I don't know if my textbook is written poorly or I'm dumb. But I can't bring myself to understand the following definition.

A real number is a cut, which parts the rational numbers into two classes. Let $\mathbb{R}$ be the set of cuts. A cut is a set of rational numbers $A \subset \mathbb{Q}$ with the following properties:

i) $A \neq \emptyset$ and $A \neq \mathbb{Q}$.

ii) if $p \in A$ and $q < p$ then $q \in A$.

iii) if $p \in A$, there exists some $r \in A$ so that $p < r$ (i.e. $A$ doesn't contain the "biggest" number).

That's a literal translation from my textbook (which is written in Slovenian). All seems fine and I can get my head around all of the postulations except for one. The definition states in the beginning "A real number is a cut...", but then it also states "A cut is a set of rational numbers..." So a real number is 'a set of rational numbers'?!

It's not my bad translation, I swear, I'm quite good at English. Either the textbook is written in such a convoluted manner that I can't properly understand the wording the author chose or I'm overlooking something big. Could you please clarify and explain the definition in full detail?

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    $\begingroup$ What's the confusion? $\endgroup$
    – Nagase
    Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 19:53
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    $\begingroup$ You are not confused, you just don't like the definition. From the wording of your question, it seems clear to us that you do understand that a real number is thought of as a set of rational numbers in Dedekind's definition. You just don't like this idea for defining a real number. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ This is the same kind of "trick" as constructing the integers as equivalence classes of pairs of naturals with the same difference (e.g. "-2" as an integer is $\{(0,2),(1,3),(2,4),...\}$). We want to cover all possible numbers with some property of the constructed objects, but we can't define that property without already having the numbers we're trying to construct! So instead we define the number as the constructed object that "resolves" to that number. $\endgroup$
    – Deusovi
    Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ @ThorstenS. Computability and Dedekind cuts don't really interact much. Almost all real numbers are uncomputable. The fact that you can't figure out what the cuts are doesn't stop you from defining them. This is a different question though that might have an answer on this SE and if it doesn't it might be worth asking. $\endgroup$
    – DRF
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 6:23
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    $\begingroup$ For example, $\sqrt 2$ would end up being $(-\infty, \sqrt 2) \cap \mathbb Q$ but they have to say it in a way that doesn't use $\sqrt 2$ or the real numbers. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 11:11

16 Answers 16


As I said in my comment, you are in good company---in fact, the company of Dedekind himself! In a letter to Heinrich Weber, Dedekind says the following:

(...) I would advise that by [natural] number one understand not the class itself (...) but something new (corresponding to this class) which the mind creates. (...) This is precisely the same question that you raise at the end of your letter in connection with my theory of irrationals, where you say that the irrational number is nothing other than the cut itself, while I prefer to create something new (different from the cut) that corresponds to the cut and of which I prefer to say it brings forth, creates the cut. (Ewald, From Kant to Hilbert, vol. 2, p. 835)

So Dedekind himself preferred not to identify the real number with the cut, merely saying that the mind somehow creates the real number which then corresponds to the cut. This is, however, a little bit obscure, so it's not surprising that most mathematicians (such as Weber!) decided to ignore Dedekind's suggestion and simply identify the real number with the cut. The reasoning behind this identification is roughly the following.

We know that any Dedekind-complete ordered field is isomorphic to the field of the real numbers. In particular, this means that any construction or theorem carried out in the real numbers could be reproduced inside an arbitrary Dedekind-ordered field, and vice-versa, by simply using the isomorphism as a "translation" between the fields. Hence, it doesn't matter what the real numbers actually are; for mathematical purposes, even supposing that there is such a thing as the real numbers, anything that we wanted to do with them could also be accomplished in an arbitrary Dedekind-complete ordered field.

Thus, if we could show that the cuts themselves satisfy the axioms for being a Dedekind-complete ordered field, then we could dispense with the real numbers altogether and simply work with the cuts themselves. And, in fact, we can show that this is the case! One need only to show that, given two cuts, $X$ and $Y$, it's possible to define operations on them corresponding to the usual operations on the real numbers, such as addition and multiplication, and that after doing so these operations will satisfy the field axioms. It's not difficult to see that the obvious operations will yield the desired result (exercise!), though it is somewhat laborious. If you are interested in seeing a detailed verification, I recommend reading, say, Appendix A of Yiannis Moshovakis excellent book Notes on Set Theory, which contains a very thorough discussion of the matter.

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    $\begingroup$ It does not matter what any mathematical object is, what matters are the specific properties which describe it uniquely, but this philosophy should not be used to downplay the definition of a mathematical object. It is of utmost importance to understand how a complicated mathematical object can be created out of simpler objects and thereby describe the properties of a complicated object in terms of properties of a simpler object. $\endgroup$
    – Paramanand Singh
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 2:06
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    $\begingroup$ Interesting quote! $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 9:03
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    $\begingroup$ @LarsH You have the exact same issue with the canonical construction of the naturals in ZFC. 1 is an element of 2 in that construction. That kind of ambiguity is not really important though, because numbers don't have "set like" semantics in standard usage, so their "set like" characteristics can be arbitrary as long as they don't conflict with the properties we care about. At the end of the day it is just a tool. There is some worry a priori that such an object even exists, so there is a desire to construct one explicitly. Then you care about whether they are "unique" in the way we care about $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 13, 2018 at 8:36
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    $\begingroup$ @LarsH Any explicit construction of anything satisfies a superset of the properties it was constructed to model by necessity. At the end of the day what we care about is that we have an ordered field that is Dedekind (Or alternatively Cauchy) complete. We'd like at least one of them to exist, and we'd like it to not matter much which one we use. So take your pick and by convention we call the entire concept "the reals". There are formulations of analysis that postulate the existence of at least one dedekind complete ordered field and explicitly call it the real numbers. That is unnecessary. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 13, 2018 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ @LarsH Whether $1 \in \sqrt 2$ makes sense depends on your perspective. It may not make much sense at first glance, but it does once you write it as $1 < \sqrt 2$, which is exactly what it is: a rational number $x$ is an element of the lower Dedekind cut for a real $r$ iff $x < r$. Similarly, a subset relation on cuts defines a linear order on the reals, and it's easy to check that when one of them is a rational this order coincides with the one defined by the membership relation above. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 20:34

The Dedekind cut splits $\mathbb Q$ in two subsets of rationals, all the ones smaller than the desired real, and all the ones larger.

These infinite subsets are used because a real might not be a rational, but can be approached arbitrarily closely by rationals. And by using infinitely many rationals, you can get closer and closer. (You need them all because there is no "closest" rational.)

For instance,


As the concept of reals can only be defined using already established concepts, the real is defined to be one of these sets of rationals.

If this approach seems contrived to you, remember that a rational is an infinite set of integer pairs $(kp,kq)$ where $p,q$ are relative primes.

From this definition, the basic operations (addition, multiplication, comparison...) on reals can be defined, by reasoning on the infinite subsets. But once the algebraic properties of these numbers are established, they can be manipulated as if they were "atomic" entities.

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    $\begingroup$ It’s a little confusing to say it “cuts the real line.” It cuts the rational numbers or rational line. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ @ThomasAndrews: yes, but it can also be uninituitive that real points are found "between" points of a line that only contains rationals. So I preferred to say real even if at this stage reals were undefined. This sentence is not meant to be rigorous. $\endgroup$
    – user65203
    Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ In response to @ThomasAndrews comment, why not start with a paragraph noting that this construction builds on an intuitive sense of how the real line behaves in order to create something that captures the behavior, which we then call the real line? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ @EthanBolker: I have removed the reference to a line that caused the little controversy, because these nuances won't be helpful to the OP. $\endgroup$
    – user65203
    Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ Would the phrase "corresponding real" be clearer than "desired real" in the first sentence? I understand what is meant by "desired" there, it just seems like a slightly odd word in that context. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 11, 2018 at 18:59

Have you seen the construction of the integers (from the natural numbers)? The integers are constructed as classes of equivalences of ordered pairs, which is also "weird". In order for you to begin to understand this process, start by thinking about those definitions as implementations, or models, of structures that we will (artificially, you can say, but that is irrelevant) show that behave like we expect them to behave in order for them to be called as such (integers, real numbers etc). Later you will see that this distinction is mostly psychological.

The bottom line is: They are clever ways to show the existence of objects which realize the structure we are idealizing. Dedekind cuts is a particularly clever example, as I'm sure you will eventually appreciate.

One way to start appreciating the cleverness behind this construction (and also dispel the negative feeling of artificiality and/or confusion) is by trying to define the real numbers by yourself. Be critical in such construction, and you will realize that a lot of your attempts will be (most likely) circular.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 especially for the last paragraph. Defining a real number is difficult and hence routinely avoided in textbooks of calculus. $\endgroup$
    – Paramanand Singh
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 2:20
  • $\begingroup$ 'The integers are constructed as classes of equivalences of ordered pairs, which is also "weird".' I think you mean constructing rational numbers from integers, not integers from natural numbers? $\endgroup$
    – JiK
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 9:58
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    $\begingroup$ @JiK A similar construction works for the integers as well. The equivalence relation is $(a,b) \equiv (c,d) :\Leftrightarrow a + d = b + c$ on $\mathbb N^2$. $\endgroup$
    – AlexR
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 10:12
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexR Oh. I didn't know that is "the construction of integers" (I thought just adding another version for each positive integer is more common), but indeed it's quite natural. But I'm not sure that example is good for OP's understanding, for someone who doesn't grasp the concept, it might seem even more convoluted than Dedekind cuts. $\endgroup$
    – JiK
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 11:32
  • $\begingroup$ @JiK a construction would surely have been more clear :) $\endgroup$
    – AlexR
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 12:00

I haven't got time to do a lot of this right now, but I googled "eudoxus theory of proportions" and one of the first things to come up was this. Note in particular on page 53:

Eudoxus’ idea was to say that a length... is determined by those rational lengths less than it and those rational lengths greater than it.

In other words, this is essentially Dedekind cuts, 2300 years before Dedekind!

IMHO a bit of historical context often helps with this sort of thing. Try googling for yourself, you may find something which helps you even more than the above link.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for pointing this out. I still wonder why this simple idea is presented in so boring and dry manner in the formalism of set theory. The treatment by Eudoxus is so simple to understand. Even Dedekind's own treatment is simpler compared to what we find in modern analysis texts. $\endgroup$
    – Paramanand Singh
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 6:32
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    $\begingroup$ Eudoxus' construction is laid out in Euclid's Elements, Book V, Definitions. The Elements having been the standard introductory European mathematics textbook for centuries, Dedekind and Weierstrass were very likely aware of Eudoxus' construction. See the very interesting book The Forgotten Revolution by Lucio Russo (Springer, 2004). $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 11, 2018 at 7:44

I think your problem with Dedekind's definition is rather philosophical. You understand the definition, you just don't like it. If it helps, let us look at another definition for a real number which might be more intuitive. One given by Cauchy (Egreg has pointed out that this definition is due to Cantor):

A real number is a class of equivalent Cauchy sequences with terms in $\mathbb{Q}$. Yes, unfortunately we still can't get rid of the idea of representing a real number by a set!

Two Cauchy sequences are equivalent iff the difference between them goes to $0$. The idea is simple. You know that a real number has a decimal expansion. For example:

$$\sqrt{2} = 1.4142135623730950488$$

So, you can define a sequence of rational numbers that converges to $\sqrt{2}$:. $$a_1=1,a_2=1.4,a_3=1.41,a_4=1.4142$$ and so on.

The thing is that this sequence of rational numbers is converging to a number that is not rational. This shows that rational numbers have holes!

But what is so good about a Cauchy sequence? A Cauchy sequence is a sequence where its terms are getting closer and closer and closer to each other. So, we expect it to converge to something if there is no "hole" in our space. If there is a hole, we can't converge to it. But we can manually/artificially add it to our original space and "complete" our space. This is how real numbers are obtained from rational numbers in real analysis: as the completion of the rational numbers with the Euclidean metric.

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    $\begingroup$ The definition with Cauchy sequences is due to Cantor $\endgroup$
    – egreg
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 12:32
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    $\begingroup$ The problem doesn't go away if you use Cauchy sequences. In fact it goes worse. A real number is represented by multiple Cauchy sequences. You need an equivalence relation between sequences: two are related if their difference converges to zero. So each real number is an equivalence class - a set of Cauchy sequences that are related to each other. For example, sqrt(2) is the set of all sequences related to the one shown. $\endgroup$
    – Heimdall
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 12:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Heimdall That's what I have said. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 13:08
  • $\begingroup$ @egreg Thanks for pointing it out, Egreg. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 17:28

You will find that all sorts of things which seem obvious are in fact defined as sets - one aspect of this is the way that the logical foundations of mathematics are often with reference to set theory.

In fact, if you build mathematics from set theory, you find that natural numbers are defined as sets, and these are generalised to ordinal numbers, which include infinite sets.

Then when we define the rational numbers we want $\frac 12=\frac 24=\frac 36=\dots$ and one way of doing this is to define a rational number as an equivalence class (a set) of ordered pairs of integers.

We recover the normal way of looking at things by giving these sets names (so we name the numbers we use), and we tend to forget the underlying structure once we have checked that everything is well-defined.

The importance of the Dedekind construction using cuts is that it constructs a collection of numbers which have the properties we expect and hope and want. We can in fact show that (given the correct definition) any collection of objects which has the properties of the real numbers is isomorphic to the reals - it has essentially the same structure and the same properties and there are no surprises. But we still need to know that such a collection of objects exists - and that is what Dedekind shows. Once we have these properties with uniqueness and existence, we can, in fact, choose our favourite names for the objects with confidence.


I think you should begin by asking a simpler question : what is a rational number? Or perhaps even simpler: what is an integer or a natural number?

Let's take the existence of natural numbers for granted (doing this helps us avoid lot of set theory). Then an integer can be described by a single natural number and the idea of a negative. Going forward one can describe a rational number using two integers. Note that it is not possible to describe a rational number using just one integer and the idea of a reciprocal.

The next step of describing a real number in terms of rationals is difficult and most presentations focus on the set theoretic aspect rather than the essence of the matter. The key idea is that a real number can not be described in terms of a finite number of rationals. Rather to describe a real number we require an infinite number of rationals in an essential manner. The method of describing the real number may be different (like infinite decimal representation, Dedekind cut, Cauchy sequence etc) but all the descriptions have one thing in common. They all deal with an infinite number of rationals. And this is the primary source of difficulty in understanding the nature of a real number. The most natural way to handle the situation is to define a real number as some infinite set of rationals with specific properties.

Without going into a specific definition of a real number, it should be noted that the rationals being used to describe a real number are approximations to the real number being defined and it is essential that the description includes as good approximation as needed. To put the matter in crude terms, real numbers are things that are well approximated using rationals and we usually identify the real number with the set of rationals approximating it.


Based on the comments, I think you have a good intuitive grasp of the intent of the definition already. Namely, when we choose to use Dedekind cuts to define the reals, the idea is that any real number $x$ will be $\sup A$ for some Dedekind cut $A.$

The problem with this is that in order to write $x = \sup A,$ we must be able to evaluate $\sup A,$ that is, we need to identify a number that satisfies the necessary conditions to be $\sup A.$ But since we are still in the process of defining the real numbers, the only numbers we have available to use as values are numbers such as the integers or the rational numbers, and $\sup A$ is not yet defined for most of the Dedekind cuts.

So in order to initially define the real numbers so that we can start working with them, we take a Dedekind cut $A$ itself as the definition of a real number. The intuition is still that the real number we define in this way is (or should be) a supremum of the cut $A,$ but in order to avoid a circular reference we avoid making that part of the definition.

Of course, once we have defined the real numbers (using Dedekind cuts or any other method), we can construct a set of real numbers $A'$ that corresponds exactly to any given Dedekind cut $A$ (that is, the real number $r$ is in $A'$ if and only if $r$ corresponds to one of the rational numbers in $A$), and then we expect to find that $A = \sup A'.$ In other words, once the real numbers have been defined, each real number is the supremum of its own Dedekind cut.


I concur with Nagase's answer, but I wish to elaborate more on the logical aspects. In short, reals are not entities we pluck out of thin air or fancy alone, but are rather described as a single whole structure that we believe is meaningful. So we can and should separate between the properties of such structures (Dedekind-complete ordered fields) and the question of whether they exist.

One can do practically all practical real analysis using the second-order axiomatization of the reals, but one should also separately show that such fields exist, so that the theorems about real fields are actually saying something!

To prove existence, one can constructed the set $R$ of all equivalence classes of Cauchy sequences of rationals, where two sequences are equivalent iff their difference tends to zero, then define $+,·,<$ on the classes, and then prove that the resulting structure $(R,+,·,<)$ is indeed a Dedekind-complete ordered field.

One can alternatively construct the set $R$ of all equivalence classes of Dedekind cuts of rationals (where two cuts are equivalent iff ...), then define $+,·,<$ on them, and then prove that the resulting structure $(R,+,·,<)$ is indeed a Dedekind-complete ordered field.

In either case, all theorems of real analysis that we prove using only the axiomatization of the reals will apply to $(R,+,·,<)$. Furthermore, we can show that the rationals as an ordered field embeds into $(R,+,·,<)$. Using this embedding we can construct another structure $(R',+',·',<')$ which is a Dedekind-complete ordered field that contains the rationals directly. It is precisely because of this that we usually consider the rationals to be a substructure of the reals. This is the actual source of your confusion.

In fact, one can prove that the second-order axiomatization of the reals is categorical, meaning that it describes a unique structure up to isomorphism. In other words, any two Dedekind-complete ordered fields are isomorphic. This is the reason we usually call the reals "the reals", because there essentially is only one such structure (abstractly speaking).

Note that categoricity of the second-order axiomatization of the reals crucially depends on the second-order completeness axiom. See this post for some details on this.

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    $\begingroup$ I was waiting for your answer +1 for the points you have emphasized. $\endgroup$
    – Paramanand Singh
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 8:14

To cut directly to the chase:

The definition states in the beginning "A real number is a cut...", but then it also states "A cut is a set of rational numbers..." So a real number is 'a set of rational numbers'?!

The word "is" here is a shortcut for a bijection. To be very exact, the book and your translation should read "there is a bijection between the set of the real numbers, and the set of cuts"; and further "there is a bijection between the set of cuts and the set of sets of rational numbers".

Hence, by transivity, you get "there is a bijection between the set of real numbers and the set of sets of rational numbers".

Obviously, this is a bit unwieldy to read and write, so "is" is used instead.


The secret is not to think too hard. Take a real number x, and take all rational numbers q < x. Now, the set of all rational numbers q < x satisfies the definition of a cut. In the same fashion, given a cut according to the definition of set of rational numbers you describe, you can find a real number x which is the sup of that cut.

So, in a way, you can identify a cut (a set of rational numbers) with a real number.


The OP's translated definition is somewhat deficient. The idea of a "cut" really deserves its full definition before you can leverage that to construct the "reals". The fact that the OP's quoted definition intermixes the two is what personally gives me grief; and raises the circular-definition issue in this related SE question. Compare to the short definition at Wikipedia:

A Dedekind cut in an ordered field is a partition of it, (A, B), such that A is nonempty and closed downwards, B is nonempty and closed upwards, and A contains no greatest element. Real numbers can be constructed as Dedekind cuts of rational numbers.

Note that the first sentence defines a "cut"; the second sentence suggests how to define a "real". (More detail is at the Wikipedia link, of course.)

Conceptually, we would like to give a proper definition to real numbers, but of course we can't use the term "real" or else have a circular, not well-defined term. So we can only refer to more primitive concepts, such as sets and rationals. The basic intuition is that if the number line were continuous, any "place" (i.e., "cut") that separates it into two parts would in fact be a usable number. Since such a place-cut may not be rational, we are forced instead to formally talk about the set of all rationals less than that place-cut.

As other answers have noted, this is a consistent practice in formally defining other sets of numbers. Natural numbers are defined as sets of different cardinalities. Integers are connoted as sets of differences of naturals. Rationals are equated to sets of quotients of integers. And so forth.

  • $\begingroup$ There are two ways different authors define Dedekind cuts, either the partition you mentioned or just A - they are equivalent as you can construct B if you only have A. Even in a small language like Slovenian: OP's book just uses A, but my book in the same language uses the partition. $\endgroup$
    – Heimdall
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 13:09

The question posed by the OP has been adequately answered here, but let me give a bit of background that might put the ideas in context.

First, (one of) the other definitions of the Real Numbers is that a real is an Equivalence Class of Cauchy Sequences of rationals. Both the idea of a Cauchy Sequence (infinite sequences whose terms are "eventually" close together), and the idea of an Equivalence Class (things "related" to each other in an Equivalence Relation). This, like Dedekind Cuts is a quite beautiful thing, but also difficult to grasp immediately. It is an abstraction built up of other abstractions which are themselves... recursively back to (perhaps) the Peano Axioms.

But the reason for this note is the following.

Mathematics of Number is built from two things, Sets of Axioms and Definitions. The Peano Axioms don't "define" the notion of 0 (I'll start with 0 rather than 1 to simplify the argument here), except in the context of the other axioms. Think of the Peano Axioms as a "collective definition" of the Natural Numbers.

However, to get "interesting things" to talk about, mathematicians also define things based on the axioms (and earlier definitions). So we can define Prime Numbers after a bit of work. If you look, most of the theorems of mathematics talk about things defined, not the axioms per se.

But we can define The Integers as equivalence classes of ordered pairs of natural numbers. So -3 (in the usual notation) is the equivalence class that contains (2, 5) whereas 3 (as a member of the integers) is now the class that contains, for example (7, 4). The notion of "negative" is derived from this, rather than part of the definition. And the simpler concept (Natural Number) embeds naturally into the new one (Integer).

Likewise we can define Rationals based on simpler things (Integers), and eventually Reals based on those.

These definitions give us "interesting things" to study, resulting in Theorems that specify how these new things behave.

But the crux is this. What is the alternative?

We could, of course, though with some difficulty, simply abandon the Peano Axioms and create a new set of axioms for the Integers and then yet another set for the Rationals, etc. This seems appealing initially, but leaves us with the problem of proving that the various axiom systems are consistent with each other. That can be very difficult, and mathematicians have, in general, chosen the axiom + definition path as the preferred one.

That isn't to say that new axioms are never introduced - The Axiom of Choice, for example.

Back to Dedekind Cuts for a moment. Note that when you give two definitions of something, some Theorems will be easier with one of the definitions and others will be harder. That is expected. But even here you need at some point to show that the two definitions are consistent with each other: that the notion of Real as "Dedekind Cut" and the notion of Real as "Equivalence class of Cauchy Sequences" are the same notion.

Only then can you say that $v = sqrt(2)$ is both the set of rationals whose square is less than 2 and the set (equivalence class) of Cauchy sequences that "converge" to v.

Note the definitions here are informal, inviting further study. Also to avoid making this a textbook. In particular, I left "convergence" undefined. Nor did I say which equivalence relation of Cauchy Sequences is used to define Reals. That is all intentional.


A Dedekind cut is most commonly described as a partition of the set of rationals $\mathbb Q$ into two non-empty sets $A$ and $B$, such that $\forall a\in A, b\in B\ (a<b)$. And that, IMHO, is more comprehensible. See Wikipedia Dedekind cut.

The definition in your textbook just uses a half of the partition, the set $A$ – but it is equivalent to the one above, because the properties defined clearly imply the $B$ set.


The OP should have no trouble understanding the following mathematical investigation of 'cuts' by clearing their minds and starting fresh; the material is presented as a warm-up / motivational exercise.

Before starting, recall that if $q \in \mathbb Q$ and $0 \lt q \lt 1$ then there are positive integers $d$, $n$, and $m$ so that algebraically

$\tag 0 q = \frac{n}{d} \text{ and } \frac{n}{d} + \frac{m}{d} = 1$

and that we can look at this as breaking unity into two complementary pieces. We have $n$ parts on the left side and $m$ parts on the right side. We can generalize this idea of proportion shown in $\text{(0)}$.

Let $\mathcal U = \{q \in \mathbb Q \; | \; 0 \lt q \lt 1\}$.

Let $A \subset \mathcal U$. We call $A$ a left chunkette of $\mathcal U$ if it satisfies the following:

$\tag 1 A \ne \emptyset$ $\tag 2 \text{If } a_1 \in A \text{ and } a_0 \lt a_1 \text{ Then } a_0 \in A$ $\tag 3 A \text{ has no greatest number}$

In a similar manner, we can define a right chunkette of $\mathcal U$.

We define a cut $\gamma$ of $\mathcal U$ to be an ordered pair $(A,B)$ of subsets $A, B \subset \mathcal U$ satisfying the following:

$\tag 4 A \cap B = \emptyset$ $\tag 5 A \text{ is a left chunkette and } B \text{ is a right chunkette}$ $\tag 6 \text{For every integer } n \gt 0 \text{ there exist } a \in A, b \in B \text{ such that } b - a \lt 1/n$

Let $\hat{\mathcal U}$ be the collection of all cuts of $\mathcal U$.

Exercise: Define a (natural) injective mapping of $\mathcal U$ into $\hat{\mathcal U}$.

The interested reader is invited to extend these ideas by defining cuts (as 'kissing' chunkettes) on $\mathbb Q$ and then creating the real numbers.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't get the definition $\mathcal{U} = \{ q \in \mathbb{Q} \; | \; 0 < q < 1 \}$. Shouldn't that define only a portion of rational numbers which lie between $0$ and $1$? $\endgroup$
    – God bless
    Commented Jul 13, 2018 at 18:13
  • $\begingroup$ Yes! $\mathcal{U}$ is just the open interval $(0,1)$ of rational numbers. Just wanted to set up a symmetric type of cut definition that might give you a warm and fuzzy feeling. You can do the same thing $ \{ q \in \mathbb{Q} \; | 0 < q\}$ and see if you can define addition and multiplication of the 'kissing' chunkettes. But the exercise is worth working on. It is a baby step to understanding the full blown theory of how the real numbers are constructed via cuts. If you need help, I will work out the details for you. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2018 at 0:54
  • $\begingroup$ Also note, that with my 'symmetric def'', a cut is an ordered pair of sets; see CiaPan's answer. But the driving motivation is to find a precise way of filling in all the gaps at once - to describe those 'missing tick marks' on our ideal measuring ruler - the real line. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2018 at 12:15

I'd like to give a programming perspective (or really, an analogy) over here.

Suppose you want a stack, a data structure, which basically allows access only to the "top of the stack" in terms of pushing or popping elements on the top, but never anywhere else:


However, you are working with a (relatively) low level programming language, which is only equipped with memory operations such as allocating some sized memory block or freeing it up. But you can still implement a stack.

The key word here is implement. Although your programming language did not "have" stacks, you could still make a satisfactory implementation of stacks that simulate a stack.

How do you know that you have implemented the stack correctly? When you cannot tell the difference between a "real" stack and the simulated stack by interacting with it through the methods exposed.

To draw the parallel, what we are doing in mathematics is: starting with some machinery like sets, natural numbers, integers, real numbers and pretending that real numbers are not available in our language. Then we ask, can we somehow "implement" real numbers using the machinery we already have? Again, what does it mean for an implementation (or construction) of real numbers to be correct? Well, it should follow the real number axioms.

This is an ubiquitous themes in the Foundations of Mathematics. Another interesting example is the implementation of natural numbers in lambda calculus.

So, the question now is, why not just start with real numbers built-in to your language? By that, what I mean is you could extend your formal language to say that "there exists a complete ordered field...". The problem is that, how do you know that adding this axiom is still a sane thing to do? Sure, for real numbers, it might feel intuitive, but as a philosophical endeavour, we would like to see if it can be constructed.

For what it is worth, there are other ways to construct real numbers other than dedekind cuts, and all of them are equally correct. However, real analysts do not reason about real numbers pretending that they are a cut, or that they are a cauchy sequence in their daily work since the axioms are a more "high level interface" to work with.


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