Ordinal collapsing function

Ordinal collapsing function

In mathematical logic and set theory, an ordinal collapsing function (or projection function) is a technique for defining (notations for) certain recursive large countable ordinals, whose principle is to give names to certain ordinals much larger than the one being defined, perhaps even large cardinals (though they can be replaced with recursively large ordinals at the cost of extra technical difficulty), and then “collapse” them down to a system of notations for the sought-after ordinal. For this reason, ordinal collapsing functions are described as an impredicative manner of naming ordinals.

The details of the definition of ordinal collapsing functions vary, and get more complicated as greater ordinals are being defined, but the typical idea is that whenever the notation system “runs out of fuel” and cannot name a certain ordinal, a much larger ordinal is brought “from above” to give a name to that critical point. An example of how this works will be detailed below, for an ordinal collapsing function defining the Bachmann-Howard ordinal (i.e., defining a system of notations up to the Bachmann-Howard ordinal).

The use and definition of ordinal collapsing functions is inextricably intertwined with the theory of ordinal analysis, since the large countable ordinals defined and denoted by a given collapse are used to describe the ordinal-theoretic strength of certain formal systems, typically subsystems of analysis (such as those seen in the light of reverse mathematics), extensions of Kripke-Platek set theory, Bishop-style systems of constructive mathematics or Martin-Löf-style systems of intuitionistic type theory.

Ordinal collapsing functions are typically denoted using some variation of the greek letter psi (psi).

An example leading up to the Bachmann-Howard ordinal

The choice of the ordinal collapsing function given as example below imitates greatly the system introduced by Buchholz but is limited to collapsing one cardinal for clarity of exposition. More on the relation between this example and Buchholz's system will be said below.


Let Omega stand for the first uncountable ordinal omega_1, or, in fact, any ordinal which is (an varepsilon-number and) guaranteed to be greater than all the countable ordinals which will be constructed (for example, the Church-Kleene ordinal is adequate for our purposes; but we will work with omega_1 because it allows the convenient use of the word countable in the definitions).

We define a function psi (which will be non-decreasing and continuous), taking an arbitrary ordinal alpha to a countable ordinal psi(alpha), recursively on alpha, as follows:

Assume psi(beta) has been defined for all beta, and we wish to define psi(alpha).

Let C(alpha) be the set of ordinals generated starting from 0, 1, omega and Omega by recursively applying the following functions: ordinal addition, multiplication and exponentiation and the function psiupharpoonright_alpha, i.e., the restriction of psi to ordinals beta. (Formally, we define C(alpha)_0 = {0,1,omega,Omega} and inductively C(alpha)_{n+1} = C(alpha)_n cup {beta_1+beta_2,beta_1beta_2,{beta_1}^{beta_2}: beta_1,beta_2in C(alpha)_n} cup {psi(beta): betain C(alpha)_n land beta for all natural numbers n and we let C(alpha) be the union of the C(alpha)_n for all n.)

Then psi(alpha) is defined as the smallest ordinal not belonging to C(alpha).

In a more concise (although more obscure) way:

psi(alpha) is the smallest ordinal which cannot be expressed from 0, 1, omega and Omega using sums, products, exponentials, and the psi function itself (to previously constructed ordinals less than alpha).

Here is an attempt to explain the motivation for the definition of psi in intuitive terms: since the usual operations of addition, multiplication and exponentiation are not sufficient to designate ordinals very far, we attempt to systematically create new names for ordinals by taking the first one which does not have a name yet, and whenever we run out of names, rather than invent them in an ad hoc fashion or using diagonal schemes, we seek them in the ordinals far beyond the ones we are constructing (beyond Omega, that is); so we give names to uncountable ordinals and, since in the end the list of names is necessarily countable, psi will “collapse” them to countable ordinals.

Computation of values of psi

To clarify how the function psi is able to produce notations for certain ordinals, we now compute its first values.

Predicative start

First consider C(0). It contains ordinals 0, 1, 2, 3, omega, omega+1, omega+2, omega2, omega3, omega^2, omega^3, omega^omega, omega^{omega^omega} and so on. It also contains such ordinals as Omega, Omega+1, Omegaomega, Omega^Omega. The first ordinal which it does not contain is varepsilon_0 (which is the limit of omega, omega^omega, omega^{omega^omega} and so on — less than Omega by assumption). The upper bound of the ordinals it contains is varepsilon_{Omega+1} (the limit of Omega, Omega^Omega, Omega^{Omega^Omega} and so on), but that is not so important. This shows that psi(0) = varepsilon_0.

Similarly, C(1) contains the ordinals which can be formed from 0, 1, omega, Omega and this time also varepsilon_0, using addition, multiplication and exponentiation. This contains all the ordinals up to varepsilon_1 but not the latter, so psi(1) = varepsilon_1. In this manner, we prove that psi(alpha) = varepsilon_alpha inductively on alpha: the proof works, however, only as long as alpha. We therefore have:

psi(alpha) = varepsilon_alpha = phi_1(alpha) for all alphaleqzeta_0, where zeta_0 = phi_2(0) is the smallest fixed point of alpha mapsto varepsilon_alpha.

(Here, the phi functions are the Veblen functions defined starting with phi_1(alpha) = varepsilon_alpha.)

Now psi(zeta_0) = zeta_0 but psi(zeta_0+1) is no larger, since zeta_0 cannot be constructed using finite applications of phi_1colon alphamapstovarepsilon_alpha and thus never belongs to a C(alpha) set for alphaleqOmega, and the function psi remains “stuck” at zeta_0 for some time:

psi(alpha) = zeta_0 for all zeta_0 leq alpha leq Omega.

First impredicative values

Again, psi(Omega) = zeta_0. However, when we come to computing psi(Omega+1), something has changed: since Omega was (“artificially”) added to all the C(alpha), we are permitted to take the value psi(Omega) = zeta_0 in the process. So C(Omega+1) contains all ordinals which can be built from 0, 1, omega, Omega, the phi_1colonalphamapstovarepsilon_alpha function up to zeta_0 and this time also zeta_0 itself, using addition, multiplication and exponentiation. The smallest ordinal not in C(Omega+1) is varepsilon_{zeta_0+1} (the smallest varepsilon-number after zeta_0).

We say that the definition psi(Omega) = zeta_0 and the next values of the function psi such as psi(Omega+1) = varepsilon_{zeta_0+1} are impredicative because they use ordinals (here, Omega) greater than the ones which are being defined (here, zeta_0).

Values of psi up to the Feferman-Schütte ordinal

The fact that psi(Omega+alpha) = varepsilon_{zeta_0+alpha} remains true for all alpha leq zeta_1 = phi_2(1) (note, in particular, that psi(Omega+zeta_0) = varepsilon_{zeta_0 2}: but since now the ordinal zeta_0 has been constructed there is nothing to prevent from going beyond this). However, at zeta_1 = phi_2(1) (the first fixed point of alphamapsto varepsilon_alpha beyond zeta_0), the construction stops again, because zeta_1 cannot be constructed from smaller ordinals and zeta_0 by finitely applying the varepsilon function. So we have psi(Omega 2) = zeta_1.

The same reasoning shows that psi(Omega(1+alpha)) = phi_2(alpha) for all alphaleqphi_3(0), where phi_2 enumerates the fixed points of phi_1colonalphamapstovarepsilon_alpha and phi_3(0) is the first fixed point of phi_2. We then have psi(Omega^2) = phi_3(0).

Again, we can see that psi(Omega^alpha) = phi_{1+alpha}(0) for some time: this remains true until the first fixed point Gamma_0 of alpha mapsto phi_alpha(0), which is the Feferman-Schütte ordinal. Thus, psi(Omega^Omega) = Gamma_0 is the Feferman-Schütte ordinal.

Beyond the Feferman-Schütte ordinal

We have psi(Omega^{Omega+alpha}) = phi_{Gamma_0+alpha}(0) for all alphaleqGamma_1 where Gamma_1 is the next fixed point of alpha mapsto phi_alpha(0). So, if alphamapstoGamma_alpha enumerates the fixed points in question. (which can also be noted phi(alpha,0,0) using the many-valued Veblen functions) we have psi(Omega^{Omega(1+alpha)}) = Gamma_alpha, until the first fixed point of the alphamapstoGamma_alpha itself, which will be psi(Omega^{Omega^2}). In this manner:

  • psi(Omega^{Omega^2}) is the Ackermann ordinal (the range of the notation phi(alpha,beta,gamma) defined predicatively),
  • psi(Omega^{Omega^omega}) is the “small” Veblen ordinal (the range of the notations phi(ldots) predicatively using finitely many variables),
  • psi(Omega^{Omega^Omega}) is the “large” Veblen ordinal (the range of the notations phi(ldots) predicatively using transfinitely-but-predicatively-many variables),
  • the limit psi(varepsilon_{Omega+1}) of psi(Omega), psi(Omega^Omega), psi(Omega^{Omega^Omega}), etc., is the Bachmann-Howard ordinal: after this our function psi is constant, and we can go no further with the definition we have given.

Ordinal notations up to the Bachmann-Howard ordinal

We now explain more systematically how the psi function defines notations for ordinals up to the Bachmann-Howard ordinal.

A note about base representations

Recall that if delta is an ordinal which is a power of omega (for example omega itself, or varepsilon_0, or Omega), any ordinal alpha can be uniquely expressed in the form delta^{beta_1}gamma_1 + cdots + delta^{beta_k}gamma_k, where k is a natural number, gamma_1,ldots,gamma_k are non-zero ordinals less than delta, and beta_1 > beta_2 > cdots > beta_k are ordinal numbers (we allow beta_k=0). This “base delta representation” is an obvious generalization of the Cantor normal form (which is the case delta=omega). Of course, it may quite well be that the expression is uninteresting, i.e., alpha = delta^alpha, but in any other case the beta_i must all be less than alpha; it may also be the case that the expression is trivial (i.e., alpha, in which case kleq 1 and gamma_1 = alpha).

If alpha is an ordinal less than varepsilon_{Omega+1}, then its base Omega representation has coefficients gamma_i (by definition) and exponents beta_i (because of the assumption alpha < varepsilon_{Omega+1}): hence one can rewrite these exponents in base Omega and repeat the operation until the process terminates (any decreasing sequence of ordinals is finite). We call the resulting expression the iterated base Omega representation of alpha and the various coefficients involved (including as exponents) the pieces of the representation (they are all ), or, for short, the Omega-pieces of alpha.

Some properties of psi

  • The function psi is non-decreasing and continuous (this is more or less obvious from is definition).
  • If psi(alpha) = psi(beta) with beta then necessarily C(alpha) = C(beta). Indeed, no ordinal beta' with betaleqbeta' can belong to C(alpha) (otherwise its image by psi, which is psi(alpha) would belong to C(alpha) — impossible); so C(beta) is closed by everything under which C(alpha) is the closure, so they are equal.
  • Any value gamma=psi(alpha) taken by psi is an varepsilon-number (i.e., a fixed point of betamapstoomega^beta). Indeed, if it were not, then by writing it in Cantor normal form, it could be expressed using sums, products and exponentiation from elements less than it, hence in C(alpha), so it would be in C(alpha), a contradiction.
  • Lemma: Assume delta is an varepsilon-number and alpha an ordinal such that psi(beta) for all beta: then the Omega-pieces (defined above) of any element of C(alpha) are less than delta. Indeed, let C' be the set of ordinals all of whose Omega-pieces are less than delta. Then C' is closed under addition, multiplication and exponentiation (because delta is an varepsilon-number, so ordinals less than it are closed under addition, multiplication and exponentition). And C' also contains every psi(beta) for beta by assumption, and it contains 0, 1, omega, Omega. So C'supseteq C(alpha), which was to be shown.
  • Under the hypothesis of the previous lemma, psi(alpha) leq delta (indeed, the lemma shows that delta notin C(alpha)).
  • Any varepsilon-number less than some element in the range of psi is itself in the range of psi (that is, psi omits no varepsilon-number). Indeed: if delta is an varepsilon-number not greater than the range of psi, let alpha be the least upper bound of the beta such that psi(beta): then by the above we have psi(alpha)leqdelta, but psi(alpha) would contradict the fact that alpha is the least upper bound — so psi(alpha)=delta.
  • Whenever psi(alpha) = delta, the set C(alpha) consists exactly of those ordinals gamma (less than varepsilon_{Omega+1}) all of whose Omega-pieces are less than delta. Indeed, we know that all ordinals less than delta, hence all ordinals (less than varepsilon_{Omega+1}) whose Omega-pieces are less than delta, are in C(alpha). Conversely, if we assume psi(beta) < delta for all beta (in other words if alpha is the least possible with psi(alpha)=delta), the lemma gives the desired property. On the other hand, if psi(alpha) = psi(beta) for some beta, then we have already remarked C(alpha) = C(beta) and we can replace alpha by the least possible with psi(alpha)=delta.

The ordinal notation

Using the facts above, we can define a (canonical) ordinal notation for every gamma less than the Bachmann-Howard ordinal. We do this by induction on gamma.

If gamma is less than varepsilon_0, we use the iterated Cantor normal form of gamma. Otherwise, there exists a largest varepsilon-number delta less or equal to gamma (this is because the set of varepsilon-numbers is closed): if delta then by induction we have defined a notation for delta and the base delta representation of gamma gives one for gamma, so we are finished.

It remains to deal with the case where gamma=delta is an varepsilon-number: we have argued that, in this case, we can write delta = psi(alpha) for some (possibly uncountable) ordinal alpha: let alpha be the greatest possible such ordinal (which exists since psi is continuous). We use the iterated base Omega representation of alpha: it remains to show that every piece of this representation is less than delta (so we have already defined a notation for it). If this is not the case then, by the properties we have shown, C(alpha) does not contain alpha; but then C(alpha+1)=C(alpha) (they are closed under the same operations, since the value of psi at alpha can never be taken), so psi(alpha+1)=psi(alpha)=delta, contradicting the maximality of alpha.

Note: Actually, we have defined canonical notations not just for ordinals below the Bachmann-Howard ordinal but also for certain uncountable ordinals, namely those whose Omega-pieces are less than the Bachmann-Howard ordinal (viz.: write them in iterated base Omega representation and use the canonical representation for every piece). This canonical notation is used for arguments of the psi function (which may be uncountable).


For ordinals less than varepsilon_0 = psi(0), the canonical ordinal notation defined coincides with the iterated Cantor normal form (by definition).

For ordinals less than varepsilon_1 = psi(1), the notation coincides with iterated base varepsilon_0 notation (the pieces being themselves written in iterated Cantor normal form): e.g., omega^{omega^{varepsilon_0+omega}} will be written {varepsilon_0}^{omega^omega}, or, more accurately, psi(0)^{omega^omega}. For ordinals less than varepsilon_2 = psi(2), we similarly write in iterated base varepsilon_1 and then write the pieces in iterated base varepsilon_0 (and write the pieces of that in iterated Cantor normal form): so omega^{omega^{varepsilon_1+varepsilon_0+1}} is written {varepsilon_1}^{varepsilon_0omega}, or, more accurately, psi(1)^{psi(0),omega}. Thus, up to zeta_0 = psi(Omega), we always use the largest possible varepsilon-number base which gives a non-trivial representation.

Beyond this, we may need to express ordinals beyond Omega: this is always done in iterated Omega-base, and the pieces themselves need to be expressed using the largest possible varepsilon-number base which gives a non-trivial representation.

Note that while psi(varepsilon_{Omega+1}) is equal to the Bachmann-Howard ordinal, this is not a “canonical notation” in the sense we have defined (canonical notations are defined only for ordinals less than the Bachmann-Howard ordinal).

Conditions for canonicalness

The notations thus defined have the property that whenever they nest psi functions, the arguments of the “inner” psi function are always less than those of the “outer” one (this is a conseequence of the fact that the Omega-pieces of alpha, where alpha is the largest possible such that psi(alpha)=delta for some varepsilon-number delta, are all less than delta, as we have shown above). For example, psi(psi(Omega)+1) does not occur as a notation: it is a well-defined expression (and it is equal to psi(Omega) = zeta_0 since psi is constant between zeta_0 and Omega), but it is not a notation produced by the inductive algorithm we have outlined.

Canonicalness can be checked recursively: an expression is canonical if and only if it is either the iterated Cantor normal form of an ordinal less than varepsilon_0, or an iterated base delta representation all of whose pieces are canonical, for some delta=psi(alpha) where alpha is itself written in iterated base Omega representation all of whose pieces are canonical and less than delta. The order is checked by lexicographic verification at all levels (keeping in mind that Omega is greater than any expression obtained by psi, and for canonical values the greater psi always trumps the lesser or even arbitrary sums, products and exponentials of the lesser).

For example, psi(Omega^{omega+1},psi(Omega) + psi(Omega^omega)^{psi(Omega^2)}42)^{psi(1729),omega} is a canonical notation for an ordinal which is less than the Feferman-Schütte ordinal: it can be written using the Veblen functions as phi_1(phi_{omega+1}(phi_2(0)) + phi_omega(0)^{phi_3(0)}42)^{phi_1(1729),omega}.

Concerning the order, one might point out that psi(Omega^Omega) (the Feferman-Schütte ordinal) is much more than psi(Omega^{psi(Omega)}) = phi_{phi_2(0)}(0) (because Omega is greater than psi of anything), and psi(Omega^{psi(Omega)}) = phi_{phi_2(0)}(0) is itself much more than psi(Omega)^{psi(Omega)} = phi_2(0)^{phi_2(0)} (because Omega^{psi(Omega)} is greater than Omega, so any sum-product-or-exponential expression involving psi(Omega) and smaller value will remain less than psi(Omega^Omega)). In fact, psi(Omega)^{psi(Omega)} is already less than psi(Omega+1).

Standard sequences for ordinal notations

To witness the fact that we have defined notations for ordinals below the Bachmann-Howard ordinal (which are all of countable cofinality), we might define standard sequences converging to any one of them (provided it is a limit ordinal, of course). Actually we will define canonical sequences for certain uncountable ordinals, too, namely the uncountable ordinals of countable cofinality (if we are to hope to define a sequence converging to them…) which are representable (that is, all of whose Omega-pieces are less than the Bachmann-Howard ordinal).

The following rules are more or less obvious, except for the last:

  • First, get rid of the (iterated) base delta representations: to define a standard sequence converging to alpha = delta^{beta_1}gamma_1 + cdots + delta^{beta_k}gamma_k, where delta is either omega or psi(cdots) (or Omega, but see below):
    • if k is zero then alpha=0 and there is nothing to be done;
    • if beta_k is zero and gamma_k is successor, then alpha is successor and there is nothing to be done;
    • if gamma_k is limit, take the standard sequence converging to gamma_k and replace gamma_k in the expression by the elements of that sequence;
    • if gamma_k is successor and beta_k is limit, rewrite the last term delta^{beta_k}gamma_k as delta^{beta_k}(gamma_k-1) + delta^{beta_k} and replace the exponent beta_k in the last term by the elements of the fundamental sequence converging to it;
    • if gamma_k is successor and beta_k is also, rewrite the last term delta^{beta_k}gamma_k as delta^{beta_k}(gamma_k-1) + delta^{beta_k-1}delta and replace the last delta in this expression by the elements of the fundamental sequence converging to it.
  • If delta is omega, then take the obvious 0, 1, 2, 3… as the fundamental sequence for delta.
  • If delta = psi(0) then take as fundamental sequence for delta the sequence omega, omega^omega, omega^{omega^omega}
  • If delta = psi(alpha+1) then take as fundamental sequence for delta the sequence psi(alpha), psi(alpha)^{psi(alpha)}, psi(alpha)^{psi(alpha)^{psi(alpha)}}
  • If delta = psi(alpha) where alpha is a limit ordinal of countable cofinality, define the standard sequence for delta to be obtained by applying psi to the standard sequence for alpha (recall that psi is continuous, here).
  • It remains to handle the case where delta = psi(alpha) with alpha an ordinal of uncountable cofinality (e.g., Omega itself). Obviously it doesn't make sense to define a sequence converging to alpha in this case; however, what we can define is a sequence converging to some rho with countable cofinality and such that psi is constant between rho and alpha. This rho will be the first fixed point of a certain (continuous and non-decreasing) function ximapsto h(psi(xi)). To find it, apply the same rules (from the base Omega representation of alpha) as to find the canonical sequence of alpha, except that whenever a sequence converging to Omega is called for (something which cannot exist), replace the Omega in question, in the expression of alpha = h(Omega), by a psi(xi) (where xi is a variable) and perform a repeated iteration (starting from 0, say) of the function ximapsto h(psi(xi)): this gives a sequence 0, h(psi(0)), h(psi(h(psi(0))))… tending to rho, and the canonical sequence for psi(alpha) = psi(rho) is psi(0), psi(h(psi(0))), psi(h(psi(h(psi(0)))))… (The examples below should make this clearer.)

Here are some examples for the last (and most interesting) case:

  • The canonical sequence for psi(Omega) is: psi(0), psi(psi(0)), psi(psi(psi(0)))… This indeed converges to rho = psi(Omega) = zeta_0 after which psi is constant until Omega.
  • The canonical sequence for psi(Omega 2) is: psi(0), psi(Omega+psi(0)), psi(Omega+psi(Omega+psi(0)))… This indeed converges to the value of psi at rho = Omega + psi(Omega 2) = Omega + zeta_1 after which psi is constant until Omega 2.
  • The canonical sequence for psi(Omega^2) is: psi(0), psi(Omegapsi(0)), psi(Omegapsi(Omegapsi(0)))… This converges to the value of psi at rho = Omega psi(Omega^2).
  • The canonical sequence for psi(Omega^2 3 + Omega) is psi(0), psi(Omega^2 3 + psi(0)), psi(Omega^2 3 + psi(Omega^2 3 + psi(0)))… This converges to the value of psi at rho = Omega^2 3 + psi(Omega^2 3 + Omega).
  • The canonical sequence for psi(Omega^Omega) is: psi(0), psi(Omega^{psi(0)}), psi(Omega^{psi(Omega^{psi(0)})})… This converges to the value of psi at rho = Omega^{psi(Omega^Omega)}.
  • The canonical sequence for psi(Omega^Omega 3) is: psi(0), psi(Omega^Omega 2+psi(0)), psi(Omega^Omega 2+psi(Omega^Omega 2+psi(0)))… This converges to the value of psi at rho = Omega^Omega 2 + psi(Omega^Omega 3).
  • The canonical sequence for psi(Omega^{Omega+1} is: psi(0), psi(Omega^Omega psi(0)), psi(Omega^Omega psi(Omega^Omega psi(0)))… This converges to the value of psi at rho = Omega^Omega psi(Omega^{Omega+1}).
  • The canonical sequence for psi(Omega^{Omega^2+Omega 3}) is: psi(0), psi(Omega^{Omega^2+Omega 2+psi(0)}), psi(Omega^{Omega^2+Omega 2+psi(Omega^{Omega^2+Omega 2+psi(0)})})

Here are some examples of the other cases:

  • The canonical sequence for omega^2 is: 0, omega, omega 2, omega 3
  • The canonical sequence for psi(omega^omega) is: psi(1), psi(omega), psi(omega^2), psi(omega^3)
  • The canonical sequence for psi(Omega)^omega is: 1, psi(Omega), psi(Omega)^2, psi(Omega)^3
  • The canonical sequence for psi(Omega+1) is: psi(Omega), psi(Omega)^{psi(Omega)}, psi(Omega)^{psi(Omega)^{psi(Omega)}}
  • The canonical sequence for psi(Omega+omega) is: psi(Omega), psi(Omega+1), psi(Omega+2), psi(Omega+3)
  • The canonical sequence for psi(Omegaomega) is: psi(0), psi(Omega), psi(Omega 2), psi(Omega 3)
  • The canonical sequence for psi(Omega^omega) is: psi(1), psi(Omega), psi(Omega^2), psi(Omega^3)
  • The canonical sequence for psi(Omega^{psi(0)}) is: psi(Omega^omega), psi(Omega^{omega^omega}), psi(Omega^{omega^{omega^omega}})… (this is derived from the fundamental sequence for psi(0)).
  • The canonical sequence for psi(Omega^{psi(Omega)}) is: psi(Omega^{psi(0)}), psi(Omega^{psi(psi(0))}), psi(Omega^{psi(psi(psi(0)))})… (this is derived from the fundamental sequence for psi(Omega), which was given above).

Even though the Bachmann-Howard ordinal psi(varepsilon_{Omega+1}) itself has no canonical notation, it is also useful to define a canonical sequence for it: this is psi(Omega), psi(Omega^Omega), psi(Omega^{Omega^Omega})

A terminating process

Start with any ordinal less or equal to the Bachmann-Howard ordinal, and repeat the following process so long as it is not zero:

  • if the ordinal is a successor, subtract one (that is, replace it with its predecessor),
  • if it is a limit, replace it by some element of the canonical sequence defined for it.

Then it is true that this process always terminates (as any decreasing sequence of ordinals is finite); however, like (but even more so than for) the hydra game:

  1. it can take a very long time to terminate,
  2. the proof of termination may be out of reach of certain weak systems of arithmetic.

To give some flavor of what the process feels like, here are some steps of it: starting from psi(Omega^{Omega^omega}) (the small Veblen ordinal), we might go down to psi(Omega^{Omega^3}), from there down to psi(Omega^{Omega^2 psi(0)}), then psi(Omega^{Omega^2 omega^omega}) then psi(Omega^{Omega^2 omega^3}) then psi(Omega^{Omega^2 omega^2 7}) then psi(Omega^{Omega^2 (omega^2 6 + omega)}) then psi(Omega^{Omega^2 (omega^2 6 + 1)}) then psi(Omega^{Omega^2 omega^2 6 + Omega psi(Omega^{Omega^2 omega^2 6 + Omega psi(0)})}) and so on. It appears as though the expressions are getting more and more complicated whereas, in fact, the ordinals always decrease.

Concerning the first statement, one could introduce, for any ordinal alpha less or equal to the Bachmann-Howard ordinal psi(varepsilon_{Omega+1}), the integer function f_alpha(n) which counts the number of steps of the process before termination if one always selects the n'th element from the canonical sequence. Then f_alpha can be a very fast growing function: already f_{omega^omega}(n) is essentially n^n, the function f_{psi(Omega^omega)}(n) is comparable with the Ackermann function A(n,n), and f_{psi(varepsilon_{Omega+1})}(n) is quite unimaginable.

Concerning the second statement, a precise version is given by ordinal analysis: for example, Kripke-Platek set theory can prove that the process terminates for any given alpha less than the Bachmann-Howard ordinal, but it cannot do this uniformly, i.e., it cannot prove the termination starting from the Bachmann-Howard ordinal. Some theories like Peano arithmetic are limited by much smaller ordinals (varepsilon_0 in the case of Peano arithmetic).

Variations on the example

Making the function less powerful

It is instructive (although not exactly useful) to make psi less powerful.

If we alter the definition of psi above to omit exponentition from the repertoire from which C(alpha) is constructed, then we get psi(0) = omega^omega (as this is the smallest ordinal which cannot be constructed from 0, 1 and omega using addition and multiplication only), then psi(1) = omega^{omega^2} and similarly psi(omega) = omega^{omega^omega}, psi(psi(0)) = omega^{omega^{omega^omega}} until we come to a fixed point which is then our psi(Omega) = varepsilon_0. We then have psi(Omega+1) = {varepsilon_0}^omega and so on until psi(Omega 2) = varepsilon_1. Since multiplication of Omega's is permitted, we can still form psi(Omega^2) = phi_2(0) and psi(Omega^3) = phi_3(0) and so on, but our construction ends there as there is no way to get at or beyond Omega^omega: so the range of this weakened system of notation is psi(Omega^omega) = phi_omega(0) (the value of psi(Omega^omega) is the same in our weaker system as in our original system, except that now we cannot go beyond it). This does not even go as far as the Feferman-Schütte ordinal.

If we alter the definition of psi yet some more to allow only addition as a primitive for construction, we get psi(0) = omega^2 and psi(1) = omega^3 and so on until psi(psi(0)) = omega^{omega^2} and still psi(Omega) = varepsilon_0. This time, psi(Omega+1) = varepsilon_0 omega and so on until psi(Omega 2) = varepsilon_1 and similarly psi(Omega 3) = varepsilon_2. But this time we can go no further: since we can only add Omega's, the range of our system is psi(Omegaomega) = varepsilon_omega = phi_1(omega).

In both cases, we find that the limitation on the weakened psi function comes not so much from the operations allowed on the countable ordinals as on the uncountable ordinals we allow ourselves to denote.

Going beyond the Bachmann-Howard ordinal

We know that psi(varepsilon_{Omega+1}) is the Bachmann-Howard ordinal. The reason why psi(varepsilon_{Omega+1}+1) is no larger, with our definitions, is that there is no notation for varepsilon_{Omega+1} (it does not belong to C(alpha) for any alpha, it is always the least upper bound of it). One could try to add the varepsilon function (or the Veblen functions of so-many-variables) to the allowed primitives beyond addition, multiplication and exponentiation, but that does not get us very far. To create more systematic notations for countable ordinals, we need more systematic notations for uncountable ordinals: we cannot use the psi function itself because it only yields countable ordinals (e.g., psi(Omega+1) is, varepsilon_{phi_2(0)+1}, certainly not varepsilon_{Omega+1}), so the idea is to mimic its definition as follows:

Let psi_1(alpha) be the smallest ordinal which cannot be expressed from all countable ordinals, Omega and Omega_2 using sums, products, exponentials, and the psi_1 function itself (to previously constructed ordinals less than alpha).

Here, Omega_2 is a new ordinal guaranteed to be greater than all the ordinals which will be constructed using psi_1: again, letting Omega = omega_1 and Omega_2 = omega_2 works.

For example, psi_1(0) = varepsilon_{Omega+1}, and more generally psi_1(alpha) = varepsilon_{Omega+1+alpha} for all countable ordinals and even beyond (psi_1(Omega) = varepsilon_{Omega 2} and psi_1(psi_1(0)) = varepsilon_{Omega+varepsilon_{Omega+1}}): this holds up to the first fixed point zeta_{Omega+1} beyond Omega of the ximapstovarepsilon_xi function, which is the limit of psi_1(0), psi_1(psi_1(0)) and so forth. Beyond this, we have psi_1(alpha) = zeta_{Omega+1} and this remains true until Omega_2: exactly as was the case for psi(Omega), we have psi_1(Omega_2) = zeta_{Omega+1} and psi_1(Omega_2+1) = varepsilon_{zeta_{Omega+1}+1}.

The psi_1 function gives us a system of notations (assuming we can somehow write down all countable ordinals!) for the uncountable ordinals below psi_1(varepsilon_{Omega_2+1}), which is the limit of psi_1(Omega_2), psi_1({Omega_2}^{Omega_2}) and so forth.

Now we can reinject these notations in the original psi function, modified as follows:

psi(alpha) is the smallest ordinal which cannot be expressed from 0, 1, omega, Omega and Omega_2 using sums, products, exponentials, the psi_1 function, and the psi function itself (to previously constructed ordinals less than alpha).

This modified function psi coincides with the previous one up to (and including) psi(psi_1(0)) — which is the Bachmann-Howard ordinal. But now we can get beyond this, and psi(psi_1(0)+1) is varepsilon_{psi(psi_1(0))+1} (the next varepsilon-number after the Bachmann-Howard ordinal). We have made our system doubly impredicative: to create notations for countable ordinals we use notations for certain ordinals between Omega and Omega_2 which are themselves defined using certain ordinals beyond Omega_2.

An variation on this scheme, which makes little difference when using just two (or finitely many) collapsing functions, but becomes important for infinitely many of them, is to define

psi(alpha) is the smallest ordinal which cannot be expressed from 0, 1, omega, Omega and Omega_2 using sums, products, exponentials, and the psi_1 and psi function (to previously constructed ordinals less than alpha).
i.e., allow the use of psi_1 only for arguments less than alpha itself. With this definition, we must write psi(Omega_2) instead of psi(psi_1(Omega_2)) (although it is still also equal to psi(psi_1(Omega_2)) = psi(zeta_{Omega+1}), of course, but it is now constant until Omega_2). This change is inessential because, intuitively speaking, the psi_1 function collapses the nameable ordinals beyond Omega_2 below the latter so it matters little whether psi is invoked directly on the ordinals beyond Omega_2 or on their image by psi_1. But it makes it possible to define psi and psi_1 by simultaneous (rather than “downward”) induction, and this is important if we are to use infinitely many collapsing functions.

Indeed, there is no reason to stop at two levels: using omega+1 new cardinals in this way, Omega_1,Omega_2,ldots,Omega_omega, we get a system essentially equivalent to that introduced by Buchholz, the inessential difference being that since Buchholz uses omega+1 ordinals from the start, he does not need to allow multiplication or exponentiation; also, Buchholz does not introduce the numbers 1 or omega in the system as they will also be produced by the psi functions: this makes the entire scheme much more elegant and more concise to define, albeit more difficult to understand. This system is also sensibly equivalent to the earlier (and much more difficult to grasp) “ordinal diagrams” of Takeuti and theta functions of Feferman: their range is the same (psi_0(varepsilon_{Omega_omega+1}), which could be called the Takeuti-Feferman-Buchholz ordinal, and which describes the strength of Pi^1_1-comprehension).

Collapsing large cardinals

As noted in the introduction, the use and definition of ordinal collapsing functions is strongly connected with the theory of ordinal analysis, so the collapse of this or that large cardinal must be mentioned simultaneously with the theory for which it provides a proof-theoretic analysis.

  • Gerhard Jäger and Wolfram Pohlers described the collapse of an inaccessible cardinal to describe the ordinal-theoretic strength of Kripke-Platek set theory augmented by the recursive inaccessibility of the class of ordinals (KPi), which is also proof-theoretically equivalent to Delta^1_2-comprehension plus bar induction. Roughly speaking, this collapse can be obtained by adding the alpha mapsto Omega_alpha function itself to the list of constructions to which the C(cdot) collapsing system applies.
  • Michael Rathjen then described the collapse of a Mahlo cardinal to describe the ordinal-theoretic strength of Kripke-Platek set theory augmented by the recursive mahloness of the class of ordinals (KPM).
  • The same author later described the collapse of a weakly compact cardinal to describe the ordinal-theoretic strength of Kripke-Platek set theory augmented by certain reflection principles (concentrating on the case of Pi_3-reflection). Very roughly speaking, this proceeds by introducing the first cardinal Xi(alpha) which is alpha-hyper-Mahlo and adding the alpha mapsto Xi(alpha) function itself to the collapsing system.
  • Even more recently, the same author has begun the investigation of the collapse of yet larger cardinals, with the ultimate goal of achieving an ordinal analysis of Pi^1_2-comprehension (which is proof-theoretically equivalent to the augmentation of Kripke-Platek by Sigma_1-separation).


  • Takeuti, Gaisi (1967). "Consistency proofs of subsystems of classical analysis". Annals of Mathematics 86 299–348.
  • Jäger, Gerhard; Pohlers, Wolfram (1983). "Eine beweistheoretische Untersuchung von (Delta^1_2-CA)+(BI) und verwandter Systeme". Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften. Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliche Klasse Sitzungsberichte 1982 1–28.
  • Buchholz, Wilfried (1986). "A New System of Proof-Theoretic Ordinal Notations". Annals of Pure and Applied Logic 32 195–207.
  • Rathjen, Michael (1991). "Proof-theoretic analysis of KPM". Archive for Mathematical Logic 30 377–403.
  • Rathjen, Michael (1994). "Proof theory of reflection". Annals of Pure and Applied Logic 68 181–224.
  • Rathjen, Michael (1995). "Recent Advances in Ordinal Analysis: Pi^1_2-CA and Related Systems". The Bulletin of Symbolic Logic 1 468–485.
  • Kahle, Reinhard (2002). "Mathematical proof theory in the light of ordinal analysis". Synthese 133 237–255.
  • Rathjen, Michael (2005). "An ordinal analysis of stability". Archive for Mathematical Logic 44 1–62.
  • Rathjen, Michael Proof Theory: Part III, Kripke-Platek Set Theory. Retrieved on 2008-04-17.. (slides of a talk given at Fischbachau)


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