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Proof by Contradiction
To prove a statement P by contradiction, you assume the negation ∼ P of what you want to prove and try to derive a contradiction (usually a statement of the form A∧ ∼ A). Since a contradiction is always false, your assumption ∼ P must be false, so the original statement P must be true. (∼ B ∨ C) → A B→D Premises: C∨ ∼ D
Example. Prove: A
Since I want to prove A by contradiction, I begin by assuming the negation ∼ A. I’m trying to construct a contradiction of the form FOO∧ ∼ FOO. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. ∼A (∼ B ∨ C) → A ∼ (∼ B ∨ C) B∧ ∼ C B ∼C B→D D C∨ ∼ D C C∧ ∼ C A Premise for proof by contradiction Premise Modus tollens (1,2) DeMorgan (3) Decomposing a conjunction (4) Decomposing a conjunction (4) Premise Modus ponens (5.7) Premise Disjunctive syllogism (8,9) Constructing a conjunction (6,10) Proof by contradiction (1,11)
I arrived at the contradiction C∧ ∼ C at line 11. Therefore, I conclude that my premise ∼ A was false, so A must be true (line 12).
The next two proofs are very well-known: Everyone who studies math sees them sooner or later. The ﬁrst is Euclid’s proof that there are inﬁnitely many prime numbers; it occurs in Book IX of Euclid’s Elements, which was composed around 300 B.C. and is arguably the most famous math textbook of all time. √ The second proves that 2 is irrational. The discovery that there are quantities which can’t be expressed in terms of whole numbers or their ratios was known to the ancient Greeks; Boyer and Mertzbach  place the discovery prior to 410 B.C.
Example. Prove that there are inﬁnitely many prime numbers. (An integer n > 1 is prime if its only positive divisors are 1 and n.) Suppose that there are not inﬁnitely many prime numbers. That means there are ﬁnitely many prime numbers — suppose they are p 1 , p 2 , . . . , pn . Look at the number x = p1 p2 · · · pn + 1. (It’s the product of all of the p’s, plus one. Notice that the product of the p’s wouldn’t make sense if there were inﬁnitely many p’s.) x leaves a remainder of 1 when it’s divided by p1 , since p1 divides evenly into the p1 p2 · · · pn term. Likewise, x leaves a remainder of 1 when it’s divided by p2 , . . . , pn . Therefore, x is not divisible by any of 1
the process must stop. every integer greater than 1 is divisible by some prime number. However. Substitute in the previous equation and cancel a factor of 2: 2n2 = (2k)2 = 4k2 . and f (a) = f (b). then square both sides: √ 2n = m. that an object doesn’t have a certain property. √ m 2 is irrational. (A rational number is a real number which can be written in the form . proof by contradiction is used as part of a larger proof — for instance. Prove that the function f (x) = x5 + 6x3 + 17x + 1 cannot have more than one root. the proof by contradiction often looks awkward. In some cases. Then f has at least two roots. which I’ve just noted is impossible. where m. you can factor them. it must in fact divide m. However. I can assume that n terms (that is. then f ′ (c) = 0 for some c ∈ (a. Otherwise. b). Then I can write 2 = . Example. n2 = 2k2 . the direct proof will often tell you more. A precise proof of this fact requires induction. 2n2 = m2 . 2 . For example.) By dividing out any common factors. Since 2 divides the left side. If a number z is prime. because the factors always get smaller. or that something can’t happen. it must divide the right side. This contradiction shows that there must be inﬁnitely many prime numbers. Example. and so on. which I’ll discuss later. I’ll use Rolle’s Theorem. I should note that it is considered bad style to write a proof by contradiction when you can give a direct proof. A real number which is not rational is irrational. so 2 divides both m and n. But you can see that it’s reasonable. b]. m and n have no common factors besides 1 and −1). it must divide n. So suppose m = 2k. Having said this. Suppose that a and b are (diﬀerent) roots of f with a < b. Moreover. you can factor z into a product of two smaller numbers. where k ∈ Z. when you assume the contrary. the theorem says that a certain thing doesn’t exist. to eliminate certain possibilities. (Remember n m is in lowest that Z stands for the set of integers. 2 must be irrational. then the prime factor is a prime which divides z. But if 2 divides n2 . n ∈ Z. b). This contradicts my assumption m that the fraction was in lowest terms. diﬀerentiable on the interval (a. it’s divisible by a prime.) √ √ m Suppose on the contrary that 2 is rational. This is better than simply knowing that the object exists on logical grounds. Eventually. I’ve found that x isn’t divisible by any prime number. In these cases. In those situations. Now 2 divides the right side. which gives you something to work with.the p’s — that is. so it must divide the left side. x is not divisible by any prime number. The preceding examples give situations in which proof by contradiction might be useful: • A tip-oﬀ that proof by contradiction might be useful is that the statement of a theorem is a negation — for example. √n Therefore. n where m and n are integers. you negate the original negative statement and get a positive statement. Returning to my proof. a direct proof that something exists will often work by constructing the object. But if 2 divides m2 . namely z. Suppose on the contrary that f (x) = x5 + 6x3 + 17x + 1 has more than one root. which says: If f is continuous on the interval [a. In this proof. I already showed that 2 divides m. If either factor is prime. Clear the denominator. If neither factor of z is prime.
The only other possibility is that both are lying. Then Calvin’s statement “Exactly one of us is lying” should be false (and it is). Combined with the result I just proved. Then “Exactly one of us is lying” is true. this is the only possibility.” Determine who is telling the truth and who is lying. Calvin says: “Exactly one of us is lying. Therefore. Therefore. because I assumed he was telling the truth. “Calvin is telling the truth” is a lie. This gives two possibilities: Either both are telling the truth. “Exactly one of us is lying” is false. and Phoebe’s statement “Calvin is telling the truth” should be false (and it is).. A History of Mathematics (2nd edition) (revised by Uta Merzbach). Thus. 1991. This is a contradiction. so Calvin must be lying. Calvin and Phoebe live on the island. and it’s consistent with the given statements. Inc.  Carl Boyer. This contradicts the established fact that Calvin is lying. This contradicts f ′ (c) = 0. f ′ (x) = 5x4 + 18x2 + 17.” Phoebe says: “Calvin is telling the truth. it follows that f ′ (x) > 0 for all x. By Rolle’s Theorem. Note: You could use the Intermediate Value Theorem to show that f (x) has at least one root. Phoebe is a liar. Since f ′ (x) is a sum of even powers and a positive number (17). f does not have more than one root. New York: John Wiley & Sons. Since a and b are roots. c 2008 by Bruce Ikenaga 3 . this shows that f (x) has exactly one root. Example.Since f is a polynomial. Hence. I have f (a) = 0 and f (b) = 0. However. Therefore. Suppose Calvin is a truth teller. so f (a) = f (b). each inhabitant always lies or always tells the truth. and since Calvin is a truth teller. On a certain island. Calvin and Phoebe are both liars. it is continuous and diﬀerentiable for all x. Suppose both are telling the truth. I’ve proved by contradiction that Calvin must be a liar. f ′ (c) = 0 for some c such that a < c < b. or both are lying. Hence.
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