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Set theory is a branch of mathematical logic that studies sets, which informally are collections of objects. Although any type of object can be collected into a set, set theory is applied most often to objects that are relevant to mathematics. The language of set theory can be used to define nearly all mathematical objects.

The modern study of set theory was initiated by Georg Cantor and Richard Dedekind in the 1870s. After the discovery of paradoxes in naive set theory, such as Russell's paradox, numerous axiom systems were proposed in the early twentieth century, of which the Zermelo–Fraenkel axioms, with or without the axiom of choice, are the best-known.

Set theory is commonly employed as a foundational system for mathematics, particularly in the form of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory with the axiom of choice.[1] Beyond its foundational role, set theory is a branch of mathematics in its own right, with an active research community. Contemporary research into set theory includes a diverse collection of topics, ranging from the structure of the real number line to the study of the consistency of large cardinals.

Set-theoretic topology studies questions of general topology that are set-theoretic in nature or that require advanced methods of set theory for their solution. Many of these theorems are independent of ZFC, requiring stronger axioms for their proof. A famous problem is the normal Moore space question, a question in general topology that was the subject of intense research. The answer to the normal Moore space question was eventually proved to be independent of ZFC.

Objections to set theory as a foundation for mathematics

From set theory's inception, some mathematicians have objected to it as a foundation for mathematics. The most common objection to set theory, one Kronecker voiced in set theory's earliest years, starts from the constructivist view that mathematics is loosely related to computation. If this view is granted, then the treatment of infinite sets, both in naive and in axiomatic set theory, introduces into mathematics methods and objects that are not computable even in principle. The feasibility of constructivism as a substitute foundation for mathematics was greatly increased by Errett Bishop's influential book Foundations of Constructive Analysis.[13]

A different objection put forth by Henri Poincaré is that defining sets using the axiom schemas of specification and replacement, as well as the A different objection put forth by Henri Poincaré is that defining sets using the axiom schemas of specification and replacement, as well as the axiom of power set, introduces impredicativity, a type of circularity, into the definitions of mathematical objects. The scope of predicatively founded mathematics, while less than that of the commonly accepted Zermelo-Fraenkel theory, is much greater than that of constructive mathematics, to the point that Solomon Feferman has said that "all of scientifically applicable analysis can be developed [using predicative methods]".[14]

Ludwig Wittgenstein condemned set theory philosophically for its connotations of Mathematical platonism.[15] He wrote that "set theory is wrong", since it builds on the "nonsense" of fictitious symbolism, has "pernicious idioms", and that it is nonsensical to talk about "all numbers".[16] Wittgenstein identified mathematics with algorithmic human deduction;[17] the need for a secure foundation for mathematics seemed, to him, nonsensical.[18] Moreover, since human effort is necessarily finite, Wittgenstein's philosophy required an ontological commitment to radical constructivism and finitism. Meta-mathematical statements — which, for Wittgenstein, included any statement quantifying over infinite domains, and thus almost all modern set theory — are not mathematics.[19] Few modern philosophers have adopted Wittgenstein's views after a spectacular blunder in Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics: Wittgenstein attempted to refute Gödel's incompleteness theorems after having only read the abstract. As reviewers Kreisel, Bernays, Dummett, and Goodstein all pointed out, many of his critiques did not apply to the paper in full. Only recently have philosophers such as Crispin Wright begun to rehabilitate Wittgenstein's arguments.[20]

Category theorists have proposed topos theory as an alternative to traditional axiomatic set theory. Topos theory can interpret various alternatives to that theory, such as constructivism, finite set theory, and computable set theory.[21][22] Topoi also give a natural setting for forcing and discussions of the independence of choice from ZF, as well as providing the framework for pointless topology and Stone spaces.[23]

An active area of research is the univalent foundations and related to it homotopy type theory. Within homotopy type theory, a set may be regarded as a homotopy 0-type, with universal properties of sets arising from the inductive and recursive properties of higher inductive types. Principles such as the axiom of choice and the law of the excluded middle can be formulated in a manner corresponding to the classical formulation in set theory or perhaps in a spectrum of distinct ways unique to type theory. Some of these principles may be proven to be a consequence of other principles. The variety of formulations of these axiomatic principles allows for a detailed analysis of the formulations required in order to derive various mathematical results.[24][25]

As set theory gained popularity as a foundation for modern mathematics, there has been support for the idea of introducing basic theory, or naive set theory, early in mathematics education.

In the US in the 1960s, the New Math experiment aimed to teach basic set theory, among other abstract concepts, to primary grade students, but was met with much criticism. The math syllabus in European schools followed this trend, and currently includes the subject at different levels in all grades.

Set theory is used to introdu

In the US in the 1960s, the New Math experiment aimed to teach basic set theory, among other abstract concepts, to primary grade students, but was met with much criticism. The math syllabus in European schools followed this trend, and currently includes the subject at different levels in all grades.

Set theory is used to introduce students to logical operators (NOT, AND, OR), and semantic or rule description (technically intensional definition[26]) of sets, (e.g. "months starting with the letter A"). This may be useful when learning computer programming, as sets and boolean logic are basic building blocks of many programming languages.

Sets are commonly referred to when teaching about different types of numbers (N, Z, R, ...), and when defining mathematical functions as a relationship between two sets.