In mathematics, the axiom of choice, or AC, is an axiom of set theory. Informally put, the axiom of choice says that given any collection of bins, each containing at least one object, it is possible to make a selection of exactly one object from each bin, even if there are infinitely many bins and there is no "rule" for which object to pick from each. The axiom of choice is not required if the number of bins is finite or if such a selection "rule" is available.
The axiom of choice was formulated in 1904 by Ernst Zermelo.^{[1]} Although originally controversial, it is now used without reservation by most mathematicians.^{[2]} One motivation for this use is that a number of important mathematical results, such as Tychonoff's theorem, require the axiom of choice for their proofs. Contemporary set theorists also study axioms that are not compatible with the axiom of choice, such as the axiom of determinacy. Unlike the axiom of choice, these alternatives are not ordinarily proposed as axioms for mathematics, but only as principles in set theory with interesting consequences.
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A choice function is a function f, defined on a collection X of nonempty sets, such that for every set s in X, f(s) is an element of s. With this concept, the axiom can be stated:
Thus the negation of the axiom of choice states that there exists a set of nonempty sets which has no choice function.
Each choice function on a collection X of nonempty sets can be viewed as (or identified with) an element of the Cartesian product of the sets in X. This leads to an equivalent statement of the axiom of choice:
There are many other equivalent statements of the axiom of choice. These are equivalent in the sense that, in the presence of other basic axioms of set theory, they imply the axiom of choice and are implied by it.
One variation avoids the use of choice functions by, in effect, replacing each choice function with its range.
Another equivalent axiom only considers collections X that are essentially powersets of other sets:
Authors who use this formulation often speak of the choice function on A, but be advised that this is a slightly different notion of choice function. Its domain is the powerset of A (with the empty set removed), and so makes sense for any set A, whereas with the definition used elsewhere in this article, the domain of a choice function on a collection of sets is that collection, and so only makes sense for sets of sets. With this alternate notion of choice function, the axiom of choice can be compactly stated as
which is equivalent to
The negation of the axiom can thus be expressed as:
The usual statement of AC does not refer to any specific infinite set, and as such has a finite restriction which states that every finite collection of nonempty sets has a (finite) choice function. The finite restriction is a theorem of ZF, and is easily proved by mathematical induction^{[5]}. The intuitiveness of AC may be due to generalizing from this finite case.
Until the late 19th century, the axiom of choice was often used implicitly, although it had not yet been formally stated. For example, after having established that the set X contains only nonempty sets, a mathematician might have said "let F(s) be one of the members of s for all s in X." In general, it is impossible to prove that F exists without the axiom of choice, but this seems to have gone unnoticed until Zermelo.
Not every situation requires the axiom of choice. For finite sets X, the axiom of choice follows from the other axioms of set theory. In that case it is equivalent to saying that if we have several (a finite number of) boxes, each containing at least one item, then we can choose exactly one item from each box. Clearly we can do this: We start at the first box, choose an item; go to the second box, choose an item; and so on. The number of boxes is finite, so eventually our choice procedure comes to an end. The result is an explicit choice function: a function that takes the first box to the first element we chose, the second box to the second element we chose, and so on. (A formal proof for all finite sets would use the principle of mathematical induction.)
For certain infinite sets X, it is also possible to avoid the axiom of choice. For example, suppose that the elements of X are sets of natural numbers. Every nonempty set of natural numbers has a smallest element, so to specify our choice function we can simply say that it maps each set to the least element of that set. This gives us a definite choice of an element from each set and we can write down an explicit expression that tells us what value our choice function takes. Any time it is possible to specify such an explicit choice, the axiom of choice is unnecessary.
The difficulty appears when there is no natural choice of elements from each set. If we cannot make explicit choices, how do we know that our set exists? For example, suppose that X is the set of all nonempty subsets of the real numbers. First we might try to proceed as if X were finite. If we try to choose an element from each set, then, because X is infinite, our choice procedure will never come to an end, and consequently, we will never be able to produce a choice function for all of X. So that won't work. Next we might try the trick of specifying the least element from each set. But some subsets of the real numbers don't have least elements. For example, the open interval (0,1) does not have a least element: If x is in (0,1), then so is x/2, and x/2 is always strictly smaller than x. So taking least elements doesn't work, either.
The reason that we are able to choose least elements from subsets of the natural numbers is the fact that the natural numbers come preequipped with a wellordering: Every nonempty subset of the natural numbers has a unique least element under the natural ordering. Perhaps if we were clever we might say, "Even though the usual ordering of the real numbers does not work, it may be possible to find a different ordering of the real numbers which is a wellordering. Then our choice function can choose the least element of every set under our unusual ordering." The problem then becomes that of constructing a wellordering, which turns out to require the axiom of choice for its existence; every set can be wellordered if and only if the axiom of choice is true.
A proof requiring the axiom of choice is, in one meaning of the word, nonconstructive: even though the proof establishes the existence of an object, it may be impossible to define the object in the language of set theory. For example, while the axiom of choice implies that there is a wellordering of the real numbers, there are models of set theory with the axiom of choice in which no wellordering of the reals is definable. As another example, a subset of the real numbers that is not Lebesgue measurable can be proven to exist using the axiom of choice, but it is consistent that no such set is definable.
The axiom of choice produces these intangibles (objects that are proven to exist by a nonconstructive proof, but cannot be explicitly constructed), which may conflict with some philosophical principles. Because there is no canonical wellordering of all sets, a construction that relies on a wellordering may not produce a canonical result, even if a canonical result is desired (as is often the case in category theory). In constructivism, all existence proofs are required to be totally explicit. That is, one must be able to construct, in an explicit and canonical manner, anything that is proven to exist. This foundation rejects the full axiom of choice because it asserts the existence of an object without uniquely determining its structure. In fact the Diaconescu–Goodman–Myhill theorem shows how to derive the constructively unacceptable law of the excluded middle, or a restricted form of it, in constructive set theory from the assumption of the axiom of choice.
Another argument against the axiom of choice is that it implies the existence of counterintuitive objects. One example of this is the Banach–Tarski paradox which says that it is possible to decompose ("carve up") the 3dimensional solid unit ball into finitely many pieces and, using only rotations and translations, reassemble the pieces into two solid balls each with the same volume as the original. The pieces in this decomposition, constructed using the axiom of choice, are extremely complicated.
The majority of mathematicians accept the axiom of choice as a valid principle for proving new results in mathematics. The debate is interesting enough, however, that it is considered of note when a theorem in ZFC is logically equivalent (with just the ZF axioms) to the axiom of choice, and mathematicians look for results that require the axiom of choice to be false, though this type of deduction is less common than the type which requires the axiom of choice to be true.
It is possible to prove many theorems using neither the axiom of choice nor its negation; this is common in constructive mathematics. Such statements will be true in any model of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory (ZF), regardless of the truth or falsity of the axiom of choice in that particular model. The restriction to ZF renders any claim that relies on either the axiom of choice or its negation unprovable. For example, the Banach–Tarski paradox is neither provable nor disprovable from ZF alone: it is impossible to construct the required decomposition of the unit ball in ZF, but also impossible to prove there is no such decomposition. Similarly, all the statements listed below which require choice or some weaker version thereof for their proof are unprovable in ZF, but since each is provable in ZF plus the axiom of choice, there are models of ZF in which each statement is true. Statements such as the Banach–Tarski paradox can be rephrased as conditional statements, for example, "If AC holds, the decomposition in the Banach–Tarski paradox exists." Such conditional statements are provable in ZF when the original statements are provable from ZF and the axiom of choice.
By work of Kurt Gödel and Paul Cohen, the axiom of choice is logically independent of the other axioms of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory (ZF). This means that neither it nor its negation can be proven to be true in ZF, if ZF is consistent. Consequently, if ZF is consistent, then ZFC is consistent and ZF¬C is also consistent. So the decision whether or not it is appropriate to make use of the axiom of choice in a proof cannot be made by appeal to other axioms of set theory. The decision must be made on other grounds.
One argument given in favor of using the axiom of choice is that it is convenient to use it: using it cannot hurt (cannot result in contradiction) and makes it possible to prove some propositions that otherwise could not be proved. Many theorems which are provable using choice are of an elegant general character: every ideal in a ring is contained in a maximal ideal, every vector space has a basis, and every product of compact spaces is compact. Without the axiom of choice, these theorems may not hold for mathematical objects of large cardinality.
The proof of the independence result also shows that a wide class of mathematical statements, including all statements that can be phrased in the language of Peano arithmetic, are provable in ZF if and only if they are provable in ZFC.^{[6]} Statements in this class include the statement that P = NP, the Riemann hypothesis, and many other unsolved mathematical problems. When one attempts to solve problems in this class, it makes no difference whether ZF or ZFC is employed if the only question is the existence of a proof. It is possible, however, that there is a shorter proof of a theorem from ZFC than from ZF.
The axiom of choice is not the only significant statement which is independent of ZF. For example, the generalized continuum hypothesis (GCH) is not only independent of ZF, but also independent of ZF plus the axiom of choice (ZFC). However, ZF plus GCH implies AC, making GCH a strictly stronger claim than AC, even though they are both independent of ZF.
The axiom of constructibility and the generalized continuum hypothesis both imply the axiom of choice, but are strictly stronger than it.
In class theories such as Von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory and Morse–Kelley set theory, there is a possible axiom called the axiom of global choice which is stronger than the axiom of choice for sets because it also applies to proper classes. And the axiom of global choice follows from the axiom of limitation of size.
There are a remarkable number of important statements that, assuming the axioms of ZF but neither AC nor ¬AC, are equivalent to the axiom of choice. The most important among them are Zorn's lemma and the wellordering theorem. In fact, Zermelo initially introduced the axiom of choice in order to formalize his proof of the wellordering principle.
There are several results in category theory which invoke the axiom of choice for their proof. These results might be weaker than, equivalent to, or stronger than the axiom of choice, depending on the strength of the technical foundations. For example, if one defines categories in terms of sets, that is, as sets of objects and morphisms (usually called a small category), or even locally small categories, whose homobjects are sets, then there is no category of all sets, and so it is difficult for a categorytheoretic formulation to apply to all sets. On the other hand, other foundational descriptions of category theory are considerably stronger, and an identical categorytheoretic statement of choice may be stronger than the standard formulation, à la class theory, mentioned above.
Examples of categorytheoretic statements which require choice include:
There are several weaker statements that are not equivalent to the axiom of choice, but are closely related. One example is the axiom of dependent choice (DC). A still weaker example is the axiom of countable choice (AC_{ω} or CC), which states that a choice function exists for any countable set of nonempty sets. These axioms are sufficient for many proofs in elementary mathematical analysis, and are consistent with some principles, such as the Lebesgue measurability of all sets of reals, that are disprovable from the axiom of choice.
Other choice axioms weaker than axiom of choice include the Boolean prime ideal theorem and the axiom of uniformization.
One of the most interesting aspects of the axiom of choice is the large number of places in mathematics that it shows up. Here are some statements that require the axiom of choice in the sense that they are not provable from ZF but are provable from ZFC (ZF plus AC). Equivalently, these statements are true in all models of ZFC but false in some models of ZF.
Now, consider stronger forms of the negation of AC. For example, if we abbreviate by BP the claim that every set of real numbers has the property of Baire, then BP is stronger than ¬AC, which asserts the nonexistence of any choice function on perhaps only a single set of nonempty sets. Note that strengthened negations may be compatible with weakened forms of AC. For example, ZF + DC^{[7]} + BP is consistent, if ZF is.
It is also consistent with ZF + DC that every set of reals is Lebesgue measurable; however, this consistency result, due to Robert M. Solovay, cannot be proved in ZFC itself, but requires a mild large cardinal assumption (the existence of an inaccessible cardinal). The much stronger axiom of determinacy, or AD, implies that every set of reals is Lebesgue measurable, has the property of Baire, and has the perfect set property (all three of these results are refuted by AC itself). ZF + DC + AD is consistent provided that a sufficiently strong large cardinal axiom is consistent (the existence of infinitely many Woodin cardinals).
There are models of ZermeloFraenkel set theory in which the axiom of choice is false. We will abbreviate "ZermeloFraenkel set theory plus the negation of the axiom of choice" by ZF¬C. For certain models of ZF¬C, it is possible to prove the negation of some standard facts. Note that any model of ZF¬C is also a model of ZF, so for each of the following statements, there exists a model of ZF in which that statement is true.
For proofs, see Thomas Jech, The Axiom of Choice, American Elsevier Pub. Co., New York, 1973.
"The Axiom of Choice is obviously true, the wellordering principle obviously false, and who can tell about Zorn's lemma?" — Jerry Bona
"The Axiom of Choice is necessary to select a set from an infinite number of socks, but not an infinite number of shoes." — Bertrand Russell
"Tarski tried to publish his theorem [the equivalence between AC and 'every infinite set A has the same cardinality as AxA', see above] in Comptes Rendus, but Fréchet and Lebesgue refused to present it. Fréchet wrote that an implication between two well known [true] propositions is not a new result, and Lebesgue wrote that an implication between two false propositions is of no interest".
"The axiom gets its name not because mathematicians prefer it to other axioms." — A. K. Dewdney
