Once upon a time, mathematicians thought they would be able to prove everything. The endeavor was known as Hilbert’s Program. They would find a complete and consistent set of axioms, and on this foundation build all of mathematics. (Although to be fair, much of mathematics was already built and was to be placed upon on those foundations retroactively.) And then, if everything went well, they would generate an algorithm that could prove every statement either true or false.
To some extent, Hilbert’s Program was successful. We now have Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory, which is a solid foundation for the vast majority of mathematics. But there are two problems. First, set theory isn’t complete. Second, we can’t prove it’s consistent. And Gödel showed that these problems have no solutions.
Gödel’s First Incompleteness Theorem: No consistent formal system is complete.
Gödel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem: No consistent formal system can prove its own consistency.
(Both of these theorems have additional qualifiers that I’ll get to later.)
Here I will explain the proof for the First Incompleteness Theorem, and a few of its implications. In a later post, I will talk about the Second Incompleteness Theorem.