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Who doesn’t like self-referential paradoxes? There is something about them that appeals to all and sundry. And, there is also a certain air of mystery associated with them, but when people talk about such paradoxes in a non-technical fashion indiscriminately, especially when dealing with Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, then quite often it gets annoying!

Lawvere in ‘Diagonal Arguments and Cartesian Closed Categories‘ sought, among several things, to demystify the incompleteness theorem. To pique your interest, in a self-commentary on the above paper, he actually has quite a few harsh words, in a manner of speaking.

“The original aim of this article was to demystify the incompleteness theorem of Gödel and the truth-definition theory of Tarski by showing that both are consequences of some very simple algebra in the cartesian-closed setting. It was always hard for many to comprehend how Cantor’s mathematical theorem could be re-christened as a“paradox” by Russell and how Gödel’s theorem could be so often declared to be the most significant result of the 20th century. There was always the suspicion among scientists that such extra-mathematical publicity movements concealed an agenda for re-establishing belief as a substitute for science.”

In the aforesaid paper, Lawvere of course uses the language of category theory – the setting is that of cartesian closed categories – and therefore the technical presentation can easily get out of reach of most people’s heads – including myself. Thankfully, Noson S. Yanofsky has written a nice paper, ‘A Universal Approach to Self-Referential Paradoxes, Incompleteness and Fixed Points’, that is a lot more accessible and fun to read as well.Yanofsky employs only the notions of sets and functions, thereby avoiding the language of category theory, to bring out and make accessible as much as possible the content of Lawvere’s paper. Cantor’s theorem, Russell’s Paradox, the non-definability of satisfiability, Tarski’s non-definability of truth and Gödel’s (first) incompleteness theorem are all shown to be paradoxical phenomena that merely result from the existence of a cartesian closed category satisfying certain conditions. The idea is to use a single formalism to describe all these diverse phenomena.

(Dang, I just found that John Baez had already blogged on this before, way back in 2006!)

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