Theorem. Well-Ordering Principle.

Every non-empty subset of natural numbers has a least element.

I have seen some proofs for the theorem, but is very "complex"proof really needed here?

My attempt of proof:

Let $$ D \subset \mathbb{N}= \left\{ 1, \ 2, \ 3, \ \dots \right\} $$ be an arbitrary non-empty subset of natural numbers. Therefore it has at least one element $$  n \in D.$$

Consider the finite set $$ \left\{1, \ \dots, \ n \right\}.$$ We check which of those natural numbers are elements of D. Then we choose the smallest one of those. There we have the least element.

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ The principle is so obvious that you accidentally used it while trying to prove it: "we choose the smallest one of those" assumes this constructed set of natural numbers ... has a smallest element. $\endgroup$
    – aschepler
    Feb 27, 2021 at 13:41
  • $\begingroup$ In mathematics what do you mean by "we check"? That sounds like a practical algorithm but even obtaining one element or checking membership is really not trivial for some sets. $\endgroup$ Feb 27, 2021 at 13:52

2 Answers 2


aschepler's comment points out the problem exactly. First you construct the set $$D\cap \{ 1,2,\ldots n\}$$ and then you consider the smallest element of this set...

Except that without the well-ordering principle, you cant be sure that it has a smallest element!

It might be instructive to consider what happens in your argument if you try to apply it to prove that $\Bbb Z$ is well-ordered.

  • $\begingroup$ This I don't understand. In {1, ..., n} I have finitely many numbers. 1 < 2 < ... < n (by some axiom of real numbers). When I take the intersection, I again have finitely many numbers. So how would it not be quarantined that there is a smallest element? @MJD $\endgroup$
    – mathslover
    Feb 27, 2021 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ and OK, I have been going through this precise proof as well. The one part that I don't understand is that when I have shown that the intersection of D and {1, 2, ..., n} has a smallest element, how does it (exactly) follow, that it is the smallest element of D as well? Could you explain this? $\endgroup$
    – mathslover
    Feb 27, 2021 at 14:54

This is a proof by induction. The theorem states that every non-empty subset of $\mathbb{N}$ has a least element.

Let $A\subseteq \mathbb{N}$ be a set with no least element. We want to prove that $A=\varnothing $, that is $\forall n$ $\in \mathbb{N}$, $n\notin A$. For induction on $n$ we have that:

$0\notin A$, in fact if $0 \in A$ we would have that: $0=$min$\mathbb{N}=$min$A$, but $A$ has no least element.

Suppose now that $\begin{Bmatrix} 0,1,...,n \end{Bmatrix}\cap A=\varnothing $. What we want to prove is that: $n+1\notin A$. If $n+1\in A$, infact, $n+1\neq$ min$A$ , since $A$ has no minimum for hypotesis. So $\exists m\in A$, $m<n+1$, which is a contradiction with the inductive hypothesis. So $n+1 \notin A$.

Hence $A=\varnothing$, as we wanted.


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