Dispute over Infinity Divides Mathematicians

In the course of exploring their universe, mathematicians have occasionally stumbled across holes: statements that can be neither proved nor refuted with the nine axioms, collectively called “ZFC,” that serve as the fundamental laws of mathematics. Most mathematicians simply ignore…

In the course of exploring their universe, mathematicians have occasionally stumbled across holes: statements that can be neither proved nor refuted with the nine axioms, collectively called “ZFC,” that serve as the fundamental laws of mathematics. Most mathematicians simply ignore the holes, which lie in abstract realms with few practical or scientific ramifications. But for the stewards of math’s logical underpinnings, their presence raises concerns about the foundations of the entire enterprise.

“How can I stay in any field and continue to prove theorems if the fundamental notions I’m using are problematic?” asks Peter Koellner, a professor of philosophy at Harvard University who specializes in mathematical logic.

Chief among the holes is the continuum hypothesis, a 140-year-old statement about the possible sizes of infinity. As incomprehensible as it may seem, endlessness comes in many measures: For example, there are more points on the number line, collectively called the “continuum,” than there are counting numbers. Beyond the continuum lie larger infinities still — an interminable progression of evermore enormous, yet all endless, entities. The continuum hypothesis asserts that there is no infinity between the smallest kind — the set of counting numbers — and what it asserts is the second-smallest — the continuum. It “must be either true or false,” the mathematical logician Kurt Gödel wrote in 1947, “and its undecidability from the axioms as known today can only mean that these axioms do not contain a complete description of reality.”

The decades-long quest for a more complete axiomatic system, one that could settle the infinity question and plug many of the other holes in mathematics at the same time, has arrived at a crossroads. During a recent meeting at Harvard organized by Koellner, scholars largely agreed upon two main contenders for additions to ZFC: forcing axioms and the inner-model axiom “V=ultimate L.”

“If forcing axioms are right, then the continuum hypothesis is false,” Koellner said. “And if the inner-model axiom is right, then the continuum hypothesis is true. You go through a whole list of issues in other fields, and the forcing axioms will answer those questions one way, and ultimate L will answer them a different way.”

According to the researchers, choosing between the candidates boils down to a question about the purpose of logical axioms and the nature of mathematics itself. Are axioms supposed to be the grains of truth that yield the most pristine mathematical universe? In that case, V=ultimate L may be most promising. Or is the point to find the most fruitful seeds of mathematical discovery, a criterion that seems to favor forcing axioms? “The two sides have a somewhat divergent view of what the goal is,” said Justin Moore, a mathematics professor at Cornell University.