“Thought is nothing other than the desire to finish with the exorbitant excess of the state” (Being and Event). Since Cantor’s theorem implies that this excess cannot be removed or reduced to the situation itself, the only way left is to take control of it. A basic, paradigmatic strategy for achieving this goal is to subject the excess to the power of language. Its essence has been expressed by Leibniz in the form of the principle of indiscernibles: there cannot exist two things whose difference cannot be marked by a describable property. In this manner, language assumes the role of a “law of being”, postulating identity, where it cannot find a difference. Meanwhile – according to Badiou – the generic truth is indiscernible: there is no property expressible in the language of set theory that characterizes elements of the generic set. Truth is beyond the power of knowledge, only the subject can support a procedure of fidelity by deciding what belongs to a truth. This key thesis is established using purely formal means, so it should be regarded as one of the peak moments of the mathematical method employed by Badiou.
Badiou composes the indiscernible out of as many as three different mathematical notions. First of all, he decides that it corresponds to the concept of the inconstructible. Later, however, he writes that “a set δ is discernible (…) if there exists (…) an explicit formula λ(x) (…) such that ‘belong to δ’ and ‘have the property expressed by λ(x)’ coincide”. Finally, at the outset of the argument designed to demonstrate the indiscernibility of truth he brings in yet another definition: “let us suppose the contrary: the discernibility of G. A formula thus exists λ(x, a1,…, an) with parameters a1…, an belonging to M[G] such that for an inhabitant of M[G] it defines the multiple G”. In short, discernibility is understood as:
- definability by a formula F(y) with one free variable and no parameters. In this approach, a set a is definable if there exists a formula F(y) such that b is an element of a if F(b) holds.
- definability by a formula F (y, z1 . . . , zn) with parameters. This time, a set a is definable if there exists a formula F(y, z1,…, zn) and sets a1,…, an such that after substituting z1 = a1,…, zn = an, an element b belongs to a iff F(b, a1,…, an) holds.
Even though in “Being and Event” Badiou does not explain the reasons for this variation, it clearly follows from his other writings (Alain Badiou Conditions) that he is convinced that these notions are equivalent. It should be emphasized then that this is not true: a set may be discernible in one sense, but indiscernible in another. First of all, the last definition has been included probably by mistake because it is trivial. Every set in M[G] is discernible in this sense because for every set a the formula F(y, x) defined as y belongs to x defines a after substituting x = a. Accepting this version of indiscernibility would lead to the conclusion that truth is always discernible, while Badiou claims that it is not so.
Is it not possible to choose the second option and identify discernibility with definability by a formula with no parameters? After all, this notion is most similar to the original idea of Leibniz intuitively, the formula F(y) expresses a property characterizing elements of the set defined by it. Unfortunately, this solution does not warrant indiscernibility of the generic set either. As a matter of fact, assuming that in ontology, that is, in set theory, discernibility corresponds to constructibility, Badiou is right that the generic set is necessarily indiscernible. However, constructibility is a highly technical notion, and its philosophical interpretation seems very problematic. Let us take a closer look at it.
The class of constructible sets – usually denoted by the letter L – forms a hierarchy indexed or numbered by ordinal numbers. The lowest level L0 is simply the empty set. Assuming that some level – let us denote it by Lα – has already been
constructed, the next level Lα+1 is constructed by choosing all subsets of L that can be defined by a formula (possibly with parameters) bounded to the lower level Lα.
Bounding a formula to Lα means that its parameters must belong to Lα and that its quantifiers are restricted to elements of Lα. For instance, the formula ‘there exists z such that z is in y’ simply says that y is not empty. After bounding it to Lα this formula takes the form ‘there exists z in Lα such that z is in y’, so it says that y is not empty, and some element from Lα witnesses it. Accordingly, the set defined by it consists of precisely those sets in Lα that contain an element from Lα.
After constructing an infinite sequence of levels, the level directly above them all is simply the set of all elements constructed so far. For example, the first infinite level Lω consists of all elements constructed on levels L0, L1, L2,….
As a result of applying this inductive definition, on each level of the hierarchy all the formulas are used, so that two distinct sets may be defined by the same formula. On the other hand, only bounded formulas take part in the construction. The definition of constructibility offers too little and too much at the same time. This technical notion resembles the Leibnizian discernibility only in so far as it refers to formulas. In set theory there are more notions of this type though.
To realize difficulties involved in attempts to philosophically interpret constructibility, one may consider a slight, purely technical, extension of it. Let us also accept sets that can be defined by a formula F (y, z1, . . . , zn) with constructible parameters, that is, parameters coming from L. Such a step does not lead further away from the common understanding of Leibniz’s principle than constructibility itself: if parameters coming from lower levels of the hierarchy are admissible when constructing a new set, why not admit others as well, especially since this condition has no philosophical justification?
Actually, one can accept parameters coming from an even more restricted class, e.g., the class of ordinal numbers. Then we will obtain the notion of definability from ordinal numbers. This minor modification of the concept of constructibility – a relaxation of the requirement that the procedure of construction has to be restricted to lower levels of the hierarchy – results in drastic consequences.