Well-ordering theorem

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In mathematics, the well-ordering theorem, also known as Zermelo's theorem, states that every set can be well-ordered. A set X is well-ordered by a strict total order if every non-empty subset of X has a least element under the ordering. The well-ordering theorem together with Zorn's lemma are the most important mathematical statements that are equivalent to the axiom of choice (often called AC, see also Axiom of choice § Equivalents).[1][2] Ernst Zermelo introduced the axiom of choice as an "unobjectionable logical principle" to prove the well-ordering theorem.[3] One can conclude from the well-ordering theorem that every set is susceptible to transfinite induction, which is considered by mathematicians to be a powerful technique.[3] One famous consequence of the theorem is the Banach–Tarski paradox.


Georg Cantor considered the well-ordering theorem to be a "fundamental principle of thought".[4] However, it is considered difficult or even impossible to visualize a well-ordering of ; such a visualization would have to incorporate the axiom of choice.[5] In 1904, Gyula Kőnig claimed to have proven that such a well-ordering cannot exist. A few weeks later, Felix Hausdorff found a mistake in the proof.[6] It turned out, though, that in first-order logic the well-ordering theorem is equivalent to the axiom of choice, in the sense that the Zermelo–Fraenkel axioms with the axiom of choice included are sufficient to prove the well-ordering theorem, and conversely, the Zermelo–Fraenkel axioms without the axiom of choice but with the well-ordering theorem included are sufficient to prove the axiom of choice. (The same applies to Zorn's lemma.) In second-order logic, however, the well-ordering theorem is strictly stronger than the axiom of choice: from the well-ordering theorem one may deduce the axiom of choice, but from the axiom of choice one cannot deduce the well-ordering theorem.[7]

There is a well-known joke about the three statements, and their relative amenability to intuition:

The axiom of choice is obviously true, the well-ordering principle obviously false, and who can tell about Zorn's lemma?[8]

Proof from axiom of choice[edit]

The well-ordering theorem follows from the axiom of choice as follows.[9]

Let the set we are trying to well-order be , and let be a choice function for the family of non-empty subsets of . For every ordinal , define an element that is in by setting if this complement is nonempty, or leave undefined if it is. That is, is chosen from the set of elements of that have not yet been assigned a place in the ordering (or undefined if the entirety of has been successfully enumerated). Then the order on defined by if and only if (in the usual well-order of the ordinals) is a well-order of as desired, of order type .

Proof of axiom of choice[edit]

The axiom of choice can be proven from the well-ordering theorem as follows.

To make a choice function for a collection of non-empty sets, , take the union of the sets in and call it . There exists a well-ordering of ; let be such an ordering. The function that to each set of associates the smallest element of , as ordered by (the restriction to of) , is a choice function for the collection .

An essential point of this proof is that it involves only a single arbitrary choice, that of ; applying the well-ordering theorem to each member of separately would not work, since the theorem only asserts the existence of a well-ordering, and choosing for each a well-ordering would require just as many choices as simply choosing an element from each . Particularly, if contains uncountably many sets, making all uncountably many choices is not allowed under the axioms of Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory without the axiom of choice.


  1. ^ Kuczma, Marek (2009). An introduction to the theory of functional equations and inequalities. Berlin: Springer. p. 14. ISBN 978-3-7643-8748-8.
  2. ^ Hazewinkel, Michiel (2001). Encyclopaedia of Mathematics: Supplement. Berlin: Springer. p. 458. ISBN 1-4020-0198-3.
  3. ^ a b Thierry, Vialar (1945). Handbook of Mathematics. Norderstedt: Springer. p. 23. ISBN 978-2-95-519901-5.
  4. ^ Georg Cantor (1883), “Ueber unendliche, lineare Punktmannichfaltigkeiten”, Mathematische Annalen 21, pp. 545–591.
  5. ^ Sheppard, Barnaby (2014). The Logic of Infinity. Cambridge University Press. p. 174. ISBN 978-1-1070-5831-6.
  6. ^ Plotkin, J. M. (2005), "Introduction to "The Concept of Power in Set Theory"", Hausdorff on Ordered Sets, History of Mathematics, vol. 25, American Mathematical Society, pp. 23–30, ISBN 9780821890516
  7. ^ Shapiro, Stewart (1991). Foundations Without Foundationalism: A Case for Second-Order Logic. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-853391-8.
  8. ^ Krantz, Steven G. (2002), "The Axiom of Choice", in Krantz, Steven G. (ed.), Handbook of Logic and Proof Techniques for Computer Science, Birkhäuser Boston, pp. 121–126, doi:10.1007/978-1-4612-0115-1_9, ISBN 9781461201151
  9. ^ Jech, Thomas (2002). Set Theory (Third Millennium Edition). Springer. p. 48. ISBN 978-3-540-44085-7.

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