The axiom of foundation says that every non-empty set must contain an element that it is disjoint with. One implication of this is that no set can contain itself. (Why? Suppose ∃x (x ∈ x). Then you can pair x with itself to form {x}. {x} is non-empty, so it must contain an element that it’s disjoint with. But its only element is x, and that element is not disjoint with {x}. In particular, they both have as an element x.)

Another implication of foundation is that there can be no infinite descending sequence of sets. A sequence of sets is a function f whose domain is ω. For each k ∈ ω we write f(k) as f_{k}. Suppose that f is a function with the property that for each n ∈ ω, f_{n+1} ∈ f_{n}. Then by the axiom of replacement, there would exist the set {f_{0}, f_{1}, f_{2}, …}. Each element of this set contains the following element, so none of the elements are disjoint with the entire set. So the sequence we started with could not exist.

This allows us to prove a pretty powerful and surprising result about set theory. The result: For any sentence Φ, if Φ holds of at least one set, then there must exist a set X such that Φ(X) holds, but Φ doesn’t hold for any element of X.

Formally:

(∃A Φ(A)) → ∃X (Φ(X) ∧ ∀Y ∈ X (¬Φ(Y))).

Suppose this was false. Then Φ would be satisfied by at least one set, and every set that satisfied Φ would contain an element that satisfied Φ. We can use this to build an infinite descending sequence of sets. Take any set that satisfies Φ and call it X_{0}. Since X_{0} satisfies Φ, it must contain at least one element that satisfies Φ. Define X_{1} to be any such element. X_{1} satisfies Φ as well, so it must contain at least one element that satisfies Φ, which we’ll call X_{2}. And so on forever. Since no set can contain itself, X_{n+1} is always distinct from X_{n}. We can use recursion and then replacement to construct the set {X_{0}, X_{1}, X_{2}, …}, which is an infinite descending sequence of sets. Contradiction!

This peculiar principle turns out to be useful to prove some big results, and the proofs are always a little funny and enjoyable to me. I’m not aware of any name for it, so I’ll call it the “far-from-the-tree” principle: for any property that holds of at least one set, there’s a set that has that property, none of whose elements have the property. I’ll now show two big results that are proven by this principle.

Everything’s in the Cumulative Hierarchy

The cumulative hierarchy is constructed recursively as follows:

V_{0} = ∅

V_{α+1} = 𝒫(V_{α}), for each ordinal α

V_{λ} = U{V_{β} : β < λ}, for each limit ordinal λ

V_{0} = ∅

V_{1} = {∅}

V_{2} = {∅, {∅}}

V_{3} = {∅, {∅}, {{∅}}, {∅, {∅}}}

…

One can prove that V_{α} is transitive for each ordinal α (in other words, that every element of V_{α} is also a subset of V_{α}). Also, due to the nature of the power-set operation, for any two ordinals α < β, V_{α} ⊆ V_{β}.

Now, the reason the cumulative hierarchy is interesting is that we can prove that every set is on some level of the hierarchy. We do so with the far-from-the-tree principle:

Suppose that there was a set X that wasn’t on the hierarchy. This means that ∀α, X ∉ V_{α}. We use the far-from-tree principle with the property of “not being on the hierarchy” to conclude that there must be a set Y such that Y is not on the hierarchy, but every element of Y is on the hierarchy. So for each element y ∈ Y there’s some ordinal α_{y} such that y ∈ V_{αy}. Take the highest such ordinal, and now we have a level of the hierarchy that every element of Y is on. Now just go up by one level! Since every element of Y was in the previous level, the set consisting of each of those elements (i.e. Y) is in the power set of that level. So Y actually is on the hierarchy! Contradiction.

This shows that any set you choose shows up on some level of the cumulative hierarchy. Incidentally, the rank of a set is defined as the first level that the set appears on, and one can prove that for each ordinal α, rank(α) = α.

∈-Induction

∈-induction is a really strong principle of induction, because it is induction over *all sets*, not just the natural numbers or the ordinals. The principle of ∈-induction is the following:

Suppose that for every set X, if Φ(x) holds for every x ∈ X, then Φ(X) holds.

Then Φ holds of every set.

Suppose that this principle was false. Then it’s true that for every set X, if Φ(x) holds for every x ∈ X, then Φ(X) holds, but false that Φ holds of every set. So there’s some set Y such that ¬Φ(Y). We use the far-from-the-tree principle with the property “¬Φ”. This tells us that there’s some set Z such that ¬Φ(Z), but Φ(z) for every z in Z. But we already said that if Φ(z) for every z in Z, then Φ(Z)! Contradiction.

I hope you like these applications as much as I do. They feel to me like very strong and surprising results, especially given how simply they can be proved.