Time to

node my homework... This is an

essay on Godel's theorem that I wrote to fulfil the requirements of a

maths degree a few years back:

# Limitations of the axiomatic method

John von Neumann, the legendary mathematician who mastered calculus by
the age of eight, who devised the familiar set-theoretic definition of
the ordinal numbers at twenty,
whose powers of calculation
surpassed those of at least one early electronic computer,
and who was described by Polya as "the
only student I was ever afraid of", had the following to say
regarding a certain episode in mathematical history:

This happened in our lifetime, and I know myself how humiliatingly
easily my own values regarding the absolute mathematical truth changed
during this episode, and how they changed three times in succession!

The cause of such awe was a short paper published in 1931 by the
25-year-old logician Kurt

Godel,
entitled

*Uber formal unentscheidbare Satze der
Principia Mathematica und verwandter Systeme* ("On Formally
Undecidable Propositions of

Principia Mathematica and Related
Systems"). The revolutionary (and, to

von Neumann and many others,
disturbing) implication of the results therein was that any logical
system comprehensive enough to describe elementary

arithmetic necessarily
contains propositions which can neither be proven nor disproven. Moreover,
Godel proved that the internal consistency of such a system can never
be proven except by employing

reasoning which is not expressible
within the system itself.

**Background**

To better understand the impact which Godel's findings must have had
on his peers, we should first describe the mathematical climate of the
time.

In the nineteenth century it had been discovered, through the
work of Riemann, Lobachevsky and others, that coherent models of
geometry could be constructed in which Euclid's parallel
postulate (that, given a line L and a point P in the
plane, exactly one line exists which contains P and is parallel to L)
did not hold.
This, in itself, was a shock to many mathematicians: for millenia it
had been assumed that Euclid's description of geometry, founded as it
was on a "self-evident" and minimal set of axioms, was one of the
firmest, most trustworthy branches of mathematical knowledge.
The existence of non-Euclidean geometries not only challenged
mathematicians' geometrical intuition, but also the Platonist view that
mathematics consisted of discoveries about eternal, pure forms whose
existence was objective and unquestionable. More "monstrosities"
such as continuous functions which were nowhere differentiable soon
appeared, further fueling the general loss of faith in geometry.

Attempts to re-establish the comfortable certainty of the past, by
turning from geometry to set theory as the new foundation of
mathematics, also ran aground. Set theory, when pushed too hard, soon
yielded
such abominations as Russell's "set of all sets which do not
include themselves". It proved difficult to construct a theory of sets
which outruled such objects without sacrificing one's principles in
the process. Logicism, as espoused by Frege, Dedekind and
Russell,
gave birth to structures so complicated and unwieldy that the stated
intention to formalize the intuitive laws of reasoning was obscured.
Constructivism, which rejected even the law of trichotomy (that every real number is either greater than,
equal to, or less than zero) was deservedly perceived as fanatical.

To sidestep the embarrassing possibility that multiple, equally
defensible versions of mathematical truth might exist, mathematicians
soon claimed to have never been searching for truth in the first
place. The formalists, led by Hilbert, redefined mathematics as
consisting of allegedly meaningless symbols which were not "about"
anything in particular. The mathematician was recast as a practitioner
who merely manipulated these empty signs, attempting to derive
theorems (sentences consisting of the aforementioned meaning-free symbols)
from axioms without concerning himself with the "truth" of his findings.

Hilbert hoped thus to outmanoeuvre intuition, and, more importantly,
to make possible a proof of the consistency of mathematics. The
logicists before him had already laid the foundation by developing a
formal language in which mathematical statements could be expressed,
along with symbolic transformation rules representing steps which could
legally be followed in the progression from the beginning to the end of
a valid proof. (The climactic, exhaustive chronicle of this endeavour
is Russell and Whitehead's *Principia Mathematica*, page 362 of
which finally yields the demonstration that 1 + 1 = 2.) With this
framework in place, it should (Hilbert thought) be possible to study
the combinatorial properties of the set of all sentences which could
legally be derived from the system's axioms, and to prove that no two of
them were logical opposites. This would obviously be an assurance that
mathematics (or at least the portion modelled by this formal system)
was free from internal contradiction: that is, that the axioms could
not be used to prove both a theorem and its negation.

As well as proving the impossibility of internal contradiction, it
was hoped that the set of "true" sentences (those which could be
constructed by applying legal transformations to the axioms) could be
proved complete in the sense that, given a sentence, one could
be assured that either this sentence or its negation was a member of
the set of true sentences. A formal system with this property is said
to exhibit "decidability", since one need never be unsure of the truth
of a given sentence.

**Godel's theorem**

Hilbert's dreams of reformulating classical mathematics as a formal
axiomatic system equipped with absolute proofs of consistency and
completeness were dealt a cruel blow by Godel's findings in 1931.

In
his famous paper, Godel proved that it was impossible to find a
metamathematical proof of such a system's
consistency without employing rules of
inference inexpressible within the formal system under consideration.
(More precisely,
Godel proved his results of any axiomatic system comprehensive
enough to contain the whole of arithmetic. Henceforth, when the term
"formal system" is used, it should be assumed that we are speaking
of a system satisfying the aforementioned requirement. Less powerful
systems, such as arithmetic equipped with addition alone or multiplication
alone, can in fact be proved decidable and complete, as was shown by
Presburger and Skolem in 1930.)

Godel's other main conclusion was that any such formal system is
incomplete, and hence that "truth" within the system is
undecidable. Specifically, he showed that it possible to construct a
sentence such that neither the constructed sentence nor its negation
is provable within the system. What is more, even if one were to
arbitrarily decide that such a sentence was true and should therefore
be added to the system's axioms, there would still exist other
equally undecidable sentences within this new system; and no matter
how far this process of augmentation is taken, there will always be
further truths which elude proof.

**Godel numbering**

The proofs of Godel's results hinge on the fact that the set of formulas
expressible within a symbolic system is countable, and hence each
formula may be mapped to a natural number. Therefore, metamathematical
statements about these sentences may be construed as statements about
natural numbers: meaning that these metamathematical statements are
*expressible in the system itself*. As we will see, this
power of the system to codify statements about itself turns out to be
an Achille's heel of sorts, allowing Godel's ingenious construction of
an undecidable sentence.

Godel considered a formal system containing only seven constant symbols:
the left and right parentheses, as well as signs representing "not",
"or", "for all", "zero", and "the successor
of" (an operator which adds one to an integer, and can therefore be
used to express all natural numbers via its repeated application to
"zero").
Recall that Godel's aim was to assign a
unique integer (usually called the "Godel number") to each sentence
expressible within this system; to begin with, the constant symbols
described above were allocated distinct natural numbers. Similarly,
other primitive signs (such as letters representing sentential variables)
are each assigned integers. Since the number of variables which might
be needed in a sentence is potentially infinite, Godel was compelled to
employ some simple number theory to avoid overlap between the integers
associated with different types of variables. As such, a certain class
of variables was assigned prime Godel numbers, while another class was
allocated from the set of squares of primes, and so on.

A similar trick was used by Godel to calculate a unique integer
associated with each sentence. A sentence is just a string of
primitive symbols, each of which already has a natural number
assigned to it. Obviously, a simple addition of the Godel numbers of
symbols in the sentence is inadequate, since it does not guarantee
uniqueness over the set of all sentences. Similarly, a weighted sum is
out of the question since we do not have an upper bound
on the Godel numbers of primitive symbols.
(If such a bound existed, say N, then
we could simply multiply successive symbols by 1, N+1, (N+1)^{2},
etc., to obtain a unique Godel number for the sentence.)
Instead, the Godel number
of a sentence containing *n* symbols with respective Godel numbers
G_{1},...,G_{n} is defined as the product
p_{1}^{G1}*^{ ... }*p_{n}^{Gn}
where p_{i} denotes the *i*th prime
number. This representation allows us to unambiguously (as
guaranteed by the fundamental theorem of arithmetic)
retrieve a sentence from its Godel number via factorisation.
Similarly, a sequence of sentences may be assigned a single Godel
number by multiplying successive prime powers, the exponents being the
Godel numbers of successive sentences in the sequence.

**Outline of Godel's proof**

Since every symbol, sentence, and sequence of sentences in the
formal system has now been assigned a Godel number, and since the
system under discussion is capable of expressing statements about
natural numbers, we now have a way of expressing metamathematical
statements in the language of the system. For example, the claim
that one sentence implies another can be interpreted as asserting
a certain numeric relation between the Godel numbers of the two
sentences. This relation will obviously be very complex, since it will
need to express, in the domain of Godel numbers, all possible legal
transformations which may be applied to a sentence in the system.
However, since in the end it is merely a statement about integers, it
is certainly expressible in the language of the system itself.
Similarly, a yet more complex relation between natural numbers *m* and
*n* exists which expresses the claim "The sequence of sentences with
Godel number *m* is a proof for the sentence with Godel number *n*".

To prove that an undecidable sentence existed, Godel needed to find a
formula *G* which, somewhat like Epimenides (the Cretan who claimed "All
Cretans are liars"), expressed the assertion that no proof of *G*
exists. More precisely, this claim could be expressed in the language
of the system as

There does not exist a natural number *m* such that
*m* is the Godel number of a sequence of sentences forming a proof for
the sentence with Godel number *g*.

where

*g* is actually the Godel
number of the sentence just quoted. The sentence can therefore be
construed as making a claim about

* itself*, namely that it is
unprovable.

A little thought should show that constructing such a sentence is
somewhat difficult. To calculate the Godel number of the above
sentence, one follows the process described above of splitting it into
primitive symbols, whose Godel numbers are encoded as exponents of
successive primes. However, the result of this calculation, *g*,
appears in the sentence itself, and therefore affects the calculation!
It would appear at first that we need to be "lucky" by stumbling upon
a number *g* with the property that, when substituted literally into
this sentence, brings about the coincidence that the Godel number of
the resultant sentence is also *g*.

Luck, of course, plays no part. Godel conceived of a complex but
elegant construction which, through a process of iteration, shows how
to find such a number in a finite number of steps. The details of
this process, while readily understandable, are somewhat tedious and
will not be described here.
The end result is the important point: for a very general class of
formal systems, we have an explicit method for constructing a sentence,
*G*, which asserts its own unprovability. Further, Godel showed
that if the axioms of the system are consistent (meaning that
it is impossible to derive two
contradictory sentences from them)
then *G* is indeed
unprovable: since if a proof for *G* existed, then it would also be
possible to prove its negation, making the system inconsistent.
The converse also holds: discovery of a proof for *G*'s
negation would imply
the existence of a proof for *G*. In other words, if the axioms are
consistent, then *G* is formally undecidable.

Godel further noted that, although unprovable within the formal system
itself, the sentence *G* can in fact be proved true via
metamathematical reasoning. In fact, the immediately preceding
discussion shows this: since we have established that no proof for
*G* can exist, and since this is exactly the assertion made by *G*
about itself, *G* is a true statement. Thus the system not only
contains an undecidable sentence, but: since it contains a true,
unprovable sentence: the system is also incomplete. (The term
"completeness", applied to a formal system, implies that all true
statements in the system are derivable from its axioms.) What is more,
simply adding *G* to the axioms would not suffice to make the
system complete, since exactly the same process could be applied to
this augmented system to obtain another, similarly undecidable,
sentence. Godel thus shattered all hope of ever constructing a
consistent, complete formal system.

The final blow landed by Godel's paper was a demonstration of the
impossibility of proving a formal system's consistency via a proof
expressible within the system itself. A brief description of how he
obtained this result follows. Above we saw how, from the assumption
that the system's axioms were consistent, Godel proved that it contained
a true, undecidable sentence and was thus incomplete. It turns out that
the proof of this fact:

If this system is consistent, then
it is incomplete.

is achievable within the system itself. To see
how, note that the sentence

*G*, which asserts its own unprovability,
is equivalent to the statement "This system is incomplete", since
it gives an

explicit example of a true, undecidable sentence. Thus the
statement above is equivalent to:

(This system is consistent) implies that *G* is true

Next, let

*A* be the statement "There exists a sentence which is
unprovable". This claim is in fact

equivalent to asserting the
system's consistency, since
if the system were inconsistent, then

*every* sentence
would be provable. (This is closely related to the fact that, if we
have a

false statement

*p* in any logical system, then the sentence
"

*p* implies

*q*" is true for any sentence

*q*.)
Hence the above statement may be expressed within the formal
system as simply "

*A* implies

*G*". Godel showed that this latter
sentence was formally provable within the system. Now, assume that a
proof for

*A*, i.e., a proof of the system's consistency, also
existed. Then since we have proofs for
both

*A* and "

*A* implies

*G*", we
have a proof of

*G*. But

*G* was previously proven unprovable.
Therefore no proof of

*A* can exist: the system cannot prove its own
consistency.

**Consequences of Godel's proof**

Godel's findings were
the catalyst for many
philosophical controversies which continue even to the present
day. The Oxford philosopher J.R. Lucas has made the claim that Godel's
theorem precludes the existence of artificial intelligence, since any
calculating machine is isomorphic to a formal system to which Godel's
theorem applies. Others, notably Douglas Hofstadter, dismiss this view
as "a transient moment of anthropocentric glory" and claim that
Godel's proof may even offer insights about the workings of human
intelligence which will be useful in the creation of AI.

Whilst the dream of establishing secure foundations for mathematics
has never recovered from Godel's attack, his findings have not been
construed as a reason to abandon all hope of extracting meaning from
mathematical inquiry. Godel himself seemed to hold the view that
Platonic realism provided the clearest definition of mathematical
truth: of mathematical concepts, he said "It seems to me that the
assumption of such objects is quite as legitimate as the assumption of
physical bodies and there is quite as much reason to believe in their
existence". According to Davis and Hersh, most modern mathematicians
also secretly subscribe to Platonism: "like an underground religion,
it is observed in private and rarely mentioned in public".

Godel's methods also sparked various fruitful lines of investigation
which had far-reaching consequences. Since the publication of his
paper, the first naturally-arising example of an undecidable
set-theoretic statement has been found. Known as the continuum hypothesis, it is the statement that no set has a cardinality greater
than that of the natural numbers but less than that of the reals.
Godel himself showed in 1937 that this hypothesis cannot be proved
from the axioms of set theory; Paul J. Cohen demonstrated in 1964 that
neither can it be disproved.

A fascinating variant of Godel's theorem was discovered in 1970, when
it was proved that no general algorithm for solving all Diophantine equations (polynomial equations with integer coefficients and roots)
can be formulated. Loosely, it can be shown that in any formal number
theory, a Diophantine equation exists
which is in some sense equivalent to Godel's self-denying sentence *G*.
Such an equation can be interpreted as stating of itself that it has
no solutions; in fact, if a solution were found, one could construct
from it the Godel number of a proof that the equation had no
solutions. It seems unlikely that we have come close to exhausting the
list of surprises derived from Godel's work.
Perhaps von Neumann may be allowed the last word on Godel's
significance:

Kurt Godel's achievement in modern logic is singular and
monumental: indeed it is more than a monument, it is a landmark
which will remain visible far in space and time... The subject of
logic has certainly completely changed its nature and possibilities
with Godel's achievement.

**Bibliography**

Davis and Hersh , *The Mathematical Experience*, 1980

Ferris, Timothy (ed.), *The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy
and Mathematics *, 1991

Hofstadter, Douglas, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,
1979

Nagel and Newman, *Godel's Proof*, 1958

van Heijenoort, Jean (ed.), *From Frege to Godel: a Sourcebook in Mathematical Logic *,1967