Book Review: Naive Set Theory (MIRI research guide)

I’m David. I’m read­ing through the books in the MIRI re­search guide and will write a re­view for each as I finish them. By way of in­spira­tion from how Nate did it.

Naive Set Theory

Hal­mos Naive Set The­ory is a clas­sic and dense lit­tle book on ax­io­matic set the­ory, from a “naive” per­spec­tive.

Which is to say, the book won’t dig to the depths of for­mal­ity or philos­o­phy, it fo­cuses on get­ting you pro­duc­tive with set the­ory. The point is to give some­one who wants to dig into ad­vanced math­e­mat­ics a foun­da­tion in set the­ory, as set the­ory is a fun­da­men­tal tool used in a lot of math­e­mat­ics.


Is it a good book? Yes.

Would I recom­mend it as a start­ing point, if you would like to learn set the­ory? No. The book has a terse pre­sen­ta­tion which makes it tough to di­gest if you aren’t already fa­mil­iar with propo­si­tional logic, per­haps set the­ory to some ex­tent already and a bit of ad­vanced math­e­mat­ics in gen­eral. There are plenty of other books that can get you started there.

If you do have a some­what fit­ting back­ground, I think this should be a very com­pe­tent pick to deepen your un­der­stand­ing of set the­ory. The au­thor shows you the nuts and bolts of set the­ory and doesn’t waste any time do­ing it.

Per­spec­tive of this review

I will first re­fer you to Nate’s re­view, which I found to be a lu­cid take on it. I don’t want to be re­dun­dant and re­peat the good points made there, so I want to fo­cus this re­view on the per­spec­tive of some­one with a bit weaker back­ground in math, and try to give some help to prospec­tive read­ers with parts I found tricky in the book.

What is my per­spec­tive? While I’ve always had a knack for math, I only read about 2 months of math­e­mat­ics at in­tro­duc­tory uni­ver­sity level, and not in­clud­ing dis­crete math­e­mat­ics. I do have a thor­ough back­ground in soft­ware de­vel­op­ment.

Set the­ory has eluded me. I’ve only picked up frag­ments. It’s seemed very fun­da­men­tal but school never gave me a good op­por­tu­nity to learn it. I’ve wanted to un­der­stand it, which made it a joy to add Naive Set The­ory to the top of my read­ing list.

How I read Naive Set Theory

Start­ing on Naive Set The­ory, I quickly re­al­ized I wanted more meat to the ex­pla­na­tions. What is this con­cept used for? How does it fit in to the larger sub­ject of math­e­mat­ics? What the heck is the au­thor ex­press­ing here?

I sup­ple­mented heav­ily with wikipe­dia, math.stack­ex­change and other web­sites. Some­times, I read other sources even be­fore read­ing the chap­ter in the book. At two points, I laid down the book in or­der to finish two other books. The first was Gödel’s Proof, which handed me some friendly ex­am­ples of propo­si­tional logic. I had started read­ing it on the side when I re­al­ized it was con­tex­tu­ally use­ful. The sec­ond was Con­cepts of Modern Math­e­mat­ics, which gave me much of the larger math­e­mat­i­cal con­text that Naive Set The­ory didn’t.

Con­se­quently, while read­ing Naive Set The­ory, I spent at least as much time read­ing other sources!

A bit into the book, I started strug­gling with the ex­er­cises. It sim­ply felt like I hadn’t been given all the tools to at­tempt the task. So, I con­cluded I needed a bet­ter in­tro­duc­tion to math­e­mat­i­cal proofs, or­dered some books on the sub­ject, and post­poned in­vest­ing into the ex­er­cises in Naive Set The­ory un­til I had got­ten that in­tro­duc­tion.


In gen­eral, if the book doesn’t offer you enough ex­pla­na­tion on a sub­ject, search the In­ter­net. Wikipe­dia has nu­mer­ous com­pe­tent ar­ti­cles, math.stack­ex­change is overflow­ing with con­tent and there’s plenty ad­di­tional sources available on the net. If you get stuck, do try play­ing around with ex­am­ples of sets on pa­per or in a text file. That’s uni­ver­sal ad­vice for math.

I’ll fol­low with some key points and some high­lights of things that tripped me up while read­ing the book.

Ax­iom of extension

The ax­iom of ex­ten­sion tells us how to dis­t­in­guish be­tween sets: Sets are the same if they con­tain the same el­e­ments. Differ­ent if they do not.

Ax­iom of specification

The ax­iom of speci­fi­ca­tion al­lows you to cre­ate sub­sets by us­ing con­di­tions. This is pretty much what is done ev­ery time set builder no­ta­tion is em­ployed.

Puz­zled by the bit about Rus­sell’s para­dox at the end of the chap­ter? http://​​math.stack­ex­​​ques­tions/​​651637/​​rus­sells-para­dox-in-naive-set-the­ory-by-paul-halmos

Unordered pairs

The ax­iom of pairs al­lows one to cre­ate a new set that con­tains the two origi­nal sets.

Unions and intersections

The ax­iom of unions al­lows one to cre­ate a new set that con­tains all the mem­bers of the origi­nal sets.

Com­ple­ments and powers

The ax­iom of pow­ers al­lows one to, out of one set, cre­ate a set con­tain­ing all the differ­ent pos­si­ble sub­sets of the origi­nal set.

Get­ting tripped up about the “for some” and “for ev­ery” no­ta­tion used by Hal­mos? Wel­come to the club:

Us­ing nat­u­ral lan­guage rather than log­i­cal no­ta­tion is com­m­mon prac­tice in math­e­mat­i­cal text­books. You’d bet­ter get used to it:

The ex­is­ten­tial quan­tifiers tripped me up a bit be­fore I ab­sorbed it. In math, you can freely ex­press some­thing like “Out of all pos­si­ble x ever, give me the set of x that fulfill this con­di­tion”. In pro­gram­ming lan­guages, you tend to have to be much more… spe­cific, in your state­ments.

Ordered pairs

Carte­sian prod­ucts are used to rep­re­sent plenty of math­e­mat­i­cal con­cepts, no­tably co­or­di­nate sys­tems.


Equiv­alence re­la­tions and equiv­alence classes are im­por­tant con­cepts in math­e­mat­ics.


Hal­mos is us­ing some dated ter­minol­ogy and is in my eyes a bit in­con­sis­tent here. In mod­ern us­age, we have: in­jec­tive, sur­jec­tive, bi­jec­tive and func­tions that are none of these. Bi­jec­tive is the com­bi­na­tion of be­ing both in­jec­tive and sur­jec­tive. Re­place Hal­mos’ “onto” with sur­jec­tive, “one-to-one” with in­jec­tive, and “one-to-one cor­re­spon­dence” with bi­jec­tive.

He also con­fused me with his ex­pla­na­tion of “char­ac­ter­is­tic func­tion”—you might want to check an­other source there.


This chap­ter tripped me up heav­ily be­cause Hal­mos mixed in three things at the same time on page 36: 1. A con­fus­ing way of talk­ing about sets. 2. Con­voluted proof. 3. n-ary carte­sian product.

Fam­i­lies are an al­ter­na­tive way of talk­ing about sets. An in­dexed fam­ily is a set, with an in­dex and a func­tion in the back­ground. A fam­ily of sets means a col­lec­tion of sets, with an in­dex and a func­tion in the back­ground. For Hal­mos build-up to n-ary carte­sian prod­ucts, the deal seems to be that he teases out or­der with­out ex­plic­itly us­ing or­dered pairs. Golf clap. Try this one for the treat­ment: http://​​math.stack­ex­​​ques­tions/​​312098/​​carte­sian-prod­ucts-and-families

In­verses and composites

The in­verses Hal­mos defines here are more gen­eral than the in­verse func­tions de­scribed on wikipe­dia. Hal­mos’ in­verses work even when the func­tions are not bi­jec­tive.


The ax­iom of in­finity states that there is a set of the nat­u­ral num­bers.

The Peano axioms

The peano ax­ioms can be mod­eled on the the set-the­o­retic ax­ioms. The re­cur­sion the­o­rem guaran­tees that re­cur­sive func­tions ex­ist.


The prin­ci­ple of math­e­mat­i­cal in­duc­tion is put to heavy use in or­der to define ar­ith­metic.


Par­tial or­ders, to­tal or­ders, well or­ders—are pow­er­ful math­e­mat­i­cal con­cepts and are used ex­ten­sively.

Some help on the way:

Also, keep in mind that in­finite sets like sub­sets of w can muck up ex­pec­ta­tions about or­der. For ex­am­ple, a to­tally or­dered set can have mul­ti­ple el­e­ments with­out a pre­de­ces­sor.

Ax­iom of choice

The ax­iom of choice lets you, from any col­lec­tion of non-empty sets, se­lect an el­e­ment from ev­ery set in the col­lec­tion. The ax­iom is nec­es­sary to do these kind of “choices” with in­finite sets. In finite cases, one can con­struct func­tions for the job us­ing the other ax­ioms. Though, the ax­iom of choice of­ten makes the job eas­ier in finite cases so it is used where it isn’t nec­es­sary.

Zorn’s lemma

Zorn’s lemma is used in similar ways to the ax­iom of choice—mak­ing in­finite many choices at once—which per­haps is not very strange con­sid­er­ing ZL and AC have been proven to be equiv­a­lent.

robot-dreams offers some help in fol­low­ing the mas­sive proof in the book.

Well ordering

A well-or­dered set is a to­tally or­dered set with the ex­tra con­di­tion that ev­ery non-empty sub­set of it has a small­est el­e­ment. This ex­tra con­di­tion is use­ful when work­ing with in­finite sets.

The prin­ci­ple of trans­finite in­duc­tion means that if the pres­ence of all strict pre­de­ces­sors of an el­e­ment always im­plies the pres­ence of the el­e­ment it­self, then the set must con­tain ev­ery­thing. Why does this mat­ter? It means you can make con­clu­sions about in­finite sets be­yond w, where math­e­mat­i­cal in­duc­tion isn’t suffi­cient.

Trans­finite recursion

Trans­finite re­cur­sion is an analogue to the or­di­nary re­cur­sion the­o­rem, in a similar way that trans­finite in­duc­tion is an analogue to math­e­mat­i­cal in­duc­tion—re­cur­sive func­tions for in­finite sets be­yond w.

In mod­ern lingo, what Hal­mos calls a “similar­ity” is an “or­der iso­mor­phism”.

Or­di­nal numbers

The ax­iom of sub­sti­tu­tion is called the ax­iom (schema) of re­place­ment in mod­ern use. It’s used for ex­tend­ing count­ing be­yond w.

Sets of or­di­nal numbers

The count­ing the­o­rem states that each well or­dered set is or­der iso­mor­phic to a unique or­di­nal num­ber.

Or­di­nal arithmetic

The mis­be­hav­ior of com­mu­ta­tivity in ar­ith­metic with or­di­nals tells us a nat­u­ral fact about or­di­nals: if you tack on an el­e­ment in the be­gin­ning, the re­sult will be or­der iso­mor­phic to what it is with­out that el­e­ment. If you tack on an el­e­ment at the end, the set now has a last el­e­ment and is thus not or­der iso­mor­phic to what you started with.

The Schröder-Bern­stein theorem

The Schröder-Bern­stein the­o­rem states that if X dom­i­nates Y, and Y dom­i­nates X, then X ~ Y (X and Y are equiv­a­lent).

Countable sets

Can­tor’s the­o­rem states that ev­ery set always has a smaller car­di­nal num­ber than the car­di­nal num­ber of its power set.

Car­di­nal arithmetic

Read this chap­ter af­ter Car­di­nal num­bers.

Car­di­nal ar­ith­metic is an ar­ith­metic where just about all the stan­dard op­er­a­tors do noth­ing (be­yond the finite cases).

Car­di­nal numbers

Read this chap­ter be­fore Car­di­nal ar­ith­metic.

The con­tinuum hy­poth­e­sis as­serts that there is no car­di­nal num­ber be­tween that of the nat­u­ral num­bers and that of the re­als. The gen­er­al­ized con­tinuum hy­poth­e­sis as­serts that, for all car­di­nal num­bers in­clud­ing aleph-0 and be­yond aleph-0, the next car­di­nal num­ber in the se­quence is the power set of the pre­vi­ous one.

Con­clud­ing reflections

I am at the same time hum­bled by the sub­ject and em­pow­ered by what I’ve learned in this epi­sode. Math­e­mat­ics is a truly vast and deep field. To build a solid foun­da­tion in proofs, I will now go through one or two books about math­e­mat­i­cal proofs. I may re­turn to Naive Set The­ory af­ter that. If any­one is in­ter­ested, I could post my im­pres­sions of other math­e­mat­i­cal books I read.

I think Naive Set The­ory wasn’t the op­ti­mal book for me at the stage I was. And I think Naive Set The­ory prob­a­bly should be re­placed by an­other in­tro­duc­tory book on set the­ory in the MIRI re­search guide. But that’s a small com­plaint on an ex­cel­lent doc­u­ment.

If you seek to get into a new field, know the pre­req­ui­sites. Build your knowl­edge in solid steps. Which I guess, some­times re­quires that you do test your limits to find out where you re­ally are.

The next book I start on from the re­search guide is bound to be Com­putabil­ity and Logic.