## Proofs without dry bones

I have discussed images, metaphors and proofs in math in two ways:

(A) A mathematical proof

A monk starts at dawn at the bottom of a mountain and goes up a path to the top, arriving there at dusk. The next morning at dawn he begins to go down the path, arriving at dusk at the place he started from on the previous day. Prove that there is a time of day at which he is at the same place on the path on both days.

Proof: Envision both events occurring on the same day, with a monk starting at the top and another starting at the bottom at the same time and doing the same thing the monk did on different days. They are on the same path, so they must meet each other. The time at which they meet is the time required.

This example comes from Fauconnier, Mappings in Thought and Language, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997. I discuss it in the Handbook, pages 46 and 153. See the Wikipedia article on conceptual blending.

(B) Rigor and rigor mortis

The following is quoted from a previous post here. See also the discussion in abstractmath.

When we are trying to understand or explain math, we may use various kinds of images and metaphors about the subject matter to construct a colorful and rich representation of the mathematical objects and processes involved. I described some of these briefly here. They can involve thinking of abstract things moving and changing and affecting each other.

When we set out to prove some math statement, we go into what I have called “rigorous mode”. We feel that we have to forget some of the color and excitement of the rich view. We must think of math objects as inert and static. They don’t move or change over time and they don’t interact with other objects or the real world. In other words, pretend that all math objects are dead.

We don’t always go all the way into this rigorous mode, but if we use an image or metaphor in a proof and someone challenges us about it, we may rewrite that part to get rid of the colorful representation and replace it by a calculation or line of reasoning that refers to the math objects as if they were inert and static – dead.

I didn’t contradict myself.
I want to clear up some tension between these two ideas.

The argument in (A) is a genuine mathematical proof, just as it is written. It contains hidden assumptions (enthymemes), but all math proofs contain hidden assumptions. My remarks in (B) do not mean that a proof is not a proof until everything goes dead, but that when challenged you have to abandon some of the colorful and kinetic reasoning to make sure you have it right. (This is a standard mathematical technique (note 1).)

One of the hidden assumptions in (A) is that two monks walking the opposite way on the path over the same interval of time will meet each other. This is based on our physical experience. If someone questions this we have several ways to get more rigorous. One many mathematicians might think of is to model the path as a curve in space and consider two different parametrizations by the unit interval that go in opposite directions. This model can then appeal to the intermediate value theorem to assert that there is a point where the two parametrizations give the same value.

I suppose that argument goes all the way to the dead. In the original argument the monk is moving. But the parametrized curve just sits there. The parametrizations are sets of ordered pairs in R x (R x R x R). Nothing is moving. All is dry bones. Ezekiel has not done his thing yet.

This technique works, I think, because it allows classical logic to be correct. It is not correct in everyday life when things are moving and changing and time is passing.

Avoid models; axiomatize directly
But it certainly is not necessary to rigorize this argument by using parametrizations involving the real numbers. You could instead look at the situation of the monk and make some axioms the events being described. For example, you could presumably make axioms on locations on the path that treat the locations as intervals rather than as points.

The idea is to make axioms that state properties that intervals have but doesn’t say they are intervals. For example that there is a relation “higher than” between locations that must be reflexive and transitive but not antisymmetric. I have not done this, but I would propose that you could do this without recreating the classical real numbers by the axioms. (You would presumably be creating the intuitionistic real numbers.)

Of course, we commonly fall into using the real numbers because methods of modeling using real numbers have been worked out in great detail. Why start from scratch?

About the heading on this section: There is a sense in which “axiomatizing directly” is a way of creating a model. Nevertheless there is a distinction between these two approaches, but I am to confused to say anything about this right now.

First order logic.
It is commonly held that if you rigorize a proof enough you could get it all the way down to a proof in first order logic. You could do this in the case of the proof in (A) but there is a genuine problem in doing this that people don’t pay enough attention to.

The point is you replace the path and the monks by mathematical models (a curve in space) and their actions by parametrizations. The resulting argument calls on well known theorems in real analysis and I have no doubt can be turned into a strict first order logic argument. But the resulting argument is no longer about the monk on the path.

The argument in (A) involves our understanding of a possibly real physical situation along with a metaphorical transference in time of the two walks (a transference that takes place in our brain using techniques (conceptual blending) the brain uses every minute of every day). Changing over to using a mathematical model might get something wrong. Even if the argument using parametrized curves doesn’t have any important flaws (and I don’t believe it does) it is still transferring the argument from one situation to another.

Conclusion:
Mathematical arguments are still mathematical arguments whether they refer to mathematical objects or not. A mathematical argument can be challenged and tested by uncovering hidden assumptions and making them explicit as well as by transferring the argument to a classical mathematical situation.

Note 1. Did you ever hear anyone talking about rigor requiring making images and metaphors dead? This is indeed a standard mathematical technique but it is almost always suppressed, or more likely unnoticed. But I am not claiming to be the first one to reveal it to the world. Some of the members of Bourbaki talked this way. (I have lost the reference to this.)

They certainly killed more metaphors than most mathematicians.

Note 2. This discussion about rigor and dead things is itself a metaphor, so it involves a metametaphor. Metaphors always have something misleading about them. Metametaphorical statements have the potential of being far worse. For example, the notion that mathematics contains some kind of absolute truth is the result of bad metametaphorical thinking.

### 1 Comment

1. 1
David Wheeler says:

Occasionally people ask me about religion, and what I think the nature of the universe is. Sometimes, I answer that my view of truth has been profoundly influenced by my training as a mathematician. Usually, though, I say nothing, because I’m afraid they will get quite the wrong impression. I do NOT believe, for example, that mathematics is something eternally existing and true outside of any human apprehension of it, as some logicists and formalists have done. My training in math has led me to see that truth is a matter of context. I like the axiomatic approach for this reason. It doesn’t say: THIS is true. It says rather, IF this were true, this is what we could do with it. Truth, for me, is a kind of choice, which includes with it a frame of reference.
As far as the matter of proof goes, I’m not all that interested in getting it down to a first-order statement in logic. What I’m interested in is clarity. The essence of mathematics as I see it, is a kind of eloquent communication. A proof should make statements more transparent, so that the ideas they put forward can be used in one’s vocabulary of thoughts with confidence and understanding.
I’ve been re-visiting topology lately, and I have been struck with just how ugly the epsilon-delta statements (and proofs) of continuity (ina metric space) are compared with the equivalent topological version: a pre-image of an open set is open. or, even better: nearness in the domain yields nearness in the range. sometimes i think the whole system is set up wrong, that we are placing way too much emphasis on calculations, and formulae, and not nearly enough on relationships and ideas. especially now that computers can do the computations so much more efficiently.
you might conclude from my remarks that i favor pure abstraction over concrete examples, but this is not so. my understanding of the cyclic group generated by i is enriched and informed by the turning of the four seasons. i worked for years as a truss designer, and one of the things i loved about the job was standing exactly halfway between a conceptual thing (a set of plans, or a possible design for a truss), and it becoming something actual (a house, or a gable-end).