(This was cross-posted to MathOverflow.)

It is well-known that there are difficulties in developing basic category theory within the confines of $\sf ZFC$. One can overcome these problems when talking about small categories, and perhaps at one or two levels when talking about larger categories (e.g. if the objects and the morphisms are all definable uniformly, I suppose it is possible to do prove some basic things).

But often we want to talk about larger and larger categories, and for that we need the ability to deal with higher and higher level of classes.

The easiest route to solve this is to use the Tarski-Grothendieck set theory, but that is equiconsistent with the existence of a proper class of inaccessible cardinals. While not a mind-boggling assumption, it is still quite a strong one. Even if people are only interested in one or two levels, often they just assume that some suitable number of inaccessible cardinals exist.

But I kept asking myself, what is wrong with just assuming that you have an $\omega$ or $\omega+1$ chain of models of $\sf ZFC$?

That is, a chain $\langle M_n\mid n\in\omega\rangle$ such that $(M_n,\in)\models\sf ZFC$ and $M_n\in M_{n+1}$. Perhaps we want another $M$ which contains all the sequence as well. We can even assume they are countable if we really want to. This is a much weaker assumption in terms of additional axioms, and should be roughly equivalent to $\rm Con^\omega(\sf ZFC+St)$, where $\sf St$ is the axiom asserting a standard model exists.

So why are people jumping to large cardinals? I am certain that they are needed for some construction, but if we just want to talk about categories of categories and so on and so forth, why isn't the above assumption sufficient? Is it just because large cardinals, or rather universes, are easier to explain to the working mathematician? Or is there something we really can't do with this sort of chain of models and we can do with inaccessible cardinals?

  • $\begingroup$ This is a good question. $\endgroup$ Apr 28, 2013 at 10:41
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks Martin. It was bothering me for quite some time now, but I never got around to asking it. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila
    Apr 28, 2013 at 10:41
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    $\begingroup$ Well, people who believe ETCS is adequate for mathematics should also believe that weak universes (as in ¶ 4.2) are adequate for developing category theory. The consistency strength of a weak universe axiom is at most that of ZFC. $\endgroup$
    – Zhen Lin
    Apr 28, 2013 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ @ZhenLin: C'mon, you're a grad student. That's a wonderful idea for a thesis. :-) $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila
    Apr 28, 2013 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Hurkyl: This suggestion is even much weaker than the assumption that there are $\alpha_n$ for $n\in\omega$ such that $V_{\alpha_n}\models\sf ZFC$, and these $\alpha_n$ can be singular cardinals, and not inaccessible cardinals. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila
    May 5, 2013 at 9:26

1 Answer 1


Crossposted from MO.

Allow me to make some comments as someone who converted to the universeful approach recently; but take it with a pinch of salt, as I have only been studying category theory for 2½ years.

I should briefly mention the trigger that led me to the pro-universe camp: about 6 months ago, I started learning about quasicategories and became convinced that the theory relied on far too much machinery to admit a workable elementary approach that would allow us to consider entities like the quasicategory of all Kan complexes within an NBG-like framework – which is the the raison d'être for quasicategories in the first place! So I decided that I would have to start taking universes seriously – and for this purpose the universes would not merely be for bookkeeping but for doing actual mathematics in.

If all we wanted to do was to ensure that sets of large cardinality and high complexity exist, it would probably be enough to just have a chain $M_0 \in M_1 \in M_2 \in \cdots$ of (transitive) models of set theory (say, ZFC), but I find this very unsatisfactory. For instance, consider theorems that assert that some object with some universal property exist: there is no guarantee that a universal object in $M_0$ remains universal in $M_1$. Indeed, one such theorem says that, for every set $X$, there exists a set $\mathscr{P}(X)$ and a binary relation $[\in]_X \subseteq X \times \mathscr{P}(X)$ such that, for every binary relation $R \subseteq X \times Y$, there is a unique map $r : Y \to \mathscr{P}(X)$ such that $\langle x, y \rangle \in R$ if and only if $\langle x, r(x) \rangle \in [\in]_X$. Of course, it is well-known that powersets need not be preserved when passing from one model of set theory to another. But if something as trivial as powersets is not preserved, what hope is there of preserving more complicated universal objects like the free ind-completion of a category, or even the free monoid on one generator (i.e. $\mathbb{N}$!)? For a category theorist, to work in a setting where universal objects have to be qualified by a universe parameter is simply untenable.

So, we have to find some kind of compromise: we need a chain of universes such that each universe is embedded in the next in as pleasant a way as possible, so that the mathematics in one universe agrees with the next as much as is feasible. The most ideal situation one could hope for goes something like this:

Let $\mathcal{C}$ be a category scheme, i.e. a definable function that assigns to each sufficiently nice universe $\mathbf{U}$ a category $\mathcal{C}(\mathbf{U})$ such that, for any universe $\mathbf{U}^+$ with a sufficiently nice embedding $\mathbf{U} \subseteq \mathbf{U}^+$, $\mathcal{C}(\mathbf{U})$ is a subcategory (in the strict sense) of $\mathcal{C}(\mathbf{U}^+)$.

We say that an inclusion $\mathbf{U} \subseteq \mathbf{U}^+$ is adequate for a category scheme $\mathcal{C}$ if the following conditions are satisfied:

  1. $\mathcal{C}(\mathbf{U})$ is a full subcategory of $\mathcal{C}(\mathbf{U}^+)$: we do not get any new morphisms between objects in $\mathcal{C}(\mathbf{U})$ when passing to a larger universe.
  2. The inclusion $\mathcal{C}(\mathbf{U}) \hookrightarrow \mathcal{C}(\mathbf{U}^+)$ preserves all limits and colimits that exist in $\mathcal{C}$ for $\mathbf{U}$-small diagrams: the most elementary kind of universal constructions are preserved when passing to a larger universe.
  3. Moreover $\mathcal{C}(\mathbf{U})$ is closed in $\mathcal{C}(\mathbf{U}^+)$ under all limits and colimits for $\mathbf{U}$-small diagrams: so passing to a larger universe does not create new universal objects where none existed before.

So, when is $\mathbf{U} \subseteq \mathbf{U}^+$ adequate for the category scheme $\mathbf{Set}$, if $\mathbf{U} \in \mathbf{U}^+$? We take it as given that $\mathbf{U}$ and $\mathbf{U}^+$ are transitive models of ZFC. The first condition implies that this extension has no new subsets, and if there are no new subsets, there are no new functions either – so (1) holds if and only if the extension preserves powersets. By considering explicit constructions, one sees that equalisers are preserved, and as soon as we know (1), products are also preserved. We may then use the monadicity of $\mathscr{P} : \mathbf{Set}^\mathrm{op} \to \mathbf{Set}$ to deduce that colimits are preserved, so (1) implies (2). In particular, directed unions are preserved, so it follows that $\mathbf{U}$ embeds as an initial segment of the cumulative hierarchy of $\mathbf{U}^+$. What about (3)? Well, take a $\mathbf{U}$-set $I$ and a map $X : I \to \mathbf{U}$ in $\mathbf{U}^+$. By replacement in $\mathbf{U}^+$, we can form the disjoint union $\coprod_{i \in I} X(i)$, and if (3) holds, the cardinal of this set is in $\mathbf{U}$. Thus, $\mathbf{U}$ must actually be embedded as a Grothendieck universe in $\mathbf{U}^+$. Conversely, if $\mathbf{U}$ is embedded as a Grothendieck universe in $\mathbf{U}^+$, then (1), (2), and (3) are easily verified.

But are Grothendieck universes enough? For instance, it would be good if the following were true:

Let $\kappa$ be the smallest (uncountable strongly) inaccessible cardinal, let $\mathbb{B}$ be a $\mathbf{V}_{\kappa}$-small category, and let $\mathcal{M}$ be the category scheme obtained by defining $\mathcal{M}(\mathbf{U})$ to be the free ind-completion of $\mathbb{B}$ relative to $\mathbf{U}$ for each Grothendieck universe $\mathbf{U}$. Suppose $\mathcal{M}(\mathbf{V}_{\kappa})$ admits a cofibrantly generated model structure. Then, for all Grothendieck universes $\mathbf{U}$, there is a (unique) cofibrantly generated model structure on $\mathcal{M} (\mathbf{U})$ extending the one on $\mathcal{M}(\mathbf{V}_{\kappa})$.

However, I do not know if this is true. What I do know is that embeddings of Grothendieck universes are adequate for $\mathcal{M}$; in fact, locally presentable categories and adjunctions between them are very well behaved under this kind of universe enlargement.

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    $\begingroup$ Hi Zhen Lin, in your view would most Category Theorists agree with your description of the ideal set theory for category theory put above? If there are a range of views on the best set theory, can you suggest some articles/papers? Thanks $\endgroup$ Feb 14, 2018 at 1:31
  • $\begingroup$ "if something as trivial as powersets is not preserved, what hope is there of preserving more complicated universal objects like the free ind-completion of a category, or even the free monoid on one generator (i.e. N!)?" Love that! It seems to cut to the very core of the problem you are addressing! But where are your thoughts on these things going now, more than two years later?? $\endgroup$
    – Wd Fusroy
    Aug 28, 2019 at 14:11

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