I'm looking for an intuitive explanation of this without too much jargon as I am new to set theory. I understand Cantor's diagonal proof as well as the basic idea of 'this statement cannot be proved false,' I'm just struggling to link the two together.


  • $\begingroup$ I would say they are two different things. Cantor considered the sequence whose nth member is the nth digit of the nth number in a sequence of number. Godel considered a particular n. $\endgroup$ – DanielWainfleet Feb 7 '19 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ The idea of "diagonalization" is a bit more general then Cantor's diagonal argument. What they have in common is that you kind of have a bunch of things indexed by two positive integers, and one looks at those items indexed by pairs $(n,n)$. The "diagonalization" involved in Goedel's Theorem is the Diagonal Lemma. There is a bit of an analogy with Cantor, but you aren't really using Cantor's diagonal argument. $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin Feb 7 '19 at 22:21
  • $\begingroup$ Also, perhaps see math.stackexchange.com/questions/16358/… $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin Feb 7 '19 at 22:42

Goedel provides a way of representing both mathematical formulas and finite sequences of mathematical formulas each as a single positive integer (by replacing each symbol with a number, and then using the numbers as exponents in the prime factorization).

If you can identify when a number corresponds to an axiom, and your "rules of inference" (valid logical arguments; such as Modus ponens, that allows you to deduce $Q$ if you have both $P\to Q$ and $P$) can be modeled by certain finite processes (you can have a computer do them), then there is a way of checking whether a given number corresponds to a formal proof, and so given two numbers, $N$ and $M$, you can check:

  1. Is $N$ the number of a sequence of formulas?
  2. If so, is the sequence of formulas a formal proof?
  3. If so, is the last line of the proof the formula with number $M$?

If the answer to all three questions is 3, then you know that $N$ is the number of a proof for the formula with number $M$, and in particular that there is a proof for that formula.

Conversely, if you can prove a given formula $F$, then you can convert the proof into a number $N$, the formula into a number $M$, and then the number $N$ will be the number of a proof for the formula $M$.

This entire thing can be coded as a relationship between numbers. Just like you can say "$n$ is a multiple of $m$", or "$k$ is a power of $q$", or "$p$ is a prime", you can also say "$N$ is a proof for $M$." This is a statement that can be described purely in terms of the numerical properties of $N$ and $M$.

Goedel constructs a formula which essentially says: "There is no number $N$ which is a proof for the number you get by starting with the number $k$, and performing the following operations to it."

Now, this is itself a formula, so it has a number. It turns out that if you calculate the number of this formula, you get exactly the number you get by starting with the number $k$ and performing the operations described by the statement.

So even though the statement is, on its face, about number (it just says "There is no number $N$ which is in the relation of 'being a proof' for the number $f(k)$"), when you interpret the relationship 'being a proof' and you interpret the number $f(k)$, the statement is talking about itself.

One reason the process is sometimes called diagonalization is that you are essentially looking for a number $k$, corresponding to the value of the entire statement, which has $k=f(k)$ (so that the statement will "refer to itself"). That is, you are trying to find a number $k$ in the "diagonal" of the graph.


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