Chapter 12: The Principle of Computational Equivalence

Section 8: Undecidability and Intractability

Proofs of undecidability

Essentially the same argument due to Alan Turing used on page 1128 to show that most numbers cannot be computable can also be used to show that most problems cannot be decidable. For a problem can be thought of as an infinite list of solutions for successive possible inputs. But this is analogous to a digit sequence of a real number. And since any program for a universal system can be specified by an integer it follows that there must be many problems for which no such program can be given.

To show that a particular problem like the halting problem is undecidable one typically argues by contradiction, setting up analogs of self-referential logic paradoxes such as "this statement is false". Suppose that one had a Turing machine m that could solve the halting problem, in the sense that it itself would always halt after a finite number of steps, but it would determine whether any Turing machine whose description it was given as input would ever halt. One way to see that this is not possible is to imagine modifying m to make a machine m' that halts if its input corresponds to a machine that does not halt, but otherwise goes into an infinite loop and does not itself halt. For if one considers feeding m' as input to itself there is immediately no consistent answer to the question of whether m' halts—leading to the conclusion that in fact no machine m could ever exist in the first place. (To make the proof rigorous one must add another level of self-reference, say setting up m' to ask m whether a Turing machine will halt when fed its own description as input.) In the main text I argued that undecidability is a consequence of universality. In the proof above universality is what guarantees that any Turing machine can successfully be described in a way that can be fed as input to another Turing machine.

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From Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science [citation]