## Friday, September 22, 2017

### Two questions about sets

Here are two curious philosophical questions about set theory and its applicability outside mathematics.

Question 1: Suppose that every person has a perfectly well-defined mass. Is there a set of everybody mass, say the set of all real numbers x such that x is someone’s mass in kilograms?

The standard ZFC axioms are silent on this. They do say that for any predicate F in the language of set theory there is a set of all real numbers x satisfying F. But "mass" and "kilogram" are not parts of the language of set theory.

Question 2: What does it mean to say that there are finitely many horses?

An obvious answer is that if H is the set of all horses, then H is in one-to-one correspondence with some natural number. But the standard ZFC axioms only give us sets of sets, not sets of physical things like horses. If the correct set theory has ur-elements, elements that aren’t sets, maybe there is a set of all horses—but maybe not even then.

I suppose we could go metalinguistic. Begin by describing the set S of first-order logic sentences (sentences can be thought of as sets, even if sets are pure, i.e., have only sets as members) that say "There are no horses", "There is at most one horse", "There are at most two horses",.... And then say, using language beyond set theory, that at least one sentence in S is true.

But the metalinguistic approach won’t solve the seemingly related problem of what it means to say that there are countably many horses.