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Skolem, Thoralf (1887–1963)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Y096-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2023
Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

Article Summary

The twentieth-century mathematician Thoralf Skolem is known principally for two achievements. The first is the statement and proof of the Löwenheim-Skolem theorem. The second is his construction of countable nonstandard models of Peano arithmetic and set theory when these theories are expressed in first-order (predicate) logic.

The Löwenheim-Skolem theorem, for which Skolem gave several proofs, showed that no first-order axiom system can characterise a unique infinite model. Skolem regarded this theorem as casting doubt on the belief that mathematics can be reliably founded on formal axiomatic systems alone. He discovered that first-order logics are necessarily incomplete descriptions of their intended models. There is a vivid contrast between the comprehensive syntactic expressive power of first-order theories and their very limited power to constrain their models to a priori desired models.

The startling conclusion he derived from his theorem is known as ‘Skolem’s paradox’. It asserts that concepts such as cardinality must be interpreted relative to a given model and thus have no absolute meaning. Anticipating modern model theory, in a later paper he gave a direct construction of a nonstandard model of first-order arithmetic based on plus and times by a method which anticipated the ultraproduct construction of models of first-order theories.

He realised that it might be possible to construct new models for set theory which demonstrate the consistency or the independence of the axiom of choice and the continuum hypothesis. The first goal was realised in the early 1930s by Kurt Gödel’s introduction of the notion of constructability for consistency proofs. The second goal was realised in the early 1960s by Paul Cohen’s introduction of the notion of forcing for independence proofs, for which he was awarded the Field’s medal in 1966.

Citing this article:
Brady, Geraldine. Skolem, Thoralf (1887–1963), 2023, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Y096-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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