nLab finite mathematics

Finite mathematics

Finite mathematics


Finite mathematics is the mathematics of finite sets. The term is sometimes used more broadly for discrete mathematics.

We may say that finite mathematics is mathematics done internal to the category FinSet of finite sets or the mathematics of FinSet\Fin\Set itself. The latter (but not the former) includes the basic arithmetic of natural numbers, since these are the cardinalities of finite sets; we can go as far as rational numbers this way, but not real numbers.

Finite mathematics also includes a great deal of combinatorics, basic algebra, and elementary formal logic, although not many advanced topics.


In the foundations of mathematics and in philosophy of mathematics, finitism is the philosophical sentiment that one “should” do only finite mathematics. In a weak sense, one should not assume the axiom of infinity; in a strong sense, one should even deny it by an axiom of finiteness. This makes it impossible to do analysis as we normally understand it.

Finitism (in the weak sense of not accepting an axiom of infinity) is essentially the mathematics that can be done internal to an arbitrary boolean topos (at least if one is not also being predicative or constructive). For constructive mathematics as usually practised, one goes beyond finitism by positing a natural numbers object.

Although often considered an extreme form of constructivism, finitism in the strong sense (actually denying the axiom of infinity) can make excluded middle and even the axiom of choice constructively acceptable (and similarly make power sets predicatively acceptable). This is because even constructivists agree that these are true in FinSet\Fin\Set; it's the extension of them to infinite sets that the first constructivists objected to.

Ultrafinitism is an even more extreme form of finitism, in which one doubts the existence of certain very large natural numbers. The theory of ultrafinite mathematics is most well developed by Edward Nelson in Nelson arithmetic. Foundational systems such as soft linear logic can also be argued to have an ultrafinitist flavor.

This is also true of foundational systems using paraconsistent logic, where paraconsistent arithmetics can have only a finite number of natural numbers. In particular, there is a paraconsistent version of the Löwenheim-Skolem theorem, which states:

Any mathematical theory presented in first order logic has a finite paraconsistent model.

For the opinionated espousal of finitism (and much else), one can hardly do better than the Opinions of Doron Zeilberger.

The mathematics of FinSet

An alternative definition of finite mathematics is as the mathematics of FinSet. This includes the basic arithmetic of natural numbers, since these are the cardinalities of finite sets. This may seem contradictory to the entire conception of “finite mathematics”, since the natural numbers form an infinite set. The way out is to state that the natural numbers don’t form a set (or class) at all; instead, they are formally defined outside of the set theory via an auxiliary theory like Peano arithmetic. This phenomenon is similar to defining the universe hierarchy of Russell universes or Coquand universes in dependent type theory without a separate type judgment, where the natural numbers used in the universe indices are not elements of a type, but rather formally defined outside of the type theory using some other theory.

π\pi-finite mathematics

In homotopy type theory, another possibility is available: π\pi-finite mathematics, which can be said to be the study of only the nn-truncated pi-finite types for n:n:\mathbb{N}, which have finite homotopy groups, and type operations that preserve finiteness. Finite sets are just finite 0-truncated tame homotopy types in homotopy type theory. Certain type operations do not preserve tameness, such as suspensions and homotopy pushouts, and so wouldn’t be part of finite mathematics. This extends traditional finite mathematics based in set theoretic foundations to more modern fields such as higher category theory and homotopy theory. Just as the cardinalities of finite sets are natural numbers (finite set cardinalities), the cardinalities of these nn-truncated homotopy types are positive rational numbers.

See also


  • Edward Nelson, Warning Signs of a Possible Collapse of Contemporary Mathematics (~2011) [pdf, pdf]

  • Manuel Bremer, Inconsistent Mathematics, (slides)

Last revised on January 3, 2024 at 22:50:13. See the history of this page for a list of all contributions to it.