The Universe of Discourse

Sat, 01 Mar 2014

Placeholder texts

This week there has been an article floating around about “What happens when placeholder text doesn't get replaced. This reminds me of the time I made this mistake myself.

In 1996 I was programming a web site for a large company which sold cosmetics and skin care products in hundreds of department stores and malls around the country. The technology to actually buy the stuff online wasn't really mature yet, and the web was new enough that the company was worried that selling online would anger the retail channels. They wanted a web page where you would put in your location and it would tell you where the nearby stores were.

The application was simple; it accepted a city and state, looked them up in an on-disk hash table, and then returned a status code to the page generator. The status code was for internal use only. For example, if you didn't fill in the form completely, the program would return the status code MISSING, which would trigger the templating engine to build a page with a suitable complaint message.

If the form was filled out correctly, but there was no match in the database, the program would return a status code that the front end translated to a suitably apologetic message. The status code I selected for this was BACKWATER.

Which was all very jolly, until one day there was a program bug and some user in Podunk, Iowa submitted the form and got back a page with BACKWATER in giant letters.

Anyone could have seen that coming; I have no excuse.

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Proof by contradiction

Intuitionistic logic is deeply misunderstood by people who have not studied it closely; such people often seem to think that the intuitionists were just a bunch of lunatics who rejected the law of the excluded middle for no reason. One often hears that intuitionistic logic rejects proof by contradiction. This is only half true. It arises from a typically classical misunderstanding of intuitionistic logic.

Intuitionists are perfectly happy to accept a reductio ad absurdum proof of the following form:

$$(P\to \bot)\to \lnot P$$

Here !!\bot!! means an absurdity or a contradiction; !!P\to \bot!! means that assuming !!P!! leads to absurdity, and !!(P\to \bot)\to \lnot P!! means that if assuming !!P!! leads to absurdity, then you can conclude that !!P!! is false. This is a classic proof by contradiction, and it is intuitionistically valid. In fact, in many formulations of intuitionistic logic, !!\lnot P!! is defined to mean !!P\to \bot!!.

What is rejected by intuitionistic logic is the similar-seeming claim that:

$$(\lnot P\to \bot)\to P$$

This says that if assuming !!\lnot P!! leads to absurdity, you can conclude that !!P!! is true. This is not intuitionistically valid.

This is where people become puzzled if they only know classical logic. “But those are the same thing!” they cry. “You just have to replace !!P!! with !!\lnot P!! in the first one, and you get the second.”

Not quite. If you replace !!P!! with !!\lnot P!! in the first one, you do not get the second one; you get:

$$(\lnot P\to \bot)\to \lnot \lnot P$$

People familiar with classical logic are so used to shuffling the !!\lnot !! signs around and treating !!\lnot \lnot P!! the same as !!P!! that they often don't notice when they are doing it. But in intuitionistic logic, !!P!! and !!\lnot \lnot P!! are not the same. !!\lnot \lnot P!! is weaker than !!P!!, in the sense that from !!P!! one can always conclude !!\lnot \lnot P!!, but not always vice versa. Intuitionistic logic is happy to agree that if !!\lnot P!! leads to absurdity, then !!\lnot \lnot P!!. But it does not agree that this is sufficient to conclude !!P!!.

As is often the case, it may be helpful to try to understand intuitionistic logic as talking about provability instead of truth. In classical logic, !!P!! means that !!P!! is true and !!\lnot P!! means that !!P!! is false. If !!P!! is not false it is true, so !!\lnot \lnot P!! and !!P!! mean the same thing. But in intuitionistic logic !!P!! means that !!P!! is provable, and !!\lnot P!! means that !!P!! is not provable. !!\lnot \lnot P!! means that it is impossible to prove that !!P!! is not provable.

If !!P!! is provable, it is certainly impossible to prove that !!P!! is not provable. So !!P!! implies !!\lnot \lnot P!!. But just because it is impossible to prove that there is no proof of !!P!! does not mean that !!P!! itself is provable, so !!\lnot \lnot P!! does not imply !!P!!.


$$(P\to \bot)\to \lnot P $$

means that if a proof of !!P!! would lead to absurdity, then we may conclude that there cannot be a proof of !!P!!. This is quite valid. But

$$(\lnot P\to \bot)\to P$$

means that if assuming that a proof of !!P!! is impossible leads to absurdity, there must be a proof of !!P!!. But this itself isn't a proof of !!P!!, nor is it enough to prove !!P!!; it only shows that there is no proof that proofs of !!P!! are impossible.

[ Addendum 20141124: This article by Andrej Bauer says much the same thing. ]

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