Monday, May 10, 2021

Is our universe of sets minimal?

Our physics is based on the real numbers. Physicists use the real numbers all over the place: quantum mechanics takes place in a complex Hilbert space, and the complex numbers are isomorphic to pairs of real numbers, while relativity theory takes place in a manifold that is locally isomorphic to a Lorentzian four-dimensional real space.

The real numbers are one of an infinite family of mathematical objects known as real closed fields. Other real closed fields than the real numbers could be used in physics instead—for instance, the hyperreals—and I think we would have the same empirical predictions. But the real numbers are simpler and more elegant: for instance, they are the only Dedekind-complete and the minimal Cauchy-complete real closed field.

At the same time, the mathematics behind our physics lives within a set theoretic universe. That set theoretic universe is generally not assumed to be particularly special. For instance, I know of no one who assumes that our set theoretic universe is isomorphic to Shepherdson’s/Cohen’s minimal model of set theory. On the contrary, it is widely assumed that our set theoretic universe has a standard transitive set model, which implies that it is not minimal, and few people seem to believe the Axiom of Constructibility which would hold in a minimal model.

This seems to me be rationally inconsistent. If we are justified in thinking that the mathematics underlying the physical world is based on a particularly elegant real closed field even though other fields fit our empirical data, we would also be justified in thinking it’s based on a particularly elegant universe of sets even though other universes fit our empirical data.

(According to Shipman, the resulting set theory would be one equivalent to ZF + V=L + “There is no standard model”.)

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