In comments on Quora (see, for example, here, here, here), Ron Maimon has repeatedly expressed the strong opinion that Hilbert's program was not killed by Gödel's results in the way typically claimed. More precisely, he argues that the consistency of axioms sufficient for all meaningful mathematics should be provable from "intuitively self-evident" statements about various computable ordinals being well-defined. Here, of course, he points to Gentzen's 1936 consistency proof, which proves Con(PA) from primitive recursive arithmetic plus induction up to the ordinal ε0; as well as more recent results from the field of ordinal analysis, which show that the consistency of various weaker set theories than ZF (for example, Aczel's constructive ZF and Kripke-Platek set theory) can also be reduced to the well-definedness of various computable ordinals. Maimon then goes on to say that Con(ZF) should similarly be reducible to the well-definedness of some "combinatorially-specified," computable ordinal, although the details haven't been worked out yet. (And indeed, the Wikipedia page on ordinal analysis says that it hasn't been done "as of 2008.") This sounds amazing, especially since I'd never heard anything about this problem before! So, here are my questions:

  • Is there a general theorem showing that Con(ZF) must be reducible to the well-definedness of some computable ordinal, i.e. something below the Church-Kleene ordinal (even if we don't know how to specify such an ordinal "explicitly")?

  • Is finding an "explicit description" of a computable ordinal whose well-definedness implies Con(ZF) a recognized open problem in set theory? Do people work on this problem? Or is there some reason why it's generally believed to be impossible, or possible but uninteresting? Or does it just come down to vagueness in what would count as an "explicit description"?

Addendum: There's a connection here to a previous MO question of mine, about the existence of Π1-statements independent of ZF with lots of iterated consistency axioms. In particular, using an observation from Turing's 1938 PhD thesis, I now see that it's indeed possible to define a "computable ordinal" whose well-definedness is equivalent to Con(ZF), but only because of a "cheap encoding trick." Namely, one can define the ordinal ω via a Turing machine which lists the positive integers one by one, but which simultaneously searches for a proof of 0=1 in ZF, and which halts and outputs nonsense if it ever finds one. What I suppose I'm asking for, then, is a computable ordinal α such that Con(ZF) can be reduced to the statement that there's some Turing machine that correctly defines α.

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    $\begingroup$ Scott, I think what you're asking is for the relationship between the proof-theoretic ordinal of ZF and the consistency strength of ZF. While there is often a close relationship between the proof-theoretic ordinal and the consistency strength, there don't seem to be general meta-theorems of the type you're asking for. See the answer to this related MO question: mathoverflow.net/questions/52926/proof-theoretic-ordinal $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2014 at 20:48
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    $\begingroup$ To answer the question of why the least ordinal not provably well-founded must be recursive: one way to ask this is, Is there a recursive ordinal $\alpha$ which has a notation $n\in\mathcal{O}$ which ZFC cannot prove corresponds to a well-ordering? Under the assumption that ZFC "proves only true things," the answer must be yes: the set of $n$ such that ZFC proves that $n$ corresponds to a well-ordering is c.e., and so a bounded subset of $\mathcal{O}$. I'm pretty sure any reasonable version of the question will allow an argument like this. $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2014 at 21:13
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    $\begingroup$ Noah S's comments at mathoverflow.net/questions/144041/… helped a lot, by confirming for me that there is indeed an unsolved technical problem here, but that it's one that Noah says he doesn't expect to see solved in his lifetime. What's astonishing to me is that I'd never heard of this problem before---despite its seeming like possibly today's best candidate for the P vs. NP or Riemann Hypothesis of set theory and foundations! Big, conceptually-interesting, and not already solved in the 60s -- what's not to like? $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2014 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ One difference from P vs NP or the Riemann hypothesis is that there's no crisp, mathematical precise conjecture that one can state here. A satisfactory ordinal analysis of ZF is something that we would probably recognize as such if we saw it, but we don't have a precise way of saying exactly what is desired. $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2014 at 21:52
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    $\begingroup$ Scott, while I'm in no way dismissing this question, Ron Maimon also claimed that inaccessible cardinals are only used in Solovay's construction of a model where all sets are Lebesgue measurable for convenience, and you can dispense this assumption for the assumption "There is a model of $\sf ZFC$". I would careful consider the statements that he makes about logic and set theory. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila
    Apr 23, 2014 at 21:54

2 Answers 2


Rom Maimon is describing the program of proof-theoretic ordinal analysis.

First, as you observed in your addendum, it isn't interesting to find some encoding of an ordinal whose well-foundedness implies Con(ZFC), but rather an ordinal such that the well-foundedness of any representation implies Con(ZFC). One hopes that it suffices to consider natural representations of the ordinal, which has been true in practice, but is unproven (and probably unprovable, given the difficulty of making precise what counts as a natural representation).

It's possible to prove that the smallest ordinal which ZFC fails to prove well-founded is computable by noticing that the computable notations for ordinals provably well-founded in ZFC are a $\Sigma_1$ subset of the computable notations for ordinals, so certainly $\Sigma^1_1$, and by a result of Spector, any $\Sigma_1^1$ subset of the computable notations for ordinals is bounded.

As pointed out in the answer Timothy Chow links to above, it's typically true that this notion of proof-theoretic ordinal ends up being the same as ordinals with other nice properties (like implying Con(ZFC)), but there's no proof that that will always happen (and can't be, since there are defective examples that show it's not always true), nor a proof that covers ZFC.

However it's generally believed that for "natural" theories, including ZFC, the different notions of proof-theoretic ordinal will line up.

Finding an explicit description of the ordinal for ZFC is an active problem in proof theory, but progress has been very slow. The best known results are by Rathjen and Arai (separately) at the level of $\Pi^1_2$-comprehension (a subtheory of second order arithmetic, so much, much weaker than ZFC), and after nearly 20 years, those remain unpublished. The results in the area got extremely difficult and technical, and didn't seem to provide insight into the theories the way the smaller ordinals had, so it's not nearly as active an area as it once was. Wolfram Pohlers and his students still seem to working in the area, and some other people seem to be thinking about other approaches rather than directly attacking it (Tim Carlson and Andreas Weiermann and their students come to mind).

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks so much; that's exactly the context I was looking for! $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2014 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ In particular, the claim that (for example) all arithmetical (or even $\Pi_1$) consequences of ZF can be deduced from some axiom in the first-order language of arithmetic with the same general form as Gentzen's axiom, just with $\epsilon_0$ replaced by "the proof-theoretic ordinal of ZF," is at present still, as Ron Maimon admits, an "article of faith." $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2014 at 21:46
  • $\begingroup$ @HenryTowsner The claim that the ZFC provably well-founded computable notations for ordinals form a $\Sigma^1_1$ set seems to assume that ZFC proves only true instances of well-foundedness, doesn't it? This claim implies Con(ZFC), but it seems to be strictly stronger. $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2014 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ (For example, in a model of ZFC+Con(ZFC)+ notCon(Con(ZFC)), there are programs that ZFC proves to halt, that don't really halt in that model, and one can use them to build denotations of ordinals in that model that ZFC proves are well-ordered, even though they aren't well-ordered in that model.) So what is the right background theory for the $\Sigma^1_1$-boundedness argument? $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2014 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ Henry: Just to check my understanding, the proof that there exists a computable ordinal $\alpha$ that ZF doesn't prove to be well-founded is completely nonconstructive? I.e., starting from the ZF axioms, we can't write down a Turing machine (even a weird, incomprehensible one) that computes the order relation of that $\alpha$? Also, is it correct that we currently have no proof, not even a nonconstructive one, that there exists a computable ordinal $\alpha$ such that the well-foundedness of $\alpha$ (under any encoding scheme, not just a contrived one) implies Con(ZF)? $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2014 at 22:44

For every c.e. theory T (extending a weak base theory), we already know a polynomial time computable linear ordering $≺$ that captures the $Π^1_1$ strength of T:
Provably in a weak base theory, a $Π^1_1$ statement is provable in T iff for some term s, it is provable in a weak base theory plus "$≺$ is well-founded below s".
Thus, for $Π^1_1$ sound T, the order type of $≺$ is the supremum of order types of provably-in-T recursive well-orderings, and $≺$ is a well-ordering iff T is $Π^1_1$ sound.

Here is an example of $≺$:
$(p_1,q_1,n_1) ≺ (p_2,q_2,n_2)$ if $(p_1,q_1)<(p_2,q_2)$ (lexicographically)
$(p,q,n_1) ≺ (p,q,n_2)$ iff
- $q$ is a T-proof that bounded-time Turing machine $p$ computes a well-ordering, and $p$ accepts $(n_1,n_2)$ (any reasonable choice for 'bounded time' that keeps $≺$ polynomial time works here), or
- $q$ is not a T-proof of the above, and $n_1<n_2$.

The problem is that the above $≺$ is uninformative about T. A key goal of ordinal analysis is to find a canonical $≺$ that makes the power of T simple and explicit, and thus give us a qualitatively better understanding of T. Existence of a noncanonical $≺$, combined with existence of canonical $≺$ for weaker theories, suggests that a canonical $≺$ also exists for ZFC, but it is difficult to be certain until we actually find and prove such a $≺$. Typically, an approach to finding $≺$ can be extended until it becomes too complex, and then a new idea permits $≺$ to become simpler again.

A caution about ordinal representations:
* Every sufficiently large recursive ordinal has different recursive representations that are not arithmetically isomorphic.
* I think that for every recursive ordinal α and a c.e. theory T (extending a base theory), there is a recursive representation $≺$ of α such that T + "$≺$ is well founded" is $Σ^1_1$ conservative over T. This follows from existence of a recursive pseudowellordering $≺_p$ such that T + "$≺_p$ is well founded" is $Σ^1_1$ conservative over T.


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