Category of Sets - Foundations For The Category of Sets

Foundations For The Category of Sets

In Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory the collection of all sets is not a set; this follows from the axiom of foundation. One refers to collections that are not sets as proper classes. One can't handle proper classes as one handles sets; in particular, one can't write that those proper classes belong to a collection (either a set or a proper class). This is a problem: it means that the category of sets cannot be formalized straightforwardly in this setting.

One way to resolve the problem is to work in a system that gives formal status to proper classes, such as NBG set theory. In this setting, categories formed from sets are said to be small and those (like Set) that are formed from proper classes are said to be large.

Another solution is to assume the existence of Grothendieck universes. Roughly speaking, a Grothendieck universe is a set which is itself a model of ZF(C) (for instance if a set belongs to a universe, its elements and its powerset will belong to the universe). The existence of Grothendieck universes (other than the empty set and the set of all hereditarily finite sets) is not implied by the usual ZF axioms; it is an additional, independent axiom, roughly equivalent to the existence of strongly inaccessible cardinals. Assuming this extra axiom, one can limit the objects of Set to the elements of a particular universe. (There is no "set of all sets" within the model, but one can still reason about the class U of all inner sets, i. e., elements of U.)

In one variation of this scheme, the class of sets is the union of the entire tower of Grothendieck universes. (This is necessarily a proper class, but each Grothendieck universe is a set because it is an element of some larger Grothendieck universe.) However, one does not work directly with the "category of all sets". Instead, theorems are expressed in terms of the category SetU whose objects are the elements of a sufficiently large Grothendieck universe U, and are then shown not to depend on the particular choice of U. As a foundation for category theory, this approach is well matched to a system like Tarski–Grothendieck set theory in which one cannot reason directly about proper classes; its principal disadvantage is that a theorem can be true of all SetU but not of Set.

Various other solutions, and variations on the above, have been proposed.

The same issues arise with other concrete categories, such as the category of groups or the category of topological spaces.

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