I'm just wondering if my thinking is correct here.

A is set {1,2,3,4,5} and R is a relation on A so that R ⊂ A x A.

If R isn't an equivalence relation, then the minimum number of elements R could have is 1 or 0? Would R = {} or would R = {{}}? R is a set so I was thinking R = {{}}

And if R is an equivalence relation, would the minimum number of elements R could have is 5? R = {(1,1),(2,2),(3,3),(4,4),(5,5)}? Or can empty set be reflexive, symmetric and transitive?

  • $\begingroup$ For an equivalence relation we must have $a\sim a$ for each element $a\in A$. $\endgroup$
    – lulu
    Jan 13 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ As an aside, the empty relation would be the empty set $\{\}$. The set containing the empty set $\{\{\}\}$ is not a subset of $A\times A$ here and is not equal to the empty relation. The empty relation is vacuously symmetric and transitive over any set $A$ but is not reflexive whenever $A$ is itself non-empty. $\endgroup$
    – JMoravitz
    Jan 13 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ In order to understand why the empty set satisfies the defining properties of an equivalence relation, you can use this fact " when the antecedent of a material conditional is false, the whole conditional is true". $\endgroup$ Jan 14 at 8:36
  • $\begingroup$ @VinceVickler The empty relation is not reflexive (given nonempty $A$) and as such is not an equivalence relation $\endgroup$
    – JMoravitz
    Jan 14 at 14:38

2 Answers 2


If $R$ is a binary relation on $A$, then $R$ could be the empty set, which has $0$ elements.

If $R$ is an equivalence relation on $A$, then $R$ must be reflexive, which requires that $(x, x) \in R$ for each $x \in A$. So $R$ must have at least $|A| = 5$ elements.


First things first $\{\{\}\} = \{\emptyset\}$ is a set with one element in it. That element is the empty set. As $R\subset A\times A$ and $A\times A$ is a set of ordered pairs of elements of $A$, the empty set (as an object) is not an ordered pair. So the emptyset is not an element of $A\times A$ so the set containing the the emptyset, that is the set $\{\emptyset\}$ can not be a subset of $A\times A$ so $R= \{\emptyset\}$ is not possible.

One the other hand the empty set, itself, the set with no elements is a subset of all sets. (As $\emptyset$ has no elements all of its elements (all zero of them) can be said to be ... anything... so $\emptyset \subset A\times A$. That is true because $\emptyset$ has no elements it doesn't have any elements that are not in $A\times A$). So $R = \{\} = \emptyset$ is possible.

Now to second things. $R = \{\}$ is certainly a relationship as it is a subset of $A\times A$. It is called the empty relationship and one can think of it as the relationship where nothing is related to anything.

If we assume $A$ is not empty[1], then $R=\emptyset$ is not reflexive. For every $a\in A$ it is not the case that $(a,a)\in \emptyset$. That is certainly false[1].

So it is not an equivalence relation.

It turns out it is (vacuously) symmetric and transitive. If $(a,b) \in \emptyset$ (which is impossible and never happens) then $(b,a)\in \emptyset$ because a false hyptothesis ($(a,b)\in \emptyset$) can lead to any conclusion. There is no case of $(a,b)\in \emptyset$ where $(b,a)\not\in \emptyset$ because there is no case of $(a,b) \in \emptyset$ period. So it is symmetric. Likewise it is transitive as $(a,b)\in \emptyset$ and $(b,c)\in \emptyset$ never happen so every time they never happen $a,c\in \emptyset$.... but that's not important. It's not an equivalence relation because it is not reflexive.[1]

As an equivalence relation must be reflexive it must contain all $(a,a)$ and if $A = \{1,2,3,4,5\}$ we must have $\{(1,1),(2,2),(3,3),(4,4),(5,5)\}\subset R$ if $R$ is an equivalence relation. The question is must $R$ contain any more elements.

And it does not have to. $R= \{(a,a)| a\in A\}\subset A\times A$ is an equivalence relation.

It is reflexive as for all $a\in A$ we have $(a,a)$ in $R$.

It is symmetric because if $(a,b)\in R$ then $a=b$ and if $a=b$ then $(a,b)=(a,a)= (b,a)$ and $(b,a)\in R$.

It is transitive because if $(a,b) \in R$ and $(b,c)\in R$ then $a=b$ and $b=c$ so $a=c$ and $(a,c) =(a,a)\in R$.

So $R=\{(a,a)|a\in A\}$ is the smallest possible equivalence relation on a (non-empty[2]) $A$.


[1] If $A$ is empty then $A\times A = \{(a,b)|a,b\in \emptyset\} = \{\} = \emptyset$. And as a relation $R = \emptyset \subset \emptyset = A\times A$ we do have that $R$ is an equivalence relationship and is reflexive.

As there are no $a\in A=\emptyset$ it is a vacuously true statement that $(a,a)\in \emptyset$ (because there is not such $(a,a)$!) so $R$ is reflexive (and transitive and symmetric).

That as it is a relation ... on nothing it is considered utterly trivial and boring and we never bother dealing with it. But theoretically $R = \emptyset$ is the only relation on the emptyset itself and it is an equivalence relation.

[2] And on an empty $A$ we have $R= \{(a,a)|a\in \emptyset\} =\{\}=\emptyset$ so we can say $R=\{(a,a)|a\in \emptyset\}$ is the smallest equivalence relationship on any set $A$ (empty or not).


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