# Computability Theory

Or, How Euclid's Parallel Postulate Gave Rise to the Information Age

Once upon a time, mathematicians in the Western tradition regarded their profession as being a science, no different from chemistry or physics. That view was based on an empirical understanding of mathematical truths. In this model, *2 + 2 = 4* is true because if I am holding two pebbles and pick up two more, then I can confirm by counting the pebbles in my hand that I end up holding four.

Euclid's *Elements* was firmly based in this empirical tradition. While he provided arguments which, in modern terms, were based on a formal approach to proving theorems based on a set of axioms, his proofs relied on "constructions" using experimentally verifiable procedures involving straight-edge and compass to justify not just his premises but also his conclusions.

Euclid famously defined a number of axioms (in the form of "postulates") based on such constructions. Loosely translated into modern terms, his five axioms are:

- A point can be extended indefinitely to form a line.
- A line can be extended indefinitely to form a plane.
- A point can be rotated at a constant distance around another point to form a circle.
- All right angles are equal to each other.
- If two lines intersect a third line such that the interior angles on the same side are each less than a right angle, the first two lines will eventually intersect when they are both extended indefinitely.

The fifth axiom has historically been referred to as the "parallel postulate," and was the source of obsession by countless mathematicians over the millenia starting in Euclid's time and continuing up to the relatively recent past. Note how different it is from the other four axioms. Axioms 1 - 4 are short statements of easily visualized constructions. The parallel postulate, on the other hand, is quite verbose by comparison and takes a few readings to fully grasp the construction... at which point it becomes as obviously true as the others when one is drawing figures on a flat surface:

It seems so complex by comparison to the others and has an air of somehow depending on them (by reference to extending lines and comparing right angles) that for a very long time mathematicians suspected that it must not actually be an axiom at all. Volumes were written on various attempts to discover the simpler axioms from which the parallel postulate could be derived as a theorem.

Along the way, various alternative axioms were identified as being equivalent to Euclid's. Playfair's Theorem is the most famous one, and is presented in many modern texts on geometry as the preferred "fifth axiom":

All such attempts failed to produce truly simpler axioms because, as it turns out, the parallel postulate really is an axiom and not a theorem hiding some unknown number of real axioms under its skirts.

This was proven in the 19th century by the likes of Bolyai, Lobachevsky and Riemann. Their approach was clever, and as hard to understand initially as the parallel postulate itself. The various attempts to simplify Euclid's version of the axiom had given mathematicians practice in devising alternative forms of the parallel postulate and proving whether or not they were consistent with the rest of Euclid's system of geometry. Bolyai, Lobachevsky, Riemann and others reasoned that if the parallel postulate was actually a theorem, then if you tried to work out a complete system of geometry using some different axiom that contradicted Euclid's fifth axiom but kept the other four intact, then you would inevitably be led to some self-contradiction between the four "real" axioms and your "bogus" one. What Bolyai and company set out to prove (since by then it was obvious the parallel postulate really was an axiom and all that was left was *proving* it in a fashion acceptable to mathematicians) was that you can create any number of internally consistent versions of geometry using axioms that differ only slightly from Euclid's. Each of them will produce a different set of theorems from Euclid's and from each others', but none of them will produce theorems that contradict *themselves* when considered independently of one another. I.e. this is an indirect proof of a particular kind: by proving that there are multiple possible geometries based on different variations of Euclid's parallel postulate, the latter is thus proven actually to be an axiom and not a theorem in disguise.

But what, exactly, is meant by "multiple possible geometries" when the whole point of Euclid's constructions is to root his particular axioms in empirical observations involving a straight edge and compass? In order to accept this whole approach, mathematicians were forced to reject empiricism. The new "Non-Euclidean" geometries were accepted as logically valid even though they produced results that could not be proven to be true experimentally (at the time, see below about later applications in fields like Einstein's General Relativity) using mechanical tools like Euclid's straight edge and compass. In order to accept the very satisfactory result to the millenia old concerns about the parallel postulate mathematicians had to once and for all acknowledge that all that really mattered to them was *validity* (i.e. the internal logical consistency of a set of axioms), not empirical *truth*. Science is the province of empiricism, so mathematics ceased to be regarded as a science.

This distinction was at the heart of an explosion in mathematical practice and techniques that began in the late 19th century and which, ultimately, provided the theoretical basis for scientific and technological advances like General Relativity, Quantum Physics and Computer Science. Paradoxically, the focus on *metamathematics* (the study of mathematics as purely formal systems divorced from empirical reality) is what made possible the very palpable advancements we now take for granted.

## Infinite Quantities and the Continuum Hypothesis

One immediate effect of the distinction between "applied" and "pure" mathematics was that it gave permission for mathematicians to consider problems that had traditionally been considered "out of bounds" because they did not correspond to empirically observable conditions. When the truth of *2 + 2 = 4* was believed to rely on counting things in the real world, then all one can say of infinite quantities is that they do not exist in the real world and so mathematics can have nothing to say about them. After all, you can never hold an infinite number of pebbles in your hand, count an infinite number of pebbles and so on.

But once mathematics became freed from such empiricism by fully embracing the Non-Euclidean geometries, mathematicians started reconsidering ideas that had been nagging at the edges of their theories for centuries. When Leibniz and Newton independently invented calculus in the 17th century, they and their contemporaries had to apply some intellectual gymnastics in regard to things like the notions of limits and integrals. Calculus is all about considering the final result of applying a given mathematical formula an infinite number of times, or comparing values that differ only to an infinitessimal degree. But if infinitessimal differences are real, and an infinitessimal is simply the mathematical inverse of an infinite quantity... well, never mind. The consensus from the 16th through the 19th centuries was that calculus was simply too useful to ignore simply because it flirted with the idea that infinite quantities must be legitimate mathematical objects.

Note

Mathematicians had long before become accustomed to rationalizing abstract mathematical entities in empirical terms. For example, negative numbers were initially justified using reasoning based on what modern bookkeepers would recognize as a double-entry ledger. If I owe you 3 dollars but only have 2 dollars, I will still owe you 1 dollar after giving you all I have. I.e. my net holdings will be -1 dollars because as soon as I find another dollar I will be obligated to hand it over to you. That sort of reasoning underlay how Western mathematicians first embraced the concept of negative numbers.

But starting in the late 19th century, enabled by the new focus on validity rather than empirical truth, mathematicians like Cantor began to consider what mathematics could say about things like infinite quantities. For one thing, is there actually more than one infinite quantity? Naive intuition suggests that there is not. After all, * + 1 = * is true in the same way that

*2 + 2 = 4*, assuming that

But arithmetic is not all there is to mathematics. Let us define the set of natural numbers,

which is read in English as, "

Clearly, there are an infinite number of different infinite sets. For example, note that

Just as clearly, the *cardinality* (loosely meaning "the number of elements in a given set" and denoted by enclosing the name of a set in vertical bars, e.g.

Ditto for the relationship between

Cantor presented proofs that the cardinalities of all three of the sets of natural numbers, integers, and rational numbers are, in fact, the same (thus initially appearing to validate naive intuition). He did so by showing that one can produce a one-to-one mapping between elements of each of those sets.

In more formal terms, a *mapping* between two sets is a third set, each of whose elements is an ordered pair of elements from the first two sets. The first element of each pair must be a member of the first set, called the *domain* of the mapping. The second element of each pair must be from the second set, the *co-domain* or *range* of the mapping. Such a mapping is *injective* if it associates every member of the domain with exactly one member of the range. It is *surjective* if associates every member of the range with exactly one element of the domain. It is *bijective*, or "one-to-one" if it is both injective and surjective. Since a bijective mapping exhaustively matches every element of both the domain and range with exactly one element of the other, there must be exactly the same number of elements in both or else some elements would have either been duplicated or left out of the mapping.

Cantor's approach was to show that you can devise procedures for selecting exactly one integer given any natural number. Same for the natural and rational numbers. So far, so good.

Note

Any set for which there is a surjective mapping from *countable*. If that set, itself, has an infinite cardinality then it is said to be *countably infinite*. All countably infinite sets have the same cardinality as

But what about the set of real numbers,

Conventionally, the set of real numbers is defined loosely as "all the points on the number line," also known as the *continuum*. Every point in the continuum corresponds to a particular real number, whose value is distinct from the real number whose value is at every other point. The essential nature of the continuum is that it is, well, *continuous*. Given any two points on the number line, there are an infinite number of points between them. Take any two of those "inner" points and there is an infinite number of points between those, as well.

Cantor showed that you cannot create a bijective mapping between

Note

More precisely, Cantor assumed that every point on the continuum can be represented as a unique sequence of decimal digits such that if two sequences of digits differ in even one decimal place, they denote different real numbers. Some such sequences must be infinitely long in order to denote a fully exact real number distinct from all others, such as the values of

Even if you begin by assuming a 1:1 mapping is possible between

Note

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantor's_diagonal_argument for a description of Cantor's procedure.

This means that all mappings between

In fact, Cantor's arguments together with subsequent work by Hilbert and others demonstrate that according to Set Theory there are an infinite number of such ordered infinite quantities, with

To return to the preceding discussion of naive intuitions about infinite quantities, Cantor showed that, while:

it is also true that:

Note

The cardinality of *continummum hypothesis* (CH) is that there are no infinite quantities between

## Computability

Meanwhile, other philosophically inclined mathematicians and mathematically inclined philosophers were working on other aspects of metamathematics. In particular, the turn of the 20th century saw intense interest in the field of formal linguistics: study of the nature of the kinds of symbolic languages used to express mathematical formulas. One result of that work was to show that a language with a finite number of distinct symbols and a finite number of rules for putting those symbols together into syntactically correct formulas will produce a countably infinite number of well-formed formulas, i.e. the set of all possible calculations expressed as formulas of arithmetic, trigonometry, calculus etc. all have the same cardinality as

Or put another way, every number that is ever used in calculation is a member of a very special subset of all the points on the continuum. This begs the question, what is so special about computable numbers that make them computable? And can we actually say anything meaningful at all about the transfinitely many more points on the continuum that are not computablity?

The answer to the second question is: not in the terms of any mathematical language since then they would be computable. (More on this, below.)

Answering the first question, what makes a number computable in the first place, is the subject of a branch of mathematics known -- you guessed it -- as Computablity Theory. Computability Theory was pursued and fairly quickly settled by Church and Turing (Church was Turing's dissertaion advisor^{*}). Church's approach was entirely formal. He invented a mathematical language called Lambda Calculus. His hypothesis was that the set of computable numbers was the set of numbers that could be calculated by evaluating all possible well-formed formuals of the Lambda Calculus. Turing used thought experiments based on what he called a-machines (it was Church who first called these Turning machines). Turing's hypothesis was that the set of computable numbers was the set of outputs of all possible such machines. Computability Theory was considered settled by what came to be known as the Church-Turing Hypothesis when it was proven that the two approaches yield the same set of numbers. I.e. the behavior of any possible Turing machine can be represented as a formula of the Lambda Calculus and any such formula can be used as the "blueprint" for such a machine.

Note

This is what programming language theorists mean when they say a given language is "Turing complete" -- but that is getting ahead in the story.

### Computability Theory Begat Computer Science

When Church and Turing were working on Computability Theory in the 1930's, they were pursuing the purist of metamathematics. It was not lost on themselves or their contemporaries, however, that practical applications would quickly follow. Turing machines are the conceptual model for programmable digital computers and the Lambda Calculus is the forerunner of all programming languages. The cleanest, clearest expression of the relationship between what it means for a language to be "Turing complete" and the Lambda Calculus is the Lisp family of languages, especially its ultimate apotheosis in the form of Scheme.

For example, the following Scheme expression:

`((lambda (x) (+ x 1)) 2)`

means exactly the same as the following expression of the lambda calculus:

Both represent the application of a function that adds 1 to its argument, producing the value 3.^{**}

Note

Yes, the term *lambda* to mean an anonymous function as well as Amazon's choice of *Lambda* as the brand name of its "serverless" computing platform derives from Church's Lambda Calculus and Lisp.

## But Wait, There's More!

So, if not for a surprisingly intense interest in the parallel postulate over the course of millenia, it might have taken mathematicians even longer than it did to give themselves permission to pursue metamathematics as seriously, and in many cases even more assiduously, as applied mathematics. This fostered an interest in some areas of "pure" mathematics (a term which was coined only after the need arose to distinguish metamathematics from traditional, empiricist mathematics when regarded as a science). Among those new areas of interest were set theory, formal linguistics and computability theory. The results from such metamathematical research immediately gave rise to Computer Science. They also provided tools that helped physicists develop General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics among other revolutionary advancements of the 20th century.

Returning to the fundamental questions underlying Computability Theory, the Church-Turing Hypothesis answers the question of how to characterize computable real numbers, at least from a purely formal perspective. It says absolutely nothing about all those vastly more points on the number line representing numbers that are not computable. I.e. it says nothing qualitative about numbers, computable or otherwise. This still leaves us with the question of what can we say about non-computable numbers?

The answer is, of course, that there is nothing we can say about non-computable real numbers because they only exist as a side-effect of an intuitively appealing, historically widely held understanding of the nature of "number" that has no correspondance with any other aspect of mathematics or science. I.e. it is simply a mistake, post Cantor, Church and Turing, to continue to regard non-computable real numbers as being at all "real" or even "numbers."

These putative quantities only exist as a consequence of the assumption that there is such a thing as the infinitely subdividable continuum. But such a thing cannot exist in the real world. Consider a piece of rope. You could cut it in the middle to produce two lengths of rope, each of which was half the size of the original. You could cut one of those in half to produce two pieces, each of which was a quarter of the original. But in the real world you can repeat that process only so many times before you reach a point where the results after cutting are so small as to have lost any resemblance to "lengths of rope" simply because of the physical materials out of which the rope was made and how those materials are combined to form a "length of rope". Laying such concerns aside, if you choose to continue the subdividing process on the bits of fiber that are the tiny remnants of what is no longer a rope, you will reach a point where you are pulling apart microscopic chunks of composite materials into mono-molecular bits. Keep going and you will eventually reach a point where you are separating molecules into the their constituent elemental atoms. Continue, and you will start pulling atoms apart into clouds of electrons, protons and neutrons. Keep at it, and you will see vast numbers of every species in the "particle zoo" until you arrive at some final level (branes, according to M-theory) whose discreteness and indivisability, presumably, give rise to the quanta of Quantum Physics. I.e. modern science has amply confirmed that the physical world, at the most fundamental level, does not behave like a continuum.

Given that physical reality, the continuum can at best be one of those artifacts of a purely formal mathematical theory, like the "completed infinities" that were once anathema and now seem commonplace among mathematical theories. But from that point of view, Cantor's proof that *reductio ad absurdum* argument that the continuum is fairly useless even as a theoretical artifact of pure number theory. From that point of view, the set of computable numbers represents the exhaustive list of all possible numbers and is countably infinite. For this reason, mathematical texts should just stop talking about "real numbers" as a set distinct from the computable ones, other than as a quaint remnant of pre-modern theories. I.e. the continuum is to mathematics what *phlogison* is to chemistry or the *ether* is to physics.

^{*} Decades later, the author of this document took classes from Church while he was still teaching, so I have that in common with Turing. 😃

^{**} The expression of the Lambda Calculus is written in the informal syntax Church used when writing on chalk boards (using actual chalk on actual slate-covered boards) in university classrooms. He was a big fan of prefix notation (sometimes referred to as Polish notation because it was first popularized by a particular group of logicians from Poland). One advantage of prefix notation is that it greatly reduces the need for grouping symbols like parentheses (which is why only a left parenthesis appears here). This is ironic because the main reason that Lisp never really caught on as a programming language outside of computer science classrooms and AI labs was due to its over-reliance on parentheses in a syntax that many programmers find off-putting.