In this post, we look into the differences of the idea of sets from that of concepts. The discussion here is exploratory, and hence, not very well isolated. There are overlaps of points between sections. Indeed, there are going to be overlaps of points from post to post too! The idea behind this series of posts is not to present a long thought out and matured point of view; it is much in the nature of jotting down salient points and trying to bring some initial structure to them. Thus the writing in this series is just a step further from the stage of brain-storming, really speaking.

There is no direct discussion in this post regarding the learnability issue at all. However, the points we note here are crucial to understanding Godel’s incompleteness theorem, and in that sense, the contents of this post are crucially important in framing the learnability issue right.

Anyway, let’s get going over the differences of sets and concepts.

**A concept as an abstract unit of mental integration:**

Concepts are mental abstractions. It is true that concepts, once formed, can themselves be regarded as mental units, and qua units, they can further be integrated together into even higher-level concepts, or possibly sub-divided into narrower concepts. However, regardless of the level of abstraction at which a given concept exists, the concretes being subsumed under it are necessarily required to be less abstract than the single mental unit that is the concept itself.

Using the terms of computer science, the “graph” of a concept and its associated concrete units is not only acyclic and directional (from the concretes to the higher-level mental abstraction that is the concept), its connections too can be drawn if and only if the concretes satisfy the rules of conceptual commensurability.

*A concept is necessarily a mental abstraction, and as a unit of mental integration, it always exists at a higher level of abstraction as compared to the units it subsumes.*

**A set as a mathematical object that is just a concrete collection:**

Sets, on the other hand, necessarily are just concrete objects in themselves, even if they do represent collections of other concrete objects. Sets take birth as concrete objects—i.e., as objects that don’t have to represent *any* act of mental isolation and integration—and they remain that way till the end of their life.

For the same reason, set theory carries absolutely no rules whereby constraints can be placed on combining sets. No meaning is supposed to be assigned to the very act of placing braces around the rule which defines admissibility of objects as members into a set (or that of enumeration of their member objects).

*The act of creating the collection that is a set is formally allowed to proceed even in the absence of any preceding act of mental differentiations and integrations.*

This distinction between these two ideas, the idea of a concept, and that of a set, is important to grasp.

**An instance of a mental abstraction vs. a membership into a concrete collection:**

In the last post in this series, I had used the terminology in a particular way: I had said that there is a concept “table,” and that there is a set of “tables.” The plural form for the idea of the set was not a typo; it was a deliberate device to highlight this same significant point, viz., the essential concreteness of any set.

The mathematical theory of sets didn’t have to be designed this way, but given the way it anyway *has actually* been designed, one of the inevitable implications of its conception—its very design—has been this difference which exists between the ideas of concepts and sets. Since this difference is extremely important, it may be worth our while to look at it from yet another viewpoint.

When we look at a table and, having already had reached the concept of “table” we affirm that the given concrete table in front of us is indeed a table, this seemingly simple and almost instantaneously completed act of recognition itself implicitly involves a complex mental process. The process includes invoking a previously generated mental integration—an integration which was, sometime in the past, performed in reference to those attributes which actually exist in reality and which make a concrete object a table. The process begins with the availability of this context as a pre-requisite, and now involves an *application* of the concept. It involves actively bringing forth the pre-existing mental integration, actively “see” that yet another concrete instance of a table does indeed in reality carry the attributes which make an object a table, and thereby concluding that it is a table.

In other words, if you put the concept table symbolically as:

table = { this table X, that table Y, now yet another table Z, … etc. }

then it is understood that what the symbol on the left hand side stands for is a mental integration, and that each of the concrete entities X, Y, Z, etc. appearing in the list on the right hand-side is, by itself, an instance corresponding to that unit of mental integration.

But if you interpret the same “equation” as one standing for the *set* “tables”, then strictly speaking, according to the actual formalism of the set theory itself (i.e., without bringing into the context any additional perspective which we by habit do, but sticking strictly only to the formalism), each of the X, Y, Z etc. objects remains just a concrete member of a merely *concrete collection* or *aggregate* that is the set. The mental integration which regards X, Y, Z as equally similar instances of the idea of “table” is missing altogether.

Thus, no idea of *similarity* (or of *differences*) among the members at all gets involved, because there is no mental abstraction: “table” in the first place. There are only concrete tables, and there is a well-specified but concrete object, a collective, which is only formally defined to be stand for this concrete collection (of those specified tables).

Grasp this difference, and the incompleteness paradox brought forth by Godel begins to dissolve away.

**The idea of an infinite set cuts out the preceding theoretical context:**

Since the aforementioned point is complex but important, there is no risk in repeating (though there could be boredom!):

*There is no place-holder in the set theory which would be equivalent to saying: “being able to regard concretes as the units of an abstract, singular, mental perspective—a perspective reached in recognition of certain facts of reality.”*

The way set theory progresses in this regard is indeed *extreme*. Here is one way to look at it.

The idea of an infinite set is altogether inconceivable before you first have grasped the *concept* of infinity. On the other hand, grasping the concept of infinity can be accomplished without any involvement of the set theory anyway—formally or informally. However, since every set you actually observe in the concrete reality can only be finite, and since sets themselves are concrete objects, there is no way to conceive of the very idea of an infinite sets, unless you already know what infinity means (at least in some working, implicit, sense). Thus, to generate the concrete members contained in the given infinite set, you of course need the conceptual knowledge of infinite sequences and series.

However, even if the set theory *must use* this theoretical apparatus of analysis, t*he actual mathematical object it ends up having still captures only the “concrete-collection” aspect of it—none other*. In other words, the set theory *drops* from its very considerations some of the crucially important aspects of knowledge with which infinite sets can at all be conceived of. For instance, it drops the idea that the infinite set-generating rule is in itself an abstraction. The set theory asks you to supply and use that rule. The theory itself is merely content in being supplied some well-defined entities as the members of a set.

It is at places like this that the infamous incompleteness creeps into the theory—I mean, the theory of sets, not the theory that is the analysis as was historically formulated and practiced.

**The name of a set vs. the word that stands for a concept:**

*The name given to a set (the symbol or label appearing on the left hand-side of the equation) is just an arbitrary and concrete a label; it is not a theoretical place-holder for the corresponding mental concept—not so long as you remain strictly within the formalism, and therefore, the scope of application of, the set theory.*

When they introduce you to the set theory in your high-school, they take care to choose each of the examples only such a way that there always is an easy-to-invoke and well-defined *concept; *this per-existing concept can then be put into a 1:1 correspondence with the definition of that particular set.

*But if you therefore begin thinking that there is a well-defined concept for each possible instance of a set, then such a characterization is only a figment of your own imagination. *An idea like this is certainly not to be found in the actual formalism of the set theory.

Show me the place in the axioms, or their combinations, or theorems, or even just lemmas or definitions in the set theory where they say that the label for a set, or the rule for formation of a set, must always stand for a conceptually coherent mental integration. Such an idea is simply absent from the mathematical theory.

The designers of the set theory, to put it directly, simply didn’t have the wits to include such ideas in their theory.

**Implications for the allowed operations:**

The reason why the set theory allows for any arbitrary operands (including those which don’t make any sense in the real world) is, thus, not an accident. It is a direct consequence of the fact that sets are, by design, concrete aggregates, not mental integrations based on certain rules of cognition (which in turn must make a reference to the *actual* characteristics and attributes possessed by the *actually* existing objects).

Since sets are mere aggregations, not integrations, as a consequence, we no longer remain concerned with the fact that there have to be two or more common characteristics to the concrete objects being put together, or with the problem of having to pick up the most fundamental one among them.

When it comes to sets, there are no such constraints on the further manipulations. Thus arises the possibility of being apply any operator any which way you feel like on any given set.

**Godel’s incompleteness theorem as merely a consequence:**

Given such a nature of the set theory—its glaring epistemological flaws—something like Kurt Godel’s *incompleteness* theorem had to arrive in the scene, sooner or later. The theorem succeeds only because the set theory (on which it is based) does give it what it needs—viz., a loss of a connection between a word (a set label) and how it is meant to be used (the contexts in which it can be further used, and how).

In the next part, we will reiterate some of these points by looking at the issue of (i) systems of axioms based on the set theory on the one hand, and (ii) the actual conceptual body of knowledge that is arithmetic, on the other hand. We will recast the discussion so far in terms of the “is a” vs. the “has a” types of relationships. The “is a” relationship may be described as the “is an instance of a mental integration or concept of” relationship. The “has a” relationship may be described as “is (somehow) defined (in whatever way) to carry the given concrete” type of a relationship. If you are curious, here is the preview: concepts allow for both types of relationships to exist; however, for defining a concept, the “is an instance or unit of” relationship is crucially important. In contrast, the set theory requires and has the formal place for only the “has a” type of relationships. A *necessary* outcome is that each set itself must remain only a concrete collection.