The Universe of Discourse

Tue, 21 Aug 2012

The non-duality of open and closed sets
I had long thought that it doesn't matter if we define a topology in terms of open sets or in terms of closed sets, because the two definitions are in every way dual and equivalent. This seems not to be the case: the definition in terms of closed sets seems to be slightly weaker than the definition in terms of open sets.

We can define a topology without reference to the underlying space as follows: A family !!{\mathfrak I}!! of sets is a topology if it is closed under pairwise intersections and arbitrary unions, and we call a set "open" if it is an element of !!{\mathfrak I}!!. From this we can recover the omitted axiom that says that !!\emptyset!! is open: it must be in !!{\mathfrak I}!! because it is the empty union !!\bigcup_{g\in\emptyset} g!!. We can also recover the underlying space of the topology, or at least some such space, because it is the unique maximal open set !!X=\bigcup_{g\in{\mathfrak I}} g!!. The space !!X!! might be embedded in some larger space, but we won't ever have to care, because that larger space is topologically featureless. From a topological point of view, !!X!! is our universe of discourse. We can then say that a set !!C!! is "closed" whenever !!X\setminus C!! is open, and prove all the usual theorems.

If we choose to work with closed sets instead, we run into problems. We can try starting out the same way: A family !!{\mathfrak I}!! of sets is a co-topology if it is closed under pairwise unions and arbitrary intersections, and we call a set "closed" if it is an element of !!{\mathfrak I}!!. But we can no longer prove that !!\emptyset\in{\mathfrak I}!!. We can still recover an underlying space !!X = \bigcup_{c\in{\mathfrak I}} c!!, but we cannot prove that !!X!! is closed, or identify any maximal closed set analogous to the maximal open set of the definition of the previous paragraph. We can construct a minimal closed set !!\bigcap_{c\in{\mathfrak I}} c!!, but we don't know anything useful about it, and in particular we don't know whether it is empty, whereas with the open-sets definition of a topology we can be sure that the empty set is the unique minimal open set.

We can repair part of this asymmetry by changing the "pairwise unions" axiom to "finite unions"; then the empty set is closed because it is a finite union of closed sets. But we still can't recover any maximal closed set. Given a topology, it is easy to identify the unique maximal closed set, but given a co-topology, one can't, and indeed there may not be one. The same thing goes wrong if one tries to define a topology in terms of a Kuratowski closure operator.

We might like to go on and say that complements of closed sets are open, but we can't, because we don't have a universe of discourse in which we can take complements.

None of this may make very much difference in practice, since we usually do have an a priori idea of the universe of discourse, and so we do not care much whether we can define a topology without reference to any underlying space. But it is at least conceivable that we might want to abstract away the underlying space, and if we do, it appears that open and closed sets are not as exactly symmetric as I thought they were.

Having thought about this some more, it seems to me that the ultimate source of the asymmetry here is in our model of set theory. The role of union and intersection in ZF is not as symmetric as one might like. There is an axiom of union, which asserts that the union of the members of some family of sets is again a set, but there is no corresponding axiom of intersection. To get the intersection of a family of sets !!\mathcal S!!, you use a specification axiom. Because of the way specification works, you cannot take an empty intersection, and there is no universal set. If topology were formulated in a set theory with a universal set, such as NF, I imagine the asymmetry would go away.

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[ Addendum 20120824: There is a followup to this article. ]