Mathematical Systems

This page gives an overview of what a mathematical system is and how logic plays an important role in such systems. A discussion on how mathematical facts are developed and organized will help to unify the concepts presented later in the course. The system of propositions and logical operators we developed earlier will serve as a model for our discussion.

3.5.1 Mathematical Systems

In this section, we present an overview of what a mathematical system is and how logic plays an important role in one. The axiomatic method that we will use here will not be duplicated with as much formality anywhere else in the book, but we hope an emphasis on how mathematical facts are developed and organized will help to unify the concepts we will present. The system of propositions and logical operators we have developed will serve as a model for our discussion. Roughly, a mathematical system can be defined as follows.


Definition 3.5.1: Mathematical System. A mathematical system consists of:

  1. A set or universe, U.
  2. Definitions: sentences that explain the meaning of concepts that relate to the universe. Any term used in describing the universe itself is said to be undefined. All definitions are given in terms of these undefined concepts of objects.
  3. Axioms: assertions about the properties of the universe and rules for creating and justifying more assertions. These rules always include the system of logic that we have developed to this point.
  4. Theorems: the additional assertions mentioned above.


Example 3.5.2: Euclidean Geometry. In Euclidean geometry, the universe consists of points and lines (two undefined terms). Among the definitions is a definition of parallel lines and among the axioms is the axiom that two distinct parallel lines never meet.


Example 3.5.3: Propositional Calculus. Propositional calculus is a formal name for the logical system that we’ve been discussing. The universe consists of propositions. The axioms are the truth tables for the logical operators and the key definitions are those of equivalence and implication. We use propositions to describe any other mathematical system; therefore, this is the minimum amount of structure that a mathematical system can have.


Definition 3.5.4: Theorem. A true proposition derived from the axioms of a mathematical system is called a theorem.

Theorems are normally expressed in terms of a finite number of propositions, p1, p2, ..., pn, called the premises, and a proposition, C, called the conclusion. These theorems take the form

p1p2 ∧ · · · ∧ pnC

or more informally,

p1, p2, ..., and pn imply C

For a theorem of this type, we say that the premises imply the conclusion. When a theorem is stated, it is assumed that the axioms of the system are true. In addition, any previously proven theorem can be considered an extension of the axioms and can be used in demonstrating that the new theorem is true. When the proof is complete, the new theorem can be used to prove subsequent theorems. A mathematical system can be visualized as an inverted pyramid with the axioms at the base and the theorems expanding out in various directions.

Figure 3.5.5 The body of knowledge in a mathematical system


Definition 3.5.6: Proof. A proof of a theorem is a finite sequence of logically valid steps that demonstrate that the premises of a theorem imply its conclusion.

Exactly what constitutes a proof is not always clear. For example, a research mathematician might require only a few steps to prove a theorem to a colleague, but might take an hour to give an effective proof to a class of students. Therefore, what constitutes a proof often depends on the audience. But the audience is not the only factor. One of the most famous theorems in graph theory, The Four-Color Theorem, was proven in 1976, after over a century of effort by many mathematicians. Part of the proof consisted of having a computer check many different graphs for a certain property. Without the aid of the computer, this checking would have taken years. In the eyes of some mathematicians, this proof was considered questionable. Shorter proofs have been developed since 1976 and there is no controversy associated with The Four Color Theorem at this time.


Source: Al Doerr and Ken Levasseur,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Last modified: Tuesday, August 11, 2020, 3:51 PM