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The role and function of proof in mathematics

# The role and function of proof in mathematics

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This (1990) paper from Pythagoras critiques the traditional exclusive focus on only the verification function proof, arguing that proof has many other functions such as explanation, discovery, communication and systematization that ought to be given more attention in the teaching of proof.
This (1990) paper from Pythagoras critiques the traditional exclusive focus on only the verification function proof, arguing that proof has many other functions such as explanation, discovery, communication and systematization that ought to be given more attention in the teaching of proof.

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THEROLEANDFUNCTIONOFPROOFIN
*
MATHEMATICS
MichaeldeVilliers,ResearchUnitonMathematicsEducation,University
of
Stellenbosch,Stelienbosch7600SouthAfrica
Abstract
a-
in
math-ematics.
This
analysisisbasedonepistemologicalcon-siderations,aswellasthepersonaltestimoniesofpractis-ingmathematicians.Verificationbeingonlyoneofthefive.functions,isthenshowninsomesituationstobeoffarlessimportancethansomeoftheotherfunctions.Finally,itisarguedthatthemeaningfulpresentationofproofatschoolmaybehighlydependentontheappropriatenegotiationofthesefunctionsofprooftopupils.
1,Introduction
Theproblemsthatpupilshavewithperceivinga
Deed
forproofiswell-knownto
all
high
schoolteachersandisidentifiedwithoutexception
inall
educationalresearchasamajorproblem
in
"why
dowehavetoprovethis?"
Thefollowingcon-clusionbyGonobolin(1954:61)exemplifiestheproblem:
"...thepupils...donot...recognizethenecessityofthelogicalproofofgeometrictheorems,especiallywhentheseproofsareofavisuallyobviouscharac-terorcaneasilybeestablishedempirically."
AccordingtoAfanasjewainFreudenthal(1958:29)pu-pils'problemswithproofshouldnotsimplybeattributedtoslowcognitivedevelopment(e.g.aninabilitytoreasonlogically),butalsothattheymaynotseethefunction(meaning,purposeandusefulness)ofproof.Infact,sev-eralrecentstudiesinoppositiontoPiagethaveshownthatveryyoungchildrenarequitecapableoflogicalreason-inginsituationswhicharerealandmeaningfultothem(Wason
&
Johnson-Laird,1972;Wallington,1974;Hew-son,1977;Donaldson,1979).Furthermore,attemptsbyresearcherstoteachlogictopupilshavefrequentlypro-vidednostatisticallysignificantdifferences
in
pupils'per-formanceandvppreciationofproof(e.g.Deer,1969;Walter,1972;Mueller,1975).Morethananythingelse,itseemsthatthefundamentalissueathandistheappropri-atenegotiationofthevariousfunctionsofprooftopupils.Thequestion
is,
however,
"what
funetlons
doesproofhavewithinmathematicsitselfwhichcanpotentiallybeutilizedinthemathematicsclassroomtomakeproofamoremeaningfulactivity?"
Thepurposeofthisarticleistopro-videameta-analysisofsomeimportantfunctionsofproof,andbrieflydiscusssomeimplicationsfortheteachingofproof.
2.ThefunctionsofproofInmathematics
in
termsoftheverification(convictionorjus-tification)ofthecorrectnessofmathematicalstatements.Theideaisthatproof
is
usedmainlytoremoveeitherper-sonaldoubtand/orthoseofskeptics;anideawhichhasone-sidedlydominatedteachingpracticeandmost
dis-
cussionsandresearchontheteachingofproof.Forin-stance,accordingtoWilder(1944:318)aproofis
"onlyatestingprocessthatweapplytothesesugges~lionsofourintuitions"
doubts,
whenitproveswhatisnotobvious."
u••
thent;cessity,thefunctionality,ofproofcanonlysutfaceinsituationsinwhichthestudentsmeet
un-certainty
"...aproofisanargumentneededto
validate
astatement,anargumentthat
may
assumeseveraldif-ferentfonns
as
longasitis
defining
itasfollows:
''Why
dowebothertoprovetheorems?
I
may
con-vincepeople
(includingourselves)...wemayregard
a
"Proofinthemathematicscurriculum."
Pythagoras
17

changeandbecomemoresophisticatedwithtime,thispointisalsoarguedfromtheviewpointthatthefunctionofproofismainlythatofverification,forexample:
"...toprogressinrigour,thefirststepisto
doubt
therigouronebelievesinatthismoment.Withoutthis
doubt
thereisnolettingotherpeopleprescribeone-selfnewcriteriaofrigour."
falls
intothesamecategory
as
theabove.
It
isfurthermoresuspectedthatmostsecondaryschoolteachersofmathematicsalmostexclusivelyholdthisratherformalisticviewontheverification/convictionfunctionofproofinmathematics.Infact,during1984inacountry-widesurveyat
11
South
African
universities
it
wasfoundthatmorethanhalfthe
H.E.D.
in
mathematicseducationagreedwiththestate-mentthattheonlyfunctionofproofwasthatof
"makingsure",
i.e,
theverificationofthetruthofresults(De
Vii-
liers,1987:38).However,aspointedoutbyBell(1976:24)thisviewofverification/convictionbeingthemainfunctionofproof
"avoidsconsiderationoftherealnatureofproof',
sinceconvictioninmathematicsisoftenobtained
"byquiteothermeansthanthatoffollowingalogicalproof"
Re-searchmathematiciansforinstanceseldomscrutinizethepublishedproofsofresultsindetail,butareratherledbytheestablishedauthorityoftheauthor,thetestingofspe-cialcasesandaninformalevaluationwhether
"themeth-odsandresultfitin,seemreasonable..."
(Davis&Hersh,1986:67).Itisthereforewithinthecontextoftheactualpracticeofmodernmathematicalresearchthatamorecompleteanalysisofthevariousfunctionsandrolesofproofiscalledfor.Althoughlayingclaimtoneithercom-pletenessnoruniqueness,theauthorandhiscolleagueshavefoundthefollowingmodelforthefunctionsofproofusefulintheirresearchoverthepastfewyears.As
will
benoted,itisaslightexpansionofBell's(1976)originaldis-tinctionbetweenthefunctionsofverification,iQumina-tionandsystematisation.Themodelisnowpresented(innospecificorderofimportance)anddiscussed
further
on:
verification
(concernedwiththetruthofastatement)
explanation
(providinginsightintowhyitistrue)
systematisation
discovery
(thediscoveryorinventionofnewresults)
communication
(thetransmissionofmathematicalknowledge)
2.1Proof
asa
meansofverification/conviction
Withveryfewexceptions,teachersofmathematicsseemtobelievethataproofforthemathematicianprovidesab-solutecertaintyandthatitisthereforetheabsoluteauth-orityintheestablishmentofthevalidityofaconjecture.TheyseemtoholdthenaiveviewdescribedbyDavis
&
Hersh(1986:65)thatbehindeachtheorem
in
themathe-maticalliteraturetherestandsasequenceoflogica1trans-formationsmovingfromhypothesistoconclusion,abso-lutelycomprehensible,andirrefutablyguaranteeingtruth.However,thisviewiscompletelyfalse.Proofisnotnecessarilyaprerequisiteforconviction.-totheCOn-trary,convictionisprobablyfarmorefrequentlyaprereq-uisiteforthefindingofaproof
(Forwhatother,weirdandobscurereasons,wouldwethensometimesspendmonthsoryearstoprovecenainconjectures,
if
Proofisnotnece\$sarily
a
prerequisiteforconviction-convictionIsfarmorefrequently
a
prerequisiteforproof
Thewell-knownGeorgePolya(1954:83-84)writesforexample
in
thisregard:
"...havingverifiedthe
theorem
inseveralparticularcases,wegatheredstronginductiveevidenceforit.Theinductivephas~overcameourinitial
suspicion
and
gaveusa'strong
confidence
inthe
theorem:
Withoutsuch
confidence
wewouldhavescarcelyfoundthecourage
to
undertaketheproofwhich
did
notlookatallaroutinejob.Menyouhavesatis-fiedyourselfthatthetheoremis
true,
youstart
prov-ing
it."
in
termsoftheotherfunctionsofproof(seefurtheron).Absolutecertaintyalso
doesnot
existinrealmathe-maticalresearch,
and
personalconvictionusuallyde-pendson
a
combinationofintuition,quasi-empiricalverificationandtheexistenceofalogical(butnotnecess-arilyrigourous)proof.Infact,avery
high
levelofconvic-tionmaysometimesbereachedeven
in
theabsenceofaproof.Forinstance,intheirdiscussionofthe
"heuristicevi-
dence"
in
supportofthestillunproved
twin
primepairthe-oremandthefamousRiemann
Hypothesis',
Davis
&
Hersh(1983:369)concludethatthisevidenceis
"sostrongthatitcarriesconvictionevenwithoutrigorousproof"
1
in
1984,theproofhasnotyetbeenstu-diednoracceptedbythewholemathematicalcommunity(Devlin,1985).
18
November1990,No.24
Jill,

_.they
CQIJ
only
In
p1'OlWIfab~-
or
elo'I1Ilncon-
Ment.
M-
Lakatos(1978:31)Wheninvestigating
the
validityof_unknown
CODjecturc.
mathematicians
do
not(should
not)
only
look
for
proofs,butalso
try
to
construct
counter-examples
at
the
same
time
by
means
of
quasl-emplrlcaUestlq,
since
such
test-
ing
may
expose
assumptions.(For
example,
sec
the
letter
"A
cOUlltel'-
exampletokndtll'sthecwm"
in
this
issue).
In
this
way
counter-examples
arefrequentlyproduced
which
riecessi.tateareconsideratioaofoldproofs,and
the
con-
structionof
newones.
Actuallythemajority
of
of
deductive
proof,
notonlyfromthehostof
examplea
of
falseandincompleteproofs
from
the
histqry
of
mathema-
tics,
but
also
from.
personaleJEpCriencc.
2
Personalcer-taintyconsequently
alsodepends
on
thecontinued
ab-
sence
ofcounter-examples
in
thefaccofquasi-empiricalevaluation.
In
theattainmentof
conviaion,
the
quasi-em-piricalprocessoffailed
falsUkationtherefore
plays
just:
asanimportantaroleas
the
processof(deductive)
j....
tlftcatlon.Ofcourse,
in
view
of
thewell·
known
limitationa
of
in-
tuitionandquasi-empiricalmethods
themsetve.,
theaboveargumentsaredefinitelynotmeanttodisregard
the
importanceofproofasanextremelyusefulmeaua
of
veri-
fication,
especiolly
in
the
case
of
surprising
non-intuitiveor
doubtfulresults.
Rather
it
is
intendedtoplaceproof
in
a
moreproperperspective
in
oppositiontoapresentlysomewhatdistortedidolizationofproofas
the
only
(and
absolute)meansofverificatioD/c:onviction.Thatconvictionformathematicians
is
notreached
by
proofalone
is
also
strikiaaIY
borneout
by'the
remarkof
a
previouseditorofthe
Mathematical
RevIewI
thatap-proximatelyone
half
oftheproofspublishedinit'werein-completeand/orcontainederrors,althoughthetheoremsthey,erepurportedtoprovewereessentiallytrue
(Hanna,
1983:71).Itthereforeseemsthatthe
rusoaable-
Dell
ofresultsoftenenjoy
priority
overtheexistenceof
a
completelyrigourousproof.
It
is
furthermorea~on1yheldviewamongtodaysmathematiciansthatthere
is
no
such
thing
asa....ourouslycompleteproof(e.g.consultHanna,1983
&
1989b;Kline,1982).Firstly,there
is
theproblemthatnoabsolutestandardsexistfortheevalu-ationofthelogicalcorrectnessofaproof
nor
foritsac-
ceptance
bythemathematicalcommunity
as
awhole.
Sec-
ondly,
as
Davis
&
Hersh
(1986:66)
pointout.mathemati-
cians
usuallyonlypublishthosepartsoftheirargumentswhichtheydeemimportantforthesakeofconviction,thusleavingout
all
routinecalculationsandmanipula-tions
whiCh
can
bedone
by
~com-
pleteproof
accordingtothem
"simpJymeansproofinsuf-
fidentdetail
to
convincethe
intended
audience"
(Davis
&
Hersh,
1986:73).
In
com-
high
atthe
same
time.Forexample,Manin(1981:105)estimatesthat
"rig-
ourous:
while
a
"com-
plete"
proofforRamanujan'sconjecturewouldconslstofabo~t
two
thousandpages.Eventhe
weD-known,
butreltivelysimpleTheoremofPythagoraswouldtakeupat
2.2Proof
mean.
of
explenlllon
leasteightypagesaccordingtoRenz(1981:85).Althoughit
it
possibletoachievequiteahighlevcl
Of
COD-.
Limitativetheoremsby
Godel,
Tarskiandothers
dur-
fidenceinthevalidityofaconjecture
by
meansofquasi-
ing
theearlypartof
this
centuryhavehigh-lightedthe
in-
empiricalverification(e.g.accurateconstructions
Lakatos
(1976,1978)
hasmeasurement;numericalsubstitution,
etc.),
this
gcner~
also
argued
from
an
epistemological
analysis
ofsomeprovidesnosatisfactory
explanation
why
it
may
In
tlUe.
examplesfromthehistoryofmathematics,thatproof
is
It
merelyconfirmsthatit
is
true.and
even
thoughthecon-bynature
fallible,
andthatitprovides
no
absoluteguar-siderationofmoreandmoreexamplesmayincr~one'santeefortheattainmentofcertainty.Forinstance:confidenceevenmore,
it
givesnopsychological
satisfao.
"There
havebeenconsiderableand
partly
successful
torysenseofillumination,
i.e,an
Ins....
t
or
UDder-
eJ!ortstosimplifyRussell's
PrIncipia
and
similar
standing
intohowit
is
theconsequenceofother
familiar
Iqgisticsystems.Butwhiletheresultswerematne-
results.
For
instance,despite
the
convincing
heuristic
m-
modcalJyinteresting
and
importanttheycouldnot
deuce
in
supportoftheearlier
mentionedRiemannBy-
retrievethelostphilosophicalposition.The
PDdeS
pothesis,
onemaystillhavea
burning
needforcxplana-loglques
cannotbeprovedtrue-noreven
consist-
tionasstated
by
Davis
&
earlier
OD,
necessitated
ir.
~~e
onecaseaclarificationofcertain
undefined
terms(DeVilliers,1989a)and
inthe
other
casea
in
press
(a».
lytshouldhowever..bementionedthatsometimes
a
heuristicargument(e.g.the
use
of
QlUl/ogic4J
reaaoniJla.iD
theez-
tension
of
certainrelationships
in
twodimensionstohigherdimensions),may
actually
providesu8iclent
e:qiIuatloa
by
itself.Thepurposeof
a
deductiveproof
in
the
case
whereone'sneedsforverificationandexplanation
have
both
been
a
priori
fulfilled,wouldthenprobably
be
muchmorethatofsystemaUsatlon,i.e,the
inclusion
of
the
result
ill
it
(seepar.2.3).than
to
provide
insight
intowbyit
is
true
(orto
verify
that
it
is
true).
Pythagoras
l'