I’ve always liked logic. I studied it a bunch in high school and college. Nowadays it’s a kind of hobby. I turn to it for relief sometimes when I become frustrated trying to figure out what I can do about global warming. Lately I’ve been digging a bit deeper into the logic behind the real and complex numbers. And I’m teaching a graduate course on real analysis this fall, so I actually have a slight excuse for doing this.

There’s something about logic that’s both fascinated and terrified me ever since I was a kid: it’s how we can’t fully pin down infinite structures, like the real or complex number systems, using a language with finitely many symbols and a theory with finitely many axioms.

It’s terrifying that we don’t fully know what we’re talking about when we’re talking about numbers! But it’s fascinating that we can understand a lot about the limitations.

There are many different things to say about this, depending on what features of these number systems we want to describe, and what kind of logic we want to use.

Maybe I should start with the natural numbers, since that story is more famous. This can also serve as a lightning review of some basic concepts which I’ll pretend you already vaguely know: first-order versus second-order logic, proofs versus models, and so on. If you don’t know these, you can either fake it or read some of the many links in this article!

### Natural numbers

When Peano originally described the natural numbers he did so using axioms phrased in second-order logic. In first-order logic we can quantify over variables: for example, we can say

which means that if the predicate holds for all it holds for any variable In second-order logic we can also quantify over predicates: for example, we can say

which says that if and only if for every predicate is true precisely when is true. Leibniz used this principle, called the identity of indiscernibles, to *define* equality… and this is a nice example of the greater power of second-order logic. In first-order logic we typically include equality as part of the language and add axioms describing its properties, like

In second-order logic we can *define* equality and *prove* these properties starting from the properties we already have for

Anyway, in his axioms for the natural numbers, Peano used second-order logic to formulate the principle of mathematical induction in this sort of way:

This says that if you’ve got any predicate that’s true for and is true for whenever it’s true for then it’s true for all natural numbers.

In 1888, Dedekind showed that Peano’s original axioms for the natural numbers are **categorical**, meaning all its models are isomorphic.

The concept of ‘model’ involves set theory. In a model you pick a set for your variables to range over, pick a subset of for each predicate—namely the subset where that predicate is true —and so on, in such a way that all the axioms in that theory are satisfied. If two models are isomorphic, they’re the same for all practical purposes.

So, in simple rough terms, a categorical theory is one that gives a *full* description of the mathematical structure it’s talking about.

This makes Dedekind’s result sound like great news. It sounds like Peano’s original second-order axioms for arithmetic completely describe the natural numbers.

However, there’s an important wrinkle. There are many inherently undetermined things about set theory! So in fact, a categorical theory only gives a full description of the mathematical structure it’s talking about *relative to a choice of what sets are like*.

So, Dedekind’s result just shoves everything mysterious and undetermined about the natural numbers under the carpet: they become mysterious and undetermined things about set theory. This became clear much later, thanks to Gödel and others. And in the process, it became clear that second-order logic is a bit problematic compared to first-order logic.

You see, first-order logic has a set of deduction rules that are:

• **sound**: Every provable sentence holds in every model.

• **semantically complete:** Every sentence that holds in every model is provable.

• **effective:** There is an algorithm that can correctly decide whether any given sequence of symbols is a proof.

Second-order logic does not! It’s ‘too powerful’ to also have all three of these nice properties.

So, these days people often work with a first-order version of Peano’s axioms for arithmetic. Instead of writing down a single axiom for mathematical induction:

we write down an axiom schema—an infinite list of axioms—with one axiom like this:

for each formula that we can actually write down using the language of arithmetic.

This first-order version of Peano arithmetic is *not* categorical: it has lots of nonisomorphic models. People often pretend there’s one ‘best’ model: they call it the ‘standard’ natural numbers, and call all the others ‘nonstandard’. But there’s something a bit fishy about this.

Indeed, Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem says there are many statements about natural numbers that can neither be proved nor disproved starting from Peano’s axioms. It follows that for any such statement we can find a model of the Peano axioms in which that statement holds, and also a model in which it does not.

Furthermore, this remains true even if we add any list of extra axioms to Peano arithmetic, as long as there’s some algorithm that can list all these axioms.

So, I’d prefer to say there are many different ‘versions’ of the natural numbers, just as there are many different groups.

We can study these different versions, and it’s a fascinating subject:

• Wikipedia, Nonstandard models of arithmetic.

However, I want to talk about the situation for other number systems!

### The real numbers

The situation is better for the real numbers—at least if we are willing to think about them in a ‘purely algebraic’ way, leaving most analysis behind.

To do this, we can use the theory of a ‘real closed field’. This is a list of axioms, formulated in first-order logic, which describe how and work for the real numbers. You can think of these axioms as consisting of three parts:

• the **field** axioms: the usual algebraic identities involving and together with laws saying that everything has an additive inverse and everything except has a multiplicative inverse.

• the **formally real field** axiom, saying that is not the square of anything. This implies that we can equip the field with a concept of that makes it into an ordered field—but not necessarily in a unique way.

• the **real closed field** axioms, which says that also for any number either or has a square root, and every polynomial of odd degree has a root. Among other things this implies our field can be made into an ordered field in a unique way. To do this, we say if and only if has a square root.

Tarski showed this theory is **complete**: any first-order sentence involving only the operations and the relation can either be proved or disproved starting from the above axioms.

Nonetheless, the theory of real closed fields is not categorical: besides the real numbers, there are many other models! These models are all **elementarily equivalent**: any sentence involving just and first-order logic that holds in one model holds in all the rest. But these models are not all isomorphic: we can’t get a bijection between them that preserves and

Indeed, only finite-sized mathematical structures can be ‘nailed down’ up to isomorphism by theories in first-order logic. You see, the **Löwenheim–Skolem theorem** says that if a first-order theory in a countable language has an infinite model, it has at least one model of each infinite cardinality. So, if we’re trying to use this kind of theory to describe an infinitely big mathematical structure, the most we can hope for is that *after we specify its cardinality*, the axioms completely determine it.

However, the real closed field axioms aren’t even this good. For starters, they have infinitely many nonisomorphic *countable* models. Here are a few:

• the **algebraic real numbers**: these are the real numbers that obey polynomial equations with integer coefficients.

• the **computable real numbers**: these are the real numbers that can be computed to arbitrary precision by a computer program.

• the **arithmetical real numbers**: these are the numbers definable in the language of arithmetic. More precisely, a real number is **arithmetical** if there is a formula in the language of first-order Peano arithmetic, with two free variables, such that

Every computable real number is arithmetical, but not vice versa: just because you can define a real number in the above way does not mean you can actually compute it to arbitrary precision!

And indeed, there are other even bigger countable real closed fields, consisting of real numbers that are definable using more powerful methods, like second-order Peano arithmetic.

We can also get countable real closed fields using tricks like this: take the algebraic real numbers and throw in the number along with just enough other numbers to get a real closed field again. Or, we could throw in both and This probably gives a bigger real closed field—but nobody knows, because for all we know, could equal plus some rational number! Everyone *believes* this is false, but nobody has proved it.

There are also lots of nonisomorphic *uncountable* real closed fields, including ones that include the usual real numbers.

For example, we can take the real numbers and throw in an element that is bigger than and so on—and then do what it takes to get another real closed field. This involves throwing in elements like

and so on. So, we get lots of infinities and infinitesimals.

It gets a bit confusing here, trying to figure out what equals what. But there’s another real closed field containing an infinite element that seems easier to manage. It’s called the field of **real Puiseux series**. These are series of the form

where is any integer, perhaps negative, is any

positive integer, and the coefficients are real.

What’s It’s just a formal variable. But the real Puiseux series are real closed field, and acts like it’s positive, but smaller than any positive real number.

With considerably more work, we can make up a real closed field that:

• contains the real numbers,

• contains an element bigger than and

• obeys the **transfer principle**, which says that a first-order statement phrased in the usual language of set theory holds for the real numbers if and only if it holds for this other number system.

Any real closed field with these properties is called a system of **hyperreal numbers**. In the 1960s, the logician Abraham Robinson used them to make Leibniz’s old idea of infinitesimals in calculus fully rigorous. The resulting theory is called **nonstandard analysis**.

So, I hope you see there’s an exciting—or perhaps appalling—diversity of real closed fields. But don’t forget: they’re all elementarily equivalent. If a sentence involving just and first-order logic holds in any one of these real closed fields, it holds in all of them!

You might wonder what second-order logic has to say about this.

Here the situation looks very different. In second-order logic we can do analysis, because we can quantify over *predicates*, which allows us to talk about subsets of real numbers. And in second-order logic we can write down a theory of real numbers that’s categorical! It’s called the theory of a **Dedekind-complete ordered field**. Again, we can group the axioms in three bunches:

• the **field** axioms: the usual algebraic identities involving and together with laws saying that everything has an additive inverse and everything except has a multiplicative inverse.

• the **ordered field** axiom, saying there is a total ordering such that and implies and implies

• the **Dedekind completeness** axiom, which says that every nonempty subset with an upper bound has a least upper bound. But instead of talking about subsets, we talk about the predicates that hold on those subsets, so we say “for all predicates such that…”

Because they’re categorical, people often use these axioms to define the real numbers. But because they’re second-order, the problem of many nonisomorphic models has really just been swept under the rug. If we use second-order logic, we won’t have a concept of ‘proof’ that’s sound, semantically complete and effective. And if we use first-order axioms for set theory to explicitly talk about subsets instead of predicates, then our set theory will have many models! *Each model* will have a version of the real numbers in it that’s unique up to isomorphism… but the versions in different models will be really different.

In fact, there’s a precise sense in which the ‘standard real numbers’ in one model of set theory can be the ‘hyperreals’ in another. This was first shown by Abraham Robinson.

### The complex numbers

I mentioned that when we’re studying an infinite mathematical structure using first-order logic, the best we can hope for is to have one model *of each size* (up to isomorphism). The real numbers are far from being this nice… but the complex numbers come much closer!

More precisely, say is some cardinal. A first-order theory describing structure on a single set is called **κ-categorical** if it has a unique model of cardinality And 1965, a logician named Michael Morley showed that if a list of axioms is -categorical for *some* uncountable it’s -categorical for *every* uncountable I haven’t worked my way through the proof, which seems to be full of interesting ideas. But such theories are called **uncountably categorical**.

A great example is the ‘purely algebraic’ theory of the complex numbers. By this I mean we only write down axioms involving and We don’t include anything about this time, nor anything about complex conjugation. You see, if we start talking about complex conjugation we can pick out the real numbers inside the complex numbers, and then we’re more or less back to the story we had for real numbers.

This theory is called the theory of an **algebraically closed field of characteristic zero**. Yet again, the axioms come in three bunches:

• the **field** axioms.

• the **characteristic zero** axioms: these are an infinite list of axioms saying that

• the **algebraically closed** axioms: these say that every non-constant polynomial has a root.

Pretty much any mathematician worth their salt knows that the complex numbers are a model of these axioms, whose cardinality is that of the continuum. There are lots of different countable models: the algebraic complex numbers, the computable complex numbers, and so on. But because the above theory is uncountably categorical, there is *exactly one* algebraically closed field of characteristic zero of *each* uncountable cardinality… up to isomorphism.

This implies some interesting things.

For example, we can take the complex numbers, throw in an extra element, and let it freely generate a bigger algebraically closed field. It’s ‘bigger’ in the sense that it contains the complex numbers as a proper subset, indeed a subfield. But since it has the same cardinality as the complex numbers, it’s *isomorphic* to the complex numbers!

And then, because this ‘bigger’ field is isomorphic to the complex numbers, we can turn this argument around. We can take the complex numbers, remove a lot of carefully chosen elements, and get a subfield that’s isomorphic to the complex numbers.

Or, if we like, we can take the complex numbers, adjoin a *really huge* set of extra elements, and let them freely generate an algebraically closed field of characteristic zero. The cardinality of this field can be as big as we want. It will be determined up to isomorphism by its cardinality.

One piece of good news is that thanks to a result of Tarski, the theory of an algebraically closed field of characteristic zero is complete, and thus, all its models are elementarily equivalent. In other words, all the same first-order sentences written in the language of and hold in every model.

But here’s a piece of *strange* news.

As I already mentioned, the theory of a real closed field is *not* uncountably categorical. This implies something really weird. Besides the ‘usual’ real numbers we can choose another real closed field not isomorphic to with the same cardinality. We can build the complex numbers using pairs of real numbers. We can use the same trick to build a field using pairs of guys in But it’s easy to check that this funny field is algebraically closed and of characteristic zero. Since it has the same cardinality as it must be isomorphic to

In short, different ‘versions’ of the real numbers can give rise to the *same* version of the complex numbers!

### References

So, I hope you see that the logical foundations of the real and complex number systems are quite slippery… yet with work, we can understand a lot about this slipperiness.

Besides the references I’ve given, I just want to mention two more. First, here’s a free introductory calculus textbook based on nonstandard analysis:

• H. Jerome Keisler, *Elementary Calculus: an Infinitesimal Approach*, available as a website or in PDF.

And here’s an expository paper that digs deeper into uncountably categorical theories:

• Nick Ramsey, Morley’s categoricity theorem.