Cantor's paradox

Cantor's paradox

In set theory, Cantor's paradox is the theorem that there is no greatest cardinal number, so that the collection of "infinite sizes" is itself infinite. Furthermore, it follows from this fact that this collection is not a set but a proper class; in von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory it follows from this and the axiom of limitation of size that this proper class must be in bijection with the class of all sets. Thus, not only are there infinitely many infinities, but this infinity is larger than any of the infinities it enumerates!

This paradox is named for Georg Cantor, who is often credited with first identifying it in 1899 (or between 1895 and 1897). Like many mathematical "paradoxes" it is not actually contradictory but merely indicative of a mistaken intuition, in this case about the nature of infinity and the notion of a set. Put another way, it is paradoxical within the confines of naïve set theory and therefore demonstrates that a careless axiomatization of this theory is inconsistent.

Statement and proof

In order to state the paradox it is necessary to understand that the cardinal numbers admit an ordering, so that one can speak about one being greater or less than another. Then Cantor's paradox is:

:Theorem: There is no greatest cardinal number.

This fact is a direct consequence of Cantor's theorem on the cardinality of the power set of a set.

:Proof: Assume the contrary, and let "C" be the largest cardinal number. Then (in the von Neumann formulation of cardinality) "C" is a set and therefore has a power set "2C" which, by Cantor's theorem, has cardinality strictly larger than that of "C". But the cardinality of "C" is "C" itself, by definition, and therefore we have exhibited a cardinality (namely that of "2C") larger than "C", which was assumed to be the greatest cardinal number. This contradiction establishes that such a cardinal cannot exist.

However, see A. Garciadiego, Bertrand Russell and the Origins of The Set-Theoretic 'Paradoxes,' for a discussion of the idea that this is not a paradox, and that Cantor did not consider it a paradox.

Discussion and consequences

Since the cardinal numbers are well-ordered by indexing with the ordinal numbers (see Cardinal number, formal definition), this also establishes that there is no greatest ordinal number; conversely, the latter statement implies Cantor's paradox. By applying this indexing to the Burali-Forti paradox we also conclude that the cardinal numbers are a proper class rather than a set, and (at least in ZFC or in von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory) it follows from this that there is a bijection between the class of cardinals and the class of all sets. Since every set is a subset of this latter class, and every cardinality is the cardinality of a set (by definition!) this intuitively means that the "cardinality" of the collection of cardinals is greater than the cardinality of any set: it is more infinite than any true infinity. This is the paradoxical nature of Cantor's "paradox".

Historical note

While Cantor is usually credited with first identifying this property of cardinal sets, some mathematicians award this distinction to Bertrand Russell, who defined a similar theorem in 1899 or 1901.


* cite book
author=Anellis, I.H.
title="The first Russell paradox," Perspectives on the History of Mathematical Logic
editor=Drucker, Thomas
publisher=Birkäuser Boston
location=Cambridge, Mass.

* cite journal
author=Moore, G.H. and Garciadiego, A.
title=Burali-Forti's paradox: a reappraisal of its origins
journal=Historia Math

External links

* [ An Historical Account of Set-Theoretic Antinomies Caused by the Axiom of Abstraction] : report by Justin T. Miller, Department of Mathematics, University of Arizona.
* [] : article.

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