Who would win in a fight, logic or computation?

Which paradigm is stronger? When I say logic here, I’ll be referring to standard formal theories like ZFC and Peano arithmetic. If one uses an expansive enough definition to include computability theory, then logic encompasses computation and wins by default.

If you read this post, you might immediately jump to the conclusion that logic is stronger. After all, we concluded that in first order Peano arithmetic one can unambiguously define not only the decidable sets, but the sets decidable with halting oracles, and those decidable with halting oracles for halting oracles, and so on forever. We saw that the Busy Beaver numbers, while undecidable, are definable by a Π1 sentence. And Peano arithmetic is a relatively weak theory; much more is definable in a theory like ZFC!

On the other hand, remember that there’s a difference between what’s absolutely definable and what’s definable-relative-to-ℕ. A set of numbers is absolutely definable if there’s a sentence that is true of just those numbers in every model of PA. It’s definable-relative-to-ℕ if there’s a sentence that’s true of just those numbers in the standard model of PA (the natural numbers, ℕ). Definable-relative-to-ℕ is an unfair standard for the strength of PA, given that PA, and in general no first order system, is able to categorically define the natural numbers. On the other hand, absolute definability is the standard that meets the criterion of “unambiguous definition”. With an absolute definition, there’s no room for confusion about which mathematical structure is being discussed.

All those highly undecidable sets we discussed earlier were only definable-relative-to-ℕ. In terms of what PA is able to define absolutely, it’s limited to only the finite sets. Compare this to what sets of numbers can be decided by a Turing machine. Every finite set is decidable, plus many infinite sets, including the natural numbers!

This is the first example of computers winning out over formal logic in their expressive power. While no first order theory (and in general no theory in a logic with a sound and complete proof system) can categorically define the natural numbers, it’s incredibly simple to write a program that defines that set using the language of PA. In regex, it’s just “S*0”. And here’s a Python script that does the job:

def check(s):
    if s == '':
        return False
    elif s == ‘0’:
        return True
    elif s[0] == ’s’:
        return check(s[1:])
    else:
        return False

We don’t even need a Turing machine for this; we can build a simple finite state machine:

In general, the sets decidable by computer can be much more complicated and interesting than those absolutely definable by a first-order theory. While first-order theories like ZFC have “surrogates” for infinite sets of numbers (ω and its definable subsets), these surrogate sets include nonstandard elements in some models. As a result, ZFC may fail to prove some statements about these sets which hold true of ℕ but fail for nonstandard models. For instance, it may be that the Collatz conjecture is true of the natural numbers but can’t be proven from ZFC. This would be because ZFC’s surrogate for the set of natural numbers (i.e. ω) includes nonstandard elements in some models, and the Collatz conjecture may fail for some such nonstandard elements.

On top of that, by taking just the first Turing jump into uncomputability, computation with a halting oracle, we are able to prove the consistency of ZFC and PA. Since ZFC is recursively axiomatizable, there’s a program that runs forever listing out theorems, such that every theorem is output at some finite point. We can use this to produce a program that looks to see if “0 = 1” is a theorem of ZFC. If ZFC is consistent, then the program will search forever and never find this theorem. But if ZFC is not consistent, then the program will eventually find the theorem “0 = 1” and will terminate at that point. Now we just apply our halting oracle to this program! If ZFC is consistent, then the halting oracle tells us that the program doesn’t halt, in which case we return “True”. If ZFC is not consistent, then the halting oracle tells us that the program does halt, in which case we return “False”. And just like that, we’ve decided the truth value of Con(ZFC)!

The same type of argument applies to Con(PA), and Con(T) for any T that is recursively axiomatizable. If you’re not a big fan of ZFC but have some other favored system for mathematics, then so long as this system’s axioms can be recognized by a computer, its consistency can be determined by a halting oracle.

Some summary remarks.

On the one hand, there’s a very simple explanation for why logic appears over and over again to be weaker than computation: we only choose to study formal theories that are recursively axiomatizable and have computable inference rules. Of course we can’t do better than a computer using a logical theory that can be built into a computer! If on the other hand, we chose true arithmetic, the set of all first-order sentences of PA that are true of ℕ, to be our de jure theory of mathematics, then the theorems of mathematics could not be recursively enumerated by any Turing machine, or indeed any oracle machine below 0(ω). So perhaps there’s nothing too mysterious here after all.

On the other hand, there is something very philosophically interesting about truths of mathematics that cannot be proven just using mathematics, but could be proven if it happened that our universe gave us access to an oracle for the halting problem. If a priori reasoning is thought to be captured by a formal system like ZFC, then it’s remarkable that there are facts about the a priori (like Con(ZFC)) that cannot possibly be established by a priori reasoning. Any consistency proof cannot be provided by a consistent system itself, and going outside to a stronger system whose consistency is more in doubt doesn’t help at all. The only possible way to learn the truth value of such statements is contingent; we can learn it if the universe contains some physical manifestation of a halting oracle!

Leave a Reply