Axiom of choice

In mathematics, the axiom of choice, or AC, is an axiom of set theory. Informally put, the axiom of choice says that given any collection of bins, each containing at least one object, it is possible to make a selection of exactly one object from each bin, even if there are infinitely many bins and there is no "rule" for which object to pick from each. The axiom of choice is not required if the number of bins is finite or if such a selection "rule" is available.

The axiom of choice was formulated in 1904 by Ernst Zermelo. Although originally controversial, it is now used without reservation by most mathematicians. One motivation for this use is that a number of important mathematical results, such as Tychonoff's theorem, require the axiom of choice for their proofs. Contemporary set theorists also study axioms that are not compatible with the axiom of choice, such as the axiom of determinacy. Unlike the axiom of choice, these alternatives are not ordinarily proposed as axioms for mathematics, but only as principles in set theory with interesting consequences.


A choice function is a function f, defined on a collection X of nonempty sets, such that for every set s in X, f(s) is an element of s. With this concept, the axiom can be stated:
For any set of non-empty sets, X, there exists a choice function f defined on X.
Thus the negation of the axiom of choice states that there exists a set of nonempty sets which has no choice function.

Each choice function on a collection X of nonempty sets can be viewed as (or identified with) an element of the Cartesian product of the sets in X. This leads to an equivalent statement of the axiom of choice:

An arbitrary Cartesian product of non-empty sets is non-empty.


There are many other equivalent statements of the axiom of choice. These are equivalent in the sense that, in the presence of other basic axioms of set theory, they imply the axiom of choice and are implied by it.

One variation avoids the use of choice functions by, in effect, replacing each choice function with its range.

Given any set X of pairwise disjoint non-empty sets, there exists at least one set C that contains exactly one element in common with each of the sets in X.

Another equivalent axiom only considers collections X that are essentially powersets of other sets:

For any set A, the power set of A (minus the empty set) has a choice function.
Authors who use this formulation often speak of the choice function on A, but be advised that this is a slightly different notion of choice function. Its domain is the powerset of A (minus the empty set), and so makes sense for any set A, whereas with the definition used elsewhere in this article, the domain of a choice function on a collection of sets is that collection, and so only makes sense for sets of sets. With this alternate notion of choice function, the axiom of choice can be compactly stated as
Every set has a choice function.
which is equivalent to
For any set A there is a function f such that for any non-empty subset B of A, f(B) lies in B.
The negation of the axiom can thus be expressed as:
There is a set A such that for all functions f (on the set of non-empty subsets of A), there is a B such that f(B) does not lie in B.


Until the late 19th century, the axiom of choice was often used implicitly, although it had not yet been formally stated. For example, after having established that the set X contains only non-empty sets, a mathematician might have said "let F(s) be one of the members of s for all s in X." In general, it is impossible to prove that F exists without the axiom of choice, but this seems to have gone unnoticed until Zermelo.

Not every situation requires the axiom of choice. For finite sets X, the axiom of choice follows from the other axioms of set theory. In that case it is equivalent to saying that if we have several (a finite number of) boxes, each containing at least one item, then we can choose exactly one item from each box. Clearly we can do this: We start at the first box, choose an item; go to the second box, choose an item; and so on. The number of boxes is finite, so eventually our choice procedure comes to an end. The result is an explicit choice function: a function that takes the first box to the first element we chose, the second box to the second element we chose, and so on. (A formal proof for all finite sets would use the principle of mathematical induction.)

For certain infinite sets X, it is also possible to avoid the axiom of choice. For example, suppose that the elements of X are sets of natural numbers. Every nonempty set of natural numbers has a smallest element, so to specify our choice function we can simply say that it maps each set to the least element of that set. This gives us a definite choice of an element from each set and we can write down an explicit expression that tells us what value our choice function takes. Any time it is possible to specify such an explicit choice, the axiom of choice is unnecessary.

The difficulty appears when there is no natural choice of elements from each set. If we cannot make explicit choices, how do we know that our set exists? For example, suppose that X is the set of all non-empty subsets of the real numbers. First we might try to proceed as if X were finite. If we try to choose an element from each set, then, because X is infinite, our choice procedure will never come to an end, and consequently, we will never be able to produce a choice function for all of X. So that won't work. Next we might try the trick of specifying the least element from each set. But some subsets of the real numbers don't have least elements. For example, the open interval (0,1) does not have a least element: If x is in (0,1), then so is x/2, and x/2 is always strictly smaller than x. So taking least elements doesn't work, either.

The reason that we are able to choose least elements from subsets of the natural numbers is the fact that the natural numbers come pre-equipped with a well-ordering: Every subset of the natural numbers has a unique least element under the natural ordering. Perhaps if we were clever we might say, "Even though the usual ordering of the real numbers does not work, it may be possible to find a different ordering of the real numbers which is a well-ordering. Then our choice function can choose the least element of every set under our unusual ordering." The problem then becomes that of constructing a well-ordering, which turns out to require the axiom of choice for its existence; every set can be well-ordered if and only if the axiom of choice is true.

Nonconstructive aspects

A proof requiring the axiom of choice is, in one meaning of the word, nonconstructive: even though the proof establishes the existence of an object, it may be impossible to define the object in the language of set theory. For example, while the axiom of choice implies that there is a well-ordering of the real numbers, there are models of set theory with the axiom of choice in which no well-ordering of the reals is definable. As another example, a subset of the real numbers that is not Lebesgue measurable can be proven to exist using the axiom of choice, but it is consistent that no such set is definable.

Some mathematicians dislike the axiom of choice because it produces these intangibles. Because there is no canonical well-ordering of any set, a construction that relies on a well-ordering may not produce a canonical result, even if a canonical result is desired (as is often the case in category theory). The small community of mathematical constructivists posit that all existence proofs should be totally explicit; it should be possible to construct, in an explicit and canonical manner, anything that is proven to exist. They reject the full axiom of choice because it asserts the existence of an object without uniquely determining its structure. In fact the Diaconescu–Goodman–Myhill theorem shows how to derive the constructively unacceptable law of the excluded middle, or a restricted form of it, in constructive set theory from the assumption of the axiom of choice.

Another argument against the axiom of choice is that it implies the existence of counterintuitive objects. One example of this is the Banach–Tarski paradox which says that it is possible to decompose ("carve up") the 3-dimensional solid unit ball into finitely many pieces and, using only rotations and translations, reassemble the pieces into two solid balls each with the same volume as the original. The pieces in this decomposition, constructed using the axiom of choice, are extremely complicated.

Despite these arguments, the majority of mathematicians accept the axiom of choice as a valid principle for proving new results in mathematics.

It is possible to prove many theorems using neither the axiom of choice nor its negation; this is common in constructive mathematics. Such statements will be true in any model of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory (ZF), regardless of the truth or falsity of the axiom of choice in that particular model. The restriction to ZF renders any claim that relies on either the axiom of choice or its negation unprovable. For example, the Banach–Tarski paradox is neither provable nor disprovable from ZF alone: it is impossible to construct the required decomposition of the unit ball in ZF, but also impossible to prove there is no such decomposition. Similarly, all the statements listed below which require choice or some weaker version thereof for their proof are unprovable in ZF, but since each is provable in ZF plus the axiom of choice, there are models of ZF in which each statement is true. Statements such as the Banach–Tarski paradox can be rephrased as conditional statements, for example, "If AC holds, the decomposition in the Banach–Tarski paradox exists." Such conditional statements are provable in ZF when the original statements are provable from ZF and the axiom of choice.


By work of Kurt Gödel and Paul Cohen, the axiom of choice is logically independent of the other axioms of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory (ZF). This means that neither it nor its negation can be proven to be true in ZF, if ZF is consistent. Consequently, if ZF is consistent, then ZFC is consistent and ZF¬C is also consistent. So the decision whether or not it is appropriate to make use of the axiom of choice in a proof cannot be made by appeal to other axioms of set theory. The decision must be made on other grounds.

One argument given in favor of using the axiom of choice is that it is convenient to use it: using it cannot hurt (cannot result in contradiction) and makes it possible to prove some propositions that otherwise could not be proved. Many theorems which are provable using choice are an elegant general character: every ideal in a ring is contained in a maximal ideal, every vector space has a basis, and every product of compact spaces is compact. Without the axiom of choice, these theorems may not hold for mathematical objects of large cardinality.

The proof of the independence result also shows that a wide class of mathematical statements, including all statements that can be phrased in the language of Peano arithmetic, are provable in ZF if and only if they are provable in ZFC. Statements in this class include the statement that P = NP, the Riemann hypothesis, and many other unsolved mathematical problems. When one attempts to solve problems in this class, it makes no difference whether ZF or ZFC is employed if the only question is the existence of a proof. It is possible, however, that there is a shorter proof of a theorem from ZFC than from ZF.

The axiom of choice is not the only significant statement which is independent of ZF. For example, the generalized continuum hypothesis (GCH) is not only independent of ZF, but also independent of ZF plus the axiom of choice (ZFC). However, ZF plus GCH implies AC, making GCH a strictly stronger claim than AC, even though they are both independent of ZF.

Stronger axioms

The axiom of constructibility and the generalized continuum hypothesis both imply the axiom of choice, but are strictly stronger than it.

In class theories such as Von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory and Morse–Kelley set theory, there is a possible axiom called the axiom of global choice which is stronger than the axiom of choice for sets because it also applies to proper classes. And the axiom of global choice follows from the axiom of limitation of size.


There are a remarkable number of important statements that, assuming the axioms of ZF but neither AC nor ¬AC, are equivalent to the axiom of choice. The most important among them are Zorn's lemma and the well-ordering theorem. In fact, Zermelo initially introduced the axiom of choice in order to formalize his proof of the well-ordering principle.

Category theory

There are several results in category theory which invoke the axiom of choice for their proof. These results might be weaker than, equivalent to, or stronger than the axiom of choice, depending on the strength of the technical foundations. For example, if one defines categories in terms of sets, that is, as sets of objects and morphisms (usually called a small category), or even locally small categories, whose hom-objects are sets, then there is no category of all sets, and so it is difficult for a category-theoretic formulation to apply to all sets. On the other hand, other foundational descriptions of category theory are considerably stronger, and an identical category-theoretic statement of choice may be stronger than the standard formulation, à la class theory, mentioned above.

Examples of category-theoretic statements which require choice include:

  • Every small category has a skeleton.
  • If two small categories are weakly equivalent, then they are equivalent.
  • Every continuous functor on a small-complete category which satisfies the appropriate solution set condition has a left-adjoint (the Freyd adjoint functor theorem).

Weaker forms

There are several weaker statements that are not equivalent to the axiom of choice, but are closely related. One example is the axiom of countable choice (ACω or CC), which states that a choice function exists for any countable set X, and the stronger axiom of dependent choice (DC). These axioms are sufficient for many proofs in elementary mathematical analysis, and are consistent with some principles, such as the Lebesgue measurability of all sets of reals, that are disprovable from the axiom of choice.

Other choice axioms weaker than axiom of choice include the Boolean prime ideal theorem and the axiom of uniformization.

Results requiring AC (or weaker forms) but weaker than it

One of the most interesting aspects of the axiom of choice is the large number of places in mathematics that it shows up. Here are some statements that require the axiom of choice in the sense that they are not provable from ZF but are provable from ZFC (ZF plus AC). Equivalently, these statements are true in all models of ZFC but false in some models of ZF.

Stronger forms of ¬AC

Now, consider stronger forms of the negation of AC. For example, if we abbreviate by BP the claim that every set of real numbers has the property of Baire, then BP is stronger than ¬AC, which asserts the nonexistence of any choice function on perhaps only a single set of nonempty sets. Note that strengthened negations may be compatible with weakened forms of AC. For example, ZF + DC + BP is consistent, if ZF is.

It is also consistent with ZF + DC that every set of reals is Lebesgue measurable; however, this consistency result, due to Robert M. Solovay, cannot be proved in ZFC itself, but requires a mild large cardinal assumption (the existence of an inaccessible cardinal). The much stronger axiom of determinacy, or AD, implies that every set of reals is Lebesgue measurable, has the property of Baire, and has the perfect set property (all three of these results are refuted by AC itself). ZF + DC + AD is consistent provided that a sufficiently strong large cardinal axiom is consistent (the existence of infinitely many Woodin cardinals).

Results requiring ¬AC

There are models of Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory in which the axiom of choice is false. We will abbreviate "Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory plus the negation of the axiom of choice" by ZF¬C. For certain models of ZF¬C, it is possible to prove the negation of some standard facts. Note that any model of ZF¬C is also a model of ZF, so for each of the following statements, there exists a model of ZF in which that statement is true.

  • There exists a model of ZF¬C in which there is a function f from the real numbers to the real numbers such that f is not continuous at a, but for any sequence {xn} converging to a, limn f(xn)=f(a).
  • There exists a model of ZF¬C in which real numbers are a countable union of countable sets.
  • There exists a model of ZF¬C in which there is a field with no algebraic closure.
  • In all models of ZF¬C there is a vector space with no basis.
  • There exists a model of ZF¬C in which there is a vector space with two bases of different cardinalities.

For proofs, see Thomas Jech, The Axiom of Choice, American Elsevier Pub. Co., New York, 1973.


"The Axiom of Choice is obviously true, the well-ordering principle obviously false, and who can tell about Zorn's lemma?" — Jerry Bona
This is a joke: although the three are all mathematically equivalent, most mathematicians find the axiom of choice to be intuitive, the well-ordering principle to be counterintuitive, and Zorn's lemma to be too complex for any intuition.

"The Axiom of Choice is necessary to select a set from an infinite number of socks, but not an infinite number of shoes." — Bertrand Russell

The observation here is that one can define a function to select from an infinite number of pairs of shoes by stating for example, to choose the left shoe. Without the axiom of choice, one cannot assert that such a function exists for pairs of socks, because left and right socks are (presumably) indistinguishable from each other.

"The axiom gets its name not because mathematicians prefer it to other axioms." — A. K. Dewdney

This quote comes from the famous April Fools' Day article in the computer recreations column of the Scientific American, April 1989.



  • Herrlich, Horst, Axiom of Choice, Springer Lecture Notes in Mathematics 1876, Springer Verlag Berlin Heidelberg (2006). ISBN 3-540-30989-6.
  • Paul Howard and Jean Rubin, "Consequences of the Axiom of Choice". Mathematical Surveys and Monographs 59; American Mathematical Society; 1998.
  • Thomas Jech, "About the Axiom of Choice." Handbook of Mathematical Logic, John Barwise, ed., 1977.
  • Gregory H Moore, "Zermelo's axiom of choice, Its origins, development and influence", Springer; 1982. ISBN 0-387-90670-3
  • Ernst Zermelo, "Untersuchungen über die Grundlagen der Mengenlehre I," Mathematische Annalen 65: (1908) pp. 261-81. PDF download via

Translated in: Jean van Heijenoort, 2002. From Frege to Godel: A Source Book in Mathematical Logic, 1879-1931. New edition. Harvard Univ. Press. ISBN 0-674-32449-8
*1904. "Proof that every set can be well-ordered," 139-41.
*1908. "Investigations in the foundations of set theory I," 199-215.

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