Minds and Machines

, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 185–202 | Cite as

Computers, Justification, and Mathematical Knowledge

Original Paper


The original proof of the four-color theorem by Appel and Haken sparked a controversy when Tymoczko used it to argue that the justification provided by unsurveyable proofs carried out by computers cannot be a priori. It also created a lingering impression to the effect that such proofs depend heavily for their soundness on large amounts of computation-intensive custom-built software. Contra Tymoczko, we argue that the justification provided by certain computerized mathematical proofs is not fundamentally different from that provided by surveyable proofs, and can be sensibly regarded as a priori. We also show that the aforementioned impression is mistaken because it fails to distinguish between proof search (the context of discovery) and proof checking (the context of justification). By using mechanized proof assistants capable of producing certificates that can be independently checked, it is possible to carry out complex proofs without the need to trust arbitrary custom-written code. We only need to trust one fixed, small, and simple piece of software: the proof checker. This is not only possible in principle, but is in fact becoming a viable methodology for performing complicated mathematical reasoning. This is evinced by a new proof of the four-color theorem that appeared in 2005, and which was developed and checked in its entirety by a mechanical proof system.


A priori Justification Proofs Certificates Four-color theorem Mathematical knowledge 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Cognitive Science Department, Computer Science DepartmentRPITroyUSA

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