The proposition that a decreasing sequence of ordinals necessarily terminates has been given a new, and perhaps unexpected, importance by the rôle which it plays in Gentzen's proof of the freedom from contradiction of the “reine Zahlentheorie.” Gödel's construction of non-demonstrable propositions and the establishment of the impossibility of a proof of freedom from contradiction, within the framework of a certain type of formal system, showed that a proof of freedom from contradiction could be found only by transcending the axioms and proof processes of that formal system. Gentzen's proof succeeds by utilising transfinite induction to prove that certain sequences of reduction processes, enumerated by ordinals less than ε (the first ordinal to satisfy ε = ὡ) are finite. Were it possible to prove the restricted ordinal theorem, that a descending sequence of ordinals, less than ε, is finite, in Gentzen's “reine Zahlentheorie,” then it would be possible to determine a contradiction in that number system. In his paper, Gentzen proves the theorem of transfinite induction, which he requires, by an intuitive argument. There is also a method of reducing transfinite induction, for ordinals less than ε, to a number-theoretic principle given by Hilbert and Bernays, and a similar method by Ackermann. None of these proofs of transfinite induction is finitist.
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