## Transfinite Induction

"God created infinity, and man, unable to understand infinity, had to invent finite sets." - Gian Carlo Rota

I took a fantastic set theory course in 2015 with the wonderful Paul Vrbik. I took this course in the first year of my undergraduate studies, and was amazed by it. It was in this course I really learned how to prove mathematical statements. Transfinite Induction, the last topic, sadly had to be skipped due to a lack of time. I started writing this blog post as a way of forcing myself to learn about it.

The concept of induction is very familiar to me. Over the set of Natural numbers, if a proposition \(P\) is true for \(0\), and if \(P\) is true for some \(x \in \mathbb{N} \) implies that \(P\) is true for the successor of \(x\), \(S(x) = x + 1\), then \(P\) is true for all Natural numbers.

It is the word transfinite that scared me a little. It comes from our friend Georg Cantor. Cantor took very deep dives into the concept of infinity. It was Cantor who discovered that not all infinites are the same size.

Cantor came up with the concept of the Absolute Infinite, denoted \(\Omega\), which can be thought of as a number that is bigger than any conceivable or inconceivable quantity. Any infinity smaller than this is called transfinite. The cardinalities of Natural Numbers, or Real numbers, or of any set are transfinite.

Looking at Wikipedia the definition of transfinite induction seems straightforward enough

"Transfinite Induction is an extension of mathematical induction to well-ordered sets"

I needed to go back to my notes and remind myself of the formal definition of a well-ordered set. A well-ordered set is a set with a relation in which any two elements can be "ordered" (i.e. one is "before" or "after" the other) by the relation.

So I guess we come to the question, which sets are well-ordered?. I never intended to get into a discussion about the Axiom of Choice in this post, but here we are. It turns out the the Axiom of Choice is equivalent to the well-ordering theorem which states that every set can be well-ordered. Thus transfinite induction can be applied on any set (i.e. you take the least element of the set, which you are guaranteed by the well-order, then take the next in the order and so on).

This means we can perform induction over the reals, or the complex numbers. I am yet to find an easily digestible use of transfinite induction in practice. Through my reading I found an interesting stack overflow post which suggested that prior to Zorn's Lemma, there were many more uses of Transfinite Induction in proofs, however this lemma abstracts this away.