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2.

Natural Numbers as Sets


Axiom 7 asserts the existence of an inductive set. Using Axiom 4, we can then assume the
existence of a set that contains only those elements that must be in any inductive set. We can
phrase this as follows.
Definition. Let N be a collection of sets that has the following properties.
(1) The null set, ∅, is an element of N.
(2) If a set a is an element of N, then the successor of a, that is, S(a) = a ∪ {a}, is also in N.
(3) If M is a subset of N with the properties that (i) ∅ ∈ M , and (ii) for every a in M , S(a) is
also in M , then M = N.
We call N the set of natural numbers.
Remark. The elements of N are sets, but we denote them by small letters to make it easier to
distinguish between elements of N and subsets of N. Notice that x ∈ S(a) if and only if either x ∈ a
or x = a, so that a ⊆ S(a) and a ∈ S(a) are both true statements.
Notation. Although we assume no properties of integers, it may be helpful to index the elements
of N as follows.
• We write ∅ alternatively as a0 .
• Then S(a0 ) = ∅ ∪ {∅} = {∅} = {a0 }. We write S(a0 ) as a1 .
• Now S(a1 ) = a1 ∪ {a1 } = {a0 } ∪ {a1 } = {a0 , a1 }. We write S(a1 ) as a2 .
• So then S(a2 ) = a2 ∪ {a2 } = {a0 , a1 } ∪ {a2 } = {a0 , a1 , a2 }. We write S(a2 ) as a3 .
Continuing in this way, we see that S(an ) = {a0 , a1 , . . . , an }, and we index this set by the digit or
sequence of digits traditionally used for n + 1. Eventually, we will replace the symbol an by n, but
for now, we continue to regard these objects as sets.
Exercises in §1 imply that subset inclusion is a partial order relation on any collection of sets, in
particular on the set of natural numbers. We first explore some properties of this relation.
Proposition 2.1. Every element of N aside from ∅ is the successor of some element of N.
Proof. The null set ∅ cannot be the successor of any b ∈ N since S(b) contains b as an element,
while ∅ contains no elements. Now consider M = {∅} ∪ {S(b) | b ∈ N}, which is a subset of N.
Obviously, ∅ is an element of M . If a is in M , then since a ∈ N, it follows immediately that S(a) is
in M . Therefore, M = N by condition (3) in the definition of N, and so every element of N except
∅ is the successor of some element of N. 
Our next result compiles some useful statements for later proofs.
Lemma 2.2. Let a and b be elements of N. Then the following are true.
(1) If a ∈ b, then a ⊆ b.
(2) If a ∈ S(b), then a ⊆ b.
(3) If a ∈ b, then S(a) ⊆ b.
(4) If a ⊆ S(b) and a 6⊆ b, then a = S(b).
Proof. To prove statement (1), we let a be a fixed element of N and define M to be the set of all b
in N for which the statement “if a ∈ b, then a ⊆ b” is true. Notice that
M = {b ∈ N | a ∈
/ b or a ⊆ b}.
(An implication p → q is logically equivalent to p ∨ q.) So ∅ is in M since a cannot be an element of
∅. Now let b be an element of M , so that a ∈ / b or a ⊆ b. We want to show that either a ∈ / S(b) or
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a ⊆ S(b), so that S(b) is also in M . If a ⊆ b, then it is immediate that a ⊆ S(b), since b is a subset
of S(b). So suppose instead that a ∈ / b. If a ∈
/ S(b) also, we are done, so assume that a ∈ S(b). But
the only element of S(b) = b ∪ {b} that is not also an element of b is the set b itself, so it follows
that a = b. But in that case, a ⊆ S(b). Therefore, M = N by definition, and we conclude that
statement (1) is true for all a and b in N.
We leave statements (2) and (3) as exercises, and use (3) to prove (4). Suppose that a ∈ N is a
subset of S(b), but not of b. Then there is an element in a that is not in b. Since any such element
must be in S(b) = b ∪ {b}, we conclude that b ∈ a. But then S(b) ⊆ a by statement (3), and since
we are given that a ⊆ S(b), it follows that a = S(b). 
Exercise 2.1. Let a and b be elements of N. Use the fact that if a ∈ b, then a ⊆ b to show that if
a ∈ S(b), then a ⊆ b.
Proof. Let a and b be elements of N and a ∈ S(b) = b ∪ {b}. Since a ∈ S(b), a must be either some
element of b or the set b itself. So if a ∈ b, then a must be a subset of b by statement (1) of Lemma
2.2; and if a = b, then a ⊆ b by Axiom 2. 
Exercise 2.2. Let a and b be elements of N. Use the fact that if a ∈ b, then a ⊆ b to show that if
a ∈ b, then S(a) ⊆ b.
Proof. Let a and b be elements of N and a ∈ b. We want to show that if a ∈ b, then S(a) ⊆ b. Let
x ∈ S(a), so that x ∈ a or x = a. Since a ∈ b, a must be a subset of b, so that if x ∈ a, x ∈ b also.
And if x = a, then we know that x ∈ b, per the hypothesis. So since every x in S(a) is also in b,
S(a) is a subset of b. 
Proposition 2.3. For all a, b ∈ N, if S(a) = S(b), then a = b.
Proof. Let a and b be elements of N and assume that S(a) = S(b). Since a ∈ S(a) and b ∈ S(b),
then a ∈ S(b) and b ∈ S(a). But then statement (2) of Lemma 2.2 implies that a ⊆ b and b ⊆ a,
so that a = b. 
Corollary 2.4. For all a ∈ N, a 6= S(a). Equivalently, a ∈
/ a for all a ∈ N.
Proof. It is clear that S(a) = a ∪ {a} = a if and only if a is an element of a. We show as follows
that neither statement is possible. Let M be the set of all a in N for which a 6= S(a). Then
∅ ∈ M , since, as noted earlier, S(∅) contains ∅ as an element, while ∅ contains no elements. Now
if S(a) = S(S(a)), then a = S(a) follows immediately from Proposition 2.3. In contrapositive form,
this implies that if a ∈ M , then S(a) ∈ M . Thus M = N, and a 6= S(a) for all a in N. 
Proposition 2.5. Let a and b be elements of N. If a ⊆ b and a 6= b, then S(a) ⊆ b.
Proof. Let a be a fixed element of N and let M be the set of all b for which the statement “if a ⊆ b
and a 6= b, then S(a) ⊆ b” is true. We can also write
M = {b ∈ N | S(a) ⊆ b or a = b or a 6⊆ b}.
Note that ∅ ∈ M , since either a = ∅ or a 6⊆ ∅. Now we show that if b is in M , then S(b) is in
M . If S(a) ⊆ b, then since b ⊆ S(b), we conclude that S(a) ⊆ S(b). If a = b, then S(a) = S(b), so
that, in particular, S(a) ⊆ S(b). Finally, if a 6⊆ b, then either a 6⊆ S(b), or a = S(b) by part (4)
of Lemma 2.2. So if b ∈ M , then in any case, one of the three statements a 6⊆ S(b), a = S(b), or
S(a) ⊆ S(b) must be true, and so S(b) is in M . 
We can now prove our main results concerning order in the set N.
Theorem 2.6. For all a, b ∈ N, either a ⊆ b or b ⊆ a.
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Proof. Let a be a fixed element of N and let M = {b ∈ N | a ⊆ b or b ⊆ a}. Then ∅ ∈ M since


∅ ⊆ a is true for every set a. So now let b be some element of N for which either a ⊆ b or b ⊆ a is
true. If a ⊆ b, then a ⊆ S(b) follows immediately. If a 6⊆ b, then b ⊆ a but b 6= a, and Proposition
2.5 implies that S(b) ⊆ a. So b ∈ M implies that S(b) ∈ M , and so M = N. 
Note. Theorem 2.6 implies that subset inclusion is a total order relation on N. For this reason, we
will use the notation a ≤ b (or b ≥ a) interchangeably with a ⊆ b when a, b ∈ N. If a ≤ b and a 6= b,
we write a < b (or b > a). Proposition 2.5 and Corollary 2.4 imply that this is equivalent to the
statement that S(a) ≤ b.
Corollary 2.7 (Trichotomy Property). For all a, b ∈ N, exactly one of the following statements is
true: a < b, b < a, or a = b.
Exercise 2.3. Prove Corollary 2.7.
Proof. Let a, b be elements of N so that a ⊆ b or b ⊆ a by Theorem 2.6. If a ⊆ b but there is some
x ∈ b so that x 6∈ a, then a ⊂ b and we say that a < b. Clearly, b 6⊆ a, since b contains an element
not in a. Similarly, if b ⊆ a but there is some x ∈ a so that x 6∈ a, then b ⊂ a and we say that
b < a. For the same reason, a 6⊆ b. But if a ⊆ b so that there is no x ∈ b not in a, then we could
also say that b ⊆ a, and so a = b. 
Theorem 2.8 (Well-Ordering Principle). Every non-empty subset of N has a least element. That
is, if T ⊆ N and T 6= ∅, then there is an element a in T such that a ≤ b for all b in T .
Proof. Let T be a subset of N, and let M = {a ∈ N | a ≤ b for all b ∈ T }. Notice that a common
element of M and T must be a least element of T by definition, so suppose instead that M ∩ T = ∅.
We show that under this assumption, M = N. First note that ∅ ∈ M since ∅ ≤ b (that is, ∅ ⊆ b)
for all b in T . Now let a be an element in M , so that a ≤ b for all b ∈ T . Since we assume that
a∈/ T , we can say that a < b for all b ∈ T . But then Proposition 2.5 implies that S(a) ≤ b for all b
in T , so that S(a) ∈ M . Thus M = N, and so T is empty. We conclude that a non-empty subset
of N must have a least element. 
Remark. An alternative way to start the process of constructing number systems is to adopt a
collection of axioms for the set of natural numbers (thus avoiding the need for more general axioms
of set theory). The Peano axioms are the most commonly used such collection. These axioms
assert the existence of a set N with the following properties.
(1) 0 is an element of N.
(2) There is a function S from N to N.
(3) For every n in N, S(n) 6= 0. (That is, 0 is not the image of any element of N under S.)
(4) For every m and n in N, if S(m) = S(n), then m = n. (That is, S is an injective function.)
(5) If M is a subset of N with the properties that 0 is in M and for every m in M , S(m) is also
in M , then M = N.
Exercise 2.4. Explain, using the Peano axioms, why N must be an infinite set.
Proof. Let N be a set with the properties specified above in the Peano axioms. We know that
0 ∈ N so that, since S : N → N, S(0) ∈ N. By the third axiom, we also know that this S(0) 6= 0 to
that there are at least two elements in N. Since S is injective, we know that S(S(0)) cannot equal
S(0) unless S(0) = 0, which we have just shown is not true, and S(S(0)) cannot equal 0 by the
third axiom. So there is a third element in N. In general, we may say that no S(n) is equal to m
“before” it, since m is the successor of some other element of N and S is injective; and so there are
an infinite number of S(n) 
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Exercise 2.5. Show that each of the Peano axioms is a true statement for the set N that we have
constructed in this section (if we write ∅ as 0).
(1) If we write ∅ as 0, then we know that the first axiom is true for the N we have constructed,
because the first property of N is that ∅ ∈ N.
(2) We have defined the successor of an element a ∈ N as S(a) = a ∪ {a}, so that S(a) ∈ N.
This is a function from N to N since there is only one a ∪ {a} for any a ∈ N and, as above,
S(a) ∈ N.
(3) By Proposition 2.1, every element of N aside from ∅ is the successor of some element of N.
Since ∅ is not the successor of some element, we may say that for all a ∈ N, S(a) 6= ∅.
(4) By Proposition 2.3, for all a, b ∈ N, if S(a) = S(b), then a = b.
(5) By the third property of N, if M is a subset of N so that ∅ ∈ M and for every a in M , S(a)
is also in M , then M = N. We refer to ∅ as 0, but otherwise the proposition is the same.