A foundational argument for defining Effective Computability formally, and weakening the Church and Turing Theses – I

(Notations, non-standard concepts, and definitions used commonly in these investigations are detailed in this post.)

\S 1.1 The Philosophical Issue

In a previous post we have argued that standard interpretations of classical theory may inadvertently be weakening a desirable perception—of mathematics as the lingua franca of scientific expression—by ignoring the possibility that since mathematics is, indeed, indisputably accepted as the language that most effectively expresses and communicates intuitive truth, the chasm between formal truth and provability must, of necessity, be bridgeable.

We further queried whether the roots of such interpretations may lie in removable ambiguities that currently persist in the classical definitions of foundational elements; ambiguities that allow the introduction of non-constructive—hence non-verifiable, non-computational, ambiguous and essentially Platonic—elements into the standard interpretations of classical mathematics.

Query 1: Are formal classical theories essentially unable to adequately express the extent and range of human cognition, or does the problem lie in the way formal theories are classically interpreted at the moment?

We noted that the former addressed the question of whether there are absolute limits on our capacity to express human cognition unambiguously; the latter, whether there are only temporal limits—not necessarily absolute—to the capacity of classical interpretations to communicate unambiguously that which we intended to capture within our formal expression.

We argued that, prima facie, applied science continues, perforce, to interpret mathematical concepts Platonically, whilst waiting for mathematics to provide suitable, and hopefully reliable, answers as to how best it may faithfully express its observations verifiably.

\S 1.2 Are axiomatic computational concepts really unambiguous?

This now raises the corresponding philosophical question that is implicit in Selmer Bringsjord’s narrational case against Church’s Thesis [1]:

Query 2 Is there a duality in the classical acceptance of non-constructive, foundational, concepts as axiomatic?

We now argue that beyond the question raised in an earlier post of whether—as computer scientist Lance Fortnow believes—Turing machines can `capture everything we can compute’, or whether—as computer scientists Peter Wegner and Dina Goldin suggest—they are `inappropriate as a universal foundation for computational problem solving’, we also need to address the philosophical question—implicit in Bringsjord’s paper—of whether, or not, the concept of `effective computability’ is capable of a constructive, and intuitionistically unobjectionable, definition; and the relation of such definition to that of formal provability and to the standard perceptions of the Church and Turing Theses as reviewed here by at heart Trinity mathmo and by profession Philosopher Peter Smith.

We therefore consider the case for introduction of such a definition from a philosophical point of view, and consider some consequences.

\S 1.2.1 Mendelson’s thesis

We note that Elliott Mendelson [2] is quoted by Bringsjord in his paper as saying (italicised parenthetical qualifications added):

(i) “Here is the main conclusion I wish to draw:

it is completely unwarranted to say that CT is unprovable just because it states an equivalence between a vague, imprecise notion (effectively computable function) and a precise mathematical notion (partial-recursive function)”.

(ii) “The concepts and assumptions that support the notion of partial-recursive function are, in an essential way, no less vague and imprecise (non-constructive, and intuitionistically objectionable) than the notion of effectively computable function; the former are just more familiar and are part of a respectable theory with connections to other parts of logic and mathematics.

(The notion of effectively computable function could have been incorporated into an axiomatic presentation of classical mathematics, but the acceptance of CT made this unnecessary.) …

Functions are defined in terms of sets, but the concept of set is no clearer (not more non-constructive, and intuitionistically objectionable) than that of function and a foundation of mathematics can be based on a theory using function as primitive notion instead of set.

Tarski’s definition of truth is formulated in set-theoretic terms, but the notion of set is no clearer (not more non-constructive, and intuitionistically objectionable), than that of truth.

The model-theoretic definition of logical validity is based ultimately on set theory, the foundations of which are no clearer (not more non-constructive, and intuitionistically objectionable) than our intuitive (non-constructive, and intuitionistically objectionable) understanding of logical validity”.

(iii) “The notion of Turing-computable function is no clearer (not more non-constructive, and intuitionistically objectionable) than, nor more mathematically useful (foundationally speaking) than, the notion of an effectively computable function …”


(a) The Church-Turing Thesis, CT, is formulated as:

“A function is effectively computable if and only if it is Turing-computable”.

(b) An effectively computable function is defined to be the computing of the function by an algorithm.

(c) The classical notion of an algorithm is expressed by Mendelson as:

“… an effective and completely specified procedure for solving a whole class of problems. …

An algorithm does not require ingenuity; its application is prescribed in advance and does not depend upon any empirical or random factors”.

and, where Bringsjord paraphrases (iii) as:

(iv) “The notion of a formally defined program for guiding the operation of a TM is no clearer than, nor more mathematically useful (foundationally speaking) than, the notion of an algorithm”.

adding that:

(v) “This proposition, it would then seem, is the very heart of the matter.

If (iv) is true then Mendelson has made his case; if this proposition is false, then his case is doomed, since we can chain back by modus tollens and negate (iii)”.

\S 1.2.2 The concept of `constructive, and intuitionistically unobjectionable’

Now, prima facie, any formalisation of a `vague and imprecise’, `intuitive’ concept—say C—would normally be intended to capture the concept C both faithfully and completely within a constructive, and intuitionistically unobjectionable [3], language L.

Clearly, we could disprove the thesis—that C and its formalisation L are interchangeable, hence equivalent—by showing that there is a constructive aspect of C that is formalisable in a constructive language L’, but that such formalisation cannot be assumed expressible in L without introducing inconsistency.

However, equally clearly, there can be no way of proving the equivalence as this would contradict the premise that the concept is `vague and imprecise’, hence essentially open-ended in a non-definable way, and so non-formalisable.

Obviously, Mendelson’s assertion that there is no justification for claiming Church’s Thesis as unprovable must, therefore, rely on an interpretation that differs significantly from the above; for instance, his concept of provability may appeal to the axiomatic acceptability of `vague and imprecise’ concepts—as suggested by his remarks.

Now, we note that all the examples cited by Mendelson involve the decidability (computability) of an infinitude of meta-mathematical instances, where the distinction between the constructive meta-assertion that any given instance is individually decidable (instantiationally computable), and the non-constructive meta-assertion that all the instances are jointly decidable (uniformly computable), is not addressed explicitly.

However, \S 1.2.1(a), \S 1.2.1(b) and \S 1.2.1(c) appear to suggest that Mendelson’s remarks relate implicitly to non-constructive meta-assertions.

Perhaps the real issue, then, is the one that emerges if we replace Mendelson’s use of implicitly open-ended concepts such as `vague and imprecise’ and `intuitive’ by the more meta-mathematically meaningful concept of `non-constructive, and intuitionistically objectionable’, as italicised and indicated parenthetically.

The essence of Mendelson’s meta-assertion \S 1.2.1(iii) then appears to be that, if the classically accepted definitions of foundational concepts such as `partial recursive function’, `function’, `Tarskian truth’ etc. are also non-constructive, and intuitionistically objectionable, then replacing one non-constructive concept by another may be psychologically unappealing, but it should be meta-mathematically valid and acceptable.

\S 1.2.3 The duality

Clearly, meta-assertion \S 1.2.1(iii) would stand refuted by a `non-algorithmic’ effective method that is constructive.

However, if it is explicitly—and, as suggested by the nature of the arguments in Bringsjord’s paper, widely—accepted at the outset that any effective method is necessarily algorithmic (i.e. uniform as stated in \S 1.2.1(c) above), then any counter-argument to CT can, prima facie, only offer non-algorithmic methods that may, paradoxically, be `effective’ intuitively but in a non-constructive, and intuitionistically objectionable, way only!

Recognition of this dilemma is implicit in the admission that the various arguments, as presented by Bringsjord in the case against Church’s Thesis—including his narrational case—are open to reasonable, but inconclusive, refutations.

Nevertheless, if we accept Mendelson’s thesis that the inter-changeability of non-constructive concepts is valid in the foundations of mathematics, then Bringsjord’s case against Church’s Thesis, since it is based similarly on non-constructive concepts, should also be considered conclusive classically (even though it cannot, prima facie, be considered constructively conclusive in an intuitionistically unobjectionable way).

There is, thus, an apparent duality in the—seemingly extra-logical—decision as to whether an argument based on non-constructive concepts may be accepted as classically conclusive or not.

That this duality may originate in the very issues raised in Mendelson’s remarks—concerning the non-constructive roots of foundational concepts that are classically accepted as mathematically sound—is seen if we note that these issues may be more significant than is, prima facie, apparent.

\S 1.2.4 Definition of a formal mathematical object, and consequences

Thus, if we define a formal mathematical object as any symbol for an individual letter, function letter or a predicate letter that can be introduced through definition into a formal theory without inviting inconsistency, then it can be argued that unrestricted, non-constructive, definitions of non-constructive, foundational, set-theoretic concepts—such as `mapping’, `function’, `recursively enumerable set’, etc.—in terms of constructive number-theoretic concepts—such as recursive number-theoretic functions and relations—may not always correspond to formal mathematical objects.

In other words, the assumption that every definition corresponds to a formal mathematical object may introduce a formal inconsistency into standard Peano Arithmetic and, ipso facto, into any Axiomatic Set Theory that models standard PA (an inconsistency which, loosely speaking, may be viewed as a constructive arithmetical parallel to Russell’s non-constructive impredicative set).

Since it can also be argued that the non-constructive element in Tarski’s definitions of `satisfiability’ and `truth’, and in Church’s Thesis, originate in a common, but removable, ambiguity in the interpretation of an effective method, perhaps it is worth considering whether Bringsjord’s acceptance of the assumption—that every constructive effective method is necessarily algorithmic, in the sense of being a uniform procedure as in \S 1.2.1(c) above—is mathematically necessary, or even whether it is at all intuitively tenable.

(Uniform procedure: A property usually taken to be a necessary condition for a procedure to qualify as effective.)

Thus, we may argue that we can explicitly and constructively define a `non-algorithmic’ effective method as one that, in any given instance, is instantiationally computable if, and only if, it terminates finitely with a conclusive result; and an `algorithmic’ effective method as one that is uniformly computable if, and only if, it terminates finitely, with a conclusive result, in any given instance. [4]

\S 1.2.5 Bringsjord’s case against CT

Apropos the specific arguments against CT it would seem, prima facie, that a non-algorithmic effective—even if not obviously constructive—method could be implicit in the following argument considered by Bringsjord:

“Assume for the sake of argument that all human cognition consists in the execution of effective processes (in brains, perhaps). It would then follow by CT that such processes are Turing-computable, i.e., that computationalism is true. However, if computationalism is false, while there remains incontrovertible evidence that human cognition consists in the execution of effective processes, CT is overthrown”.

Assuming computationalism is false, the issue in this argument would, then, be whether there is a constructive, and adequate, expression of human cognition in terms of individually effective methods.

An appeal to such a non-algorithmic effective method may, in fact, be implicit in Bringsjord’s consideration of the predicate H, defined by:

H(P, i) iff (\exists n)S(P, i, n)

where the predicate S(P, u, n) holds if, and only if, TM M, running program P on input u, halts in exactly n steps (= MP : u =>n halt).

Bringsjord’s Total Computability

Bringsjord defines S as totally (and, implicitly, uniformly) computable in the sense that, given some triple (P, u, n), there is some (uniform) program P* which, running on some TM M*, can infallibly give us a verdict, Y (`yes’) or N (`no’), for whether or not S is true of this triple.

He then notes that, since the ability to (uniformly) determine, for a pair (P, i), whether or not H is true of it, is equivalent to solving the full halting problem, H is not totally computable.

Bringsjord’s Partial Computability

However, he also notes that there is a program (implicitly non-uniform, and so, possibly, effective individually) which, when asked whether or not some TM M run by P on u halts, will produce Y iff MP : u =>n halt. For this reason H is declared partially (implicitly, individually) computable.

More explicitly, Bringsjord remarks that Laszlo Kalmár’s refutation of CT [5] is classically inconclusive mainly because it does not admit any uniform effective method, but appeals to the existence of an infinitude of individually effective methods.

Kalmár’s Perspective of CT

Considering that it always seeks to calculate g(n) (defined below) constructively even in the absence of a uniform procedure—not necessarily within a fixed postulate system—we shall show that Kalmár’s finitary argument ([6]as reproduced below from Bringsjord’s paper) makes a pertinent observation:

“First, he draws our attention to a function g that isn’t Turing-computable, given that f is [7]:

g(x) = \mu y(f(x, y) = 0) = {the least y such that f(x, y) = 0 if y exists; and 0 if there is no such y}

Kalmár proceeds to point out that for any n in N for which a natural number y with f(n, y) = 0 exists,

`an obvious method for the calculation of the least such y … can be given,’

namely, calculate in succession the values f(n, 0), f(n, 1), f(n, 2), \ldots (which, by hypothesis, is something a computist or TM can do) until we hit a natural number m such that f(n, m) = 0, and set y = m.

On the other hand, for any natural number n for which we can prove, not in the frame of some fixed postulate system but by means of arbitrary—of course, correct—arguments that no natural number y with f(n, y) = 0 exists, we have also a method to calculate the value g(n) in a finite number of steps.

Kalmár goes on to argue as follows. The definition of g itself implies the tertium non datur, and from it and CT we can infer the existence of a natural number p which is such that

(*) there is no natural number y such that f(p, y)= 0; and

(**) this cannot be proved by any correct means.

Kalmár claims that (*) and (**) are very strange, and that therefore CT is at the very least implausible.”

Distinguishing between individually effective computability and uniformly effective computability

Now, the significant point that emerges from Bringsjord’s and Kalmár’s philosophical arguments is the need to distinguish formally between non-algorithmic (i.e., instantiational) computability (or, more precisely, algorithmic verifiability as defined here) and algorithmic (i.e., uniform) computability (or, more precisely, algorithmic computability as defined here) as highlighted in the Birmingham paper.

In the next post we note that this point has also been raised from a more formal, logical, perspective; and consider what is arguably an intuitively-more-adequate formal definability of `effective computability’ in terms of ‘algorithmic verifiability’ under which the classical Church and Turing Theses do not hold, but weakened Church and Turing Theses do!


BBJ03 George S. Boolos, John P. Burgess, Richard C. Jeffrey. 2003. Computability and Logic (4th ed). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Bri93 Selmer Bringsjord. 1993. The Narrational Case Against Church’s Thesis. Easter APA meetings, Atlanta.

Ch36 Alonzo Church. 1936. An unsolvable problem of elementary number theory. In M. Davis (ed.). 1965. The Undecidable Raven Press, New York. Reprinted from the Am. J. Math., Vol. 58, pp.345-363.

Ct75 Gregory J. Chaitin. 1975. A Theory of Program Size Formally Identical to Information Theory. J. Assoc. Comput. Mach. 22 (1975), pp. 329-340.

Go31 Kurt Gödel. 1931. On formally undecidable propositions of Principia Mathematica and related systems I. Translated by Elliott Mendelson. In M. Davis (ed.). 1965. The Undecidable. Raven Press, New York.

Go51 Kurt Gödel. 1951. Some basic theorems on the foundations of mathematics and their implications. Gibbs lecture. In Kurt Gödel, Collected Works III, pp.304-323.\ 1995. Unpublished Essays and Lectures. Solomon Feferman et al (ed.). Oxford University Press, New York.

Ka59 Laszlo Kalmár. 1959. An Argument Against the Plausibility of Church’s Thesis. In Heyting, A. (ed.) Constructivity in Mathematics. North-Holland, Amsterdam.

Kl36 Stephen Cole Kleene. 1936. General Recursive Functions of Natural Numbers. Math. Annalen vol. 112 (1936) pp.727-766.

Me64 Elliott Mendelson. 1964. Introduction to Mathematical Logic. Van Norstrand, Princeton.

Me90 Elliott Mendelson. 1990. Second Thoughts About Church’s Thesis and Mathematical Proofs. Journal of Philosophy 87.5.

Pa71 Rohit Parikh. 1971. Existence and Feasibility in Arithmetic. The Journal of Symbolic Logic, Vol.36, No. 3 (Sep., 1971), pp. 494-508.

Si97 Wilfried Sieg. 1997. Step by recursive step: Church’s analysis of effective calculability Bulletin of Symbolic Logic, Volume 3, Number 2.

Sm07 Peter Smith. 2007. Church’s Thesis after 70 Years. A commentary and critical review of Church’s Thesis After 70 Years. In Meinong Studies Vol 1 (Ontos Mathematical Logic 1), 2006 (2013), Eds. Adam Olszewski, Jan Wolenski, Robert Janusz. Ontos Verlag (Walter de Gruyter), Frankfurt, Germany.

Tu36 Alan Turing. 1936. On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem In M. Davis (ed.). 1965. The Undecidable. Raven Press, New York. Reprinted from the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, ser. 2. vol. 42 (1936-7), pp.230-265; corrections, Ibid, vol 43 (1937) pp. 544-546.

An07 Bhupinder Singh Anand. 2007. Why we shouldn’t fault Lucas and Penrose for continuing to believe in the Gödelian argument against computationalism – II. In The Reasoner, Vol(1)7 p2-3.

An12 … 2012. Evidence-Based Interpretations of PA. In Proceedings of the Symposium on Computational Philosophy at the AISB/IACAP World Congress 2012-Alan Turing 2012, 2-6 July 2012, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK.


Return to 1: Bri93.

Return to 2: Me90.

Return to 3: The terms `constructive’ and `constructive, and intuitionistically unobjectionable’ are used synonymously both in their familiar linguistic sense, and in a mathematically precise sense. Mathematically, we term a concept as `constructive, and intuitionistically unobjectionable’ if, and only if, it can be defined in terms of pre-existing concepts without inviting inconsistency. Otherwise, we understand it to mean unambiguously verifiable, by some `effective method’, within some finite, well-defined, language or meta-language. It may also be taken to correspond, broadly, to the concept of `constructive, and intuitionistically unobjectionable’ in the sense apparently intended by Gödel in his seminal 1931 paper Go31, p.26.

Return to 4: We note that the possibility of a distinction between the interpreted number-theoretic meta-assertions, `For any given natural number x, F(x) is true’ and `F(x) is true for all natural numbers x‘, is not evident unless these are expressed symbolically as, `(\forall x)(F(x) is true)’ and `(\forall x)F(x) is true’, respectively. The issue, then, is whether the distinction can be given any mathematical significance. For instance, under a constructive formulation of Tarski’s definitions, we may qualify the latter by saying that it can be meaningfully asserted as a totality only if `F‘ is a well-defined mathematical object.

Return to 5: Ka59.

Return to 6: Ka59.

Return to 7: Bringsjord notes that the original proof can be found on page 741 of Kleene Kl36.

Return to 8: We detail a formal proof of this Thesis in this post.

Author’s working archives & abstracts of investigations

Bhupinder Singh Anand