Chapter 12: The Principle of Computational Equivalence

Section 9: Implications for Mathematics and Its Foundations

Truth and incompleteness

In discussions of the foundations of mathematics in the early 1900s it was normally assumed that truth and provability were in a sense equivalent—so that all true statements could in principle be reached by formal processes of proof from fixed axioms (see page 782). Gödel's Theorem showed that there are statements that can never be proved from given axioms. Yet often it seemed inevitable just from the syntactic structure of statements (say as well-formed formulas) that each of them must at some level be either true or false. And this led to the widespread claim that Gödel's Theorem implies the existence of mathematical statements that are true but unprovable—with their negations being false but unprovable. Over the years this often came to be assigned a kind of mystical significance, mainly because it was implicitly assumed that somehow it must still ultimately be possible to know whether any given statement is true or false. But the Principle of Computational Equivalence implies that in fact there are all sorts of statements that simply cannot be decided by any computational process in our universe. So for example, it must in some sense be either true or false that a given Turing machine halts with given input—but according to the Principle of Computational Equivalence there is no finite procedure in our universe through which we can guarantee to know which of these alternatives is correct.

In some cases statements can in effect have default truth values—so that showing that they are unprovable immediately implies, say, that they must be true. An example in arithmetic is whether some integer equation has no solution. For if there were a solution, then given the solution it would be straightforward to give a proof that it is correct. So if it is unprovable that there is no solution, then it follows that there must in fact be no solution. And similarly, if it could be shown for example that Goldbach's Conjecture is unprovable then it would follow that it must be true, for if it were false then there would have to be a specific number which violates it, and this could be proved. Not all statements in mathematics have this kind of default truth value. And thus for example the Continuum Hypothesis in set theory is unprovable but could be either of true or false: it is just independent of the axioms of set theory. In computational systems, showing that it is unprovable that a given Turing machine halts with given input immediately implies that in fact it must not halt. But showing that it is unprovable whether a Turing machine halts with every input (a Π2 statement in the notation of page 1139) does not immediately imply anything about whether this is in fact true or false.

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