Archive for October 4th, 2007

When are two proofs essentially the same?

October 4, 2007

A couple of years ago I spoke at a conference about mathematics that brought together philosophers, psychologists and mathematicians. The proceedings of the conference will appear fairly soon—I will give details when they do. My own article ended up rather too long, because I found myself considering the question of “essential equality” of proofs. Eventually, I cut that section, which was part of a more general discussion of what we mean when we attribute properties to proofs, using informal (but somehow quite precise) words and phrases like “neat”, “genuinely explanatory”, “the correct” (as opposed to merely “a correct”), and so on. It is an interesting challenge to try to be as precise as possible about these words, but I found that even the seemingly more basic question, “When are two proofs the same?” was pretty hard to answer satisfactorily. Since it is also a question on which we all have views (since we all have experience of the phenomenon), it seems ideal for a post. You may have general comments to make, but I’d also be very interested to hear of your favourite examples of different-seeming proofs that turn out, on closer examination, to be based on the same underlying idea (whatever that means). (more…)