Sets are the only fundamental objects in the theory $\sf ZFC$. But we can use $\sf ZFC$ as a foundation for all of mathematics by encoding the various other objects we care about in terms of sets. The idea is that every statement that mathematicians care about is equivalent to some question about sets. An example of such an encoding is Kuratowski's definition of ordered pair, $(a,b) = \{\{a\},\{a,b\}\}$, which can then be used to define the cartesian product, functions, and so on.

I'm wondering how arbitrary the choice was to use sets as a foundation. Of course there are alternative foundations that don't use sets, but as far as I know all these foundations are still based on things that are quite similar to sets (for example $\sf HoTT$ uses $\infty$-groupoids, but still contains sets as a special case of these).

My suspicion is that we could instead pick almost any kind of mathematical structure to use as a foundation instead of sets and that no matter what we chose it would be possible to encode all of mathematics in terms of statements about those structures. (Of course I will add the caveat that there has to be a proper class of whichever structure we choose, up to isomorphism. I'm thinking of things like groups, topological spaces, Lie algebras, etc. Any theory about a mere set of structures will be proved consistent by $\sf ZFC$ and hence be weaker than it.)

For concreteness I'll take groups as an example of a structure very different from sets. Can every mathematical statement be encoded as a statement about groups?

Since we accept that it is possible to encode every mathematical statement as a statement about sets, it would suffice to show that set theory can be encoded in terms of groups. I've attempted a formalization of this below, but I would also be interested in any other approaches to the question.

We'll define a theory of groups, and then ask if the theory of sets (and hence everything else) can be interpreted in it. Since groups have no obvious equivalent of $\sf ZFC$'s membership relation we'll instead work in terms of groups and their homomorphisms, defining a theory of the category of groups analogous to $\sf{ETCS+R}$ for sets. The Elementary Theory of the Category of Sets, with Replacement is a theory of sets and functions which is itself biinterpretable with $\sf ZFC$.

We'll define our theory of groups by means of an interpretation in $\sf{ETCS+R}$. It will use the same language as $\sf{ETCS+R}$, but we'll interpret the objects to be groups and the morphisms to be group homomorphisms. Say the theorems of our theory are precisely the statements in this language whose translations under this interpretation are provable in $\sf{ETCS+R}$. This theory is then recursively axiomatizable by Craig's Theorem. Naturally we'll call this new theory '$\sf{ETCG+R}$'.

The theory $\sf{ETCS+R}$ is biinterpretable with $\sf ZFC$, showing that any mathematics encodable in one is encodable in the other.

Question: Is $\sf{ETCG+R}$ biinterpretable with $\sf ZFC$? If not, is $\sf ZFC$ at least interpretable in $\sf{ETCG+R}$? If not, are they at least equiconsistent?

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    $\begingroup$ What intuition would you be trying to capture by using groups as foundations? Also, I cannot imagine how you would axiomatise groups without first axiomatising their carriers. Groupoids and Homotopy Type Theory, well that would be a different matter. $\endgroup$ Feb 11, 2020 at 9:47
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    $\begingroup$ Two comments: 1) the category of groups does have some interesting categorical structures, that have been abstracted and studied a lot by people working on semi-abelian categories, proto-modular categories, etc... One of them is that you can give purely categorically a definition of the automorphism group of a group. Aut(G) is universal for "group action on G", and a "group action of H on G" can be defined as a split exact sequence connecting G and H. 2) Have you try to instead recover the category of sets as the full subcategory of free groups and morphisms preserving generators ?... $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2020 at 15:11
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    $\begingroup$ ... In theory this should be possible as Set is comonadic over both groups and abelian groups... If one could characterize abstractly this comonad that would prove the result immediately. One can also try a more elementary approach: I think Free groups can be characterized as the projective objects, but this is not enough as that does not fix the set of generators, but maybe there is a structure definable in the language that can do that ? $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2020 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ @SimonHenry Free groups are examples of cogroups internal to $\mathsf{Grp}$, and the cogroup maps probably preserve the generators. $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2020 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ As for which categories of algebras are such that the free functor $Set \to Alg$ is comonadic: these are quite general. See this section in the nLab: ncatlab.org/nlab/show/… $\endgroup$
    – Todd Trimble
    Feb 12, 2020 at 23:03

4 Answers 4


The answer is yes, in fact one has a lot better than bi-interpretability, as shown by the corollary at the end. It follows by mixing the comments by Martin Brandenburg and mine (and a few additional details I found on MO). The key observation is the following:

Theorem: The category of co-group objects in the category of groups is equivalent to the category of sets and partial map between then, or equivalently to the category of pointed sets..

(Thanks to Martin Brandenbourgh for pointing out the mistake in an earlier version)

(According to the nLab, this is due to Kan, from the paper "On monoids and their dual" Bol. Soc. Mat. Mexicana (2) 3 (1958), pp. 52-61, MR0111035)

Co-groups are easily defined in purely categorical terms (see Edit 2 below).

The equivalence of the theorem is given by free groups as follows: if $X$ is a set and $F_X$ is the free group on X then Hom$(F_X,H)=H^X$ is a group, functorially in H, hence $F_X$ has a cogroup object structure. As functions between sets induce re-indexing functions: $H^X \rightarrow H^Y$ that are indeed group morphisms, morphisms between sets indeed are cogroup morphisms.

Explicitly, $\mu:F_X \rightarrow F_X * F_X$ is the map that sends each generator $e_x$ to $e_x^L * e_x^R$, and $i$ is the map that sends each generators to its inverse.

An easy calculation shows that the generators and the units (Edit: that's were the mistake was) are the only elements such that $\mu(y)=y^L*y^R$ and hence that any cogroup morphism comes from a partial function between sets: each generator is sent either to a generator or to the unit.

And with a bit more work, as nicely explained on this other MO answer, one can check that any cogroup object is of this form.

As pointed out by Martin Brandenbourgh in his answer - once we have the category of set and partial maps, (or equivalently the category of pointed sets) one can easily characterize the category of sets and map in purely categorical language: this is the (non-full) subcategory containing all objects and whose maps are the $f:X \to Y$ such that the square obtained by adding the maps $0 \to X$ and $0\to Y$ (where $0$ is the initial object) is a pullback square.

So let's call this the category of "cogroup objects and total maps between them" (were by total, I mean the map that satisfies this pullback condition)

Now, as all this is a theorem of $\sf{ETCS}$, it is a theorem of $\sf{ETCG}$ that all the axioms (and theorems) of $\sf{ETCS}$ are satisfied by the category of "cogroup objects and total maps between them" in any model of $\sf{ETCG}$, which gives you the desired bi-interpretability between $\sf{ETCS}$ and $\sf{ETCG}$. Adding supplementary axioms to $\sf{ETCS}$ (like R) does not change anything.

In fact, one has more than bi-interpretability: the two theories are equivalent in the sense that there is an equivalence between their models. But one has a lot better:

Corollary: Given $T$ a model of $\sf{ETCS}$, then $Grp(T)$ is a model of $\sf{ETCG}$. Given $A$ a model of $\sf{ETCG}$, then the category $CoGrp(A)^{total}$ of cogroups object and full map between them is a model of $\sf{ETCS}$. Moreover these two constructions are inverse to each other up to equivalence of categories.

Edit: this an answer to a question of Matt F. in the comment to give explicit example of how axioms and theorems of $\sf{ECTS}$ translate into $\sf{ECTG}$.

So in $\sf{ECTS}$ there is a theorem (maybe an axioms) that given a monomorphism $S \rightarrow T$ there exists an object $R$ such that $T \simeq S \coprod R$.

In $\sf{ECTG}$ this can be translated as: given $T$ a cogroup object and $S \rightarrow T$ a cogroup monomorphism* then there exists a co-group $R$ such that $T \simeq S * R$ as co-groups**.

*: It is also a theorem of $\sf{ECTG}$ that a map between cogroup is a monomorphism of cogroup if and only if the underlying map of objects is a monomorphisms. Indeed that is something you can prove for the category of groups in $\sf{ECTS}$ so it holds in $\sf{ECTG}$ by definition.

** : We can prove in $\sf{ECTG}$ (either directly because this actually holds in any category, or proving it for group in $\sf{ECTS}$) that the coproduct of two co-group objects has a canonical co-group structure which makes it the coproduct in the category of co-groups.

Edit 2: To clarify that the category of cogroup is defined purely in the categorical language:

The coproduct in group is the free product $G * G$ and is definable by its usual universal property.

A cogroup is then an object (here a group) equipped with a map $\mu: G \rightarrow G * G$ which is co-associative, that is $\mu \circ (\mu * Id_G) = \mu \circ (Id_G * \mu)$, and counital (the co-unit has to be the unique map $G \rightarrow 1$), that is $(Id_G,0) \circ \mu = Id_G$ and $(0,Id_G) \circ \mu = Id_G$, where $(f,g)$ denotes the map $G * G \rightarrow G$ which is $f$ on the first component and $g$ on the other component, as well as an inverse map $i:G \rightarrow G$ such that $(Id_G ,i ) \circ \mu = 0 $. Morphisms of co-groups are the map $f:G \rightarrow H$ that are compatible with all these structures, so mostly such that $ (f * f) \circ \mu_H = \mu_G \circ f $.

If you have doubt related to the "choice" of the object $G * G$ (which is only defined up to unique isomorphisms) a way to lift them is to define "a co-group object" as a triple of object $G,G *G,G * G *G$ with appropriate map between them satisfying a bunch of confition (includings the universal property) and morphisms of co-group as triple of maps satisfying all the expected conditions. This gives an equivalent category.

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    $\begingroup$ This is really nice! $\endgroup$
    – David Roberts
    Feb 13, 2020 at 3:09
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    $\begingroup$ @SimonHenry. Many thanks. Would this work for any category in which the forgetful functor to set has a left adjoint? $\endgroup$
    – HJRW
    Feb 13, 2020 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ @HJRW : I don't really know, but that's a great question. As pointed out by Todd Trimble in the comment to the original theory, it is very common that given such a left adjoint, the adjunction is comonadic (essentially, as soon as the left adjoint is non-degenerated enough). But while comonadicity was a very natural way to say that "one can reconstruct the category of set from the category of groups", it was not completely clear that this was enough to solve the problem, as you also need to be able to construct the comonad using only the language of categories. This was the part where... $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2020 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ ... the remark by Martin Brandenburg about this specific way of characterizing free groups was very helpful, but this is very specific to the category of group, and I don't see how to generalize this... Also the fact that the trick was to look at "cogroup object in the category of group" is probably an isolated coincidence (for example, every abelian group is automatically an abelian cogroup in the category of abelian group). $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2020 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ @SimonHenry I would suggest to edit your answer (see my answer). $\endgroup$ Nov 14 at 2:10

Let me point out that the equivalence mentioned in Simon Henry's answer is not correct. (Edit. It's now corrected.)

There is a unique map of sets $\{1\} \to \{1\}$, but there are two cogroup homomorphisms $F(\{1\}) \to F(\{1\})$, namely $x \mapsto x$ and $x \mapsto 1$. Even more trivially, there is no map $\{1\} \to \emptyset$, but there is (exactly) one cogroup homomorphism $F(\{1\}) \to F(\emptyset)$.

This is a good lesson that a category is more than just its objects.

The category of cogroups in $\mathbf{Grp}$ is equivalent to $\mathbf{Set}_*$. The equivalence maps a pointed set $(X,x_0)$ to the free group on $X$ modulo $\langle \langle x_0 \rangle \rangle$ (which is isomorphic to the free group on $X \setminus \{x_0\}$, but with this POV the functoriality is less clear) equipped with the usual cogroup structure. This is explained (in a much larger framework) in Bergman's An Invitation to General Algebra and Universal Constructions in Section 10.7. I also mention this in Example 6.1 of my paper on limit sketches.

So it remains to recover $\mathbf{Set}$ from $\mathbf{Set}_*$. This can be done:

$\mathbf{Set}$ is equivalent to the subcategory of $\mathbf{Set}_*$ which has the same objects but only those morphisms of pointed sets $f : X \to Y$ such that

$\begin{array}{ccc} \ast & \xrightarrow{~~} & \ast \\ \downarrow && \downarrow \\ X & \xrightarrow{~f~} & Y \end{array} $

is a pullback, where $\ast$ is the zero object of $\mathbf{Set}_*$.


There are a few bits of good news for an affirmative answer to this question.

Theorem 1) ZFC can be interpreted in Th(On), the first-order theory of ordinals. See Gaisi Takeuti, "A Formalization of the Theory of Ordinal Numbers", JSL 1965. https://doi.org/10.2307/2269620, JSTOR.  

Theorem 2) There are abelian $p$-groups of every infinite ordinal length, where the length $\ell(G)$ of a group $G$ is the least ordinal $\sigma$ such that $p^\sigma G=0$. See Laszlo Fuchs, Infinite Abelian Groups, vol 2: p. 58 for the definition and p. 85 for the construction of these generalized Prufer groups.  

Putting these together, I had hoped to encode the ordinals by such groups, and thus interpret Th(On) in ETCG, from which an interpretation of ZFC in ETCG would follow.  

The bad news is that Takeuti's theory Th(On) is a theory in a large language, which starts with $a=b$, $a<b$, $(a,b)$ (ordered pair), and then goes on to include $+$, $\times$ and all primitive recursive functions of ordinals. So to interpret this Th(On) in ETCG, we would at a minimum need to find formulas $\phi_\le, \phi_{\wedge}$ in ETCG such that:

  • $\phi_\le (a,b)$ holds exactly when $\ell(a)\le\ell(b)$

  • $\phi_\wedge (a,b,c)$ holds exactly when $\ell(a)=\ell(b)^{\ell(c)}$

Perhaps $\phi_\le$ would be as simple as saying that there is a mono from $a$ to $b$. But finding $\phi_\wedge$ seems difficult.  

Even finding a way of characterizing the generalized Prufer groups in the ETCG language seems difficult. Fortunately there is still one more bit of good news:  

Claim 3) We can characterize the abelian groups in the language of ETCG.

  • $1$ is the unique terminal object in the category

  • a morphism is constant if it factors through $1$.

  • $G$ is almost free iff for every $H$ other than $1$, there is a non-constant map from $G$ to $H$.

  • $\mathbb{Z}$ is the unique almost free group with monos into all other almost free groups.

  • $G$ has two elements iff there are exactly two maps from $\mathbb{Z}$ to $G$.

  • $G$ has eight elements iff there are exactly eight maps from $\mathbb{Z}$ to $G$.  

  • $H$ is a subgroup of $G$ iff there is a mono from $H$ to $G$.

  • $G/H=K$ iff there is a mono and an epi

$$H \hookrightarrow G \twoheadrightarrow K$$

whose composition is constant, and such that whenever the square commutes in the diagram below, there is a map from $\mathbb{Z}$ to $H$ making the triangle commute also:

$$\begin{array}{ccccc} & & \mathbb{Z} & \rightarrow & 1 \\ & \swarrow & \downarrow & & \downarrow \\ H & \hookrightarrow & G & \twoheadrightarrow & K\\ \end{array}$$ (The second condition is saying that the kernel of the epi is included in the range of the mono.)

  • $H$ is a normal subgroup of $G$ iff $G/H=K$ for some $K$.

  • $G$ is cyclic iff it is $\mathbb{Z}/H$ for some $H$.

  • $Q$ is the unique 8-element group which is not cyclic, but which has a two-element subgroup $S$ whose mono into $Q$ factors through any subgroup of $Q$ other than $1$.

  • $G$ is abelian iff all of its subgroups are normal, and $Q$ is not a subgroup of $G$.  

I expect we can go further towards characterizing the generalized Prufer groups by characterizing reduced non-separable infinite abelian 2-groups in ETCG. Anyone who finds that easy would be in a better place than I am to complete the difficult but maybe not impossible plan above.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure it counts as a characterization in the language of ETCG, but you can also characterize abelian groups as the internal monoids (or even just the internal unitary magmas) in the category of groups, thanks to the Eckmann-Hilton argument. $\endgroup$
    – Arnaud D.
    Feb 12, 2020 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ Also, your characterization of quotients and normal subgroups seems fishy to me : with the way you phrased it, it seems to me that $G/H=\{1\}$ for all subgroups of $G$. $\endgroup$
    – Arnaud D.
    Feb 12, 2020 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ @ArnaudD., I fixed the definition of quotients. $\endgroup$
    – Matt F.
    Feb 12, 2020 at 14:40
  • $\begingroup$ The third bullet point in claim 3 (the characterization of $\mathbb{Z}$) does not work: all free groups have this property, More generally any group of the form $H * \mathbb{Z}$ have the property as well. $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2020 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ @SimonHenry, suppose we define that a group $H$ is almost free iff it is not 1, and for every $G$ other than $1$, there is a non-constant map from $H$ to $G$. Then is $\mathbb{Z}$ the unique almost free group with monos into all other almost free groups? $\endgroup$
    – Matt F.
    Feb 12, 2020 at 15:30

Somehow related to the question is Shelah's paper Interpreting set theory in the endomorphism semi-group of afree algebra or in a category. There are further papers on this direction, see for example Set theory is interpretable in the automorphism group of an infinitely generated free group.


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