The picture of the universe of sets stratified into the cumulative hierarchy is characteristic of ZFC and related axiomatic set theories such as Von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory (often called NBG) and Morse–Kelley set theory. The cumulative hierarchy is not compatible with other set theories such as New Foundations.

It is possible to change the definition of *V* so that at each stage, instead of adding all the subsets of the union of the previous stages, subsets are only added if they are definable in a certain sense. This results in a more "narrow" hierarchy which gives the constructible universe *L*, which also satisfies all the axioms of ZFC, including the axiom of choice. It is independent from the ZFC axioms whether *V* = *L*. Although the structure of *L* is more regular and well behaved than that of *V*, few mathematicians argue that *V* = *L* should be added to ZFC as an additional "axiom of constructibility".

The axiom schemata of replacement and separation each contain infinitely many instances. Montague (1961) included a result first proved in his 1957 Ph.D. thesis: if ZFC is consistent, it is impossible to axiomatize ZFC using only finitely many axioms. On the other hand, von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory (NBG) can be finitely axiomatized. The ontology of NBG includes proper classes as well as sets; a set is any class that can be a member of another class. NBG and ZFC are equivalent set theories in the sense that any theorem not mentioning classes and provable in one theory can be proved in the other.

Gödel's second incompleteness theorem says that a recursively axiomatizable system that can interpret Robinson arithmetic can prove its own consistency only if it is inconsistent. Moreover, Robinson arithmetic can be interpreted in general set theory, a small fragment of ZFC. Hence the consistency of ZFC cannot be proved within ZFC itself (unless it is actually inconsistent). Thus, to the extent that ZFC is identified with ordinary mathematics, the consistency of ZFC cannot be demonstrated in ordinary mathematics. The consistency of ZFC does follow from the existence of a weakly inaccessible cardinal, which is unprovable in ZFC if ZFC is consistent. Nevertheless, it is deemed unlikely that ZFC harbors an unsuspected contradiction; it is widely believed that if ZFC were inconsistent, that fact would have been uncovered by now. This much is certain — ZFC is immune to the classic paradoxes of naive set theory: Russell's paradox, the Burali-Forti paradox, and Cantor's paradox.

Abian & LaMacchia (1978) studied a subtheory of ZFC consisting of the axioms of extensionality, union, powerset, replacement, and choice. Using models, they proved this subtheory consistent, and proved that each of the axioms of extensionality, replacement, and power set is independent of the four remaining axioms of this subtheory. If this subtheory is augmented with the axiom of infinity, each of the axioms of union, choice, and infinity is independent of the five remaining axioms. Because there are non-well-founded models that satisfy each axiom of ZFC except the axiom of regularity, that axiom is independent of the other ZFC axioms.

If consistent, ZFC cannot prove the existence of the inaccessible cardinals that category theory requires. Huge sets of this nature are possible if ZF is augmented with Tarski's axiom.^{[11]} Assuming that axiom turns the axioms of infinity, power set, and choice (**7** – **9** above) into theorems.

Many important statements are independent of ZFC (see list of statements independent of ZFC). The independence is usually proved by forcing, whereby it is shown that every countable transitive model of ZFC (sometimes augmented with large cardinal axioms) can be expanded to satisfy the statement in question. A different expansion is then shown to satisfy the negation of the statement. An independence proof by forcing automatically proves independence from arithmetical statements, other concrete statements, and large cardinal axioms. Some statements independent of ZFC can be proven to hold in particular inner models, such as in the constructible universe. However, some statements that are true about constructible sets are not consistent with hypothesized large cardinal axioms.

A variation on the method of forcing can also be used to demonstrate the consistency and unprovability of the axiom of choice, i.e., that the axiom of choice is independent of ZF. The consistency of choice can be (relatively) easily verified by proving that the inner model L satisfies choice. (Thus every model of ZF contains a submodel of ZFC, so that Con(ZF) implies Con(ZFC).) Since forcing preserves choice, we cannot directly produce a model contradicting choice from a model satisfying choice. However, we can use forcing to create a model which contains a suitable submodel, namely one satisfying ZF but not C.

Another method of proving independence results, one owing nothing to forcing, is based on Gödel's second incompleteness theorem. This approach employs the statement whose independence is being examined, to prove the existence of a set model of ZFC, in which case Con(ZFC) is true. Since ZFC satisfies the conditions of Gödel's second theorem, the consistency of ZFC is unprovable in ZFC (provided that ZFC is, in fact, consistent). Hence no statement allowing such a proof can be proved in ZFC. This method can prove that the existence of large cardinals is not provable in ZFC, but cannot prove that assuming such cardinals, given ZFC, is free of contradiction.

The project to unify set theorists behind additional axioms to resolve the Continuum Hypothesis or other meta-mathematical ambiguities is sometimes known as "Gödel's program".^{[12]} Mathematicians currently debate which axioms are the most plausible or "self-evident", which axioms are the most useful in various domains, and about to what degree usefulness should be traded off with plausibility; some "multiverse" set theorists argue that usefulness should be the sole ultimate criterion in which axioms to customarily adopt. One school of thought leans on expanding the "iterative" concept of a set to produce a set-theoretic universe with an interesting and complex but reasonably tractable structure by adopting forcing axioms; another school advocates for a tidier, less cluttered universe, perhaps focused on a "core" inner model.^{[13]}

ZFC has been criticized both for being excessively strong and for being excessively weak, as well as for its failure to capture objects such as proper classes and the universal set.

Many mathematical theorems can be proven in much weaker systems than ZFC, such as Peano arithmetic and second-order arithmetic (as explored by the program of reverse mathematics). Saunders Mac Lane and Solomon Feferman have both made this point. Some of "mainstream mathematics" (mathematics not directly connected with axiomatic set theory) is beyond Peano arithmetic and second-order arithmetic, but still, all such mathematics can be carried out in ZC (Zermelo set theory with choice), another theory weaker than ZFC. Much of the power of ZFC, including the axiom of regularity and the axiom schema of replacement, is included primarily to facilitate the study of the set theory itself.

On the other hand, among axiomatic set theories, ZFC is comparatively weak. Unlike New Foundations, ZFC does not admit the existence of a universal set. Hence the universe of sets under ZFC is not closed under the elementary operations of the algebra of sets. Unlike von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory (NBG) and Morse–Kelley set theory (MK), ZFC does not admit the existence of proper classes. A further comparative weakness of ZFC is that the axiom of choice included in ZFC is weaker than the axiom of global choice included in NBG and MK.

There are numerous mathematical statements independent of ZFC. These include the continuum hypothesis, the Whitehead problem, and the normal Moore space conjecture. Some of these conjectures are provable with the addition of axioms such as Martin's axiom or large cardinal axioms to ZFC. Some others are decided in ZF+AD where AD is the axiom of determinacy, a strong supposition incompatible with choice. One attraction of large cardinal axioms is that they enable many results from ZF+AD to be established in ZFC adjoined by some large cardinal axiom (see projective determinacy). The Mizar system and Metamath have adopted Tarski–Grothendieck set theory, an extension of ZFC, so that proofs involving Grothendieck universes (encountered in category theory and algebraic geometry) can be formalized.