Mathematical proof

P. Oxy. 29, one of the oldest surviving fragments of Euclid's Elements, a textbook used for millennia to teach proof-writing techniques. The diagram accompanies Book II, Proposition 5.[1]

A mathematical proof is an inferential argument for a mathematical statement, showing that the stated assumptions logically guarantee the conclusion. The argument may use other previously established statements, such as theorems; but every proof can, in principle, be constructed using only certain basic or original assumptions known as axioms,[2][3][4] along with the accepted rules of inference. Proofs are examples of exhaustive deductive reasoning which establish logical certainty, to be distinguished from empirical arguments or non-exhaustive inductive reasoning which establish "reasonable expectation". Presenting many cases in which the statement holds is not enough for a proof, which must demonstrate that the statement is true in all possible cases. An unproven proposition that is believed to be true is known as a conjecture, or a hypothesis if frequently used as an assumption for further mathematical work.[5]

Proofs employ logic expressed in mathematical symbols, along with natural language which usually admits some ambiguity. In most mathematical literature, proofs are written in terms of rigorous informal logic. Purely formal proofs, written fully in symbolic language without the involvement of natural language, are considered in proof theory. The distinction between formal and informal proofs has led to much examination of current and historical mathematical practice, quasi-empiricism in mathematics, and so-called folk mathematics, oral traditions in the mainstream mathematical community or in other cultures. The philosophy of mathematics is concerned with the role of language and logic in proofs, and mathematics as a language.

History and etymology

The word "proof" comes from the Latin probare (to test). Related modern words are English "probe", "probation", and "probability", Spanish probar (to smell or taste, or sometimes touch or test),[6] Italian provare (to try), and German probieren (to try). The legal term "probity" means authority or credibility, the power of testimony to prove facts when given by persons of reputation or status.[7]

Plausibility arguments using heuristic devices such as pictures and analogies preceded strict mathematical proof.[8] It is likely that the idea of demonstrating a conclusion first arose in connection with geometry, which originated in practical problems of land measurement.[9] The development of mathematical proof is primarily the product of ancient Greek mathematics, and one of its greatest achievements.[10] Thales (624–546 BCE) and Hippocrates of Chios (c. 470–410 BCE) gave some of the first known proofs of theorems in geometry. Eudoxus (408–355 BCE) and Theaetetus (417–369 BCE) formulated theorems but did not prove them. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) said definitions should describe the concept being defined in terms of other concepts already known.

Mathematical proof was revolutionized by Euclid (300 BCE), who introduced the axiomatic method still in use today. It starts with undefined terms and axioms, propositions concerning the undefined terms which are assumed to be self-evidently true (from Greek "axios", something worthy). From this basis, the method proves theorems using deductive logic. Euclid's book, the Elements, was read by anyone who was considered educated in the West until the middle of the 20th century.[11] In addition to theorems of geometry, such as the Pythagorean theorem, the Elements also covers number theory, including a proof that the square root of two is irrational and a proof that there are infinitely many prime numbers.

Further advances also took place in medieval Islamic mathematics. While earlier Greek proofs were largely geometric demonstrations, the development of arithmetic and algebra by Islamic mathematicians allowed more general proofs with no dependence on geometric intuition. In the 10th century CE, the Iraqi mathematician Al-Hashimi worked with numbers as such, called "lines" but not necessarily considered as measurements of geometric objects, to prove algebraic propositions concerning multiplication, division, etc., including the existence of irrational numbers.[12] An inductive proof for arithmetic sequences was introduced in the Al-Fakhri (1000) by Al-Karaji, who used it to prove the binomial theorem and properties of Pascal's triangle. Alhazen also developed the method of proof by contradiction, as the first attempt at proving the Euclidean parallel postulate.[13]

Modern proof theory treats proofs as inductively defined data structures, not requiring an assumption that axioms are "true" in any sense. This allows parallel mathematical theories as formal models of a given intuitive concept, based on alternate sets of axioms, for example Axiomatic set theory and Non-Euclidean geometry.