Abstract / Synopsis
This paper concerns the relation between a proof’s beauty and its explanatory power – that is, its capacity to go beyond proving a given theorem to explaining why that theorem holds. Explanatory power and beauty are among the many virtues that mathematicians value and seek in various proofs, and it is important to come to a better understanding of the relations among these virtues. Mathematical practice has long recognized that certain proofs but not others have explanatory power, and this paper offers an account of what makes a proof explanatory. This account is motivated by a wide range of examples drawn from mathematical practice, and the account proposed here is compared to other accounts in the literature. The concept of a proof that explains is closely intertwined with other important concepts, such as a brute force proof, a mathematical coincidence, unification in mathematics, and natural properties. Ultimately, this paper concludes that the features of a proof that would contribute to its explanatory power would also contribute to its beauty, but that these two virtues are not the same; a beautiful proof need not be explanatory.
Marc Lange, "Explanatory Proofs and Beautiful Proofs," Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, Volume 6 Issue 1 (January 2016), pages 8-51. DOI: 10.5642/jhummath.201601.04. Available at: https://scholarship.claremont.edu/jhm/vol6/iss1/4