Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mathematical Proof for Enthusiasts - What It Is And What It is Not

With the term mathematical proof we want to indicate a logical proof, i.e. proof using logical inferences, in the field of mathematics. So, it should really be “a proof in the field of mathematics”. Also, we have to assume, and be fully aware, that proof must be “logical” anyway. There are really no illogical proofs. Proof that appears to be obtained (whatever that means) by any other way, other than using rules of logic, is not a proof at all. Assumptions and axioms need no proof. They are starting points and their truth values are assumed right at the start. You have to start from somewhere. If they are wrong assumptions, axioms, the results will show to be wrong. So, you will have to go back and fix your fundamental axioms.
When you have first encountered a need or a task for a mathematical proof, you may have asked yourself "Why do I need to prove that, it's so obvious!?".

We used to think that we need to prove something if it is not clear enough or when there are opposite views on the subject we are debating. Sometimes, things are not so obvious, and again, we need to prove it to some party.

In order to prove something we have to have an agreement which things we consider to be true at the first place, i.e. what are our initial, starting assumptions. That’s where the “debate” most likely will kick in. In most cases, debate is related to an effort to establish some axioms, i.e. initial truths, and only after that some new logical conclusions, or proofs will and can be done.

The major component of a mathematical proof is the domain of mathematical analysis. This domain has to be well established field of mathematics, and mathematics only. The proof is still a demonstration that something is true, but it has to be true within the system of assumptions established in mathematics. The true statement, the proof, has to (logically) follow from already established truths. In other words, when using the phrase "Prove something in math..." it means "Show that it follows from the set of axioms and other theorems (already proved!) in the domain of math..". Which axioms and theorems you will start the proof with is a matter of art, intuition, trial and error, or even true genius. You can not use apples, meters, pears, feelings, emotions, experimental setup, physical measurements, to say that something is true in math, to prove a mathematical theorem, no matter how important or central role those real world objects pr processes had in motivating the development of that part of mathematics. In other words, you can not use real world examples, concepts, things, objects, real world scenarios that, possibly, motivated theorems’ development, in mathematical proofs. Of course, you can use them as some sort of intuitive guidelines which axioms, or theorems, you will use to start the construction of a proof. You can use your intuition, feeling, experience, even emotions, to select starting points of a proof, to chose initial axioms or theorems in the proof steps, which, when combined later, will make a proof. But, you can not say that, intuitively, you know the theorem is true, and use that statement about your intuition, as an argument in a proof. You have to use mathematical axioms, already proved mathematical theorems (and of course logic) to prove the new theorems.

The initial, starting assumptions in mathematics are called fundamental axioms. Then, theorems are proved using these axioms. More theorems are proved by using the axioms and already proven theorems. Usually, it is emphasized that you use logical thinking, logic, to prove theorems. But, that's not sufficient. You have to use logic to prove anything, but what is important in math is that you use logic on mathematical axioms, and not on some assumptions and facts outside mathematics. The focus of your logical steps and logic constructs in mathematical proofs is constrained (but not in any negative way) to mathematical (and not to the other fields’) axioms and theorems.

Feeling that something is "obvious" in mathematics can still be a useful feeling. It can guide you towards new theorems. But, those new theorems still have to be proved using mathematical concepts only, and that has to be done by avoiding the words "obvious" and "intuition"! Stating that something is obvious in a theorem is not a proof.However, using own intuition to construct a proof or to formulate theorem is definitely useful.

Again, proving means to show that the statement is true by demonstrating it follows, by logical rules, from established truths in mathematics, as oppose to established truths and facts in other domains to which mathematics may be applied to.

As another example, we may say, in mathematical analysis, that something is "visually" obvious. Here "visual" is not part of mathematics, and can not be used as a part of the proof, but it can play important role in guiding us what may be true, and how to construct the proof.

Each and every proof in math is a new, uncharted territory. If you like to be artistic, original, to explore unknown, to be creative, then try to construct math proofs.

No one can teach you, i.e. there is no ready to use formula to follow, how to do proofs in mathematics. Math proof is the place where you can show your true, original thoughts.

[ set, set theory, concept of a set, sets in mathematics, real world, applied math, applied mathematics, axioms, math education, math proof, mathematical axioms, mathematical proof, mathematical theorems, mathematics, theorems, tutoring ]

1 comment:

  1. Good explanation, Nash. Thanks so much.

    Mathematicians take this for granted and often get annoyed when laypeople don't know it (or heed it).

    You might do an article on "definition" too. That's the one that bugs me. Engineers (sorry, dude, I see you're one) typically will "define" something by saying, "Well, it's like..."

    I got that a lot when trying to understand hydrostatic pressure.