The Universe of Discourse
Sat, 01 Mar 2014

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.

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