In discussions of first-order logic and set theory, one often hears about nonstandard natural numbers and their unusual properties. But rarely do you hear about nonstandard integers, nonstandard rationals, or nonstandard reals. This post will be devoted to the ways in which these other number systems pick up unintended interpretations in first-order logic, and in particular first-order ZFC.

Nonstandard ℕ

Nonstandard interpretations of the natural numbers are the most well-known, so I won’t spend much time on them. In ZFC, the set of natural numbers is called ω, and is defined to be the intersection of all inductive sets. An inductive set is one that includes zero and is closed under successorship (if n is in the set, then so is S(n)).

This definition feels so right when you think about it for a little while that it’s hard to see how it could go wrong. How could there be anything OTHER than the standard natural numbers in the intersection of all inductive sets?

Well, one can prove from the compactness of first order logic that there must be such nonstandard numbers, and the proof is so simple and pretty that it’s probably already appeared on this blog six or seven times. Add to ZFC a constant K and the axioms “K ∈ ω”, “K > 0”, “K > 1”, “K > 2”, and so on for all the standard naturals (this is a decidable set of sentences). Every finite subset of this new theory has a model, so by compactness the theory as a whole also has a model. This model is nonstandard by construction, and is also a model of ZFC by monotonicity (removing axioms never removes models).

So how do nonstandard naturals appear in the intersection of all inductive sets? The key term to focus on is the “all” in “all inductive sets”. While ZFC guarantees the existence of an inductive set (by the axiom of infinity) and every definable subset of this set (by comprehension/separation), it does not actually guarantee the existence of ALL subsets of this set. (This is actually a general feature of first-order theories, that they are able to guarantee the existence of all definable subsets of a set, but not all subsets.) There are models where the inductive set given to us by the axiom of infinity is enormous (uncountably large), and all of its subsets contain (in addition to the standard naturals) infinitely descending membership chains of sets, each of which contains every standard natural. In these models, omega is not just the standard naturals, but also includes these infinite elements, these numbers with infinitely many predecessors. And the proof from compactness shows us that we can’t eliminate these nonstandard natural numbers.

Nonstandard ℤ

The usual way of defining the integers in ZFC is as equivalence classes of pairs of natural numbers. In particular, we define the equivalence relation ~ on ω×ω as follows: (a, b) ~ (c, d) if and only if a + d = b + c. Two ordered pairs of naturals are equivalent under this relation so long as their difference is the same. So (1, 0) is in the same class as (2, 1), which is in the same class as (15, 14).

The idea here is that the integer represented by the equivalence class of (a, b) is supposed to be what we think of as a – b. So the integer 2 is the equivalence class {(2, 0), (3, 1), (4, 2), (5, 3), …}. And the integer -2 is the equivalence class {(0, 2), (1, 3), (2, 4), (3, 5), …}. For shorthand, we’ll write the equivalence class of (a, b) as [a, b]. Thus for each positive integer n, we can write n = [n, 0], and for each negative integer n, n = [0, n].

Addition and multiplication can be defined on the integers in terms of addition and multiplication on ω.

[a, b] + [c, d] = [a + c, b + d]

[a, b] ⋅ [c, d] = [a⋅c + b⋅d, a⋅d + b⋅c]

Check to make sure that this makes sense in light of our interpretation of [a, b] as a – b. We can also define new operations on the integers that didn’t apply to the naturals, like negation.

-[a, b] = [b, a]

And we can define an order on the integers as follows:

[a, b] < [c, d] if and only if a + d < b + c

Check to make sure that this makes sense.

Now, the integers are built out of ω, so it makes sense that the nonstandard interpretations of ω carry over to nonstandard interpretations of ℤ. But there are in fact two ways in which integers can be nonstandard.

(1) The natural number 0 refers to the same object (the empty set) in every model of ZFC. But the set of natural numbers ω refers to different objects in different models, as we saw a moment ago. In this sense, ω is not categorically defined, while 0 is. But since integers are infinite sets of pairs of elements of ω, individual integers aren’t categorically defined either!

For instance, the integer 0 is the set {(n, m) ∈ ω×ω | n = m}. The number of elements in this set is the same as the number of elements of ω. So the integer 0 has as many elements as ω! This means that in a nonstandard model of ω that has nonstandard numbers like K, 0 will also contain nonstandard ordered pairs like (K, K) and (K+1, K+1).

(2) Consider the nonstandard element of ω that we’re calling K, which is larger than every standard natural number. There’s an integer [K, 0], which is the equivalence class of the ordered pair (K, 0). [K, 0] > [1, 0], because K + 0 > 0 + 1. And [K, 0] > [55, 0], because K + 0 > 0 + 55. And so on for every finite integer. Just like ω, there are models in which ℤ has integers larger than all the standard integers.

But unlike ω, in nonstandard models ℤ also has nonstandard integers less than all standard integers. Consider -[K, 0] = [0, K]. Again, you can prove that this integer is less than the integer 0, the integer -55, and so on for every standard integer you can think of.

From now on I’ll write the integer [n, 0] as n and the integer [0, n] as -n.

Nonstandard ℚ

Just as the integers were equivalence classes of pairs of naturals, the rationals are equivalence classes of pairs of integers. We define a new equivalence relation (which I’ll use the same symbol for) as follows:

For integers a, b, c, and d, (a, b) ~ (c, d) if and only if a⋅d = b⋅c.

This equates any two pairs of integers that have the same ratio. So (1, 2) ~ (2, 4) ~ (15, 30), and (-33, 17) ~ (66, -34) ~ (-99, 51). The equivalence classes of this relationship are the rational numbers. Like before, we’ll write [a, b] to represent the equivalence class that (a, b) belongs to. You can think of [a, b] as representing the rational number a/b.

Defining addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division on the rationals is pretty easy:

[a, b] + [c, d] = [a⋅d + b⋅c, b⋅d]

[a, b] ⋅ [c, d] = [a⋅c, b⋅d]

[a, b] – [c, d] = [a⋅d – b⋅c, b⋅d]

[a, b] / [c, d] = [a⋅d, b⋅c]

And the order is similarly easy to define in terms of the order on integers:

[a, b] < [c, d] if and only if a⋅d < b⋅c

Once we’ve moved to ℤ, there’s an explosion of nonstandard elements. For instance, we still have nonstandard rationals larger than every ordinary rational (like [K, 1]). But now we also have rationals like [1, K]. This rational is smaller than every ordinary positive rational [1, 10], [1, 100], [1, 1000], and so on. And it is greater than the rational number 0! So in other words we now have infinitesimal rational numbers!

What’s more, we can construct a rational like [K+1, K]. This guy is infinitesimally larger than the rational number 1. So is [K+1, K⋅2], but this one is even closer to 1 than the previous. And we also have [K+1, K_{2}], which is even closer!

The nonstandard rational number line is crowded with these infinitesimal and infinite elements. The ordinary rationals are usually thought to be dense, but we’ve just seen that there are nonstandard rationals that are “too close together” to fit any standard rationals in. However, between any two nonstandard rationals K and K’, there’s another nonstandard rational (K + K’) / 2.

If you’ve heard of the hyperreals, you might be wondering if any of the nonstandard rationals have the same structure. The simple reason why they don’t is that the hyperreals are complete – there are no gaps – whereas the rationals are not. For instance, ZFC can prove that there is no rational [a, b] such that [a, b] ⋅ [a, b] = 2, but there is a hyperreal with that property. To get completion of the number line, we have to move on to the next step, the reals.

Nonstandard ℝ

The construction of the reals from the rationals is slightly different from the previous constructions. Instead of considering ordered pairs of rationals, we’ll consider sets of rationals. In particular, we’ll look at nonempty sets of rationals that are closed downwards (if n is in the set and m < n, then m is in the set also), and have no greatest element, but don’t include all rationals.

Each real number is one of these subsets, and ℝ is the set of all such subsets. So for instance, the real number √2 is the set {x ∈ ℚ : x^{2} < 2}. The order on the reals is simple to describe:

x ≤ y if and only if x ⊆ y

Addition is also easily defined:

x + y = {r + s : (r ∈ x) ∧ (s ∈ y)}

Multiplication of reals has a messier definition, but it’s nothing too crazy. And importantly, ZFC can prove that ℝ has the following feature: any non-empty subset of ℝ which is bounded above has a least upper bound.

Now, in nonstandard models, there are real numbers like K, 1/K, 1 + 1/K^{2} and so on. But now there’s also real numbers like √K, 2^{K}, log(K), and any other function you can define on the reals, applied to infinite reals and infinitesimals. So in one sense, the nonstandard models have many more reals than the “ordinary reals” we learn about in calculus.

But the way we constructed the reals as subsets of the rationals opened up a new type of nonstandard phenomena, in which there end up being many fewer reals that we expect there to be. Remember that we identified reals with subsets of the rationals, and that earlier we said that there is in general no way to guarantee the existence of all subsets of an infinite set. The same applies here; when we say that ℝ = {A ⊆ ℚ | A is a Dedekind cut}, we are actually only guaranteeing the existence of those reals that can be definable as Dedekind cuts. So for instance, ZFC can prove the existence of √2 as a real number, because ZFC can define the Dedekind cut {x ∈ ℚ : x^{2} < 2}. Same with most real numbers you’re probably familiar with, like π and e. But considering that there are only countably many definitions in ZFC, and uncountably many reals, there must be uncountably many reals that are undefinable! These undefinable reals cannot be proven to exist, and thus there are models in which they don’t exist.

In fact, the set ℝ is the first of the sets we’ve discussed that not only has nonstandard interpretations in which it’s too large, but also nonstandard interpretations in which it’s too small. There are models of ZFC where ℝ has only countably many items! There’s a subtlety here, which is that ZFC can prove that |ℝ| > |ω|. How is this possible if there are models where ℝ is countable?

It’s possible because these models, which are missing many real numbers, are ALSO missing lots of functions, in particular the functions that would put ℝ and ω in bijective correspondence! So even though ℝ is “in reality” countable in these models, the model itself doesn’t know that, because it’s missing the functions that prove its countability.